Jan 6 Hearings: Bennie Thompson, Liz Cheney Made Must-See TV

SA mere six weeks ago, the Jan.6 committee was about to host its first public hearing in its investigation of the Capitol attack. One question stood out: Who would care? This question was quickly answered by a clear yes.

These hearings not only captured the attention of the nation, but also captivated them. New evidence has been presented that raises the possibility of former President Donald Trump being prosecuted in connection with his efforts to overturn election results.

That’s all in large part because of the highly effective leadership of an unlikely duo: Reps. Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi, and Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming.

Both the vice-chair and the respective chair are political opponents who presented to the nation a united front when searching for truth. Each of the seven hearings so far has kicked off with opening statements from the pair, with Thompson setting the tone by presenting a 30,000-foot view of Trump’s multiple schemes to thwart the peaceful transfer of power, delivered in his trademark soft-spoken Southern accent. Cheney continues by going in depth about what the hearing covers and takes direct aim at Trump. Often, he offers powerful soundbites which can be found all over Twitter moments later.

They have turned what was expected to be an insignificant but historically important exercise, into a pivotal moment in American history. They have prompted most Americans to recognize that this was not an accidental protest but rather a planned attempted coup.

“Donald Trump summoned a mob of his supporters to Washington, spurred them to march on the Capitol and failed to take meaningful action to quell the violence as it was unfolding on January 6th,” Thompson said at last week’s hearing. Cheney then criticized Trump’s and his defenders’ attempts to put blame on his confidants, for promoting conspiracy theories concerning the 2020 election which he later chose to broadcast to his millions. “The strategy is to blame people his advisors called ‘the crazies’ for what Donald Trump did,” Cheney said. “This of course is nonsense. President Trump is a 76-year-old man, he is not an impressionable child.”

As the committee gears up for another primetime hearing on Thursday—likely its last one until the fall—Thompson and Cheney are preparing to tie a bow around the narrative they have pieced together for the public over the last six weeks. The committee says it will feel like the final season of a riveting series. It has covered the most serious crimes committed by the president against the government.

There are many paths

The two lawmakers running the most high-profile congressional hearings in decades couldn’t have more different backgrounds. Thompson (74), has served in Congress nearly thirty years. Born in Bolton (Miss.), Thompson grew up during a period when the Ku Klux Klan terrorized its Black community. He was a regular gun-wielder when he sought to be elected in the 1970s.

Cheney (55), is the daughter a former vice president who was once among the most powerful men of the Republican Party. Born in Madison, Wis. her parents both attended the same university. Her father, Dick Cheney, soon began working for Republicans in the federal government, working his way up to President Gerald Ford’s White House chief of staff. Cheney was split up growing up between Washington, D.C. and Casper, Wyo., where her father, Dick Cheney, became the Cowboy State’s House representative in 1978. In Northern Virginia, she graduated high school where she was an cheerleader. She then went to college and law school.

They also had very different professional paths. Thompson was more interested in domestic matters, while Cheney was more involved with foreign policy.

After a hearing held on July 12, 2022, Rep. Bennie Thomson, Rep. Liz Cheney and Rep. Jamie Raskin left the building.

Shawn Thew—EPA/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Thompson dived into local politics after graduating from two historically Black universities in Mississippi: a bachelor’s in political science from Tougaloo College and a master’s in education from Jackson State University. After serving seven years as mayor of Bolton, Thompson was also a teacher in the local school system. Then he moved to the Hinds County Board of Supervisors where he remained for fourteen years. In 1993, he seized an opportunity to run for Congress when a seat opened up in Mississippi’s second district. Thompson, who won 55% of his GOP opponent’s vote, became a regular in Congress and was a member of House Homeland Security Committee for many years. The powerful committee elected him chairman in 2019.

Cheney received her degree from Colorado College in 1988. She soon began work for both the State Department of United States Agency for International Development. In later years she received her law degree from Chicago University. She was a practicing attorney for some time before President George W. Bush named her Deputy Secretary of States for Near Eastern Affairs. She took a two-year hiatus from the State Department to work on the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign, before going back to the agency during Bush’s second term.

Cheney was a Fox News contributor and worked for conservative politics after Bush’s 2009 resignation. After being criticized for her hawkish views on foreign policy and having a spat with her sister, Cheney dropped her bid to run in the U.S. Senate race. She opposed the same-sex marriage of her sister, who was married to another woman at that time. She was able to catch a break two years later when Cynthia Lummis, Wyoming, retired from the House. Cheney jumped at the chance to become the state’s only House member, and easily won the election, with more than 60% of the vote.

She was a well-known member of Congress and one of the most conservative. The news site FiveThirtyEight found that she voted in line with Donald Trump’s position nearly 93% of the time. However, even prior to the Capitol attack she was an outspoken critic for Trump’s foreign policy choices and how he handled the pandemic.

A common mission

Cheney, Thompson, and thousands stormed Capitol to block the congressional endorsement of the Electoral College on January 6, 2021. Many in the mob chanted “Hang Mike Pence” while searching for legislators throughout the halls of Congress, with the express intent of blocking Joe Biden’s election victory.

Nearly immediately thereafter, members of Congress began to demand the formation of an independent bicameral commission to examine the Capitol attack. Styled after the 9/11 Commission, it was to have five Republicans and five Democrats—none of them current members of Congress. But the idea faced vociferous resistance from Republicans, who called it a “slanted and unbalanced proposal.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell questioned whether such a commission could achieve anything that the Justice Department’s probe or the second impeachment process could not. “It’s not at all clear what new facts or additional investigation yet another commission could lay on top of the existing efforts by law enforcement and Congress,” he said at the time. In June, the Senate Republicans blocked this proposal.

Nancy Pelosi switched quickly and chose to form a House select panel to examine the Capitol riot. Only two Republicans voted in favor of the resolution: Cheney from Illinois and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Rep. Illinois. Pelosi would nominate eight members of the committee, while Kevin McCarthy, Minority Leader and Pelosi respectively, would appoint five.

Following the seventh hearing, on July 12, 2022. Bennie Thompson answered questions from the media.

Tasos Katopodis—Getty Images

There were many candidates for the position of leader in the Democratic caucus. Thompson, however, had an ally: James Clyburn of South Carolina Majority Whip, who was one of his most trusted friends. Clyburn urged Pelosi that the Mississippi Democrat be elected chair. Thompson would have been a good choice for the chairman, he said. The committee needs a leader who is focused on the task at hand and does not view it as an opportunity to score political points or grandstand.

“I know Bennie. You’ll never be able to determine anything from his facial expressions,” Clyburn tells TIME. “He has the kind of temperament needed for this.

Because a lot of times, when people ask their questions, it’s not always the question they ask but the way they look when they ask a question. I just thought he was the one.” Thompson’s work as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee also gave him experience dealing with domestic terrorism and working across the aisle, Clyburn notes. “I just thought we needed a real strong bipartisan presentation.”

In July, Pelosi announced the committee’s membership, with Thompson as its chair, and Cheney as the second in command. Cheney, Pelosi said, had “patriotically agreed to serve” as vice chair. It was not an easy decision for Cheney. House Republicans stripped her from her leadership position and Trump organized a primary challenge to her. The clearest indication yet was her participation in the panel. It showed that Cheney was prepared to give up her political career to hold Trump to account. This was also good news for the committee. With her conservative bona fides, Cheney’s presence helped shield the panel against allegations that its work was part of a partisan witch hunt.

When McCarthy recommended five more Republicans, Pelosi took issue with two of them, Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jim Banks of Indiana, both of whom were close Trump allies who had questioned the legitimacy of Biden’s election victory. “The idea that you would put up Jim Jordan, who is a subject of the investigation, if not ultimately a target for the Justice Department, showed he wasn’t serious about any of this,” says Norm Ornstein, a Congressional expert and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Outraged, McCarthy quickly pulled all of his recommendations, forfeiting the minority leader’s opportunity to have any Trump supporters on the committee. In turn, Pelosi named the other Republican who supported the committee’s formation, Kinzinger, to join Cheney as the only two Republicans on the panel. Ornstein adds that it was a fatal decision. The committee was now free from Republicans who could sabotage its work. Instead they felt connected and had a common goal. “This way, you have a committee that is completely dedicated to its task, and determined to make it work,” he tells TIME. “And that’s not always the case. In fact, it’s unusual.”

The committee went to work for 10 months—interviewing more than a thousand witnesses and gathering more than 130,000 documents—before opening the highly anticipated public hearings in June. They formed strong bonds over the course the investigation. Rep. Jamie Raskin (Democrat from Maryland) said he formed a friendship and trust with Kinzinger even though they were in close proximity at the House gym.

Committee members stress that Thompson did a great job of maintaining an emotional balance among panel members when making difficult decisions. “He has a wonderfully insightful and relaxed and funny way of reducing conflict and keeping everybody focused on making progress together,” Raskins says.

Cheney and Kinzinger, in particular, helped with what the committee knew would be a powerful obstacle toward reaching ordinary Americans—the counterprogramming coming from Fox News and other right-wing media.

The Democrats on the committee “don’t live in the world of conservative conversations and narrative,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy, Democrat of Florida, tells TIME, which was why the Republicans on the committee were so helpful. “Sometimes they played a role as translator while flagging for us what’s being said.”

Through their respective leaderships of the committee, Thompson and Cheney developed mutual respect and friendship. “Working alongside the public servants on this dais has been one of the greatest honors of my time in Congress,” said Thompson at the first hearing June 9. “It’s been a particular privilege to count as a partner in this effort, and to count as a friend, the gentlewoman from Wyoming, Ms. Cheney. She is a patriot, a public servant of profound courage, a devotion to her oath and the Constitution.”

Members of the committee stated that the hearings were intended to present the most complete account of Jan. 6, and all of its days, weeks, and to offer a comprehensive explanation. The hearings were also meant to be a narrative docuseries. The hearings were subject-specific and each had a unique narrative. As the initial hearings received widespread praise, strong interest and high ratings, many more came forward. Everything changed when Cassidy Hutchinson, a former White House assistant, testified. The panel heard from her that Trump’s supporters were heavily armed at his Jan. 6 rally. However, the Secret Service advised them that they should go to Washington anyway. She also said that he tried to march to the Capitol with them, even though his White House counsel said he would be “charged with every crime imaginable” if he did.

While Hutchinson’s explosive testimony drew more attention to the committee’s work, so, too, did another effective tactic employed by Cheney. She ended each hearing with a closing statement that left a cliffhanger, hinting at new information she would share in future hearings. After the session ended, she spoke to the nation about how several Congressmen sought pardons in exchange for their Jan. 6 roles. However, they waited until later to release most of their identities. Near the end of the drama hearing, Hutchinson was called to testify. Cheney then revealed details about witness tampering by Trump and his associates.

It’s a strategy that Cheney’s supporters say has amped up interest in the hearings, while sending a message to the MAGA faithful. “She’s going to put country above party. She believes passionately that people need to be held to account for the attack on the Capitol,” says Charlie Dent, a former Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania who was friends with Cheney when they served together.

“She doesn’t back down.”

Last Hearing, for Now

On Thursday night, the committee will conduct what’s expected to be the final session in its first tranche of hearings. The panel will present a minute-by-minute deconstruction of the 187 minutes when the Capitol was under siege—and document how Trump made no attempt to stop the violence. Luria Kinzinger will conduct the questions. Two former Trump White House officials who resigned in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack—former Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger and former Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Matthews—are set to testify.

Luria claimed that Kizinger was chosen as the chief witness because she is the only experienced member of the panel. The two of them will emphasize Trump’s “dereliction of duty” and violation of the “take care” clause in the Constitution, which requires the president to ensure the laws are faithfully executed.

Luria revealed that in preparation for the work she did on the committee, Luria studied Watergate hearings 1973. This was when legislators investigated the cover up of a burglary which reached the Oval Office. “I think people forget that these hearings took place about a year after the break-in, and people also had similar remarks like, ‘Do you think that this will move the needle?’” Luria tells TIME. “There was a lot of doubt in the hearings, until the tapes came out.”

The seventh hearing of the Select Committee on Investigating the January 6th Attack at the U.S Capitol was closed by Rep. Bennie Thomson on July 12, 2022.

Shawn Thew—Pool/Getty Images

One notable absence will occur in the Committee Room Thursday Night: Thompson. He announced Tuesday that he had tested positive for Covid but directed the committee to continue with the primetime hearing regardless.

Members of the Committee plan to continue holding hearings through September. They will then release their preliminary reports with recommendations.

However, committee members insist that they are continuing their investigation and that they will schedule another hearing if they get new information, as they did with Hutchinson.

No matter how Thursday night goes, or what revelations come of it, it’s fair to say that far more Americans are thinking about Jan. 6 than they were a few months ago. And there are signs that Trump’s stature may be is diminishing. Podcast star Joe Rogan, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk have indicated that they will support Florida Governor. Ron DeSantis will be elected Republican candidate for 2024 over him. Recent New York Times/Siena College polls found that 50% of GOP voters would prefer to see the ex-president go.

Ultimately, though, it’s too early to tell what the committee’s work will mean for Trump’s future, whether he is too damaged to run for president again, or whether he might face criminal prosecution. However, the situation has changed dramatically in six weeks that these outcomes look more probable. It is far better than the Washington insiders expected Liz Cheney or Bennie Thompson to pull off.

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