In a carefully choreographed hearing led by a bipartisan pair of ex-military members, the Jan 6 congressional committee sought to transcend partisan politics and appeal to shared, if tattered, American values: A sense of honour and the rule of law.
Time and time again, witnesses and committee members said that Donald Trump’s inaction on that afternoon was an abdication of his role as commander-in-chief and defender of the US Constitution.
Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, who served in the Air Force, was particularly withering, calling Trump’s behaviour “a supreme violation of his oath of office. It is a stain on our history.
“It is a dishonour to all those who have sacrificed and died in service of our democracy,” he went on to say.
To be sure, the hearing had its share of news, including the revelation that Secret Service officers on vice-president Mike Pence’s security detail said final good-byes to family members as the mob closed in on the Senate chamber.
Trump turned a deaf ear
That came amidst an unfurling of the afternoon’s timeline, juxtaposing White House officials’ efforts, Trump’s intransigence, and the mob’s advance – 187 minutes of presidential inaction.
Little had been known before now – as there are no White House phone logs or diary entries of that afternoon – and the official White House photographer was waived off by Trump staffers.
Still, the committee did manage to fill in some blanks.
In this account, Trump is holed up in his White House dining room – presumably no longer ketchup-stained – glued to Fox News (which, it should be noted, was the only major network not carrying last night’s hearing).
He resists all entreaties – from his lawyer, his daughter, his communications staff – to call off the protesters, instead phoning Rudy Giuliani twice and reaching out to sympathetic senators, asking them to refuse to certify the vote count.
Instead of calling off the mob, he instead tweets about Mike Pence’s betrayal at a critical moment, adding fuel to the fire and arguably imperilling the vice-president’s life within the Capitol building.
While no committee member said so last night, the implication was clear: Trump didn’t call off the mob not out of some lack of concern, but because he actively wanted them to succeed.
Out of legal and political options, Trump was now resorting to force and violence. This wasn’t a failure to act, it was a wilful refusal to thwart violence in hopes it would at last restore him to victory.
As I watched witnesses recount their pleadings to Trump to intervene, the clear break between their sense of law of order and his pathological selfishness was chilling.
By yoking Trump’s behaviour to his role as commander-in-chief, the committee was appealing to Americans’ devotion to the Constitution and the rule of law.
Having a bunch of ex-military do the explaining (I counted at least five ex-service personnel among the witnesses and committee speakers) was also designed to neutralise the partisan tang of the hearings, which the Republican leadership is boycotting.
There was a nod to history too, as Kinzinger noted how vice-presidents Richard Nixon (1960) and Al Gore (2000) conceded defeat in very close elections for the good of the country.
At its heart, these hearings feel like a last stand for power of democratic institutions: Congress, the Constitution, free and fair elections.
Americans aren’t feeling too good about institutions lately, with new polls showing most people think they’re broken.
Whether they can stand the stress test the next few years will surely hold remains to be seen. But after a night like Thursday, i feel better about their chances.
Larry Hackett is the former editor in chief of People magazine, and a contributor to the US morning television news program Good Morning America