When the House 6 January select committee convenes its first hearing to examine the worst attack on the US Capitol since 1814, the nine-member panel and the two witnesses who will testify Thursday will be the highest-profile occupants of the ornate Cannon House Office Building Caucus Room since the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee used it for hearings in the mid-20th century.
Seventy-four years after Hollywood luminaries like acclaimed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo were blacklisted after failing to answer that committee’s questions about whether they had “now or … ever been” members of the Communist Party, one of the film industry’s finest will once again be a star witness in the exact same room.
The select committee on Tuesday announced that one of the first two witnesses to testify in what is expected to be a series of at least eight hearings will be Nick Quested, the award-winning documentarian who earned an Oscar nomination for his film Restrepo in 2010. The other will be Caroline Edwards, a US Capitol Police officer who was one of the first to be on the receiving end of blows delivered by the pro-Trump mob who stormed the Capitol in hopes of preventing Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory.
Both witnesses will testify during the second hour of the two-hour hearing, following opening presentations by the select committee’s chairman – Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi – and Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, the panel’s vice-chair.
The Independent has learned that the panel’s aim in putting Ms Edwards and Mr Quested in the spotlight for the first prime time hearing on the 6 January insurrection is to highlight the role played by the pro-Trump extremist groups in starting and escalating the violence.
Mr Quested, who spent the days leading up to the riot embedded with leaders of the Proud Boys gang as part of a documentary project, has already provided US authorities with footage of a 5 January 2021 meeting between then-Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio and Elmer Stewart Rhodes, founder and leader of the Oath Keepers.
The footage of Mr Tarrio and Mr Rhodes meeting on the eve of the insurrection appears to have figured prominently in grand jury proceedings which led to last week’s unsealing of an indictment against Mr Tarrio and four other Proud Boys members for seditious conspiracy.
Mr Rhodes, a Yale-educated attorney, was himself indicted on charges of seditious conspiracy in January by a District of Columbia grand jury. According to his attorney, Mr Rhodes has also met with members of the select committee, and has reportedly told them he still considers the 2020 election to have been “illegitimate”.
Both pro-Trump extremist groups are understood to have played major roles in the initial attacks on the Capitol. Members of the Proud Boys gang were among the first to assault police officers and breach outer barriers before ascending the Capitol steps and breaking windows. One Proud Boys member who also faces seditious conspiracy charges, Dominic Pezzola, was allegedly one of the first to enter the Capitol itself after using a stolen police shield to smash a window. Meanwhile, another group of Oath Keepers made their way through the melee on the Capitol’s West Front by moving up the steps in a “stack” formation before fighting their way past police into the building.
Sources familiar with the panel’s investigation who have spoken to The Independent have said the hearings will reveal that many of the events that transpired that day – events which have heretofore appeared spontaneous – were in fact part of a multi-pronged, multi-faceted effort by former President Donald Trump and his supporters to overturn results of the 2020 election, and to knowingly do so with the aid of a violent mob.
Jamie Raskin doesn’t say whether the Jan 6 Committee will get Mike Pence to testify
Specifically, the panel intends to use the hearings to make clear that it has not found any evidence to support Republican claims that what happened on 6 January 2021 was a peaceful protest gone bad or that other occurrences of violence that day were spontaneous or accidental. The committee will also use evidence it has gathered, including witness testimony and unreleased documents, to show connections between a violent extremist core group of Mr Trump’s supporters who responded to his call for a “wild” protest that day and Mr Trump’s expansive coterie of outside confidantes, sounding boards, and allies in the right-wing political and media ecosystems.
And unlike in previous congressional inquiries into Mr Trump’s conduct, committee members will not have to contend with grandstanding, filibustering, showboating, or interruptions from Mr Trump’s allies in Congress. That’s because House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has refused to allow the members he put forth to participate after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected two of his picks – Representatives Jim Jordan and Jim Banks – on grounds that they might end up being called as witnesses.
Allies of Mr Trump who’ve questioned the panel’s legitimacy in lawsuits seeking to block the committee from obtaining documents have pointed to the lack of GOP members when arguing that the panel is improperly constituted, but multiple federal courts have rejected such arguments.
Kurt Bardella, a former adviser to ex-GOP House Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa, and who now advises the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told The Independent that Mr McCarthy’s decision to withdraw all his picks in a fit of pique was a “massive strategic error” that has left the former president without anyone to defend or run interference for him.
He also predicted the former president would “lose his mind” when he watches the select committee’s hearings and realizes no one is there to interject with talking points representing his side of the argument.
For the most part, committee members have kept mum about what exactly viewers will see when they tune in Thursday night. It has been reported that the program is being produced with the aid of a former top ABC News executive James Goldston, and will rely heavily on video evidence, including video taken during interviews of Mr Trump’s top advisers.
One of the seven Democrats on the panel, Representative Elaine Luria of Virginia, declined to answer questions from The Independent as she left the House floor late Wednesday, but told MSNBC host Ali Velshi the “ultimate work product” of the panel will not be the programming produced during the hearings, but the written report it will release later this year.
“The report from this committee, that information that we put out within hearings, I think will paint a very clear picture from beginning to end, to the present day, of all the things that happened that led up to this, [and] the dangers that still exist,” she said. “Some of that information will clearly be new to the public, and perhaps new to others who are also looking carefully at these events”.
Another select committee member, Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin, told reporters the committee has obtained an abundance of evidence that it is ready to present.
When asked what he hoped people would learn from the hearings, he replied: “The truth”.
But it’s unclear whether the viewers who need the most convincing will even tune in to Thursday’s hearing – or any of the subsequent ones. Because the most-watched cable news channel in the US, Fox News, is declining to air the hearings live on its flagship network, the 3 million viewers who rely on the channel’s right-wing opinion programming for news will have no exposure to what is revealed on Thursday. Fox will stream the hearings online without authentication and will provide coverage on Fox Business Network.
“The Committee needs to make the case to the American people that what happened on January 6th was the culmination of a scheme that was in the works for months, choreographed by those closest to the President,” Mr Bardella said.
Mr Bardella also told The Independent that the panel must use the hearings to “underscore the ongoing threat posed by those same forces at this very moment”.
“These hearings need to be a call to action, not just a detailed recap of how we got here,” he said.
Another prominent Republican turned critic of the GOP, ex-Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele, told The Independent the panel needs to captivate their audience on Thursday for the good of the country.
“This is one of those moments in our history, where everything needs to stop. Everything needs to take a break. And people just need to sit down where they are. Turn on the television. And listen, because this is not partisan,” he said, adding later that in his opinion, the Democrats should not do much to coordinate messaging around the hearings and instead let the evidence speak for itself.
“The members of the committee are going to have to carve out this moment for the American people in a way that grabs their attention and walks them through everything that led up to what occurred on January 6th and what came after that,” he said.
One of the panel’s two Republican members, Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, appeared confident that the select committee’s presentation will have an impact when he spoke to reporters late Tuesday.
Asked whether he hoped the series of hearings will change anyone’s minds, he said he “hope[d] they would” before offering an even bolder prediction.
“It’ll change history,” he said.