If there were any doubt about which political party has the upper hand in the investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, it was erased during the first hearing of the House select committee established to investigate the attack. Republicans are squarely behind the eight ball — with few options for leveling the field.
If I were in former President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Netanyahu suggests Biden fell asleep in meeting with Israeli PM Aides try to keep Biden away from unscripted events or long interviews, book claims MORE’s employ, I would fear coming within his throwing distance.
Tuesday’s hearing, the table-setter for the committee’s efforts, was a textbook display, filled with credible, heroic victims giving gut-wrenching, first-hand accounts of their violent ordeal on that day. Each gave his own riveting account of the physical and emotional hardships they endured while protecting the Capitol, its occupants and our democracy. Their testimony was punctuated with ample, violent video footage.
The four witnesses, all Capitol Hill or Washington, D.C., police officers, came across as bright, courageous, praiseworthy. No one, in my view, who heard their testimony or saw that video could conclude anything but that there was a violent insurrection attempt that day.
The witnesses begged members of Congress to get to the truth.
Every member on the committee pledged to do so.
Committee members showed sympathy, respect and empathy. Every viewer at home had to be tearing up and nodding in approval. I was. In terms of messaging and narrative, the committee hit a home run.
Meanwhile, though the panel is bipartisan with the inclusion of Republican Trump critics Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyThe Memo: Never Trumpers sink into gloom as Gonzalez bows out Kinzinger says Trump 'winning' because many Republicans 'have remained silent' 'Justice for J6' rally puts GOP in awkward spot MORE (R-Wyo.) and Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerThe Memo: Never Trumpers sink into gloom as Gonzalez bows out Kinzinger says Trump 'winning' because many Republicans 'have remained silent' 'Justice for J6' rally puts GOP in awkward spot MORE (R-Ill.), the hearing was free of stunts, with none of the usual Trump provocateurs. In other words, instead of the usual circus-like environment at House oversight hearings, it was sober and mature for a change.
Cut now to a scene across town in front of the Department of Justice, where right-wing Trump Republicans attempted to hold a press conference implying mistreatment of the rioters being held to account for Jan. 6, whom they called “political prisoners.” These Republicans have led the attempt to rebrand the rioters — whom the hearing successfully exposed as hostile goons — as “peaceful patriots.”
Ask any rational politician — from either party — which image they would want to be associated with. It’s a good bet they would aspire to the former.
Trump Republicans are in deep trouble.
Not only do they not have a seat at the table (by their own choice) nor Trump access to Twitter or Facebook, their Trumpworld alt-message — after the police officers’ testimony — seems Kafkaesque.
It’s not just calling the rioters “patriots.” Trump and his Republican allies have tried to turn the assault into hugs and kisses — no armed protest here, folks, just a typical tourist day. One witness at Tuesday’s hearing, in a display of dark humor, said he’s still trying to recover from those hugs and kisses.
Republicans have also — inexplicably — made their big issue the claim that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is responsible for it all because she’s responsible for security of the Capitol. Not only does that argument concede the riot wasn’t all hugs and kisses, it’s irrelevant — Pelosi is as responsible for the Capitol riot as Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiRoger Stone served with Capitol riot lawsuit during radio interview FEC finds Twitter didn't break law by blocking spread of Hunter Biden story Juan Williams: The toxic legacy of Trump's corruption MORE was for the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. The Republican message is nonsensical and devoid of credibility.
Those who worship at Trump’s altar — craving his ability to raise money and votes — are hamstrung. Once they buy into his delusions, there are few credible options for them to get out of the corner they backed themselves into.
As a party, the Republicans can’t handle the truth.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump seeking challenger to McConnell as Senate GOP leader: report Budget chairman: Debt ceiling fight 'a ridiculous position to be in' Buckle up for more Trump, courtesy of the Democratic Party MORE (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyWhite House debates vaccines for air travel McCarthy on Dems' spending bill: 'The amount of money we spent to win World War II' Democrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms MORE (R-Calif.) both said they did not watch the hearing. The hearing was so powerful that — had they done so — they would have had a Southwest Airlines commercial moment — “Wanna get away?” That’s how bad a position they’re in.
Pelosi often recounts the words of Benjamin Franklin who, when asked outside the Constitutional Convention in 1787 what kind of government we have, said: “A republic, if you can keep it.” Similarly, the select committee now enjoys a decisive advantage over Trump Republicans — if they can keep it. Maintaining the advantage will be tricky.
This first hearing was easy, a no-brainer: Credible and moving testimony from law enforcement hero-victims is priceless for a hearing. The choreography for future hearings may be more challenging. It helps to not have the pro-Trump peanut gallery in play. Trump being banned from Twitter and Facebook is also helpful. Most helpful, though, are the Republican struggles with messaging and credibility.
The takeaway moment — for me — came at the end of the hearing when the police officers were asked how they view the committee’s task. One of the officers used an analogy: He said when a hit man kills someone, you send the hit man to jail — but you also go after whoever hired the hit man. He said of the people who stormed the Capitol, “a hit man sent them… I want you to get to the bottom of that.”
The committee needs to tread carefully but steadfastly to meet the mission.
It cannot lose the advantage it has gained.
This hearing was a good step toward getting to the truth. The committee shows — so far — they are ready for the battle.
Kris Kolesnik is a 34-year veteran of federal government oversight. He spent 19 years as senior counselor and director of investigations for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Kolesnik then became executive director of the National Whistleblower Center. Finally, he spent 10 years working with the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General as the associate inspector general for external affairs.