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'Closing argument': Jan. 6 panel makes final hearings push

The House committee holds what could be its last two public hearings, with a big focus on white nationalist groups and what Donald Trump was doing as the Capitol was attacked.
Photo illustration: Images of Liz Cheney, of rioters outside the Capitol building, Bennie Thompson, Donald Trump and Adam Kinzinger.
NBC News / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Six down. At least two more to go.

The Jan. 6 committee is hitting the home stretch of the public hearings phase of its historic, yearlong investigation into the attack on the Capitol — and American democracy.

After a half-dozen hearings, committee members are looking to build on the momentum with a pair of back-to-back panel meetings this week. They will mark a final push for a special House panel that set out not only to establish an official record for the history books but also to demonstrate Donald Trump's role in the plot to overturn the 2020 election, and to warn the public about ongoing threats to the election system.  

“I know they’ll make a very coherent closing argument,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., who was trapped in the House chamber on Jan. 6 and has attended all but one of the hearings as an observer. “Any good trial lawyer knows that you need a clear opening, a clear arc and a very clear summary. 

“I think the facts are what power the summary — you don’t have to add to it, you don’t have to decorate it,” Dean said in an interview. “The facts are so damning about a president who cared nothing for people as high up as the vice president or as low down as an election worker or election volunteer, didn’t care about destroying lives or killing people in the violence.”

Tuesday’s meeting will focus on what some panel members called the “marshaling of the mob,” including evidence of coordination between Trump, his top aides and associates, and white nationalist or militia groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers who members say led the assault on the Capitol that day.

The committee will examine how Trump’s “pressure merges with the physical violence” that his supporters carried out at the Capitol, said Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., who will lead part of Tuesday's hearing.

The final planned hearing is expected on Thursday and will zero in on Trump’s actions — or inactions — as his vice president, Mike Pence, House and Senate lawmakers and hundreds of police officers came under attack. There were "187 minutes where people were pleading with him to take action, and he failed to do so," Dean said.

Thursday’s hearing is likely to be set for prime time, just like the first hearing, seeking a bigger televised audience.

Panel members will attempt to tie all of their various threads of evidence together — that Trump and his allies launched an aggressive pressure campaign on Pence, the Justice Department and state officials to engage in unconstitutional acts and overturn the election results. 

When those efforts failed, they resorted to brute force: a violent and deadly attack on Congress that Murphy called "a last-ditch effort on the 6th to change the outcome of what was acknowledged to be a free and fair election.”

That the last hearing is centered on Trump underscores just how much the 45th president — who is readying a political comeback in 2024 — has become the top target of the panel’s sprawling investigation.

“Donald Trump attempted to overturn the presidential election. He attempted to stay in office and to prevent the peaceful transfer of presidential power,” Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the Jan. 6 panel’s top Republican, said in a recent speech at the Reagan Presidential Library. 

“He summoned a mob to Washington. He knew they were armed on Jan. 6, he knew they were angry, and he directed the violent mob to march on the Capitol in order to delay or prevent completely the counting of electoral votes,” she said. “He attempted to go there with them. And when the violence was underway, he refused to take action to tell the rioters to leave.”

Unlike the Senate impeachment trial shortly after the Capitol riot, there will be no vote in Congress this time to convict or acquit Trump; and the select committee has no prosecutorial powers.

But there is a fierce debate inside the panel about whether to make criminal referrals to the Justice Department for Trump and his top lieutenants, with Cheney on the side of amping up pressure on DOJ.

When the hearings conclude, the Jan. 6 panel will turn its attention toward completing its exhaustive final report. Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said that report could be released to the public in September.

To be sure, Thompson could always schedule more hearings this summer or fall if the committee obtains significant new evidence. The panel slotted a surprise hearing during its July Fourth recess after Cassidy Hutchinson, a former Trump White House aide, agreed to testify in person about conversations she heard from her superiors in the West Wing as the attack unfolded.

In her bombshell testimony, the 25-year-old former aide described how top White House officials, including counsel Pat Cipollone, had said Trump was aware that his supporters he had sent to the Capitol were armed and dangerous; that he was hell-bent on joining them there; and that he didn't care when informed about the violence or that Pence's life was at risk.

Trump has tried to discredit Hutchinson and has dismissed the Jan. 6 probe as a political witch hunt.

But in a big get for the Jan. 6 committee, Cipollone agreed to sit for an eight-hour, transcribed deposition on Friday after months of negotiations. He's in a position to confirm much of the evidence that's been presented so far, given that he was in close contact with Trump before and on Jan. 6 and reportedly furious over the president's actions.

Cipollone's testimony included "information demonstrating Trump’s supreme dereliction of duty,” committee spokesman Tim Mulvey said in a statement. The former White House counsel's videotaped interview will likely be featured prominently during the final hearing.

By many measures, the hearings so far have proved to be a success. The committee has laid out detailed, new information about the widespread plot to overturn Joe Biden's election victory and keep Trump in power.

And it's captivated the American public's attention with gripping live and recorded testimony from many of the Republicans who stood up to Trump and his allies: 13.7 million people tuned in to the daytime hearing featuring Hutchinson, according to Nielsen, up nearly 30 percent from the number of people who watched the previous hearing.

The panel hopes TV ratings for the final hearing will be closer to the roughly 20 million who watched the first, primetime hearing, and the millions more who caught it on social media and other viewing platforms.

"What you have seen them do is close in with such strength on exactly what the president knew and was participating in," Dean, the Pennsylvania representative and vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said in the interview.

Trump "knew that the election had not been stolen and not been riddled with fraud and continued to perpetuate the Big Lie, and he had some help doing that."