A U.S. congressional panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol building held its first public hearing late Thursday, with members pinning the blame for what they characterized as a coup attempt on former President Donald Trump.
The two-hour televised hearing, the first in a series scheduled this month, followed a wide-ranging probe into the assault carried out by Trump supporters after Trump lost the 2020 presidential election to President Joe Biden and waged a campaign to "stop the steal."
Saying the unprecedented attack was the "culmination of an attempted coup," the panel's chairman, Representative Bennie Thompson, said the violence resulted from a "sprawling, multistep conspiracy aimed at overturning the election" and Trump was at the center of the plot.
"And ultimately, Donald Trump, the president of the United States, spurred a mob of domestic enemies of the Constitution to march down to the Capitol and subvert American democracy," he said.
Claiming he had been cheated out of the election, Trump urged thousands of his supporters gathered near the White House to march on the Capitol and "fight like hell. And if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore."
As members of Congress gathered inside the Capitol to certify Biden's victory during a routine quadrennial ritual, more than 2,000 Trump supporters breached the building to stop the proceeding.
Then-Vice President Mike Pence, who was presiding over the session, and members of Congress were evacuated to safety before the rioters breached the chamber. The lawmakers returned to the chamber after the building was secured to certify Biden's win.
Seven people, including one police officer, died as a result of the attack, according to a bipartisan Senate report, and more than 150 police officers were injured.
The attack was unprecedented in American history.
Encouraged by Trump, the rioters sought to stop the peaceful transfer of power, "a precedent that had stood for 220 years," Thompson said.
The prime-time hearing began with opening statements by Thompson and Representative Liz Cheney, the committee's Republican vice chair, followed by clips of several former Trump aides and dramatic video of the attack led by the far-right group the Proud Boys.
Two witnesses — British documentary filmmaker Nick Quested who was embedded with the Proud Boys on January 6, and Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards, who was injured during the attack — testified during the second hour of the hearing.
Previewing the committee's findings, Cheney said each hearing would focus on a different aspect of the January 6 conspiracy. The next session, scheduled for Monday, will zero in on Trump's relentless attempt to hang on to power despite losing his re-election bid.
Cheney interspersed her remarks with video clips from several Trump aides, who said they did not believe the former president's fraud allegations.
Former attorney general Bill Barr recalled telling Trump after the election that he "did not see evidence of fraud" and that he thought his corruption allegation was "bullshit." Trump's daughter, Ivanka, said she respected Barr and accepted his assessment.
Nevertheless, Trump repeatedly tried to get the Justice Department to intervene, enlisting an official to draft a letter that "would have urged multiple state legislatures to withdraw their official and lawful vote for Biden," Cheney said.
The letter was blocked by Trump's then acting attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen. Trump's attempt to use the Justice Department for political gain will be the focus of the committee's third hearing, Cheney said.
The fourth hearing will center on Trump's unsuccessful effort to get Vice President Pence to return the electoral votes to the states Trump had lost instead of certifying them. Pence refused, angering Trump.
Told that his supporters were chanting "Hang Mike Pence" outside the Capitol, the former president responded by saying, "Maybe our supporters have the right idea. Mike Pence deserves it," Cheney quoted from testimony by a former official.
Cheney said the committee's investigation is ongoing and its work is not yet complete. A final report will be issued in the fall.
The nine-member panel has interviewed more than 1,000 witnesses, combed through more than 140,000 documents, and issued nearly 100 subpoenas for testimony and documents.
Many in Trump's orbit, including son Donald Trump Jr, daughter Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law Jared Kushner, testified before the committee.
Others, though, refused to answer questions, and at least two — former Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro and former White House strategist Stephen Bannon — have been charged with contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate with investigators.
Republicans have repeatedly attacked the committee's investigation as a partisan witch hunt designed to undermine Trump's prospects as a presidential candidate in 2024.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called the panel "the most political and least legitimate committee in American history."
The attack on the Capitol triggered a sprawling criminal investigation by the Justice Department.
The department estimates between 2,000 and 2,500 people entered the Capitol on January 6, and Attorney General Merrick Garland has vowed to hold everyone involved in the attack accountable.
To date, more than 840 people have been arrested in connection with the January 6 attack, with about 305 pleading guilty, mostly to misdemeanor charges, the Justice Department said on Wednesday.
Members of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, an anti-government militia, have been charged with seditious conspiracy for orchestrating and leading the assault on the Capitol.
In a statement, the Justice Department said its "resolve to hold accountable those who committed crimes on Jan. 6, 2021 has not and will not wane."
Jordan Strauss, a former Justice Department and White House official, called Thursday night's hearing "an opening statement in a complex and sprawling criminal conspiracy case."
"In terms of scale, the size and scope of this investigation is unprecedented," said Strauss, a fellow at the Kroll Institute. "The committee added color not seen before, and a timeline that was powerful and only possible with the benefit of hindsight and close study."
In addition to the criminal investigation of the rioters, the department has reportedly stepped up its probe of efforts by political operatives and state lawmakers to overturn the 2020 election results.
That has not stopped politicians on the left from taking the Justice Department to task for "failing" to launch a criminal investigation into Trump's role in the January 6 attack.
Garland has said prosecutors will "follow the facts wherever they lead."