The congressional Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, which held its final public meeting Monday, was in many ways a pathbreaking legislative effort.
Its slick production raised the standard for hearing presentations. Its investigations produced volumes of evidence implicating former President Donald Trump and his allies. It kept the issue of culpability for the attacks in the media glare.
Its vote to refer Mr. Trump to the Department of Justice for possible prosecution of inciting insurrection and other federal crimes was historic: For the first time, Congress has urged criminal prosecution against a former or current U.S. chief executive.
But the panel’s most lasting legacy may be its story. After all this time, it is still shocking to hear the details of the attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election, and its culmination in a mob smashing its way into the U.S. Capitol.
Brick by brick, the Jan. 6 panel has constructed an epic tale, from the former president, seemingly off-the-cuff, claiming he had actually won on the night of the election, to shouting matches in the Oval Office over false claims of election fraud, to Mr. Trump’s nonresponsiveness as the Capitol riot commenced.
We don’t know what history will say about this period of American politics. But the Jan. 6 documentation appears to be the kind of evidence on which history is based.
In that sense the hearings were reminiscent of other noteworthy efforts, such as the Senate Watergate committee or the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, says Joanne Freeman, professor of American history at Yale University and author of “The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War.”
“What resonates again and again and again in these public moments ... [is] if there’s a way to get a broad sweep of the public to see what’s happening, to think about what’s happening, and to watch at least some people stand up and say, ‘That crossed the line,’ that’s really important,” says Professor Freeman.
It’s not the norm in U.S. history for presidents or ex-presidents to be seriously linked to sedition charges. The closest might be John Tyler – but he had been out of office for years before he joined his native state of Virginia in seceding from the country he had once led.
Mr. Tyler served in a secession commission and was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives, but died before he could take his seat. (Coincidentally, he was also the first president against whom impeachment charges were brought.)
In the modern era, Watergate was “pretty bad – or at least that’s what we thought then,” says Manisha Sinha, professor of American history at the University of Connecticut.
But the number and seriousness of the offenses surrounding the aftermath of the 2020 election surpass even those of Watergate, says Professor Sinha.
They involved blocking the peaceful transfer of power, and included the storming of the Capitol.
“Even though we’ve had instances of political violence in this country, especially in the South after the Civil War ... [Jan. 6] was still, for many Americans, something they hadn’t seen in their lifetimes,” says Professor Sinha.