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At Rancorous Hearing On Jan. 6 Insurrection, Partisan Divide Takes Center Stage

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., questions former acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller during a hearing Wednesday on the U.S. Capitol breach. Miller testified remotely.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., questions former acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller during a hearing Wednesday on the U.S. Capitol breach. Miller testified remotely.

Former Trump administration officials testified for the first time on the Jan. 6 insurrection before a congressional committee on Wednesday, putting on center stage the bitter partisan divide over the role former President Donald Trump and his supporters played that day.

As Republicans looked to focus on what they said were partisan Democratic games to control the narrative of the riot, Democrats on the House Oversight Committee took former acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller and former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen to task.

"You were AWOL. You were AWOL, Mr. Secretary. You were AWOL," Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois told Miller in one of the sharpest exchanges of the day. "Remember, as you said before, you have responsibility for everything, something goes wrong — quote, unquote — 'I own it completely, 110%.' Sir, you partially own this mayhem."

Miller shot back at Krishnamoorthi's claim.

"That's completely inaccurate," he said. "That's completely inaccurate."

The hearing, which turned repeatedly heated, magnified the gulf between congressional Democrats and Republicans faced with critical decisions on how to respond to the attack, and whether to install a 9/11-style commission to examine its fallout or issue supplemental funding to transform the U.S. Capitol Police force.

Many times on Wednesday, as they had previewed in their prepared remarks, Miller and Rosen were steadfast in their defense of their response on the day of the breach.

Democrats took particular aim at Miller for the hours-long delay to approve a request to deploy the National Guard, according to previous testimony. Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., said Miller was reversing himself on his testimony by now claiming an organized conspiracy fueled the riot.

"That's ridiculous," Miller shot back.

"You're ridiculous!" Lynch responded.

The tense exchanges came more than four months after the siege, and after Democrats said much information remains to be learned about what led up to the failure to protect the Capitol that day. It also came the same day that Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming was removed as the No. 3 House Republican for her criticism over Trump's "big lie" that the election was stolen and his role in inciting the attack.

"No member of Congress whether a freshman representative or a House conference chair should face punishment for speaking the truth about what happened that day," House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said in her opening remarks Wednesday. "As Congresswoman Cheney said last night, and I quote, 'Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar. We must speak the truth. Our election was not stolen and America has not failed.' "

The hearing with Miller and Rosen, who appeared remotely alongside Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee, devolved at times into a partisan re-litigation of Jan. 6.

In another tense moment, Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California demanded Miller apologize for his actions that contributed to the failures seen the day of the attack. Miller refused, saying he wanted to "highlight the incredible job" of the military and civilians who defended the Capitol. And he said he stood by every decision he made.

"I have never been more offended on this committee by a witness statement than yours. You are more concerned about defending your own reputation, and justifying your own actions, than the sanctity of this Capitol and the sanctity of this democracy," Khanna said. "Have you no sense of accountability? No sense of shame?"

Republicans, for their part, focused on defending Trump, his supporters who died that day and on taking aim at Democrats for what they called "hypocrisy" for opposing their objections to the presidential election results.

GOP Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia highlighted the official "natural" cause of death recently issued for fallen Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick. Hice argued it wasn't clear, as a result, that he died at the hands of rioters.

The D.C. medical examiner recently ruled that Sicknick died of strokes hours after rioters sprayed him with a chemical substance, but the Capitol Police said the case is still considered a line-of-duty death.

Hice then listed the Trump supporters who died.

"The narrative needs to be cleared up," said Hice, a key Trump ally who is running to become Georgia's secretary of state to unseat a perceived foe of the former president's.

GOP Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, also a Trump loyalist, asked Rosen if the election was stolen.

"I do not know of evidence to say it was. I think you are alluding to a troublesome thing about the legitimacy of our past elections," Rosen said. "And I think it's really necessary and important for all of us to find ways to restore our citizens' faith in the electoral process and in our representative system of government."

Meanwhile, Maloney said Democrats are still awaiting details from the Justice Department and FBI about exactly what went wrong.

"Did the Trump administration fail to adequately prepare for violence?" she asked.

Maloney noted that the panel had also invited FBI Director Christopher Wray to testify, and even rescheduled twice to accommodate his schedule, but he declined to appear. Instead, Wray is slated to appear before the panel in June, Maloney said.

Under questioning, Miller and Rosen also said that they didn't speak to Trump on Jan. 6 and didn't need to because they had the authority needed to make calls for their respective agencies.

But Maloney wasn't buying that assertion.

"I think that the lack of direct communication from President Trump speaks volumes," she said, later adding, "The president was nowhere to be found, leaving it to others to scramble to respond."

Domestic extremism

Meanwhile, in a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., criticized Trump for helping foment domestic extremism, citing his 2017 comments after a demonstration of far-right activists in Charlottesville, Va., that led to a woman's death as well as his words on Jan. 6 before a group of his supporters who stormed the Capitol.

"You can't strike a match near gas and then act surprised when it catches fire," Leahy said.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., asked Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas whether public officials' statements that the 2020 election "was stolen or the result of fraud" increased the threat of violence by extremists.

Mayorkas said that "the spread of false narratives are used to fuel extremist ideologies" and that "we do see in the narratives that we have studied the fact that false narratives attributed to public officials gain traction in social media."

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., asked Mayorkas if he agreed with a statement by Cheney that Trump, by continuing to call into question the election results, "risks inciting further violence."

Mayorkas agreed, saying that such false narratives "create a lack of confidence in our democratic institutions and sometimes worse," and "can lead people who are predisposed to violence to commit acts of violence."

He added, "Tragically we saw that on Jan. 6."

Attorney General Merrick Garland also testified at the hearing on the threat posed by domestic extremists, reiterating that federal law enforcement views such groups as the preeminent threat facing the United States.

Mayorkas told that panel his agency is redoubling efforts to target all forms of domestic extremism, including establishing a domestic terrorism branch within the department's Office of Intelligence and Analysis as well as making $77 million grants available to states and urban areas to "prevent, prepare for and respond to acts of domestic violent extremism."

Mayorkas has also launched an internal review to address potential threats related to domestic extremism within his department's ranks. He told Leahy he will make the result of that review public.

Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the panel, said Democrats "would have the American people believe that all domestic, violent extremists are far right-wing, white supremacists and that all Republicans are complicit in their actions."

Shelby pointed to unrest in several cities last summer, which he said was linked to antifa and Black Lives Matter protesters. But Garland said that he had not seen "a more dangerous threat to democracy than the invasion of the Capitol."

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Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.
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