Politics

The Jan. 6 Hearing Was Like Nothing We’ve Seen Before

Dunn and Fanone embrace in the hearing room.
Harry Dunn of the U.S. Capitol Police and Michael Fanone of the Metropolitan Police Department after testifying Tuesday before the House select committee on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool/Getty Images

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Slate senior editor Jeremy Stahl has watched a lot of hearings on Capitol Hill, and even he says Tuesday’s House select committee hearing on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot was different. Four police officers testified before Congress about the violence they endured and the scars it left. “Just seeing these horrific clips over and over and over again and having that memory of watching that unfold live that day—it’s not the same thing,” Stahl says. “It’s not the same thing as seeing this person up there talk about it and tell you what happened and what they actually lived through.” On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Stahl about what made this hearing so powerful and what, if anything, the committee can achieve. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Mary Harris: In this hearing, you really could see how Democrats were trying to give this investigation a bipartisan feeling. The second person to speak after the chairman was Liz Cheney, a Republican.

Jeremy Stahl: Yeah. And whether or not that helps allay any of this concern over this is going to be a purely partisan inquiry and all that, I don’t think that does as much as the fact that they just held a really good hearing. They just held a hearing with four witnesses, Aquilino Gonell, Michael Fanone, Daniel Hodges, Harry Dunn, who had just these incredible and tragic and horrifying stories to tell, and they were able to get through their stories and tell their stories and give their perspective on what the next steps need to be in this committee, without it being turned into a showdown over cancel culture and procedures—that didn’t happen.

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Instead what you had was Sgt. Gonell testifying about being horribly assaulted and then going home to his wife and not being able to hug her, after not being in contact with her all day, and being very, very badly attacked because he was covered in bear spray and other poisons, basically. And you had Michael Fanone talking about nearly being beaten to death and basically begging for his life, saying “I’ve got kids” to escape this mob that had taken over the Capitol. And you had Daniel Hodges, who had that famous image of him being trapped in the door and getting crushed, crushed by this mob, and holding on to that and then having to be pulled out. And then you hear this Capitol Police officer, Harry Dunn, describe how he was accosted by these people, this crowd, called the N-word, describe exactly how it happened, when it happened, where it happened, what the circumstances were. And just—just wow. All of it was just wow. And they got to tell their stories without this other nonsense.

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I was legitimately surprised when Officer Daniel Hodges talked about the Jan. 6 attackers as terrorists, said they were a member of a cult. I’m just not used to police officers speaking that way, I guess, and it seemed like a little bit of a line in the sand.

I feel like it’s a reasonable line to have, to have an angry mob of thousands drag you, electrocute you, beat you to within an inch of your life, nearly kill you, and they’re doing it while they’re waving these political flags and trying to accomplish this political result. I think at that point you might view them as a terrorist. Yeah. And I think, you know what? It’s probably good language. It’s language that a lot more people should be using, I think, because this was a case of domestic terrorism, whether or not it’s been widely described as that or whether the language has shifted to describing it as an insurrection instead. It was a violence for political purposes. That’s the definition of terrorism.

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It was clear to me from watching the testimony of these officers that they want accountability. Harry Dunn, the Black officer who testified, said, “If a hit man is hired and he kills somebody, the hit man goes to jail. But not only does the hit man go to jail, but the person who hired them does. There was an attack carried out on Jan. 6. And a hit man sent them. I want you to get to the bottom of that.”

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What do you think this committee can do in terms of accountability for these officers? Is that even in their brief?

I think that Bennie Thompson, the chairman of this committee, has shown very, very, very, very good instincts so far.

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What do you mean by that?

In the way that the first hearing went off, and in the way that his opening statement went off, it was just very somber, not overhyped rhetoric, just straightforward, just-the-facts kind of thing, and the presentation of the entire hearing yesterday. But also he very explicitly after the hearing said a thing that I hadn’t really heard or seen from previous oversight efforts from Democrats, which was we are going to go straight to subpoenas. We’re not going to mess around with letters requesting people to cooperate with our hearing that we know might not cooperate. We’re not going to waste time on that two weeks’, three weeks’ notice to come up with your legal defense and try to block participation. We’re going to send subpoenas directly to people. And this came shortly after the Department of Justice had broadcast that it was taking the position that former administration officials, current officials, whoever, needed to cooperate with any subpoena and they could not cite privilege or any sort of protections to stymie such subpoenas.

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Do you feel like this is a lesson learned from the impeachment experience?

I think that they’re not messing around. They’re not messing around. And I also think that a problem of the impeachment experience and the various experiences was there was always some issue making it difficult to actually enforce things—specifically the fact that you had a DOJ and an administration that the baseline policy was zero cooperation, that you as Congress are not entitled to anything and you will get nothing. We will tie you up in court for months and years if need be—and they did—and so that sort of prevents subpoenas from being really all that effective.

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And now you have an administration that is explicitly saying they will cooperate, and you have the ability, as members of Congress, to subpoena White House archives. And you have the DOJ saying, yeah, you can do that. So there’s a difference, to a certain extent, of not necessarily will alone—because the will is definitely feeling a little bit more there—but will and ability. So, yeah, there are multiple differences.

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But once they have that information, what can they actually do?

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To me, truth and reconciliation is a noble goal. And if all they accomplish is they find out exactly what happened on that day and how it all played out, if they’re not able to charge officials with inciting an insurrection or anything like that, which are very, very hard crimes to even contemplate, if they’re able to get at the truth of the matter and put that into the public domain, which hasn’t happened yet—to me there is the utmost value in that. And that is necessary. It’s essential.

I can’t tell if it’s enough for those officers, though. I just can’t tell. I don’t know.

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It’s a start. But you’re right. I don’t know either.

You talk a lot about how Democrats don’t seem to have the guts to do the right thing, the hard thing. Is your take changing at all after this hearing?

I want to see what subpoenas they send, and I want to see who they send the subpoenas to. But so far, they have done exceptionally well, in my view, in sort of playing the hardball that is needed to do the things necessary to get the truth that the public needs to hear. It’s cheesy to say, but democracy works better, society works better, everything works better, when people have the truth. And in order to do that, you need public officials willing to find the truth and to fight to find the truth. Like I said, it’s a good start.

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Do we know what the next hearing for this committee looks like?

I think that some of the next steps will be talking to some of those in leadership, in the leadership of the Capitol Police, the Metropolitan Police, and those who had authority over the National Guard that day, and to try to do more to square that circle of why was the response and why were the reinforcements for these men, who were so horribly attacked, so slow to come. One of the officers said the craziest thing, which to me just put it all in perspective, which was we had no reinforcements. There were a small number of us. That crowd and that mob was so big compared to the few amount of officers they had. And one of the key questions, if not the key question that they need to answer, is how did it get to a point where it was so many against so few, and they did not have the backup they needed to protect the seat of American democracy.

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