Thursday night in the first of a series of public hearings, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol will begin to outline the evidence of a multipronged effort to violently disrupt the peaceful transfer of power and overturn the will of the people.
Assuming the evidence collected by the committee is as strong as has been reported so far, there will be rightful calls for prosecution of the leaders, including those who were in the highest echelons of government. But the import of Congress’s investigation goes well beyond holding the perpetrators criminally accountable. First and foremost, it is critical for Congress to facilitate a thorough public reckoning with the full scope and severity of the attack on our nation’s democratic institutions — so that it is thoroughly repudiated and can never happen again.
The committee’s investigation is the most consequential congressional investigation in decades. The January 6 assault was one of the worst attacks on American government in over a century. The scheme included an unprecedented violent attack on the Capitol, involving white supremacist and other extremist groups, but it was much more than that. It started well before Election Day in 2020, with racially targeted attempts to intimidate and disenfranchise voters and bids to sow confusion and general distrust in the voting process. It continued with concerted efforts after Election Day to get state officials to change or reject popular election results, dozens of frivolous lawsuits seeking to have courts toss out votes or otherwise overturn results, and a push to convince members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence to reject lawful electoral votes. The climax was a violent assault on the seat of American democracy. The committee is expected to expose this conspiracy — and the extent to which it continues — in extensive detail.
Congressional investigations are an integral part of the legislative process. Congress, courts have long held, “is meant to be the eyes and the voice” of the public. It has broad power to gather information that will help it identify problems in need of legislative remedies and ensure that existing laws are properly carried out. At critical moments, as a bipartisan pair of senators wrote in their book about the Iran-Contra investigation in the 1980s, it falls to Congress to “drag realities out into the sunlight and demand a full accounting from those who are permitted to hold and exercise power.” This sunlight is a vital prerequisite to moving forward.
The January 6 committee has pursued this mission zealously. Committee staff have so far interviewed over 1,000 witnesses and reviewed tens of thousands of pages of documents. As another bipartisan group of former officials noted — including several members of the Trump administration — the investigation “demonstrated a deep commitment to finding the truth and focused on the facts.” To ensure a thorough and fair evaluation of the facts, the committee employed dozens of professional staff, including investigators from all political backgrounds. Additionally, it is being managed by a bipartisan leadership, with Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, previously the third-ranking House Republican, serving as the committee’s vice chair and working closely with Democratic leadership.
This thoroughness and impartiality are critical because the court of public opinion is the principal venue. Perhaps the most important measure of the success of the hearings will be the extent to which they foster a shared understanding of what really happened leading up to, on, and following January 6. The facts need to be laid out. Wrongdoers — not just those who stormed the Capitol but those who instigated the attack — need to be publicly held to account and their actions unambiguously repudiated. And solutions need to be considered.
It is also imperative to lay out ongoing threats. Here too, the hearings will be essential. The same forces that unleashed the January 6 attack threaten to sabotage future elections, intimidating election officials, moving to make it easier to manipulate or even set aside election results, and targeting voters for disenfranchisement — primarily voters of color. These ongoing threats need to be named and blocked. And ultimately, Congress must establish stronger legislative guardrails to ensure that they don’t recur.
The principal measure of success for the January 6 committee will be the extent to which it exposes the recent and ongoing plots to undermine American elections and lays the foundation for future solutions. In uncovering the truth, the hearings will reaffirm that we are a nation of laws, not mob rule, and that the American people must have the final say on who wields power.