The House delivers its 800-page report on the January 6th riot

IT WAS THE most inauspicious start of perhaps any Congress in history. On January 6th 2021, a typically pro forma session to confirm the next president was violently interrupted by an angry, armed mob of Donald Trump supporters, hyped up on the myth of a stolen election that the former president had been fostering for months. They ransacked the Capitol, seeking to detain and lynch their political enemies, in a desperate bid to keep their leader in power. Nearly two years have passed, and the legislative session begun then is nearly over. One of its final acts was reckoning with what happened on that day.

Late on December 22nd, the special congressional committee created to investigate the attack released its anticipated 800-page final report. The timing of the release, with Christmas approaching, may limit the report’s audience, but its purpose is less to be widely read as much as to serve as an authoritative history of that day (if a committee of historians had subpoena power).

The report’s most important findings—of the deep scepticism the president’s own advisers and officials had about his claims of a fraudulent election, and the harebrained legal schemes Mr Trump grasped for—were already well known. They had been unveiled not just in the impeachment trial that took place soon after the president left office in ignominy, but also in a series of public hearings staged by the committee over this summer, scripted to be consumed like a dramatic documentary series.

After brief flickers of conscience over Mr Trump’s conduct, many Republicans reverted to a kind of know-nothingism about what happened on January 6th. The task of the committee has been to force them—and the country—to confront it. What happened that day was not the unfortunate result of a spontaneous riot gone wrong, the committee concludes, but the logical endpoint of a “multi-part conspiracy to overturn the lawful results of the 2020 presidential election”.

For those who watched the events closely in real time, reading the report adds a few details and a mountain of footnotes. The minute-by-minute accounting has the calm horror of aeroplane-crash reports: reading about the three hours that Mr Trump spent watching the attempted insurrection on a television at the White House, or the details of the storming of the Capitol, from the first breach when a member of the mob broke a window with a riot shield stolen from a police officer. Here is the palpable disgust even of some of Mr Trump’s most loyal advisers. “We all look like domestic terrorists now”, texted Hope Hicks, a close aide, to another official.

Mr Trump aimed to plead fraud from the start, as when he declared, “frankly, we did win this election” on the night of the presidential contest, with millions of ballots still uncounted. The president’s theory about how the election had been stolen was ever-shifting, because it never emerged from any material fact, with the campaign’s accusations laughed out of dozens of courtrooms. Entirely new constitutional theories—such as the notion that the sitting vice-president had untrammelled authority to select the next president—were concocted to try to steal an election and undermine the republic in the guise of rescuing it.

Resistance to these schemes by sitting officials, many of them Republicans, scuppered the plan. They debunked the conspiracy theories that Mr Trump tried to foist upon them. “You guys may not be following the internet the way I do,” he huffed. Senior officials in the Department of Justice (DoJ) did not take up the president’s suggestion to seize voting machines, and threatened mass resignation if a sycophantic lawyer who planned to tell state legislatures to overturn their election results was appointed as attorney-general.

“Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen,” Mr Trump told his attorney-general at the time. Thankfully, the man resisted. Republican governors in Arizona and Georgia rebuffed their president and certified his loss. Despite the pressure heaped on him, Vice-President Mike Pence did his constitutional duty and certified the transition of power.

If the committee report is a factual recounting, it is also an indictment. “There’s no question that President Trump had the power to end the insurrection,” the committee members write. “He was not only the commander-in-chief of the U.S. military, but also of the rioters.” Though they have no power to pursue criminal charges, they can make criminal referrals to the DoJ for further investigation. They recommended the investigation of the former president for serious crimes, including giving aid and comfort to insurrection, seditious conspiracy and other charges. They suggest invoking a largely forgotten provision of the constitution, written after the American civil war, that bars insurrectionists from holding federal office again.

Because so much of the blame is laid on the moral failings of one man, the report pays less attention to other reforms that might prevent a repeat of January 6th. Of the flat-footed preparation by law-enforcement agencies, for instance, the committee writes that, “while the danger to the Capitol posed by an armed and angry crowd was foreseeable, the fact that the president of the United States would be the catalyst of their fury and facilitate the attack was unprecedented in American history.”

Despite all this, Mr Trump is not finished politically. He has already declared his candidacy for the presidential election in 2024. Nor is he repentant. In September he pledged full pardons for those convicted of participating in the attack were he to win again, “with an apology to many”. Earlier this month he mused about suspending the constitution.

Yet if Mr Trump does not succeed in his revenge candidacy, it may be less because of his conduct or legal woes, and more because many Republicans have realised that he is simply an electoral loser. Even so, the deeper causes of America’s democratic dysfunction—the extreme partisanship, the febrile media ecosystem that enables it—persist. It is reasonable to think that many of the Republicans who are waiting to succeed Mr Trump would not instigate such an attack on America’s democratic institutions. But a lot of damage has already been done.

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