DDonald Trump achieved another first in US presidential history on Thursday night. He was, in front of millions of people, accused by a congressional panel of attempting to overthrow the US government.
“January 6th was the culmination of an attempted coup,” said Bennie Thompson, chair of the House of Representative’s select committee investigating the insurrection at the US Capitol. “President Trump summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack,” added his vice-chair, Liz Cheney.
The political and legal implications could be devastating, just as the Watergate hearings were for President Richard Nixon half a century ago. But today America, and its media, are bitterly divided, and Trump, who once boasted that he could shoot someone and not lose voters, has repeatedly shown that what does not kill him makes him stronger.
The former president wrote defiantly on his Truth Social platform: “So the Unselect Committee of political HACKS refuses to play any of the many positive witnesses and statements, refuses to talk of the Election Fraud and Irregularities that took place on a massive scale. Our Country is in such trouble!”
Like a criminal trial, the first January 6 hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington clinically outlined the case that will be made against Trump with the help of vivid eyewitness testimony and breathtaking video footage. Although many of the details had previously emerged in media reports, it was nevertheless compelling to hear them woven together in an august setting on primetime television.
Cheney argued that Trump oversaw and coordinated a sophisticated seven-part plan to overturn the 2020 presidential election and block the transfer of power. He encouraged the insurrection, refused to call off the mob and was content for his own vice-president, Mike Pence, to be assassinated for refusing to overturn the election.
“And, aware of the rioters’ chants to ‘hang Mike Pence’, the president responded with this sentiment: ‘Maybe our supporters have the right idea.’ Mike Pence ‘deserves’ it.”
The words of Trump’s inner circle, including Pence, were turned against him. There was a clip of former attorney general William Barr saying that Trump’s claims of a stolen election were unfounded “bullshit”, then one of Trump’s daughter and senior adviser Ivanka telling the committee: “I respected attorney general Barr. I accepted what he was saying.”
The sense of family betrayal presumably enraged Trump. He also demonstrated that trusted aides were advising him that he had lost the election fair and square. This could be used to build a criminal case that he pushed the Big Lie of voter fraud knowing it to be just that – meaning that he made a deliberate effort to subvert democracy.
The January 6 committee, however, has no power to prosecute Trump or anyone else. That would be a decision for Merrick Garland, the attorney general, at the justice department, and fraught with risks in a polarized environment: Trump allies would doubtless cry foul and accuse him of a politically motivated witch-hunt.
Such a prospect might actually make it more likely that Trump run for president again in 2024 because he knows the justice department would be reluctant to go after an active candidate. He would seek to weaponize such a move while on the campaign trail, casting himself as the victim of a deep state conspiracy, just as he did with the Russia investigation.
If Trump does run, could he win again despite the mountain of damning evidence that now stands in the public record? No one is writing him off just yet. He remains the dominant force in the Republican party, where many continue to push his big lie, a point underlined by its leadership’s protests that the hearings are an illegitimate, partisan show trial aimed at deflecting attention from Joe Biden’s crises such as inflation and crime.
It is true that there are two Republicans on the January 6 committee, but both are outliers who have been censured by the party. Adam Kinzinger is not seeking re-election and Cheney knows her work could well cost her her seat in Wyoming, where a Trump-backed primary challenger is polling strongly against her.
Cheney said on Thursday: “I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: there will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonour will remain.”
Meanwhile Fox News, which has long had a marriage of convenience with Trump, did not even broadcast the hearing live. Instead host Tucker Carlson described it as “propaganda” from the “ruling class” and told viewers: “They are lying and we are not going to help them do it.”
It is possible that this and subsequent hearings will break through with a sliver of undecided voters in the middle who had not been paying attention to the drip feed of January 6 stories. But not even Democrats expect it to rescue them in November’s midterm elections. History will remember Trump’s plot against America – but memory alone cannot guarantee democracy.