Editor’s note: Julian Zelizer, political analyst for CNN, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. See more reviews on CNN.
The House Select Committee investigating the January 6 Capitol riot broke new ground Thursday with two incredibly dramatic moments. One was an unusual ending: a unanimous vote to subpoena former President Donald Trump to testify about his role in the riots. “We’re looking for testimony under oath from the central player on January 6,” Vice President Liz Cheney said.
Cheney explained that the committee “is forced to seek answers directly from the man who set this all in motion. And every American has a right to answers, so we can act now to protect our republic.”
The other key revelation was never-before-seen footage of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and other legislative leaders, along with Vice President Mike Pence, in an effort to get more police and national guard forces to quell the unrest at the Capitol. Hill realized the looming threat, not only to their personal security, but to their ability to fulfill their constitutional role of securing elections.
When they saw little sign of help on the way, they all exploded. “Why didn’t you get the president to tell you, the attorney general, to leave the Capitol in charge of your law enforcement,” Schumer told Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen. A frantic effort by legislative leaders to restore peace contrasted sharply with Trump’s lack of action as he watched the unrest from the confines of the White House’s West Wing.
In public hearings over the past four months, the bipartisan panel has tried to uncover the full context of what happened that day and who was responsible.
Unlike the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974, one of the most distinctive elements of Trump’s campaign to cancel the 2020 election is that it happened in broad daylight.
Even before the election, Trump never made a secret of his intention to spread baseless allegations of a stolen election if he ended up on the losing side. Whenever there was a new revelation about something that happened behind the scenes, such as the taped phone call to Georgia Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger asking him to “find 11,780 votes,” Trump showed no shame or remorse. He simply doubled down, insisting that there was no scandal and that he had the right to do whatever he was doing.
Trump’s main strategy was to rarely mess up. Instead, he sought to legitimize his behavior.
However, the committee managed to fill out the story in very important ways, providing surprising evidence and details that made the events of those months even more dangerous than we understood at the time.
During the hearings, the commission brought out five key elements of what happened.
Intentionality: The Commission proved that January 6 was not a single, unintended day of chaos when events suddenly spiraled out of control. It was premeditated.
The panel looked at how intent the Trump administration has been in trying to spread doubt about the results of the election – from trying different theories to cast doubt on the results, to relying on state officials – like the push in Georgia – to literally change the vote, to mobilize supporters. In order to intimidate Congress, they secured the results of the Electoral College.
The plans were hatched before the election, and Trump made his allegations public during an election night press conference. He claimed victory while the votes were still being counted. “President Trump,” Cheney explained at Thursday’s meeting, “had a plan to call the election fraudulent and stolen before election day, before the results of the election were known.”
The audience could hear Steve Bannon telling a group of unidentified members that the former president was going to claim victory, which didn’t mean he was victorious, just that he was. “If Biden wins, Trump is going to do some crazy shit,” Bannon predicted.
In the weeks that followed, when top election and legal advisers, such as then-Attorney General William Barr, repeatedly told him that the fraud claims were “bullshit,” Trump and his inner cabal ignored those warnings and proceeded recklessly.
The committee provided extensive testimony from figures such as Alyssa Farah Griffin, the White House’s head of strategic communications, confirming that Trump knew he had lost. He didn’t care. He wanted to hold on to power.
On the day of the “Stop the Steal” rally, January 6, 2021, Trump knew the protesters were armed and dangerous, but he did nothing to stop them. In fact, he wanted to go to Capitol Hill, but a Secret Service agent wouldn’t let him. The former president lunged at a Secret Service agent and tried to steer the car when he was told he couldn’t go, according to former aide Cassidy Hutchinson.
Orchestration: The campaign to cancel the 2020 election was not a fluke effort, where Trump rolled out a chaotic plan, desperate to hold on to power. Rather, senior members of the administration, including the former president and senior advisers, deliberately pushed him to overcome the electoral defeat. “Property is nine-tenths of the law,” said Roger Stone, “We won. F–k you.”
The rhetoric of a stolen election would mark the entire operation, sowing doubts among his supporters about the legitimacy of Biden’s victory and creating grounds for going to court and relying on state officials. Trump’s team constantly discussed and debated how to achieve the goal.
Trump and his lawyers, such as Rudy Giuliani, investigated several state officials to see if they would comply with their demands. Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, a staunch conservative who supported the administration, was uneasy after Giuliani and Trump pressed him in a phone call in late November 2020 to reconvene the state legislature and overturn his state’s results. The president’s lawyer, John Eastman, who wrote the roadmap for the attempted election fraud, pressured Pence’s aides to reject the results.
The commission also revealed evidence of extensive ties between Trump allies, particularly Roger Stone, and far-right militant groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. There were widespread intelligence and secret service warnings about the serious threat of violence against the Capitol.
Continuum: January 6 was just one part of a much larger story. Although the panel is called the January 6 commission, it would be more accurate to call it the commission to investigate the campaign to annul the 2020 election. This reformulation is essential to understanding the months between November 2020 and January 2021.
The Trump administration embarked on a “multi-pronged” systematic plan, President Bennie Thompson said, to overturn the election. The January 6 rally and violence were just one piece of a much larger strategy.
Trump: As Cheney has argued from day one, Trump was at the center of this operation. He “challenged the rule of law”, he argued, “this is unacceptable”.
During these events, we learned that Trump understood exactly what was going on. They told him many times how he made claims that were true and warned him about the risks he was taking. Even advisers, lawyers like Barr, and conservative media outlets like Sean Hannity, who publicly supported him, were privately urging him to stop.
To signal his state of mind, committee members made it clear that Trump was not “deluded” or “irrational,” as Cheney said Thursday. He knew exactly what he was doing. After the Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit backed by the former president in December 2020, Trump, who the Secret Service said was “furious,” was heard saying he didn’t “want people to know we lost.”
Then, on January 6, Trump deliberately ignored many warnings of violence. He wanted to lead the troops to Capitol Hill. Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland reminded the audience that he sat passively, watching television, as the attacks on Congress unfolded and that staunch allies urged him to withdraw the troops. It wasn’t that Trump didn’t act on January 6; It was that he did not want to act. “Can you believe this?” Pelosi was heard telling Thompson that day.
Constant threat: In its key session on Thursday, the committee wanted to make one thing clear, the risk will not end in 2022. “There remains a clear and present threat to our electoral system and democratic institutions,” Raskin said, “So that’s something. That’s going to come up in our final hearing. This is not ancient history; this is an ongoing threat.” It’s on many levels.The rhetoric of electoral denial has taken hold among many Republican candidates in the 2022 midterm elections.
Republicans who subscribe to this agenda are also running for a variety of key positions, from governorships to secretaries of state in key states like Pennsylvania and Arizona, all of which will play a key role in overseeing future elections. And finally, the former president remains the leading candidate for the Republican nomination in 2024.
During his remarks on Thursday, Cheney made this point clear about why Americans should assume that “these institutions won’t go wrong the next time” if the wrong people are in positions of power. The story on January 6 was a series of officials, many of them Republicans, who refused to go along with the scheme. He reminded the nation that our institutions are made strong by “men and women of good faith” regardless of political consequences.
In the end, the commission managed to tell a disturbing story about one of the most deeply anti-democratic moments in our nation’s history.
Cheney said the committee is considering criminal referrals to the Justice Department, but prosecutors will decide what happens, if anything. We’ll find out if Congress can complete work on reforms, such as the Election Counting Reform Act of 2022, to prevent some of the mechanisms Trump was counting on from doing damage in the future. As voters decide, in the 2022 midterm and 2024 presidential elections, we will see if they will send a clear message to Washington that messing with democracy will not be tolerated. Right now, January 6 has not been a major issue in most campaigns.
The dark days after the 2020 elections were well spent by the commission. They have been explained in clear detail before our eyes. The biggest mystery that remains is whether we as a nation will turn a blind eye and simply move on, without calling for justice and reform.