The January 6 Project

What Did We Learn From House and Senate Hearings on the Capitol Assault?

By William Ford, Rohini Kurup
Thursday, March 25, 2021, 10:22 AM

Over the past two months, Congress has convened a series of hearings on the failures that enabled the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. During approximately 20 hours of questioning over eight hearings, lawmakers in both houses of Congress heard from an array of current and former officials on what went wrong. The testimony the witnesses gave was dense. And at times, witnesses offered competing accounts of the events that took place and deflected blame for their agencies’ lack of preparation. 

Though notable, these inconsistencies and witnesses’ occasional equivocation only marginally detracted from the value of the congressional proceedings. Taken together, the House and Senate hearings appreciably enriched the factual record and offered important insight into how lawmakers, Capitol security officials and federal agencies are thinking about correcting the errors that led to the breach of Congress. 

Many questions about the insurrection and the changes that will follow remain unanswered. Still, it’s clear from the hearings that an array of failures—of intelligence sharing and collection, communication, and law enforcement training—left Capitol and D.C. Metropolitan Police, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security astonishingly unprepared for the scale of the violence they witnessed on Jan. 6. 

The Committees Leading Public Questioning

Four panels have convened the hearings that have occurred thus far. As part of their ongoing joint oversight investigation, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) and the Senate Rules and Administration Committee held two hearings on Feb. 23 and March 3. The first featured testimony from the former House and Senate sergeants-at-arms, the former chief of Capitol Police and the acting chief of D.C. Metropolitan Police; the second featured testimony from the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard and officials from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Pentagon. On March 2, the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned the seniormost witness yet to testify: FBI Director Christopher Wray.

In Congress’s lower chamber, the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee has held five hearings. Three of those dealt exclusively with the Capitol assault, allowing lawmakers to grill the acting chief of Capitol Police, the acting House sergeant-at-arms, the architect of the Capitol and other House officials on Feb. 18, 24 and 25. The remaining two hearings, held on March 3 and 11, concerned the fiscal 2022 budget requests of the Capitol Police and the architect of the Capitol, and offered insight into how those officials plan to adjust their operations in light of the insurrection. 

What did the hearings reveal?

Failures in Intelligence Collection and Sharing

Lawmakers dedicated significant portions of time during the hearings to determining what Capitol Police, D.C. Metropolitan Police, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security knew before Jan. 6, and how they assessed the available threat intelligence. 

Capitol Police Intelligence

In testimony before the Senate on Feb. 23, Steven Sund, the former Capitol Police chief, stated that the department’s review of available intelligence led it to conclude that the “Save America” demonstrations on Jan. 6 would largely “be similar to the previous Million MAGA March rallies” held in D.C. in November and December 2020, which he said “drew tens of thousands of participants.” Sund acknowledged that Capitol Police expected extremist groups to attend the Jan. 6 protests, and that those groups “may be inclined to become violent.” But Sund indicated that, unlike prior demonstrations, the department understood the “Capitol itself” to be the “focus” of the Jan. 6 activity and believed the assembled crowd would “be somewhat different in size and risk.” 

In testimony before the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee on Feb. 25, Yogananda Pittman, the acting Capitol Police chief, added that the department knew many Jan. 6 demonstrators “planned to be armed.” On Jan. 3, the department’s intelligence division issued a special assessment outlining these findings. But on Jan. 4, 5 and 6, it nonetheless put out “Daily Intelligence Reports” characterizing the possibility of violence as “remote” or “improbable.” 

The Norfolk Report

Pressed repeatedly by senators to explain the department’s failure to better anticipate the violence, Sund parried that Capitol Police merely consumes, but does not collect, intelligence. It thus relies on the accuracy of the products and information it receives from the intelligence community. No intelligence the department received suggested Congress would face a coordinated assault on Jan. 6, Sund stated. 

But this wasn’t entirely true. Testimony from other officials makes clear that the day before Congress was set to certify the Electoral College results, the FBI’s Norfolk Field Office issued a situational information report detailing specific but unverified calls for violence targeting the Jan. 6 joint session. Wray and Jill Sanborn, the director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, noted in separate appearances before the Senate that the Norfolk Field Office shared that report with Capitol Police, D.C. Metropolitan Police and other law enforcement partners in several ways, including through a law enforcement portal and an email sent to all Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) officers in the National Capital Region. 

But Sund and Robert Contee III, acting chief of D.C. Metropolitan Police, testified that neither they nor other senior officials in their departments saw that report before Jan. 6. Sund stated that he learned Capitol Police received that report only 24 hours before he testified before lawmakers. In an appearance before the House on March 3, Pittman explained why the Norfolk report failed to reach Capitol Police leadership: It stopped midway through the department’s chain of command. Although Capitol Police JTTF agents transmitted the Jan. 5 FBI report to their sergeant, who passed the report on to the lieutenant, the intelligence went no further. The lieutenant never forwarded the report to the department’s intelligence director, who in turn would have been responsible for sharing that information with Capitol Police leadership. 

At the FBI, senior officials were similarly unaware of the Norfolk report before the attack on the Capitol. As both Wray and Sanborn admitted, neither of them learned of the document until after Jan. 6.

A number of lawmakers seemed to suggest that the Norfolk report could, and indeed should, have changed the course of Jan. 6. Their remarks—and repeated questions concerning who received the report and when—evinced a belief that if senior law enforcement officials had just seen that document, they would have been able to prepare better for the violence that erupted the next day. But as Pittman noted and Wray and Sanborn parroted, the Jan. 5 report contained only raw and uncorroborated intelligence. The document, from which Pittman read aloud during an exchange with Rep. Katherine Clarke on Feb. 25, noted that its contents had not been “fully evaluated, integrated with other information, interpreted or analyzed.” Indeed, the document went as far as to issue an explicit command to its readers: “receiving agencies are requested not to take action based on this raw reporting.” 

Pittman said that even if Capitol Police leadership had seen the Norfolk report, they would not have altered their security preparations. The acting chief contended instead that the report largely confirmed what the department already knew: that the Jan. 6 demonstrations might become violent and that Congress would be the target of that violence. “If the FBI thought that Norfolk document was the smoking gun,” Pittman added during an exchange on March 3, it would have elevated the document by sharing it through a more prominent means of communication, perhaps via the JTTF executive committee. 

Wray and Sanborn nonetheless faced few questions about why FBI officials failed to run the Jan. 5 report further up the bureau’s chain of command and, more importantly, why the bureau failed to raise alarms earlier about the acute threat of violence targeting the joint session of Congress. Both Wray and Sanborn noted in their testimony that the bureau had made the joint session a national intelligence collection priority for all 56 field offices; this was the reason the Norfolk report existed and was quickly “elevated” to the Washington, D.C., Field Office, as Sanborn put it. 

Missed Intelligence

Both senior FBI officials stressed that the bureau faces immense challenges in determining, amid the deluge of “chatter” it sees each day, which threats are credible. To do so, Sanborn explained, involves distinguishing “aspiration” (or violent bluster) from “intent,” instances in which an individual has the ability to follow through on a threat. Wray made an identical observation to the Senate Judiciary Committee, highlighting the difficulty of isolating threats gaining “traction” from all the other “unbelievably horrific” things people say online. 

A handful of senators were unsatisfied with these remarks. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, for instance, expressed frustration with the director’s comments. The Connecticut senator stated that while he understood the complexity of the task of threat assessment, he simply could not understand why the “chatter and raw intelligence” the FBI had seen before Jan. 6 “didn’t prompt a stronger warning, an alarm, going to the very top of the United States Congress.” Clearly “Congress was under severe threat,” the senator concluded. 

Wray spent much of his testimony emphasizing that the FBI considers combating domestic violent extremism to be one of the bureau’s top priorities. The director repeatedly cited, as evidence of the FBI’s committment to tackling domestic extremism, the growing number of domestic terrorism investigations the bureau has opened over the past few years. But Wray and Sanborn never really explained why these investigations and the bureau’s general scrutiny of domestic extremists failed to alert them to the scope of the threat Congress faced on Jan. 6. 

The FBI was not alone in failing to perceive the gravity and coordinated nature of the threat. Melissa Smislova, who represented the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis before the Senate on March 3, conceded that her office “did not have anything specific about an attack on the Capitol to occur on Jan. 6.” Smislova further indicated that before Jan. 6, her office believed that the unclassified reports it released, detailing “a heightened threat environment,” had provided sufficient warning about the threat of violence posed by lone actors and individuals with grievances related to the 2020 presidential election. 

Sen. Mark Warner, a member of the Rules Committee and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, offered a firm rebuke of Sanborn and Smislova’s testimony. The senator noted that lawmakers continually “hear from FBI and DHS ‘we’re going to get better at collecting’” on domestic extremism, but have seen little progress over the years. “There’s literally a host of experts [in] academia, organizations … that are monitoring [domestic violent extremists] and their activities,” Warner remarked, and both open-source information and independent researchers pointed to the high likelihood that violence would target Congress on Jan. 6. The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security need to draw more on these resources, Warner concluded.

Although Warner briefly probed the shortcomings in federal agencies’ collection on and understanding of domestic extremism, he was one of only a handful of lawmakers who did so. And as Tia Sewell and Benjamin Wittes have observed, lawmakers resoundingly failed to force the witnesses to confront the role implicit bias may have played in their agencies’ failure to collect sufficient intelligence on domestic extremists and anticipate how violent the Jan. 6 demonstrations would become. That is, members failed to address whether the federal law enforcement agencies have a blind spot when it comes to evaluating the dangers posed by conservative white men. Rather than address the issue of bias head on, though, members tended to allude to it by pointing to the significant discrepancies between law enforcement’s response to the summer protests over the deaths of George Floyd and other unarmed black Americans, which was heavily militarized, and its much more restrained response to an overwhelmingly white mob’s assault on the Capitol.

One exchange offered an exception to this pattern of circumlocutory questioning. During a Legislative Branch Subcommittee hearing on Feb. 25, Clarke asked Pittman whether “institutional racism” and a “culture of white supremacy” explain the disparity between Capitol Police’s Jan. 3 assessment that violence likely would occur on Jan. 6 and the comparative laxity of the force’s preparation for the event. Pittman calmly rejected that idea, stating that she saw no evidence that Capitol Police made any security decisions on the basis of race. 

Rep. Tim Ryan, the chairman of the Legislative Branch Subcommittee, nevertheless contended that Capitol Police’s security posture on Jan. 6 evinced that it had misjudged the “tone and tenor of the country” and prepared insufficiently for the joint session even on the basis of the intelligence it had. While both Sund and Pittman conceded that they would have prepared differently for Jan. 6 given what they know now, they resisted part of Ryan’s latter charge, pointing to the proactive changes Capitol Police made in response to the department’s Jan. 3 special assessment. These changes included activating approximately seven of the department’s Civil Disturbance Unit platoons, expanding its security perimeter of steel crowd-control barriers and contacting D.C. Metropolitan Police to ready them to provide support to Capitol Police, if necessary. 

National Guard Delays

Sund and Pittman also cited, as evidence that Capitol Police had taken the threat of violence targeting Congress seriously, that the department had sought the assistance of the D.C. National Guard in the days leading up to Jan. 6. Lawmakers dedicated a significant amount of time at the hearings to unpacking this testimony, and to sifting through witnesses’ competing accounts of when officials requested Guard support and why it took the Guard so long to reach the Capitol on Jan. 6.

The Capitol Police Request

For congressional security officials, the process of obtaining the assistance of the D.C. Guard involves several steps. First, the Capitol Police chief must seek an emergency declaration from the Capitol Police Board, an oversight body that coordinates security measures across the Capitol complex. The board comprises three voting members—the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms and the architect of the Capitol—and one nonvoting member, the Capitol Police chief. If a majority of the board’s members votes in favor of an emergency declaration, the Capitol Police chief may contact the commanding general of the D.C. Guard to request the Guard’s assistance. That request must then clear several hurdles in the Pentagon, first with the Army secretary and then with the secretary of defense.

During his appearance before the Senate, Sund, the former Capitol Police chief, told lawmakers that he first approached the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms—then Paul Irving and Michael Stenger, respectively—on Jan. 4 to request the assistance of the Guard. He testified that the sergeants-at-arms denied his request but instructed him to speak with the commanding general of the D.C. Guard and ask the Guard to “lean forward” in case Capitol Police required swift backup. 

Irving and Stenger had a slightly different recollection of events. Both stated that they did not interpret Sund’s Jan. 4 ask as a formal request for the board to vote on an emergency declaration. Rather, they recalled Sund’s raising the issue as part of a conversation about whether the support of the Guard was necessary. After discussing the available intelligence, the trio agreed it was not, Irving and Stenger represented. In subsequent testimony before the House, J. Brett Blanton, the architect of the Capitol, confirmed that Sund never demanded the board hold a vote on an emergency declaration prior to Jan. 6. 

Sund did force the issue on the 6th, but the process he and other witnesses detailed was riddled with delays, both in Congress and at the Pentagon. Although the exact timeline of events remains murky, it’s clear that Sund called Maj. Gen. William Walker, the commanding general of the D.C. Guard, shortly before 2 p.m. to notify Walker that he would soon have approval to request National Guard assistance. Walker’s testimony indicates that he interpreted that phone call as Sund’s request for Guard assistance, a fact the Pentagon’s testimony to the Senate supports

Pentagon Approval

Walker’s remarks offered a useful chronology of what happened to that request once he transmitted it to the Pentagon. He testified that once he got off the phone with Sund, he immediately alerted Army senior leaders to the Capitol Police’s request. Robert Salesses, the Pentagon’s representative before the Senate, stated that at approximately 2:30 p.m., the Army secretary met with Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to discuss Sund’s request and the D.C. mayor’s request for additional Guard support. Salesses testified that at 3:04 p.m., Miller approved the full activation of the D.C. Guard and the Army secretary ordered it to mobilize. At 4:32 p.m., Salesses continued, Miller authorized the Guard’s deployment to the Capitol. But Walker specified that Army senior leadership failed to communicate this authorization to him until 5:08 p.m., at which time the Guard finally departed to reinforce Capitol Police. Members of the Guard did not arrive until at least 5:20 p.m.

Lawmakers were stunned that the process of securing the aid of the D.C. Guard, both in Congress and at the Pentagon, took so long. Sen. Jeff Merkley suggested that the process involved too many steps and too complex a chain of command to function effectively during a crisis. But Walker clarified that the Defense Department’s approval process “can work in minutes.” During the first week of June 2020, Walker explained, the Army secretary was physically with him while the Guard and the department waited to see if they would be called on to help respond to protests in D.C. Walker said he watched the Army secretary call the defense secretary and consult with the attorney general before approving the deployment of the guard “within minutes.” 

Asked by Sen. Angus King to explain why the process did not unfold as quickly on Jan. 6, Walker cited two reasons. First, he did not “have the benefit and comfort of having the secretary of the Army co-located with me,” depriving him of immediate communication with the secretary. And second, he said that Army senior leaders—who fielded Walker’s phone call relaying Sund’s Guard request—expressed concern about the optics of the Guard’s deployment, and worried that it might “inflame” the mob. Salesses, who was not on the phone call Walker mentioned, denied that Army officials used the word “optics.” In his opening remarks, however, Salesses noted that the Pentagon was “mindful” of “lessons learned” from “May and June 2020,” when the National Guard’s heavy-handed response to protests “drew public concern.”

Concerned that it might again face criticism for deploying the Guard, the Pentagon constrained the Guard in a second way. When Miller approved the D.C. mayor’s request that Guard personnel assist D.C. Metropolitan Police with traffic control on Jan. 6, he imposed a number of restrictions on the Guard’s movements and operations. In addition to honoring Contee’s request that the Guard not be armed, Miller directed the Army secretary to secure his approval before permitting the Guard to “be issued weapons, … helmets and body armor”; physically engage protesters; or “employ any riot control agents.” 

Miller also instructed the Army secretary that he could employ the D.C. Guard’s quick reaction force (QRF)—members of the Guard held in reserve to be called on if needed—“only as a last resort and in response to a request from an appropriate civil authority.” And Walker testified that the Army secretary added yet another hurdle to this process. Before the secretary would allow Walker to dispatch the QRF, he would need to see and approve a “concept of operation,” a document outlining the parameters of the QRF’s use. Walker described that requirement, which encumbered a tool meant to enhance his agility, as highly “unusual.” 

Walker told members of Congress that restrictions imposed by the Army secretary and the secretary of defense constrained what he could do on the day of the attack. As a mob battered Capitol and D.C. Metropolitan Police officers, 300 unarmed Guard personnel and the 40-member QRF stood by—nearby, but unable to help. 

Discussing Reforms

Although lawmakers focused intensely on the delays in the Guard’s deployment to the Capitol, some of their colleagues suggested that the committees would be better served by directing their attention to the topic of reforms—ensuring no other violent event is able to disrupt the work of Congress. Sen. Rand Paul, for instance, quipped during a March 3 hearing that Congress risked getting “too bogged down in the details of Jan. 6 and forget[ting] about what could have actually fixed this.” 

Capitol Police and the Capitol Police Board

Most of the reforms lawmakers weighed concerned the Capitol Police and the Capitol Police Board. For the force itself, those items included ensuring officers are outfitted with the proper equipment, especially riot gear, and that Capitol Police leadership updates training programs to include exercises that prepare officers for civil disturbance and responding to the infiltration of the Capitol by large groups. Testimony revealed that only four of seven Capitol Police Civil Disturbance Units currently have riot gear. And unlike their counterparts at D.C. Metropolitan Police, not all Capitol Police officers are required to have some basic level of training in civil disturbance. In testimony on March 3, Richard Braddock, the chief administrative officer for Capitol Police, stated that the department is exploring ways to give supervisors “enhanced refresher training” in civil disturbance and generally is reviewing how the agency trains its recruits. 

During Legislative Branch Subcommittee hearings, Capitol Police acknowledged a need to communicate and reinforce its existing policies more effectively to ensure officers know which protocols and guidance to follow during an emergency. As Pittman testified on Feb. 25, officers were “unsure of when to use lethal force” on Jan. 6 and did not correctly execute a lockdown order. And as she later explained to Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, communication between Capitol Police leaders and officers broke down on Jan. 6 because the department’s “incident command protocols were not adhered to.”

Reiterating their frustration that Capitol Police leaders failed to see the Jan. 5 Norfolk report or anticipate in the department’s own intelligence assessments how violent the Jan. 6 demonstrations would become, lawmakers also pressed Pittman to outline the steps Capitol Police is taking to reform its intelligence shop. In an exchange with Rep. Jennifer Wexton on March 3, Pittman stated that the department’s director of intelligence “has been given specific direction” to communicate with Capitol Police JTTF agents, and those agents “also know to communicate directly” with the director now. This process, Pittman hoped, would ensure important intelligence would not again get stuck in the department’s chain of command. 

The acting chief also noted that the department’s fiscal 2022 budget request—which seeks approval to hire 212 more officers and 47 more civilian employees—would provide the agency’s intelligence division with eight additional analysts and 12 contractors. This would amount to a significant personnel increase for the division, which currently houses only 13 analysts. 

Whereas lawmakers indicated that Capitol Police would not lack funding and resources, their posture toward the department’s overseer suggested that the Capitol Police Board faces an uncertain fate. While most committee members expressed interest in reforming the board’s structure and processes to improve its ability to make decisions during a crisis, House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro cast the body as a “vestigial” organ of the congressional bureaucracy, perhaps signaling openness to the idea of eliminating the board entirely. 

Sund, for his part, advocated giving the Capitol Police chief the authority to request the assistance of the National Guard, citing a need for a “streamlined process” during “exigent circumstances.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who co-chaired the joint Senate hearings and leads the Rules Committee, confirmed that change was coming for that process. She pointed to “general agreement” among members that the current procedure is ill suited for an emergency.

Though lawmakers talked about reforming the Capitol Police Board, they never gathered all of its current or former members together for questioning in a single setting. Instead, Congress heard piecemeal from past and present board members across several hearings and have yet to hear publicly from the acting Senate sergeant-at-arms, who replaced Stenger when he resigned after the insurrection. Herrera Beutler noticed this logistical oversight during the second Legislative Branch Subcommittee hearing on the Capitol assault and suggested to Chairman Ryan that it would be “helpful” to have the entire board in front of the subcommittee “at once” for questioning.

Intelligence Collection

Across the hearings, senators and representatives focused far more on reforms to policing and intelligence sharing than they did on pushing for changes to intelligence collection practices or priorities. In response to the criticism from Warner described earlier, Smislova stated that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis has begun to take steps to correct its failure to anticipate how violent the “Save America” demonstrations would become. She mentioned, for instance, that the division met during the week of Feb. 22-26 to discuss the possibility of contracting with outside experts in domestic violent extremism and is considering hiring more analysts of its own. 

Sanborn similarly remarked that the FBI is reviewing its failures. And when Sen. Gary Peters, the HSGAC chairman, asked her if the FBI would commit to providing “any threat reporting, even if it’s not yet corroborated or fully analyzed, relating to the security of the Capitol, to the U.S. Capitol Police, both sergeants-at-arms, and congressional and committee leadership,” Sanborn stated that she “believed [she] can do that.”

The Challenge of Conflicting Recommendations

The testimony at the hearings nevertheless foreshadowed a problem that may arise as committees continue to probe the Capitol assault, and federal agencies and other individuals and entities conduct after-action reviews: Investigators may arrive at different findings and issue conflicting recommendations. Such a diversity of perspectives will likely be a strength as officials work to determine how best to move forward. But it might also sow some confusion, particularly depending on the format in which conclusions are shared. Although Sen. Rob Portman mentioned in passing that the joint HSGAC and Rules Committee probe will issue a report on the insurrection and the failures that enabled it, the Legislative Branch Subcommittee has not specified what, if any, formal shape its recommendations will take. 

On March 5, the first set of Jan. 6 recommendations debuted in the form of a report that outlines proposals for a series of improvements to Capitol security. That report, created by a task force led by retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, was the culmination of a six-week review commissioned by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Several recommendations in the report mirror reforms Capitol security officials and lawmakers discussed during the hearings, such as increasing the intelligence capacity of the Capitol Police and expediting the process of requesting National Guard assistance. Honoré’s report seems poised to be the first of many, particularly if Congress moves forward with any of the bills that would create a 9/11-style commission to review the events on and leading up to Jan. 6. 

What’s Still to Come?

Although the first series of hearings on Jan. 6 is over, there will likely be more to come. Klobuchar indicated as much at the close of the first joint Senate hearing, when she stated that HSGAC and the Rules Committee would hold “additional hearings.”

On this front, it is also worth remembering that the committees that gave themselves perhaps the broadest mandate to investigate events and issues related to Jan. 6 have yet to show the public their work. In a Jan. 16 letter, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Judiciary, Homeland Security, and Oversight and Reform committees announced that they had opened a “review” of “the events of January 6 and related threats against the Nation’s peaceful transition of power.” The letter stated that the committees’ investigation would follow three inquiries, the first of which focuses intensely on the issue of intelligence. Since Jan. 16, however, the committees have played their cards close to the chest, giving little public indication about the direction of their probe or developments in their work. While it is difficult to know what has gone on behind the scenes, it seems possible that a delay in appointing members to the House Intelligence Committee has held up the four committees’ joint investigative work. It would be surprising if these committees declined to hold open hearings once their investigation is further along.

Moreover, that the committees’ letter highlighted the issue of intelligence so prominently—and requested a series of briefings from the FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Counterterrorism Center, the Homeland Security Office of Intelligence and Analysis, and other relevant Homeland Security components—also suggests that they may do a better job probing failures in intelligence collection than the committees that have held hearings thus far. 

Any hearings to come should embrace the good practices on display in the initial set. Save for a handful of brief exchanges, the opening hearings were refreshingly free of partisan sniping. This reflected a conscious effort by the chairs and ranking minority members of the committees to proceed in a bipartisan fashion—something they talked about at almost every hearing. They also facilitated productive conversation by tweaking the usual rules for debate. In the House, for example, Ryan enriched the quality of conversation in the hearings he chaired by “tak[ing] some liberties,” as he put it, with the chamber’s 5-minute rule, allowing lawmakers to pose follow-up questions and “tease out” answers to their inquiries rather than cutting them off the moment their allotted time expired. 

In the Senate, lawmakers skillfully managed the few attempts to spread misinformation. When Sen. Ron Johnson suggested on two occasions that provocateurs and protesters masquerading as Trump supporters bore responsibility for the violence on Jan. 6, his colleagues refused to give his claims undue attention. On the second occasion, Klobuchar quickly dispatched Johnson’s assertions with a brief series of questions to Sanborn, refuting the Wisconsin senator’s remarks. And at the end of the first joint Senate hearing, in what seemed to be a reference to Johnson, Klobuchar asked that the public not “let the words of a few become the story here.” 

Johnson’s questions may not be the full story, but they are a part of it. Among the shortcomings of the hearings was that they did not, and indeed probably could not, address the role that sitting lawmakers played in stoking the Big Lie—the false claim that Joe Biden cheated his way to the presidency—that led to the Jan. 6 violence. Instead, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and Johnson—the men who proudly led the opposition to certifying the Electoral College results in the Senate—got to ask questions of the witnesses like anyone else, their conduct aside. 

The hearings weren’t perfect. Lawmakers’ focus was at times misplaced. They allotted too little of their time to questions of intelligence collection and implicit bias. But they will have the opportunity to correct these errors in future hearings and in the investigations still unfolding behind closed doors. The ball is in their court.