World

What Trump and Fox lied about, and the former president’s comeback plans. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Public hearings examine a ‘dark day’ for US democracy

Scenes from January 6, 2021, are shown on screen during the hearing into the attack on the US Capitol.
Scenes from January 6, 2021, are shown on screen during the hearing into the attack on the US Capitol.
Credit: Brendan Smialowski / AFP

The January 6 hearings

In 2016, Donald Trump failed in his opening bid to become the Republican presidential candidate, losing in the Iowa caucus to Republican senator Ted Cruz. Trump’s response now seems ominous. “Ted Cruz didn’t win Iowa, he illegally stole it,” Trump tweeted, demanding that the results be nullified.

Four years later, Trump, as president, sought re-election but repeatedly warned he would not accept the result if he lost. Asked at a press conference whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power, he said: “There won’t be a transfer.”

The Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, responded: “What country are we in?”

Trump lost the election in 2020, but has yet to concede. Instead, on January 6, 2021, his supporters stormed the Capitol to try to prevent the results being validated.

The events of that day, and of Trump’s attempts to overturn the election result, are now being investigated by a nine-member select committee of the house of representatives.

The committee last week began holding six days of public hearings after almost 12 months of preparatory work, including interviews with more than 1000 people. It has described January 6 as “one of the darkest days of our democracy”.

The hearings have been likened to the Watergate hearings that investigated then president Richard Nixon’s attempt to interfere in the 1972 elections. Carl Bernstein, one of the journalists who helped to expose the Watergate scandal, told CNN that Trump’s offences were worse than Nixon’s, describing him as “the first seditious president of the United States”.

What Trump knew

The first day of hearings last week aired a mix of video footage, audio recordings and live testimony that showed how far-right groups, incited by Trump, organised a riot to try to prevent Biden being certified as president. Liz Cheney, one of the two Republican committee members, told the hearing: “President Trump summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack.”

On Monday, at its second day of hearings, the committee aired witness testimony that revealed Trump was repeatedly told by his most senior advisers there was no evidence of election fraud. But the president, as former US attorney-general William Barr told the committee, had no interest in “actual facts” and was “detached from reality”.

Barr said the alleged claims of fraud were “bogus and silly” but countering them was “like playing Whac-A-Mole”.

“I told him that the stuff that his people were shuttling out to the public was bullshit,” Barr said.

“The president was as mad as I’ve ever seen him, and he was trying to control himself. The president said, ‘Well, this is, you know, killing me … You must’ve said this because you hate Trump.’ ”

Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager, said a group of advisers – who became known as “team normal” – urged Trump on election night to abandon his fraud claims. Instead, Trump took the advice of a team led by Rudy Giuliani, who, aides said, was drunk.

In the following months, Trump filed 62 lawsuits, mostly alleging fraud. He lost 61, and won a single suit in Pennsylvania that did not involve fraud and had no effect on the results.

The hearings revealed Trump raised about $US250 million for an “election defence fund” even though no such fund existed. The donations – 62 per cent of which came from retirees – went to a fund that Trump has used for personal and political interests, including $US200,000 that went to his hotels and $US2 million to pro-Trump think tanks.

Zoe Lofgren, a committee member, told the hearing: “Not only was there the big lie. There was the big rip-off.”

Fox and the big lie

The opening hearing was watched by more than 20 million viewers and was broadcast live during prime time by all the major networks, except Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News.

During the hearing, Fox’s pro-Trump host Tucker Carlson presented his show and accused the committee of spreading lies and propaganda.

“It’s deranged, and we’re not playing along,” he said.

Last November, Fox aired a three-part series by Carlson that claimed the January 6 violence was triggered by far-left activists, possibly supported by the FBI, as part of a “false flag” operation to discredit Trump.

Another Fox host, Sean Hannity, also appeared during the opening hearing, which he denounced as a “sham”. Yet the hearing revealed Hannity had sent private text messages to a White House adviser on January 7, 2021, urging Trump and his team to accept the election result. “No more stolen election talk,” he wrote. Hannity has not repeated this message in public.

This week, the hearings examined the decision by Fox on election night to become the first network to declare Biden beat Trump in Arizona – a result that effectively meant Trump had lost the election. The announcement infuriated Trump, who urged his supporters to abandon Fox for more right-wing networks. Fox defended its decision, but, as it lost viewers, increasingly gave airtime to Trump loyalists who spread the claims about election fraud.

Chris Stirewalt, a politics editor for Fox on election night, told the hearing on Monday he had been “proud” of the network’s decision to call Arizona for Biden. Two months after the election, Stirewalt was fired.

Fox broadcast the hearings on Monday, including Stirewalt’s testimony. Officials at Fox reportedly claimed they did not air the opening hearing because it was held at night, when the network features opinion hosts such as Carlson.

Last November, weeks after his network aired Carlson’s Patriot Purge series, Murdoch told a News Corp annual meeting that Trump should not stay “focused on the past”.

Trump’s comeback plans

The house committee has described Trump’s conduct as illegal and unconstitutional, and its hearings have provided evidence he committed crimes such as fraud and obstructing the work of congress. But it is not clear whether authorities will seek to prosecute Trump – a move that could further polarise a divided public.

Instead, the hearings could galvanise Democrats ahead of the congressional midterm elections in November. Already, more than 100 Republicans who have won primary races are backers of Trump’s false claims of election fraud, including J. R. Majewski, a candidate in Ohio who marched to the Capitol on January 6. A poll earlier this month by Reuters/Ipsos found 55 per cent of Republicans believe the insurrection was led by left-wing protesters.

Though the committee hearings may not change the views of Trump supporters, the stream of damning evidence may help to mobilise Democrat supporters and boost voter turnout at the elections. The Democrats are currently facing a heavy defeat in November, with polls showing the Republicans hold a 46 per cent to 43 per cent lead among voters.

But the hearings are also designed to lay bare Trump’s machinations at the 2020 elections to try to thwart his efforts to repeat them in 2024. Trump is yet to confirm whether he will stand at the next election. On Monday, he released a 12-page statement, dismissing the house investigation as a “kangaroo court” that was designed to “stop a man that is leading in every poll … from running again for the presidency”.

“We have to Save America,” he added.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2022 as "Public hearings examine a ‘dark day’ for US democracy".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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