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House hearings about the Jan. 6 insurrection begin this week. Here's what to watch

Committee Chair Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), left, listens as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), right, questions police officer Michael Fanone. (Washington Post via AP, Pool) Committee Chair Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), left, listens as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), right, questions police officer Michael Fanone. (Washington Post via AP, Pool)

Committee Chair Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), left, listens as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), right, questions police officer Michael Fanone. (Washington Post via AP, Pool)

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg June 7, 2022

After nearly a year of interviewing hundreds of witnesses and assembling a paper trail of texts, emails and financial records, the House panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, breach of the U.S. Capitol will make its case to the American public.

In its first hearing, in evening primetime June 9, the House select committee will lay out the broad outlines of its findings and set the stage for an expected five hearings over the following days.

Committee vice chair Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said in a CBS News interview that she sees a conspiracy behind the breach of the Capitol and the effort to block the certification of the 2020 presidential vote.

"It is extremely broad. It's extremely well-organized. It's really chilling," Cheney said June 5.

The committee started almost a year ago and has largely done its work out of public view. It conducted the occasional hearing to hold uncooperative witnesses in contempt of Congress and one marquee hearing in which police officers described being beaten and gassed by attackers.

For readers who have just begun to tune in, here is what we can expect at the hearings, how we got here, and where this might lead.

What will happen at the first hearing?

It’s not yet clear exactly what Americans will see when chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., gavels the first hearing to order at 8 p.m. ET. Judging from news reports, it will include a mix of live testimony and video, carefully produced to hold the audience's attention.

Over the past months, the investigation has examined several key turning points — including the protest at the Capitol, the effort to derail the certification of the popular vote and President Donald Trump’s delay in calling off the protesters. Committee member Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said the committee will show the bigger picture.

"The public hasn't seen it woven together, how one thing led to another, how one line of effort to overturn the election led to another and ultimately led to terrible violence," Schiff told CBS News June 5

What is the scope of the committee’s investigation?

Jan. 6, 2021 was an extraordinary day, and the committee is tasked with looking at what happened during the events of Jan. 6 and what led to them.

That day, Congress was about to hold what ordinarily would be routine business — a vote to certify the results of the presidential election. The day was anything but routine.

President Donald Trump started the morning with a rally on the White House Ellipse that drew thousands of supporters who believed his claim that massive voting irregularities had denied him his legitimate victory in the 2020 election. Audits and investigations have only affirmed that Biden won fairly.

Regardless, Trump urged his followers to march to the Capitol, where they overwhelmed police and temporarily shut down the certification process. One protester was shot and killed just outside the House chamber. More than 250 people have been charged for assaulting or resisting police, including over 85 people accused of using a deadly or dangerous weapon or causing serious injury to an officer.

For weeks, there were warnings that violence could erupt, but security planners failed to follow up.

The hearings may provide key insights into what Trump and his inner circle knew about the threat to the Capitol and when they knew it. The committee has probed whether key players, such as former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, played a role in coordinating with demonstrators.

What role did slates of "fake" electors play?

Another central focus is the plan to throw the presidential vote into limbo.

In the weeks before the rally, lawyers, lawmakers and Republican activists sympathetic to Trump advanced the idea that under the right circumstances, Vice President Mike Pence could set aside results from enough states to deny Biden an outright victory. Pence oversaw the formal certification process in Congress and said he had no power to reject results the states had affirmed.

Key to that scheme was the creation of alternative slates of electors from seven states — Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada and New Mexico– representing 84 electoral votes. Trump and his advisers were told the gambit lacked any legal foundation, but the plan moved ahead.

From court filings, we know the committee explored how Trump and his associates advanced this plan, as well as their contacts with sitting members of Congress to challenge results from those states.

What might we learn about what Trump was doing during the attack?

Trump’s delay in calling off the protesters is another anchor point in the investigation.

After rioters entered the Capitol and security forces moved lawmakers to safety, an outnumbered police force battled the intruders for hours. During that time, lawmakers, Fox News personalities and others in Trump’s orbit sent messages pleading for him to tell his supporters to back down.

Trump delayed for at least a couple of hours, committing what Cheney called a "dereliction of duty." 

The committee has delved into other topics, too, including a failed effort to replace top leaders of the U.S. Justice Department and possible financial links between Trump supporters and more violent groups, such as the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, who helped drive the unrest at the Capitol. The government charged members of the Oath Keepers with seditious conspiracy in January; on June 6, federal prosecutors indicted the leader of the Proud Boys and members of his group on the same charges.

How did we get here?

The national seat of government has never undergone such a violent convulsion as what unspooled that day. The events quickly led to the second impeachment of Trump, an effort that ended with a Senate vote of 57 to 43 to convict, well short of the two-thirds required to find him guilty.

Initially, there was bipartisan support in the new Congress for an independent commission to investigate the events of the day and all that led up to it. Negotiations produced a compromise bill in the House, but after Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell signaled his opposition, the plan died.

In response, House Democrats created a select committee to investigate what happened on Jan. 6, what events led up to it, and to suggest laws and policies to prevent it from happening again.

The committee originally called for eight Democrats and five Republicans. House GOP leaders refused to participate after Democrats rejected two proposed Republican lawmakers. Democrats objected to the Republicans because they were on record saying Trump had actually won the election.

In the end, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., invited two Republicans to serve on the committee — Reps. Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill. — the only Republicans who supported the resolution to form the select committee. Both had voted to impeach Trump.

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., dismissed the result as a "political select committee."

When the committee conducts its hearings, Republican opposition will be absent from the room. 

What happens after the hearings?

The committee is working against the midterm election clock. If Democrats lose control of the House in the next election, there is no chance the committee’s mission will survive intact. 

The committee’s final report could well be its parting shot.

There’s widespread agreement among both political parties that the Electoral Count Act that guided Congress Jan. 6 is ambiguous and should be clarified. Aspects of how states conduct and verify voting might need to be reinforced to bolster public confidence. The defense of the Capitol building is also on the committee’s menu.

Given the open talk that Trump oversaw a conspiracy to subvert the will of the people, the committee could suggest that Congress make criminal referrals to the Justice Department. It would be up to that department to decide whether to move forward. There is also the chance that materials gathered by the committee might be used in other investigations of Trump and his response to the election, such as one underway in Georgia.

But if nothing else, the committee will issue a report telling the story of what transpired between the November election and Jan. 6. And as its members often repeat, it will be up to the American people to decide what to do with it.

RELATED: Can the Jan. 6 committee get to the truth about the attack — and get Americans to believe it?

RELATED: The 2021 Lie of the Year: Lies about the Jan. 6 Capitol attack and its significance

RELATED: PolitiFact’s Jan. 6 coverage

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House hearings about the Jan. 6 insurrection begin this week. Here's what to watch