Analysis Based on factual reporting, although it incorporates the expertise of the author/producer and may offer interpretations and conclusions.
For the past two weeks, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol has been holding public, televised hearings, presenting damning evidence, never-before-seen footage, previously recorded testimonies from former White House insiders, and live testimonies.
The committee has so far shared many shocking revelations, including that the pro-Trump mob that invaded the U.S. Capitol came within 40 feet of former Vice President Mike Pence; that former President Donald Trump told witnesses Pence deserved to be hanged for refusing to dismiss electoral votes for Joe Biden; that on election night in 2020, the person Trump most sought advice from was an inebriated Rudy Giuliani; and that Trump’s false accusations of election fraud, aimed at two Black women poll workers from Georgia, upended their lives. Most importantly, Trump seemed to know he had lost the election but sought to remain in power at any cost.
The Select Committee, chaired by Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, and vice chaired by Rep. Liz Cheney, a Republican from Wyoming, appears to be building a strong case for the Justice Department to indict Trump. The hearings are expected to continue into July.
To put the hearings in context, YES! Racial Justice Editor Sonali Kolhatkar spoke with John Nichols, who is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation, host of the podcast Next Left, and the author of numerous books, including Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America and Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers: Accountability for Those Who Caused the Crisis.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Sonali Kolhatkar: In anticipation of the hearings, there was a sense in mainstream media, and even among progressives, that there is no point to them, that it’s not going to change anyone’s minds, or move the needle on public opinion. That kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Did you have a similar response?
John Nichols: Of course, I do. Look, that’s the “punditification” of all of our media and frankly even into our populace. We live in a moment when, instead of saying, “Oh, wow, there are really fundamental issues that have to be dealt with, there are real concerns that we have to focus on,” people start to say, “Well, I’m not sure if it will have the political impact that we want it to have, or that it will influence a midterm election,” or something like that.
At some fundamental level, that is very disempowering. That limits our ability to get to the point of things. And it is true that when you launch an investigation, it may go to incredible places and have a huge impact and influence the politics. But it is also sometimes true that it simply gets us focused on things that we need to be focused on.
And whether that influences the politics or not does not change the fact that Donald Trump was at the center of an attempted coup that sought to overturn the results of an election and to insert him, for four years at least, as an illegitimate unelected president.
That’s a pretty big deal. No matter what the political fallout of that, that’s something that Congress has a duty to get to the bottom of.
Kolhatkar: The alternative is to do nothing, which would of course send a message that any president can do such a thing.
Nichols: That’s right.
Kolhatkar: From a progressive perspective, what do you hope will come out of these hearings?
Nichols: I think we do need a clear narrative on what happened. And that’s vital, because if you’ll recall back to Jan. 6, 2021, what you will remember is that people really struggled with the language. They didn’t know whether to call it a “riot,” or eventually they moved to the term “insurrection,” but they were very cautious about using terms like “coup,” which it was—it was a coup attempt—they were very cautious about referring to people who were engaged in that coup as “traitors” in the same way that you would, for instance, people who were involved in an assault on the federal government and insurrection back in the 1860s.
And so, we struggled with language. We didn’t get to where we needed to be for a long time. These hearings appear to be using the proper language. They’re talking about a coup. They’re talking about an attempt to overturn the government.
They are making references—as Chairman Bennie Thompson did in his opening statement—to the Civil War era and recognizing that in times of tremendous turbulence, when there are threats to the ongoing processes of elections and governance, that it is absolutely vital for Congress to have clarity to know what it’s dealing with, to know what matters.
And I do think that, under Bennie Thompson’s leadership in particular, but also with the tremendous work of [Congressman] Jamie Raskin and a handful of others, this committee has been much more focused on the real issues that are involved, and on, frankly, the real language that we need to talk about what happened.
Frankly, if that language is used, if we begin to focus on things in that proper way, I think it’s much more likely that a majority of the American people come to recognize clearly that Donald Trump and those around him were not just a threat on Jan. 6, 2021, [but] that they pose a potential threat going forward right up to and including Jan. 6, 2025.
Kolhatkar: What about the fact that the people that Trump surrounded himself with, who spoke to the committee, seem to have turned on him, including former Attorney General William Barr, and even to a lesser extent, Jared Kushner, the president’s own son-in-law, [who] seemed to be trying to distance themselves from Trump? Is that significant?
Nichols: Well, of course, it’s rats leaving a sinking ship, the old storyline. These are people who were very loyal to Trump through incredibly destructive times, when he did terrible things to the country, to his own party. They stuck with him and tried to give him another four years. But when it became clear that Trump was no longer following their advice—which basically was advice to stay within at least the broad outline of a traditional politics—they began to move away from him.
You saw this even around Jan. 6. Remember that two of the most hyper-politicized, hyper-partisan members of the Trump Administration, Betsy DeVos and Elaine Chao, quit before the end of their tenures as Secretary of Education and Secretary of Transportation [respectively], quite obviously out of objection to what Trump was doing and how Trump was handling himself.
I think we have to see it in that perspective. These are bad players who were engaged in very destructive, very damaging politics and governance, but who at a certain point recognized that Donald Trump was no longer their associate, no longer somebody who was working with them.
He was somebody who was going in his own direction, and that direction, defined by folks like Rudy Giuliani, Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, and others, was toward a right-wing authoritarianism that had no respect for democracy whatsoever and frankly no respect for election results, that was pointing us toward a place where, were Trump to be successful, he would hold the office of the presidency not via the will of the people, not even via the will of the very undemocratic electoral college, but, frankly, by his own fiat, by his own will.
And that did, I think, scare a number of the veteran hangers-on around Trump, including Attorney General Barr and Trump’s campaign manager, Trump’s family members, who are in many ways some of the most reprehensible players in all of this, because they seek always to maintain their own reputation, their own ability to go to all the best parties in New York or Miami. At the same time, they seek all the benefits of an association with Donald Trump, including, in the case of Jared Kushner, benefits that include huge advances of money from the Saudi Arabian government for his investment fund.
Kolhatkar: Do the hearings confirm to you that the Trump and Giuliani way of doing things is “never admit defeat, never admit when you’re wrong, always claim that you’re victorious,” which is the standard tactic of a gaslighter?
Nichols: Gaslighters and fascists! Yeah, I mean, let’s be very clear that this behavior has a lot of roots and a lot of history that is incredibly dangerous, and especially incredibly threatening in a democracy.
And here’s where I would differ with former Attorney General Barr. He said that Donald Trump was “delusional,” or that he was “at odds with reality.” I think Donald Trump and those around him were well-aware of reality—except perhaps Giuliani, who is a mess—but I think that Trump and Bannon were well-aware that Trump’s ideas and approaches were not popular, that he was not re-elected. But they refused to accept that. They were not willing to bend to that reality. And that’s not “delusional” in a situation where very wealthy, very powerful people think that they may be able to bend the processes in their favor, as they so often do.
Kolhatkar: And it seems as though the committee actually got that point too. On day two of the hearing, committee members said that Trump knew he had lost and still went ahead to try to overturn the election. This is different from thinking that he was surrounded by sycophants who convinced him he had won. The fact that he knew he had lost is even worse.
Nichols: Oh, I agree with you. In fact, it’s actually, from a legal standpoint, far more significant. Because if Donald Trump believed sincerely that he had been re-elected and that the election was being stolen from him, and you could make a convincing case of that, that is somewhat exculpatory. That gives him some area of defense.
But what is coming through clearly from the hearing is that Donald Trump knew that he had lost. People he trusted, people he employed, told him he had lost. They told him that he could not claim victory on election night and then say all the additional votes that were coming in were somehow illegitimate or fraudulent, that was simply wrong.
And Donald Trump heard all this. And remember, Donald Trump is not a big drinker. He’s not somebody who was drunk on election night.
Kolhatkar: He’s a teetotaler, in fact.
Nichols: Yes, exactly. So, he heard all this coming from all these political advisers, all these people he pays, his own family. And then he said, “I’m not gonna do that.”
When you reject the approach that all your professionals are pushing on you, you still have to have a crew, you have to have a group of people that are going to work with you to implement your strategy, right? So, he wasn’t going to be able to turn to Barr. He wasn’t gonna be able to turn to [Bill] Stepien and some of his other campaign aides.
And so, who do you turn to? Rudy Giuliani, a guy who, by all accounts, was inebriated and saying things that were just flat-out crazy. But in a sense, I think that’s what made Giuliani attractive to Trump in that situation. Because Trump knew that no traditional tactical response to the election was going to work.
He had to go way over the top, to a claim of overwhelming fraud, of an incredible scandal, to then communicate to his very gullible base: (a) that they needed to give him a lot of money—and they gave him $250 million—and (b) that they needed to show up in Washington to help him to literally disrupt the counting and certification of electoral votes.
Kolhatkar: We’ve been talking about the coup plotters. Now, let’s talk about the coup’s foot soldiers on the ground. Days before the hearings started, the Justice Department charged the Proud Boys with “seditious conspiracy.” We saw in the hearings new footage from the ground, very disturbing, very violent footage of just how many people were there, how violent they were, how belligerent they were.
I’m wondering whether those violent forces are a can of worms that Trump and his allies have opened that it’s going to be extremely hard to undo. We saw recently a bizarre, newly formed fascist group called Patriot Front attempting to attack a [LGBTQ] Pride event in Idaho. They were pre-emptively arrested, but it seems as though they might have been inspired by the Proud Boys.
Nichols: It looked very much like the [Patriot Front] was inspired by these groups. Sonali, you used a number of words, all of them accurate, to describe the Proud Boys and other groups in the videos that we saw from around Jan. 6, 2021. I’d add one more word: “certain.”
They seemed to be quite certain that they could take illegal and immoral actions and get away with it, that Donald Trump and those around him would protect them, that they would cover for them, that they would encourage them and help them if they got in trouble.
And that’s a huge deal, because we can look at these individual groups around the country and see all the wrongdoing they may be involved in. But if you step back from it, you say, “Well, why do these groups form, and why do they think they can do what they’re doing?”
The answer is that for four years they felt that they had someone in the White House who was literally cheering them on and encouraging them to do what they did, and, frankly, also I would add, pardoning people who were engaged in incredible wrongdoing. Those final pardons from the Trump White House were jaw-dropping.
I think you’ve ended up in a situation now where you’ve got impunity, where you have all sorts of folks across the United States, not just on Jan. 6 in Washington, but in places across the United States, who believe that they can take illegal and immoral extreme actions and that somehow they’ll be protected, that their actions will be seen merely as a “legitimate expression” of political sentiment, and that if they get in trouble, they will have Donald Trump, the former president of the United States, at their side, at their back, and that they will have the fundraising apparatus, legal networks, and other aspects of that Trump organization at their service.
And so, yes, we’ve created a situation in the United States now where extremists feel that they can do as they choose. And, in fact—it’s a conflict of language here—but we’ve reached a situation where extremism has been mainstreamed.
That mainstreaming of extremism, that sense that it is now a part of our politics, that it is a part of who we are as a country, is an incredibly dangerous thing. And that is sustained by Donald Trump and those around him, who instead of decrying and condemning these extremists, give them aid and comfort at every turn.
Kolhatkar: A really important question in these hearings is, will the minds of enough Republicans change? Because we have a big problem in this country. If a hugely significant percentage of Americans cannot agree on facts, that is very problematic for our democracy. So, do you think these hearings will change enough Republican minds based, at least, on facts?
Nichols: No, I do not. I don’t think they’re gonna change a lot of Republican minds. By and large, the core of the Republican party has moved into the “Trump Zone.” And Trump defines the facts. He defines, frankly, the politics.
I think a lot of our media, a lot of our punditry, tends to want to deny this. They don’t want this to be a reality. And so, they say, “Oh well, look, somebody that Trump endorsed lost an election in Georgia.”
Well, yeah, occasionally a very well-established Republican can say “no” to Trump and get away with it. But if you look at Trump’s endorsements within the Republican primary so far, overwhelmingly, by a 10-to-1 ratio, his candidates are winning. And they’re winning big races in places like Pennsylvania, where the gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano is an extremist who will very likely lose in November because he’s so far out, and yet he was Trump’s pick, so Republicans nominated him.
I think it’s very important to understand that moving the base of the Republican party is very unlikely for so long as Trump is in play, and, frankly, very politically active.
However, there’s a tiny portion of folks on the fringe of the Republican party, maybe not identified Republicans, but independents who, on occasion, or maybe quite often, will vote Republican and, frankly, probably had a history of doing so in their state and in their region. These folks are potentially open to some communication, if it’s done well.
And perhaps most significantly, Sonali, there’s a huge portion of Americans, pretty close to a majority of Americans, who are just struggling to get by. They don’t watch a lot of news. They’re not following politics every day in every single detail. They get the headlines. These folks are, at this point, hugely concerned about inflation, hugely concerned about all the challenges of survival.
And the question for them is, can you reach them with some baseline message, a very simple, a very core narrative, about the danger posed by Donald Trump and those around him? I think it’s possible. I think these hearings may do that.
The headline saying that “Trump attempted a coup,” these folks understand what a coup is. They know it’s a bad thing, and if Trump’s name becomes associated with dangerous, deadly, destructive politics, that has some impact that is not always well-measured by polls but may have a real impact on the body politic in the long term.
And when I say long-term, I don’t mean tens of years. I didn’t mean up to 2024, creating a circumstance where Trump himself becomes sufficiently toxic that he can never be president again. And that in itself is a very significant part of this, but certainly not the whole goal of these hearings.
These hearings aren’t just about politics. These hearings have to be about accountability. They have to be about the potential prosecution of Donald Trump, and this becomes important in this regard. If, indeed, there opens up a circumstance where Trump may be prosecuted, what you want to have is a clear majority of Americans who are comfortable with that idea, who, even though Republicans will scream and yell, will accept the idea that Donald Trump should face accountability for this, and that it should be fair, it should be an honest moment of accountability, but that they won’t say, “Oh, you can’t do that, he’s a former president,” or, “You can’t do that, he’s not that bad a guy.” That they will recognize why that’s happening and be supportive of the process.
Kolhatkar: It seems as though the committee is building an irrefutable case for Trump’s indictment. The question is, will Attorney General Merrick Garland actually step up to the plate? He seems to be missing in action.
Nichols: Often, but not always. I mean, there have been some prosecutions of late that are significant, and Garland has indicated that he’s watching the hearings relatively closely, that his staff is as well, that they are paying attention.
Ultimately, this committee’s biggest responsibility is not producing good TV or something like that. It is to produce a set of recommendations at the end of this hearing process that would focus both on direct accountability for Donald Trump and those around him for an attempted coup, for which Chairman Bennie Thompson says Trump was the central figure.
And then, secondly, a set of recommendations about how to reform governance, reform politics in ways that assure this never happens again. That’s what’s really important here.
And Merrick Garland will, I think, get a clear signal from the committee—I don’t know how clear, I hope it’s undebatable—that he needs to act.
My sense is that in the face of that, it is likely that he would act. A failure to do so would be dereliction of duty at the highest level, and I just don’t think that’s who Merrick Garland is, for all of his failings and all of his flaws.
I do think this committee is on a trajectory to make recommendations that will ultimately lead to a decision by the Department of Justice to do some major prosecutions. The question is, how major? Who will they be targeted at? And will they get to Donald Trump?
Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023). She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com