- May 29, 2001
Ms. Cottle is a member of the editorial board.
Like any good season finale, the last scheduled public hearing of the Jan. 6 House committee sought to wrap up the action from previous episodes while dangling the promise of more drama yet to come.
“Dereliction of duty” was Thursday night’s theme — a damning yet discordantly antiseptic way to classify Donald Trump’s behavior on Jan. 6, when he sat on his hands for more than three hours while a violent mob, whipped into a frenzy by his election-fraud lies, stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power.
Like previous hearings, this one had its share of jaw-dropping, head-smacking and stomach-churning tidbits. The outtake from Mr. Trump’s video remarks on Jan. 7, the day after the horror, in which he peevishly rejects the prepared line “this election is now over,” was pathetic. It was heartbreaking to hear that members of Vice President Mike Pence’s Secret Service detail, fearing for their lives during the riot, placed goodbye calls to loved ones. And it was hard not to take grim satisfaction in the video of Senator Josh Hawley running through the Capitol to escape the mob just hours after he flashed the crowd outside a smarmy fist salute. (The Twitterverse is having some fun with that one.)
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It is through the accretion of such detailed episodes and accounts — vivid, personal and often painful — that Jan. 6 has come into focus. But all the witnesses and revelations can also be overwhelming, with each new hearing calling for a new ordering of the best, worst and most pathetic players in this whole sordid affair. Was John Eastman a more destructive influence than Rudy Giuliani? Who had the more harrowing tale of unhinged election deniers: Rusty Bowers or Gabriel Sherman? Was Jeffrey Clark the biggest tool in the entire administration?
Yet a smattering of people stood out, providing some of the more memorable lessons about how our democracy came so close to total meltdown — and about the risks we still face.
Among the most uplifting takeaways has been Liz Cheney’s display of public service. Yes, ideologically speaking, she is a Democrat’s nightmare, an in-your-face conservative who would ordinarily make for great fund-raising fodder. But when it comes to fighting for democracy, personal costs be damned, she has gone all in on the principle that protecting America from all enemies — be they foreign or Floridian — should trump political and policy disagreements. “I believe this is the most important thing I’ve ever done professionally,” she recently told my colleague Peter Baker, “and maybe the most important thing I ever do.” Fact check: True.
At the other end of the patriotic spectrum crouches Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff. From the accounts of his actions (or lack thereof) leading up to and including Jan. 6 — not to mention his ongoing silence — we have learned so much about what cynical, amoral, craven, butt-smooching venality looks like. One suspects that somewhere in Mr. Meadows’s attic hangs a portrait of him, his painted visage steadily rotting away.
Bill Stepien, the former Trump campaign manager, delivered a clarifying look at the self-delusion and rationalization indulged by many who make deals with the devil. Mr. Stepien considers himself a member of “Team Normal,” the voices of sanity who sought to protect America from the Team Rudy wackadoos driving the insurrection train. More notably, Mr. Stepien is among those who enabled Mr. Trump’s poisonous nonsense until the freak show spun out of control enough to threaten them personally — either legally or physically — at which point they began quietly looking for the exits. Even post-insurrection, some of these folks can’t bring themselves to quit the former president, including Mr. Stepien, who has continued to do consulting work for Trump world.
Shaye Moss and her mother, “Lady Ruby” Freeman, poll workers in Georgia during the 2020 election, are reminders of the longer-term damage Mr. Trump’s lies have done to the electoral system. After Mr. Giuliani falsely accused the women of vote rigging, their lives were upended by unhinged Trump supporters. They have been subjected to death threats and racist harangues. Ms. Moss’s grandmother was beset at home by election deniers. “There is nowhere I feel safe,” Ms. Freeman told the committee. The women left their jobs with the Fulton County department of registration and elections — and they are not alone. Election workers have been quitting in droves, many citing the emotional strain of the threats and other fallout from 2020. This is no way to run a democracy.
Cassidy Hutchinson, a former top aide to Mr. Meadows and one of the hearing’s breakout stars, showed that courage has little to do with one’s title or power. Her willingness to tell the public what she saw and heard around the West Wing on Jan. 6 should shame the folks, like her former boss, who are still covering Mr. Trump’s backside. As Ms. Cheney pointedly noted of Ms. Hutchinson: “She knew all along that she would be attacked by President Trump and by the 50-, 60-, and 70-year-old men who hide themselves behind executive privilege.”