WASHINGTON — The evidence was the star witness.
In painstaking detail, and with brutal new footage of the attack at the U.S. Capitol, the House Jan. 6 committee began to lay out its case Thursday that the insurrection was planned — and that it was only the most conspicuous component of a sprawling and illegal offensive by then-President Donald Trump to remain in power.
“President Trump summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of the attack,” Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the Republican vice chair of the panel, said during its first public hearing.
The audience for the committee’s six planned hearings over the coming weeks is not fellow lawmakers, and — despite the prime-time scheduling Thursday — it isn’t really the general public. There will be no impeachment of the former president, and few White House officials or Democratic strategists are sanguine about the possibility of significant movement in public opinion.
“It’s not an issue that is top of mind for voters,” said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist who conducts focus groups. “Inflation is.”
Instead, the committee’s work is most clearly aimed at the top brass at the Department of Justice who will decide whether to bring charges against Trump and members of his inner circle.
That helps explain why there was strikingly little grandstanding by members of the committee — only Cheney and Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., spoke at Thursday’s hearing.
The panel allowed the evidence, in the form of testimony and footage, to speak for itself.
There is much more to come in the way of demonstrating Trump’s role in coordinating a multipronged attack on the election and the peaceful transfer of power, according to Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., who is a member of the select committee.
“What you saw tonight was the violent physical piece that was one element of an overall strategy that Donald Trump was using to retain power,” she said in a telephone interview minutes after the hearing ended. “There were attempts made at the local, state and federal level, in addition to the physical violence that culminated on Jan. 6.”
That story is, at once, simple and ornate. In the most straightforward telling, the panel contends that Trump used the power of the presidency, the legal system and ultimately violence to try to erase the 2020 election and seize a second term.
But the details matter if the committee hopes to compel the Justice Department to go after him.
From the days after polls closed in November 2020, Trump was told by campaign aides and then-Attorney General William Barr that he had lost a fair election, according to recorded video testimony played Thursday night.
“It affected my perspective,” Ivanka Trump, the former president’s daughter, told committee investigators of Barr’s pronouncement that the election was valid. “I accepted what he was saying.”
Rather than concede, Trump chose to fight — and he implored his most ardent supporters to do the same. In promoting the Jan. 6, 2021, “Stop the Steal” rally, where he would urge followers to march to the Capitol, he tweeted “Be there, will be wild!”
The panel played video of rioters saying they felt Trump had summoned them to fight for him.
The committee showed a clip of the leaders of two violent right-wing extremist groups, the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, meeting in a Washington, D.C., garage the night of Jan. 5, 2021. While questioning Nick Quested, the filmmaker who recorded that meeting, Thompson noted that the Proud Boys arrived at the Capitol Jan. 6 before Trump spoke at the Ellipse, more than a mile away.
“They weren’t there for President Trump’s speech. We know this because they left that area to march toward the Capitol before the speech began,” Thompson said in summarizing Quested’s testimony. “They walked around the Capitol that morning. I’m concerned this allowed them to see what defenses were in place and where weaknesses might be.”
Caroline Edwards, a Capitol police officer who was knocked unconscious during the melee, testified Thursday night that the attack was like a “war scene” as cops engaged in hours of hand-to-hand combat with Trump supporters bent on disrupting the count of electoral votes inside the Capitol.
That morning, before instructing the crowd to march on the Capitol — where extremists had already gathered — Trump repeatedly articulated his desire for then-Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to certify the election. At the Capitol, insurrectionists chanted “Hang Mike Pence.” Pence narrowly avoided a confrontation with the mob.
Outside the Capitol, insurrectionists mercilessly pummeled police officers who stood in their way.
“I was slipping in people’s blood,” Edwards testified. “I was catching people as they fell. It was carnage, it was chaos.”
The storming of the Capitol is the most visceral evidence the committee will present, but not the most salient, Murphy said.
“While the violence is stunning and probably elicits the strongest emotions because you can see how horrible it is that officers are being beaten,” she said, “the scheming, the alternate legal theories, the cultivation of the ‘big lie,’ the use of social media to gin up anger and undermine the election results — those things are more insidious.”
Cheney outlined the topics of the remaining hearings Thursday night: the development of Trump’s “big lie” that the election was stolen; Trump’s effort to replace Barr in order to use the Justice Department to spread that lie; his sustained campaign to pressure Pence and state officials to overturn the outcome of the election; and more on his role in fomenting the insurrection.
She also broke news that underscored the committee’s focus on persuading the Justice Department: Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., and other lawmakers sought pardons from Trump to shield themselves from prosecution over their roles in trying to overturn the election, she said. (A Perry spokesperson called the allegation a “ludicrous and soulless lie.”)
For a story published earlier this year, Thompson told NBC News that the evidence gathered in 2021 pointed to Congress formally asking the Justice Department to use its work as the basis for prosecutions.
“The potential for criminal referrals is there,” he said.
The question is whether the evidence presented at Thursday’s hearing and its sequels will sway the Justice Department to take action against Trump and his allies.