An unfortunate history: on the January 6th committee hearings

I attended in person the 7th hearing of the House January 6th Committee on July 12, 2022, and then attended the final hearing — which was technically a business meeting, not a hearing — on December 19. Below are my reflections on the July 12 hearing, which I originally wrote for my own personal website.

My feelings here are very mixed — as a historian, I take a certain fascination in watching these historic hearings in person as they happen.

However, I also find my experience to be at best voyeuristic; I, as a journalist, was not there to provide any value. Journalists, with their twisted ethics and personal moralities, created the Trump monster themselves. Journalism as its first principle seeks to profit from spectacle, and as a tertiary concern only occasionally seeks to empower people with knowledge to make their own decisions and come to their own conclusions.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I hold no great respect for the United States government nor the general status quo in the US. January 6 is not a story of heroes (the US government) versus villains (the insurrectionists); it is a story of safe villains versus unsafe villains, respectively. It is a lesser of two evils story. I greatly respect Michael Fanone and his hundreds of fellow Capitol Police officers who were either injured or killed as a result of the events of that day, but I do not respect the US government as an institution that maintains systemic racism, violence, and abuse; as an institution maintained by such awful, slave-state systems as the Electoral College; and as an institution that thrives on the profound financial corruption of lobbying, campaign ‘donations,’ and the innumerable other forms of complete ethical bankruptcy that feeds government officials both elected and appointed.

Thus is is with great gratitude that I witnessed the January 6th Committee’s work in bringing down Trump — one of the many government corruptors-in-chief. But I reflect, with great discomfort, that what was protected here was in large part the status quo, which does not work. Trump is a criminal, and should be prosecuted as such. The People lose when Trump wins. But so do They — Black People and white People, queer and straight People, People from all walks of life (except the rich) — lose when the status quo wins.

Below, please find my full reflections on the main January 6th hearing I attended: one of a series of hearings that I believe, for all sorts of reasons good and bad, will be well remembered in American history

I left my office at 11:15 on Tuesday, July 12, and went straight to Cannon House. Cannon is the oldest congressional building on the Hill (built 1908), and I had been advised to arrive an hour before the hearing started.

I was on my way to the 7th hearing of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the US Capitol. That is about the longest committee name I have ever encountered, but I will abbreviate it from now on to its most common name, the Jan6 Committee.

I had never been to a congressional hearing before. Actually, although I grew up just across the river in Virginia, I had never been inside any of the Congress buildings, other than the Capitol once. You would barely even know these buildings housed the most prominent lawmakers in the United States, as their only noteworthy feature is their quintessentially bureaucratic sobriety.

In April, I began work as the Congress reporter at the DC bureau of The Asahi Shimbun – what my supporters graciously call the New York Times of Japan (it actually is the second or third largest newspaper in the world by paper distribution, at over 8 million total copies sold per day as of 2017). One of my primary roles has been to cover the Jan6 hearings. Until July 12, I had done so only via live-stream, but I just finished a graduate degree in history and I realized chances to be there “on the scene” do not come around too often. The previous hearings had increasingly been reminding me of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s coverage of Watergate in All the President’s Men, with all of its luscious and intimate play-by-play detail. The Watergate comparison has, of course, been made a million times already. But as Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) said in this July 12 hearing, the January 6 attack makes Watergate “look like a cub-scout meeting.”

So I arrived at Cannon House at 11:45, 15 minutes earlier than the one-hour suggestion, leaving no room for error. After a half-hour wait outside the visitor’s door (pictured below), during which Jan6 Committee chair Rep. Bennie Thompson walked right by me, I received a text message from the Committee’s press chief instructing me to enter the building and meet her on the third floor. I went through the airport-style security checkpoint (they let me keep my water bottle, though) just inside the door, and rode a very packed elevator two floors up.

The visitor’s entrance to Cannon House

The hearing was to be in the ballroom-esque 390 Cannon, but before I even got close, I could already feel the buzz. The main foyer at the center of the third-floor hall overflowed with interns, reporters, camera equipment, and security — and a bunch of guys in suits. At some point, it can become really hard to tell who is who.

In her text, the press chief had told me to pick her out as the woman “wearing a blue dress by a column,” and the first woman I saw in a blue dress standing by a column kindly pointed me to the press rep, who was standing nearby in a lighter blue dress next to a different column. The press rep gave me my official January 6th hearing, Day 7, badge (pictured below), without which I could not enter 390 Cannon.

The Jan6 Committee Day 7 press badge, as it now hangs behind my desk at Asahi

No further instruction was provided and I did not know where to go to find my assigned seat. After I meandered about aimlessly for a few minutes, an older reporter overhead me asking an equally clueless security card where I was supposed to go, and directed me toward my section. Because my outlet (Asahi) has not attended the previous Jan6 hearings, the press staff told me we could not get a table seat because those are reserved for the regulars. Instead, I found my seat closer to the back, with all the other initiates. Pictured below is the sign that hung from my seat when I arrived — I kept it and will get it framed.

The sign attached to my reserved seat in 390 Cannon

The room was abuzz. The tables for the press elite overflowed with computers and cameras, and journalists from all over the world crowded around. Along with some Japanese reporters from other outlets, I saw a table reserved for BBC — and my seat was placed in the foreign media section between a TV reporter from a German outlet I did not catch the name of, and a reporter from the Swiss publication Tages Anzeiger. At the table in front of me, I could see a woman with a reserved sign next to her computer that said Die Zeit (‘The Times’).

390 Cannon about 30 minutes before the hearing’s start

After about five minutes of awkward silence, I introduced myself to the woman sitting to the right of me (unknown TV news reporter). I told her I spoke nur ein bisschen deutsch–just a little German. She had been in DC for a year and a half, and said she knew most of the German reporters in the city. She was not unfriendly, but seemed little interested in talking. There was a seat a few down from mine reserved for an NHK (Japan’s main public media outlet) reporter, but I do not think I ever saw someone sit there. Meanwhile, I could hear a gaggle of excited interns chattering in the row behind me.

The nine members of the Jan6 Committee marched into the ballroom at at around 1pm. I could barely see them beyond the sea of table reporters in front of me, but I did snap a lucky picture of all nine of them sometime before the hearing ended.

The Jan6 Nine

It turned about to be a long hearing. It was actually the longest of any of the hearings I have covered, clocking in at around three hours. But I admit I was quite enraptured, and the time passed like a dream. My primary job here was simply to listen and take notes for later use by my bureau chief, Mochizuki-san, who is the correspondent primary responsible for covering the Jan6 proceedings in my bureau.

Below are the notes recorded from Chair Thompson’s opening remarks. I am moved by his of warm, disinterested speaking style.

We settle our differences at the ballot box. Sometimes my choice prevails, sometimes yours does. When you’re on the losing side, you don’t have to be happy about it. You can protest, organize, get ready for next election. But you can’t turn violent, can’t achieve your desired outcome through force, intimidation. Dec14 2020, presidential election was officially over. By that point, many of Trump’s supporters already believed election was stolen. Trump was required to say we tried and we came up short, but he seized on the anger he’d already stoked, and urged them on. As part of his last ditched effort, he summoned a mob and spurred them to violent attack.

The proceeding hour and a half contained an onslaught of information. Some of it was delivered directly by Reps. Cheney, Raskin, and Murphy. Much of it came from clips from recorded interviews and depositions with what felt like over a dozen witnesses–ranging from Trump’s White House Counsel and Jan6 Committee star witness Pat Cipollone, to Ivanka Trump, to former Trump admin prosecutor and noted bad actor Sydney Powell (who played a key role in Trump’s attempt to overturn the election results in Georgia, Arizona, and other states). The committee played audio snippets (edited for anonymity) of a Twitter employee, who said, by early January 2021, if it [Trump] was someone else, he would have been permanently suspended a very long time ago.

On the evening of December 18, Trump held a key meeting with his closest allies, among whom were disgraced General Michael Flynn, and Powell. In that meeting, Trump tried to appoint Powell as a special counsel with the legal ability to seize voting machines. Below is an image from the hearing of an excerpt from the executive order he had drafted on that December night.

Trump’s executive order draft, which would grant Sidney Powell authority to seize voting machines

Now, please enjoy Cipollone’s reaction to the idea of seizing voting machines (from his recorded interview with the committee):

Note that Cipollone was a key Trump administration official and ally of the president, but it has come out over the last few months that he was opposed to Trump’s attempt to overturn the election. If only he had told us then what he instead waited two years to tell us now. These guys may have been the last line of defense between us and the collapse of our republic, but they make for a better Maginot Line than a firewall.

The committee showed this tweet that Trump drafted but never sent, sometime in the weeks leading up to the insurrection:

A draft of a call to arms, seen by Trump but never sent

The hearing went into a 15 minute recess around 2:30. I think I just sat in my seat in silence for the whole time, and sent a bunch of pictures to my friends and family.

When they reconvened, they marched that day’s witnesses into the room with them. Unlike all previous hearings, they had made no prior announcement of the identity of the witnesses–I amm not sure if this was for the shock factor, or for the witnesses’ own safety. I imagine that everyone who participates in these hearings–panelists and witnesses alike–have encountered major personal security concerns as a result. I know Rep. Kinzinger and his family have received numerous death threats.

Their two witnesses for this hearing were: Mr. Ayres, a man from northeast Ohio who participated in the Capitol breach and occupation on January 6, and Mr. Van Tatenhove, a former member of the Oath Keepers. They both recounted their stories in great detail. Mr. Ayres was an ‘average’ Trump supporter, and had been addicted to social media and fully bought the stolen-election narrative in the run up to January 6. He joined some buddies heading down to DC, responding to Trump’s call to arms for January 6; by mid-afternoon on that day, he had helped storm the capitol. He has since been convicted, renounced his support for Trump and the stolen-election narrative, and volunteered to speak as a witness for the committee.

Mr. Van Tatenhove had been a lead media person for the Oath Keepers (a group that played a major role in the insurrection on January 6). He had renounced his membership prior to the election, citing a conversation he had overheard among other Oath Keepers in which they said the Holocaust did not happen.

In Mr. Ayres’s testimony, he argued for the power Trump’s words and directives have on people. Mr. Ayres’s testimony served as good if anecdotal evidence that, to Trump’s supporters, Trump’s word (in tweet or press briefing or Ellipse speech) is law. I do not think any of us needed convincing of this. And, regarding these witnesses, certainly it is hard to differentiate between theatrical repentance and genuine sentiment. But if you are going to have a series of hearings on an insurrection against the federal government, I guess you might as well bring in one of the guys who was actually there.

As an aside: I feel bad for both of the witnesses. Press photographers have to be some of the most clinically antisocial people in this poor excuse for a society. I cannot imagine being such a sociopath as to excitedly shove a giant camera right in the face of some guy who just recounted his story of ruining his own life, and spend five minutes firing away with my industrial-strength flash triggering on every click. Journalists in general have a lot of questions to answer about how well they were socialized as children. Press photographers, in their behavior, have already answered all these questions, and none of the answers are good.

And then the hearing ended. The witnesses, and committee members, were escorted out of the room by security. All of us in the gallery got up, and the room was once again abuzz. I ducked out quickly to try and catch a ride back to the Asahi office before the full weight of the press corps spilled out onto the street and overwhelmed the ride-sharing bandwidth, but I ended up walking across the Capitol campus and down the main walk before hailing a car.

In the meantime, Project Edinburgh co-founder Zach sent me the pictures below. He had been watching the hearing live-stream, and snapped some lucky shots as a certain muckraker stood up and barely into view of the TV cameras at the close of the hearing.

Where’s Waldo?

Yes, it is me. I am Waldo. Black mask, spectacles, white button shirt, slightly ill fitting blue blazer, and Jan6 hearing Day 7 press badge around my neck: reporter chic

I made it back to the office with an hour left in the workday, and I pinned my badge to the cork-board behind my desk (seen earlier on). The badge was so nicely laminated I figured the Jan6 committee press team would confiscate them at the end, but they did not. It makes for a good artifact.

Thanks for reading. Never in a hundred years would I have seen myself attending a congressional hearing about an insurrection against the federal government, as a member of the press. But here we are.

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