The story that the January 6 committee is telling the country is not a surprising one. The essential facts are hardly a mystery. The broad contours of the events being probed played out in real time across our screens: It began slowly, over a period of weeks and months during which Donald Trump and his allies spread lies about the legitimacy of the 2020 election and pushed bogus cases in courts across the country. Then it quickened, as that campaign of lies culminated in a violent assault on the U.S. Capitol.
We already know that Trump sat idly by for several hours once those rioters breached the Capitol itself and that he saw the chaos as an opportunity to disrupt the certification of the election. We know that the ultimate goal of both the president and the rioters he encouraged to march to the Capitol was to overturn—via any means—a legitimate democratic election. In this way, the question that lingered over the Watergate hearings—“What did the president know, and when did he know it?”—doesn’t apply. We know what Donald Trump was after; this story follows a different script.
There are some nontrivial matters that are still unknown to us: the degree to which those in Trump’s orbit coordinated with far-right militias is one; Donald Trump’s precise actions during the riot itself is another. The first few days of the January 6 commission’s hearings have had more surprises than many expected. We have learned that Trump said his vice president, Mike Pence, perhaps deserved to be hanged for not doing more to aid his efforts to overturn the election; that Donald Trump’s daughter—and closest family member—Ivanka accepted that her father lost the election; that various members of Congress sought pardons for their roles in the attempted insurrection; that Trump’s legal team fleeced $250 million or more from his followers who thought they were supporting his efforts to remain in power; that Trump himself was becoming increasingly “detached from reality.”
These are juicy revelations, but on their own, they don’t cut to the core of what the investigation is all about. What the commission’s hearings have been most effective at doing is assembling—and reassembling—the narrative of these events, the better to make the definitive and unfiltered case that the president and his allies knew that they had lost and decided to try to overturn the election anyway—first using dubious legal means and then with violence.
This work, along with the commission’s insistence that revisiting these events is a necessary act, creates a familiar dilemma for the press, one that has hampered its coverage of both January 6, 2021, and the larger Trump phenomenon. The media thrives on “new” news—surprising scoops and revelations that can be splashed across chyrons for days. The hearings have supplied a tidy array of such fodder, but feeding the media’s ravenous maw takes a back seat to a more pressing priority: revealing the depth and breadth of the effort to undo a legitimate democratic election, even if that means doing a lot of rehashing.
The press relies on (or, if you prefer, is addicted to) “both sides” coverage—insisting not on leading with the truth but on simply asking Democrats and Republicans what the truth is and then printing their responses. The January 6 riot all but collapsed the validity of this kind of journalism in principle; in practice, it remains a challenge that the commission itself has to manage.
Republicans haven’t made this easy. The party’s leadership and media elites have gone to great lengths to categorize these hearings as both “old news” and political theater, a distraction from Biden’s political woes. They have largely boycotted participating in the commission’s work. (Two Republicans, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, both ostracized by their party, sit on it.)
But the commission has found an interesting workaround: It is putting plenty of Republican voices on display, so that their “side” is well represented. This is not just a matter of having Cheney and Kinzinger front and center. Rather, the narrative being built features several members of the president’s inner circle: Bill Barr, his former attorney general; Jason Miller, a close political adviser; Ivanka Trump, his daughter; and several others. There are voices that can provide how Republicans close to the president were feeling on January 6. Many of them are telling the truth, which is that Donald Trump lost the election.
This ultimately points to the commission’s greatest strength: It’s not beholden to both-sidesing the January 6 riots or Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. It doesn’t have to conform to any media filters or traditions that have served us so poorly as Trump and his coterie of villains have threatened to degrade the civic health of the nation. It succeeds in many ways where the press has failed over the previous six years: It can come right out and say, in no uncertain terms, that Donald Trump is corrupt and that he was out to steal the presidency despite knowing full well that he had lost the election. Trump has for many years escaped accountability in part because of the press’s inability and unwillingness to state plainly that he is unfit and dangerous.
Perhaps there are some who might hope the commission might uncover a true smoking gun—Donald Trump wearing combat fatigues and giving orders to the Proud Boys; Trump firing a starter’s pistol before the Capitol fences were breached; Trump holding up a giant sign that says, “Let’s do a coup”—but this really isn’t what the commission is aiming for. The fact that it needn’t drop some new bombshell is its greatest advantage. It gets to forcefully and unapologetically say what happened on January 6, in a way few others have in the last 18 months. It gets to do this without having to worry about access or ratings or Beltway politesse. It gets to say that our eyes didn’t fool us: that this was, is, and continues to be an emergency.