Opinion: The January 6 report is a “mirror test” for the American people

Editor’s note: Nicole Hemmer is associate professor of history and director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics” and the forthcoming “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.” She co-hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History”. The opinions expressed in this comment are her own. See more opinions on CNN.



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Late Thursday night, the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 uprising released its final report, a blistering 845-page account of a months-long effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. In its detailed account, the committee shows how former President Donald Trump and his allies— inside and outside of government—used a combination of threats, lies, threats of violence, and political intrigue to try to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s election to the presidency.

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Courtesy of Nicole Hemmer

The committee has now forwarded several criminal referrals for Trump and others to the Justice Department, and referred several Republican congressmen to the House Ethics Committee for failure to comply with subpoenas. (Trump blasted “the highly biased Unselect Committee Report” in a Truth Social post, denouncing it as a “witch hunt.”)

After nine telecasts that drew millions of viewers, the final report can feel a bit like crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. By now, many Americans know the broad outlines of the effort, from the carefully crafted lies about voter fraud, to the strong-arming of government officials, to the progressively absurd legal strategies, to the deadly violence at the US Capitol. That may be why the committee also released more testimony this week from former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who emerged as a star witness during hearings this summer. Still, the written report offers a way to dig deeper: to read a compelling narrative, supported by extensive endnotes, that shows both how serious Trump and his supporters were about overturning the election, and how close they came to doing so.

But it would be wrong to think of the report as the closing chapter of the rebellion and its aftermath. Instead, it represents a different test: for the legal system, for elected officials, and for the American people. How each reacts to the report will determine whether the uprising at the Capitol was a wake-up call or, as the committee put it, “a precedent and an invitation to danger, for future elections.”

The report now joins a long line of government reports designed to persuade the public, promote reform and assert accountability. Such reports have gained prominence in the half-century since Watergate, as special commissions and independent prosecutors have competed with investigative journalists in their quest to hold the executive branch, particularly the president and the intelligence community, accountable for corruption and failures. That’s both because the post-Watergate era held out the potential for reform—the mid-1970s Congress was a hive of activity as it created new restrictions and oversight mechanisms—and for political retaliation.

These high-profile reports often caught the public’s attention for the secrets they revealed. The Church Committee report, the result of mid-1970s investigations by the intelligence service, revealed widespread wrongdoing: assassination attempts, support for international coups, drug experiments, domestic espionage. It led then-President Gerald Ford to issue an executive order barring political assassinations, but it also broke the power of secrecy that had allowed intelligence officials to act in lawless and often bizarre ways.

Reports often found an eager audience, partly for their explosive revelations but also partly for their style. The Starr report, which covered investigations into then-President Bill Clinton’s sexual relationships and his efforts to cover them up, combined a peep-through-the-keyhole tone with ludicrous details about the president’s affairs. It became a bestseller. Like the 9/11 Commission Report, which laid out the details of the terrorist attacks and their causes in such riveting detail that it was not only a fast seller, but also a finalist for the National Book Awards. (The report on the prison uprising in Attica, written for a state-level commission in 1972, was also a finalist for the prestigious award.)

But sales and awards, while signs of public interest and literary merit, are not the best measures of a report’s success. What is most important is the accountability and the reforms that follow. In the case of the Church Committee, intelligence agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency were pitted against each other. In the case of the Tower Commission and Independent Counsel reports that followed the Iran-Contra affair, however, accountability was short-circuited.

The Reagan administration’s illegal arms-for-hostages deals that sent money to rebel groups in Nicaragua despite a congressional ban initially resulted in a number of resignations, indictments and convictions. But waning public interest and a flurry of presidential pardons allowed some government officials involved not only to walk free but to return to high-profile careers in the Republican Party and the conservative movement. (“The Iran-Contra cover-up, which has been going on for more than six years, has now ended,” the special counsel said in response to the pardons.)

For the Commission on January 6, this is a real danger. Trump has already indicated that, if re-elected to the presidency, he would seriously consider pardoning those involved in the insurgency — no idle threat, given his frequent pardons of political allies while in office.

Which is a reminder that the work extends far beyond the lifetime of the committee in terms of accountability and reform. Protecting democratic systems now falls to a variety of groups. The Justice Department must decide whether to act on the committee’s referrals, including the historic criminal referrals against Trump. Congress, too, is in a post-Watergate position, keenly aware of the need to create far more legal constraints and consequences for management violations. The recently passed Electoral Reform Act is a step in that direction; many more await.

But if Congress faces a post-Watergate-style bill, it does so without post-Watergate majorities with a mandate to reform. It is a reminder that the American people also have a role to play in the work that follows the House committee’s report. That role involves more than just voting against insurgency-supporting politicians and for reform-minded candidates. It requires ongoing organizing and activism that both demonstrates and speaks for representative democracy—demonstrating that Americans think democracy is worth defending through the slow, often small-scale work of political engagement.

In his newly released testimony, Hutchinson reflected on his journey to becoming one of the trial’s star witnesses. Her first two depositions had been an exercise in evasion, as she followed her lawyer’s instructions and claimed she could not remember in response to most of the committee’s questions. The problem for Hutchinson was that she could remember: She had clear memories of much of the planning leading up to the rebellion, and detailed memories of the events that unfolded that day.

Which led to a crisis when she realized that, in a character-defining moment, she had failed what she called the “mirror test” – the ability to look in the mirror and be proud of who she was. “I was disappointed in myself,” she told the committee. “I was frustrated with myself. To be honest, I was kind of disgusted with myself. I became someone I never thought I would be.”

For Hutchinson, that moment led her to go back to the committee and offer the detailed, shocking testimony she shared in public hearings this summer. For the rest of us, it offers a guide. The committee’s Jan. 6 report provides a detailed account of a deliberate, carefully planned attack on democratic governance, an account that creates an obligation on Americans who want that form of government to continue — a mirror test of 330 million people and the government agencies that serve them.

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