tThe House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol began making a case for Donald Trump’s guilt for Thursday night’s deadly riots, using testimonies from members of his own administration to argue that the former president was behind a coordinated conspiracy to topple him in the 2020 election and block the transfer of power to Joe Biden.
Within minutes of the start of the primetime hearing, which broadcast live to all but one of the major broadcasting networks, Rep. Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson and the committee’s chairman, captured the first footage of a former Trump White House official explaining under oath that they had informed the president that his claims of widespread voter fraud were false.
“I’ve made it clear that I disagreed with the idea of saying the election was stolen and bringing out this stuff, which I told the president was nonsense,” former Attorney General William Barr told commission investigators. in a recorded testimony, citing a December 2020 meeting with Trump. “And I didn’t want to be a part of it.”
The committee later aired footage of a statement with the president’s own daughter and special adviser Ivanka Trump, who attended that meeting and told the committee that she took Barr’s comments seriously. “It affected my perspective,” she said. “I respect Attorney General Barr, so I accepted what he said.”
The revelations were among the most explosive and significant of the evening. Legal pundits and former prosecutors have said any evidence that Trump was informed that he was spreading a lie to prevent Congress from confirming Biden’s election victory could accuse him of intent to defraud. “It’s very important if you can prove he knew he lost, which helps bolster claims of corrupt intent and fraudulent intent,” Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney and now law professor at the University of Michigan, said. in April at TIME.
Other testimonies from former administration officials showed how Trump and his closest confidants were actively seeking ways to undermine the election results. Alex Cannon, Trump’s top campaign attorney, recalled a December 2020 conversation with the president’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, who asked what they’d dug up to challenge the election results of decisive swing states. “We didn’t find anything sufficient to alter the results in key states,” Cannon told the panel. “So there isn’t one there?” Meadows replied, according to Cannon.
The committee also sought to provide evidence that Trump took no action to stop the attack on the Capitol as it unfolded, even expressing its approval as the chaos unfolded. The crowd in the Cannon House Office Building auditorium gasped when Rep. Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney and vice chair of the panel shared testimony to the White House committee that Trump told his staff after the crowd began chanting to hang Vice President Mike Pence: “Maybe our supporters have got the right thing. idea. Mike Pence deserves it.”
Commissioners have said the six hearings would go almost like a Netflix series. On Thursday evening, Thompson and Cheney telegraphed reports of a conspiracy they wanted to uncover in five consecutive hearings, showing how members of two far-right groups, in particular, the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, were working well in advance of to prepare. before the Capitol invasion, with many of those efforts spurred by Trump’s statements. On Tuesday, the Justice Department charged five members of the Proud Boys with seditious conspiracy charges — a charge that carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
One of the most evocative moments of the first hearing was when the committee showed harrowing documentary footage of the January 6 attack, interspersed with clips of Trump’s speech at a rally near the White House and screenshots of his tweets. during the day. When the Capitol was attacked — and the building was breached by violent insurgents — Trump refused to call in the military or National Guard to protect Congress, letting the vice president do it instead.
“Trump issued no order that day to deploy the National Guard and made no attempt to cooperate with the Justice Department to coordinate and deploy law enforcement resources,” Cheney said. “But Mike Pence did all those things.”
The video footage moved many of the Capitol Hill police officers attending the hearing and had to relive the trauma of the attack. “I can’t say I’m surprised anymore,” one of the officers, Harry Dunn, told TIME after the hearing, referring to the disclosure of Trump’s refusal to call for reinforcements. “You have a job to protect not only us, but this country and you didn’t.”
Cheney said evidence was presented to the committee to prove Trump was aware that the crowds that came to support him that day were likely to turn violent, but chose to whip them up anyway. “The White House received specific reports, including during Trump’s Ellipse rally, that elements in the crowd were preparing for violence.”
Committee members wanted to make it clear that these were deliberate choices by the president to prevent Biden’s election certification, leading to an electoral college failure that Trump hoped would lead to a conditional election to the House of Representatives. It was through that scenario that Trump’s allies, such as law professor John Eastman, planned to bring in a new wave of voters who would reinstate Trump as president.
“All Americans should keep this fact in mind,” Cheney said. “On the morning of January 6, Donald Trump intended to remain President of the United States despite the legitimate election results.”
The video presentation also showed how Trump’s comments in the first presidential debate of 2020 — telling the Proud Boys to “take a step back” — led to increased membership in the far-right extremist group and energized its leaders to fight against a Trump election loss.
The violent role of the Proud Boys took center stage during the latter part of Thursday’s hearing, when two witnesses testified in person. Caroline Edwards, a U.S. Capitol police officer who suffered a brain injury from the attack, described the moment when insurgents attempted to breach the Capitol as a “war scene,” giving vivid and sometimes graphic details of the attack. “It was like I’d seen from the movies,” she said. “I could not believe my eyes. There were officers on the ground. They bled, they vomited. I mean, I saw friends with blood on their faces. I slipped in people’s blood.”
Filmmaker Nick Quested, who followed the Proud Boys in the days leading up to the attack, was the second witness. Many of the documentary images broadcast by the committee were made by him. “I’ve documented how the crowd changed from protesters, rioters and insurgents,” he told the House panel.
Thompson told reporters after the hearing that the purpose of the first session was to stick with the facts the investigation uncovered. “We deliberately chose to only attract what we could prove,” he said. Still, that’s unlikely to influence the majority of Republican leaders who continue to downplay the seriousness of the attack and leave the door open, some committee members said, for such an episode to repeat itself.
By the end of the 11-minute video presentation — as insurgents could see insurgents beating police officers and breaking through the Capitol windows — the montage reached its dramatic climax, playing audio of comments Trump made months later. “They were peaceful people. These were great people,” he said of the rioters. “Love in the air – I’ve never seen anything like it.”
More must-read stories from TIME