Live Blog: January 6th Hearings, Thursday, July 21
The big dismount, or just the beginning?
For six years now, investigators of every stripe and hue, from the FBI to the CIA to the NSA to Intelligence Committees in both the Senate and the House, have been pursuing Donald Trump (I wrote an article about the extraordinary litany of probes here). Tonight’s hearing on the January 6th events has been hyped like political Wrestlemania, a wipeout primetime show Democrats hope will move the needle heading into midterm elections.
Part of the reason multiple previous impeachment and prosecution efforts failed is because investigations failed to deliver evidence at moments just like this. However, testimony that a Secret Service agent close to Donald Trump may have tried to take nervous ex-Vice President Mike Pence to a “secure location” on the day he was due to sign off on Joe Biden’s election win — “I’m not getting in the car,” Pence reportedly told the detail — is the first thing like a genuine coup plan ever even asserted by Trump’s pursuers. The Intercept last week reported that some Secret Service agents deleted their texts when asked for them by investigators, and quoted a “congressional” source as saying, “People need to understand that if Pence had listened to the Secret Service and fled the Capitol, this could have turned out a whole lot worse… It could’ve been a successful coup, not just an attempted one.”
Again, six years of investigations that mostly floated on unnamed sources and never-produced evidence failed previously, but this is probably as close to real trouble as Donald Trump has been in since entering politics. Polls show a majority of the public favors prosecution (though only a quarter of respondents expect it to actually happen), and Joe Biden himself has reportedly “said privately” he wants his Attorney General to be more aggressive in pursuing Trump.
But: unless Democrats produce proof of an actual premeditated plan to usurp the election soon, this feels like yet another political jump ball. A passage from the unofficial mouthpiece of the intelligence community, Lawfare, leads me to think Democrats may not be sitting on hot cards:
Following the most recent congressional hearing on Jan. 6, Andrew Weissmann, formerly a prosecutor working under Special Counsel Robert Mueller, warned that the Justice Department seems to be taking “the wrong approach to investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection” by zeroing in with a “myopic” focus on the specifics of the riot itself, rather than the broader scope of efforts to overturn the election.
When gung-ho Trump-detesting former federal prosecutor and Robert Mueller aide Andrew Weissmann complains about a “myopic” focus on specifics, it makes you wonder. Weissmann’s New York Times guest essay worried that “building a criminal case that looks solely at the riot itself is far more complex legally and factually,” saying he preferred a “broader approach” focusing on a grander, multiprong, “hub-and-spoke” conspiracy. This, he wrote, would “avoid the thorny debate that has emerged as to whether Mr. Trump could be criminally culpable.”
Once again, this feels like a Seth Abramson-style literary approach to arguing criminal responsibility. But if Trump did have some kind of plan involving, say, the Secret Service to bring about the Capitol unrest, and/or whisk Mike Pence to a vault somewhere — which isn’t totally impossible — this could actually lead to real consequence. But they have to produce that evidence soon. Tonight’s hearing will include witnesses like White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who’ll be questioned by military vets Elaine Luria of Virginia, and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. What will come out of it?
8:02 p.m. Riveting TV so far.
8:04 p.m. Virtual Bennie Thompson saying Trump did “everything in his power” to stay in office, which is pretty intense language. His initial remarks seem to suggest that the Democrats don’t have much to show tonight beyond Trump’s inaction after the riot started. Thompson saying of the Committee, “we continue to receive information every day,” and promising the probe will be ongoing, feels like another signal that they’re not expecting a ton tonight.
8:10 p.m. Liz Cheney echoes the “more to come” vibe by saying, “We have far more evidence to share with the American people, and more to gather.”
8:13 “For multiple hours, he would not.” Liz Cheney on Trump’s failure to act. I know they’ve been arguing this inaction constitutes a crime, but which one? I don’t think “multiple hours” of not doing anything are going to be enough.
8:17 Luria: “When lies and democracy hung in the balance, President Trump refused to act.” Looking at the “187 minutes” graphic.. I feel like I’ve been watching this show for years… Kinzinger echoes Luria by noting his service, then insists Trump didn’t “fail to act,” he “chose not to act.” This makes it sound more like an affirmative behavior, I guess, but (pops aspirin).
8:27 p.m. Unnamed White House security official, with testimony that is politically pretty damning: “I don't know if you want to use the word insurrection, coup....but there was enough for us to be alarmed.”
8:31 p.m. Luria’s eyes seem to be glued open as far as possible.
8:35 p.m. A commenter questions the assertion that a majority of Americans favor prosecution. It’s actually 50%: see here:
8:39 p.m. Am I high, or is Luria playing the “Let’s try to figure out what Trump and Giuliani talked about for four minutes by playing what was on at Fox at the time” pretty weak beer?
8:44 p.m. Cipollone: “I was pretty clear that there needed to be an immediate response…There needs to be a public announcement, fast, that they need to leave the Capitol.” This description of Trump’s counsel explaining his (ignored) advice was the Democrats’ best moment of the hearing: they should have led with this.
8:48 “We need to be doing something.” Testimony about Meadows and Cipollone wondering what to do as Capitol crowd chanted about hanging Pence is pretty wild, almost suggestive of mutiny. One wonders how many moments there were like this behind the scenes over the years (although frankly, I’d be curious to hear what quasi-mutinous conversations might be going on in the Biden White House now).
8:54 p.m. “It appears that individuals are storming the U.S. Capitol.” I know I’m supposed to be shocked by all this, and probably would have been eight years ago, but this is the post-Trump era. If you want shocking TV, you need it to be individuals storming the Capitol with the first aliens to land on earth, all infected with a lethal space virus that kills in seconds and is on its way to your house right now.
9:03 p.m. The Cardinals extended Kyler Murray!
9:06 p.m. “My reaction to that tweet was that it was a terrible tweet.” Again, all of this stuff is incredibly politically damaging, but legally? I really want to hear from anyone, even these witnesses, on what laws any of this might have broken. How can they keep sidestepping this crucial issue?
9:10 p.m. Okay, right on cue: Luria saying Trump was “oath and duty-bound” to protect the government is at least addressing the legality/constitutionality issue. ABC at the intermission calling it a “striking and unsettling moment” tonewise was indistinguishable from the politicians however.
9:21 p.m. Josh Hawley becoming a Twitter meme might be the most concrete result of the hearing. The “like Zoinks Scoob!” factor in this video is pretty brutal.
9:24 p.m. Back from intermission. Can’t emphasize enough how embarrassing it is that the press commentary on basically every non-Fox channel is basically indistinguishable from the show-trial register of the House questioners. Amusing moment when “They’re going to fuck his whole legacy” blasted out live on multiple stations.
9:34 p.m. Not going to lie, as an American, part of me is secretly proud of how totally fucked up this country is. If you’re going to step into the crazy ring, you might as well win by knockout. In ten years the president is going to be snorting brown-brown and shelling pistachios with a survival knife during the State of the Union. We might as well embrace it at this point. Or, it’s late and I’ve been doing this too long…
9:54 p.m. Sarah Matthews saying she was shocked Trump began his video addressing the crowd with the “lie” about the stolen election. Again, politically damaging, probative value unclear. To a commenter wondering about my “commitment to America”: I’m not saying I’d vote for the guy. I’m saying what’s the crime, exactly, and what’s the legal argument? If they actually plan on trying to prosecute him (and if they don’t that’s nihilism on a level maybe even beyond Trump’s) it's crucial that Trump be charged of something that's already on the books and provable, not some ex post facto contrivance where they’re essentially arguing unfitness and unsuitability and trying to shoehorn it into something like sedition. The problem is that if they can’t argue he committed an actual crime, this will be seen by half the population (and more importantly by posterity) as what it looks like, a political prosecution. They can’t prosecute just because he was wildly irresponsible and mad as the proverbial two-bob watch. They’ve got to make a case.
10:12 p.m. Watching on YouTube. Sedition hearing, sponsored by NerdWallet… Again, only in America.
10:17 p.m. Fox News tweet right now is beautifully irrelevant:
10:20 p.m. “My only goal was to ensure the integrity of the vote.” Frowns in disgust, pounds podium. Whap — cut! Slapstick outtakes of Trump’s January 7 speech attempts, in which he can’t bring himself to say he lost, come off like X-rated Veep.
10:27 p.m. Thoughts, readers?
10:28 p.m. Kinzinger: “When we present our findings we will recommend changes to our laws and policies to guard against another January 6th.” Translation: we don’t have something to charge right now. I hold by my conviction that these hearings are a major political error by Democrats, and that can be true whether Trump is criminally guilty or not. The issue is what you’ve promised voters: if you don’t nail him this time, and this panel doesn’t sound confident they will, then your sole concrete achievement is another unfulfilled promise to your voters, who by the way are hurting worse economically every day and telling every pollster that this show is low on their list of concerns. It just feels like the old “definition of insanity” trope. We’ve been here so many times before.
10:48 p.m. Cheney gaveling to adjournment. A somber ABC: “They say their work will continue, but this very much sounded like a closing argument.” Are they really going to do another session or two of this? Time to go on a benzodiazepine hunt and try to reach the Land of Forgetting before sleep. Thanks to all who came by. I may add a few thoughts in the morning. Would welcome any comments on the format, whether this works or if something more like a chat or live video commentary would work better. Until then, salutations, and good night.
11:00 p.m. A few reader comments that felt pertinent:
How much indeed?
There's no reason to think this is anything other than the show trial it seems to be. If they had anything at all, they would be doing this in a court of law where they could do some real damage. Of course, if they did that they would have to allow the defense to.......defend itself. And we can't have that from the party that claims to be defending democracy!
Not a Trump fan, and open to being convinced he committed an actual crime - but history to this point is that whatever the Democrats accuse Trump of doing, it turns out later that they were the ones actually doing it. Hookers and blow in Russia? Check. Taking six-figure checks from Moscow and Beijing? Check. Siccing federal agencies on political opponents? Check.
Maybe they'll prove me wrong this time ...