The chair of the January 6th committee, Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, was born into segregation in the Delta town of Bolton, Mississippi, population five hundred and twenty-one, “a part of the country where people justify the actions of slavery, Ku Klux Klan, and lynching,” as he said during the first hearing. The vice-chair, Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, is twenty years younger and the daughter of Vice-President Dick Cheney; she had spent most of the Trump years occupying the third-ranking position in the Republican House leadership, until she was forced to step down in May, 2021, having repeatedly criticized Trump and voted for his impeachment. The scene is straight out of a John Grisham thriller: the slow-speaking Southern judge with a long historical memory, the sharp female prosecutor who is turning against her former political patrons. This is what justice—simple, crowd-pleasing justice—is supposed to look like.
In its focus on the period between the Presidential election on November 3, 2020, and the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, the committee has built an account in which successive advisers to the President—each of them representing a portion of his party—turn away from him in disgust, as he tries to sell the badly organized fiction of a stolen election. Those with him on November 3, 2020 were already a self-selecting group of loyalists, given how much of the Party refused to work for Trump in the first place, and how many of his early aides burned out and left. In November, most of the Trump White House lawyers and campaign staff, who saw no major fraud in the election, had consolidated around “Team Normal,” as the political aide Bill Stepien termed it in his testimony; the Trump camp was arranged around “Team Rudy,” a few lawyers allied with the former New York mayor Giuliani, who were searching for evidence of fraud that never turned out to be there. In every scene recreated in the hearing room, every heated Oval Office session recounted by a lawyer, every memo highlighted and projected on a screen above the dais, the central question is: Who was with Trump, and who was against him?
But this alignment had a political valence as well. In December, as Trump continued to pursue his election-fraud claims, his Attorney General, Bill Barr, the embodiment of the conservative legal establishment’s truce with the President, resigned. In Congress, the Republicans clearly with Trump were the members of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus—most prominently, Rep. Jim Jordan, of Ohio, Rep. Paul Gosar, of Arizona, Rep. Louie Gohmert, of Texas, and Rep. Scott Perry, of Pennsylvania—whose line to the President ran through the White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, formerly the chair of the House Freedom Caucus. The Committee etched another dividing line: among the lawyers, it was Team Normal versus Team Rudy, but among the politicians it was Team Republican Party versus Team Freedom Caucus.
Thursday’s hearing centered on a dramatic Oval Office meeting on January 3rd, three days before the insurrection. One attendee was a lawyer at the D.O.J. named Jeff Clark, who helped lead the department’s environmental division. Clark had met Trump through Rep. Perry, of the Freedom Caucus, and made clear that he would back the President’s claims—Clark had gone so far as to draft a D.O.J. letter, at Trump’s urging, asking the Georgia state legislature to adopt a fake set of electors rather than those fairly won by President Biden. Also at the meeting were acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen and acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, who had been running the D.O.J. since Barr’s departure, and had refused to send Clark’s letter. According to the testimony that Rosen and Donoghue gave on Thursday, the President asked why he should not replace Rosen with Clark, given that Rosen would not do what his Commander-in-Chief wanted. Donoghue told the committee that he had said that Clark was not qualified to either run the Department of Justice or investigate an election-fraud claim—he had never even tried a case. Clark protested that he had led very complicated environmental appeals. In one of the all-time Oval Office disses (assuming it really happened; we only have Donoghue’s word here), Donoghue said, “That’s right. You’re an environmental lawyer. Go back to your office and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill.” Trump did not make Clark acting Attorney General; Donoghue advised him that if he did all of his Assistant Attorneys General would resign en masse. Trump’s own Department of Justice was against him. What he still had were the Freedom Caucus and—seventy-two hours later—a mob.
Trump’s instincts are not especially sharp these days, and he seemed to recognize very belatedly that the events of January 6th not only put him in legal jeopardy but political peril, too. For a half decade, part of his pitch has been that, however reluctant the Republican establishment seemed, however disgusted it pretended to be with him, it would always come home to him in the end. But, the same week that the January 6th committee emphasized how even the Trump diehards in the White House, in the days before the riot, were fed up with him, a poll of Republican primary voters in New Hampshire put him behind Ron DeSantis. Brit Hume of Fox News emphasized on air that, if the hearings mean Trump does not run in 2024, then the committee will have “done the Republican Party a great service,” because many Republicans “think they cannot win with Trump at the head of the ticket.” Speaking with a conservative talk-radio host last week, the former President said that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s decision to boycott the January 6th committee was “very, very foolish” since that step had allowed Trump’s opponents to pick the members of the committee by themselves, and to shape the story as they saw fit. McCarthy did not respond. He has long bowed to Trump, but he has also been an antagonist of the Freedom Caucus, not a member. Is he still on the former President’s side?
At some points during the hearings, a slight suspension of narrative disbelief has been required. Among the many former Trump staffers who have been obviously disgusted by him, none has been so disgusted as the White House lawyer Eric Herschmann, who often appears by Zoom with a black baseball bat mounted on the wall behind him, emblazoned with the word “JUSTICE.” (Next to the baseball bat is a large painting of a panda.) Thursday’s committee hearing featured Herschmann’s description of a conversation with Jeff Clark, the environmental lawyer with dreams of fake electors from Georgia. Herschmann said, “When he finished discussing what he planned on doing, I said, ‘Good, fucking—excuse me—effing A-hole, congratulations. You just admitted that your first step or act you’d take as Attorney General would be committing a felony and violating Rule 6C.’ ” Some suppressed inner lawyer in me rebelled: Was that a word-for-word reënactment, complete with subsectional citation? Was it not just a little self-aggrandizing? But the Mississippi judge and the Washington prosecutor let it slide. They have allowed the Republicans who broke with Trump to tell the story, and have praised them as heroes. “Their bravery is a high moment in the sordid story of what led to January 6,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger said, on Thursday, speaking of Rosen and Donoghue. As Grisham might have recognized, justice is not the only process under way.
Toward the end of Thursday’s hearing, Herschmann and several other White House aides (among them, Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to Meadows, and John McEntee, the head of the Office of Presidential Personnel) testified that several members of Congress had contacted the President’s advisers to see whether he might preëmptively pardon them, to protect them from any prosecution for their role in January 6th. Rep. Mo Brooks wrote a letter to the White House not only formally requesting a pardon but asking for an “all-purpose” pardon for the hundred and forty-seven members of the House of Representatives who objected to the certification of the election. But, for the most part, the committee has cast ordinary Republicans as the heroes. The villains were the six—just six—members of Congress who had reportedly requested pardons for themselves: Brooks (who lost a primary for Senate in Alabama); Rep. Matt Gaetz, of Florida (who is facing a federal probe for sex trafficking); Rep. Andy Biggs, of Arizona; Rep. Perry, of Pennsylvania; Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, of Georgia; and Rep. Louie Gohmert, of Texas. It was a sign of just how small the caucus of dead-enders was, and of what political line the hearings have offered to draw for Republicans: civil society on one side, and on the other, the former President, a few lawyers, a half-dozen members of Congress, the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, the mob. ♦