Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., gives her opening remarks as Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., left, looks on, as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds its first public hearing to reveal the findings of a year-long investigation, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 9, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Congressional hearings tend to leave sounds and images lingering in the mind. I will never forget the methodical drone of John Dean’s voice explaining that he had told Richard Nixon there was a cancer on his presidency, or the bland sangfroid of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman correcting Representative Devin Nunes, “Ranking member, it’s ‘Lieutenant Colonel Vindman,’ please.”

And it will be a long time before I forget the Capitol police officer Caroline Edwards’s description of holding the line, protecting the citadel from armed thugs: “There were officers on the ground. They were bleeding, they were throwing up … I was slipping in people’s blood.”

That image will be hard to efface; the challenge now is to show that the blood stains the hands of Donald Trump.

After two failed impeachments, the third set of congressional inquisitors must march up the same hill that defeated the first two—the enormous childlike incoherence of Trump’s personality and the skillful way he deploys that incoherence to confuse ordinary minds. Remember that he has proclaimed that two stark proofs of his criminality—his July 25, 2019, phone call to Volodymyr Zelensky demanding Ukrainian help in smearing Joe Biden in exchange for military help, and his January 2, 2021, call bidding Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to reverse the presidential election in Georgia—were both “perfect.”

As has been pointed out by commentators, “perfect” is a Trump term meaning “not quite incriminating”—like one wiseguy asking another, “Did you do that thing with the guy who had the problem with our friend from over there?”

Was Trump’s conduct up to and on January 6 also “perfect”—or can it be brought home to him, this time, in vivid terms that he tried to destroy, once and for all, the American Republic as we have known it for the past 250 years? Can more of the country be persuaded of what a large minority already knows—that Trump’s buffoonery, like the makeup on Stephen King’s Pennywise the Dancing Clown, conceals the ravenous face of a political monster?

On the strength of last night’s opening hearing, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol may constitute the most formidable set of harpoons Trump has faced.

The committee’s opening presentation on Thursday night was like one of those espionage movies that seem, at the beginning, to be switching back and forth between two unrelated stories, and then slowly reveal the fatal connections between them. On one side of the split screen, we have the videotaped testimony from top Trump officials of a White House in chaos, with a president shedding his sane advisers in favor of charlatans like low-level Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark, MyPillow entrepreneur Mike Lindell, “Kraken” lawyer Sydney Powell, and legal Sméagol John Eastman. On the other, we have a gathering of street thugs in body armor on D.C. streets on January 6, executing what seems to be an eerily organized plan of attack against the Capitol and its defenders like Officer Edwards. Like filmgoers, Americans at home are asking what the connection is between these two story threads. In a properly directed suspense film, the idea that there is such a connection becomes irresistible in the first reel and inescapable by the final scenes.

If I am right about this narrative strategy, future public hearings will show us a desperate, unmoored Trump reaching out for violent helpers—a through line between the president and the two neofascist street gangs, the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, who were the most aggressive and organized part of the mob that sacked the Capitol on January 6. On the one hand, we have the fascist leaders conferring in a parking deck; on the other, we have a president who seems to know that something big is about to go down.

Trump, as far as we know, never invited Enrique Tarrio of the Proud Boys to the White House or called Stewart Rhodes of the Oath Keepers on the phone. But one of Trump’s enablers and hangers-on, like Roger Stone, Steve Bannon, or Sydney Powell, may, in the end, have functioned as a cutout (what Willie Cicci in The Godfather: Part II called “a buffer”) through whom the link can be drawn. Perhaps social media signals may have become so clear that anyone can see what is being conveyed.

If that is the story the committee will tell, they seem to have a strategy for getting there. Only two committee members—Chair Bennie Thompson and Vice Chair Liz Cheney—made opening statements or questioned witnesses at all. Both were as efficient and focused as cruise missiles, setting out the two wings of the plot and setting them in motion toward each other.

Neither is someone I’d like to face across a baize table, and they represented both themselves and lost eras of American history. Thompson was clearly aware that his very presence as chair—a Black American from the heart of the old slave South—was an implicit rebuke to the treachery of the last group of oath breakers to menace Washington; his opening statement situated Trump’s egotistical flailings against the humility of Abraham Lincoln, who made clear long before the 1864 election that, if defeated, he would let the Union fall rather than seek to remain in office in violation of his own constitutional oath.

Cheney’s presence—the implacable calm with which she summarized the damning facts—evoked a different history: the lost voice of the Republican Party as it once was, harsh, conservative, and yet at its inner core sane and patriotic. There was in her affect far more of Everett Dirksen or Gerald Ford than of, say, Jim Jordan or Ron DeSantis—a voice from within the American tradition rather than out of the bizarre Mordor of Twitter, QAnon, and One America News Network. “Over multiple months, Donald Trump oversaw and coordinated a sophisticated seven-part plan to overturn the presidential election and prevent the transfer of presidential power,” she said. “In our hearings, you will see evidence of each element of this plan.”

As the film’s two story lines draw closer, can the connection between them be made so clear and the story so persuasive that millions of voters who would prefer to think about gas prices (or really anything except the future of democracy) can be brought to see that this is not just a “partisan squabble” but a mortal danger to all of us—a danger that still lies in wait, as deadly as ever, and equally bizarre?

Garrett Epps

Follow Garrett on Twitter @ProfEpps. Garrett Epps is legal affairs editor of the Washington Monthly. He has taught constitutional law at American University, the University of Baltimore, Boston College, Duke, and the University of Oregon. He is the author of American Epic: Reading the U.S. Constitution.