Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an 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 cohosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.


Late Thursday night, the House select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection released its final report, a bulging 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 intimidation, lies, threats of violence and political machinations to attempt to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s election to the presidency.

Courtesy Nicole Hemmer

The committee has now forwarded several criminal referrals for Trump and others to the Department of Justice, and referred several Republican members of Congress to the House Ethics Committee for failing to comply with subpoenas. (Trump slammed the “highly partisan Unselect Committee Report” in a Truth Social post and denounced it as a “witch hunt.”)

After nine televised sessions that drew millions of viewers, the final report may 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 constructed lies about voter fraud, to the strongarming of state officials, to the progressively preposterous 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 the hearings this summer. Yet the written report offers a way to dig deeper: to read a compelling narrative, shored up 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 insurrection and its aftermath. Instead, it represents another test: for the justice system, for elected officials and for the American people. How each responds to the report will determine whether the insurrection at the Capitol was a wake-up call or, as the committee put it, “a precedent, and invitation to danger, for future elections.”

The report now joins a long line of government reports meant to persuade the public, promote reform and make the case for accountability. Such reports have become prominent in the half-century since Watergate, as special commissions and independent prosecutors have vied with investigative journalists in their quests to hold the executive branch, especially the president and intelligence community, accountable for corruption and failures. That’s both because the post-Watergate era held out the potential for reform — Congress in the mid-1970s was a hive of activity as it created new constraints and oversight mechanisms — and for political retribution.

These high-profile reports often captured public attention for the secrets they revealed. The Church Committee report, the result of investigations in the mid-1970s into the intelligence community, exposed wide-ranging wrongdoing: assassination attempts, support for international coups, drug experiments, domestic spying. It led then-President Gerald Ford to issue an executive order barring political assassinations, but it also broke the reign of secrecy that had allowed intelligence operatives to act in lawless and often bizarre ways.

Reports often found eager audiences, in part for their explosive revelations but also in part for their style. The Starr Report, which covered investigations into then-President Bill Clinton’s sexual relationships and his efforts to conceal them, combined a peek-through-the-keyhole tone with lascivious details of the president’s liaisons. It became a bestseller. As did the 9/11 Commission Report, which presented the details of the terror attacks and their causes in such captivating detail that it not only sold briskly, but it was a finalist for the National Book Awards. (The report on the Attica prison uprising, written for a state-level commission in 1972, was also a finalist for the prestigious prize.)

But sales and awards, while signs of public interest and literary merit, are not the best measures of a report’s success. What matters most are the accountability and reforms that follow. In the case of the Church Committee, intelligence agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Security Agency were brought to heel. 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 funneled money to rebel groups in Nicaragua despite a congressional prohibition initially resulted in a number of resignations, indictments and convictions. But waning public interest and a flurry of presidential pardons allowed some implicated government officials to not only walk free but to return to high-profile careers within the Republican Party and conservative movement. (“The Iran-Contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed,” the special prosecutor said in response to the pardons.)

For the January 6 commission, this is a real danger. Trump has already indicated that, should he be reelected to the presidency, he would seriously consider pardoning those involved in the insurrection — no idle threat, given his frequent pardons for political allies while in office.

Which is a reminder that, when it comes to accountability and reform, the work extends well beyond the lifespan of the committee. Safeguarding democratic systems falls now on a variety of groups. The Department of Justice has to decide whether to act on the committee’s referrals, including the historic criminal referrals against Trump. Congress, too, finds itself in a post-Watergate position, acutely aware of the need to create far more legal constraints and consequences for executive malfeasance. The recent passage of the Electoral Count Reform Act is one step in that direction; many more await.

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

In her newly released testimony, Hutchinson reflected on her journey to becoming one of the star witnesses of the hearing. Her first two depositions had been an exercise in evasion, as she followed her lawyer’s instructions to claim she could not recall in response to most of the committee’s questions. The problem for Hutchinson was that she could recall: She had clear memories of much of the planning leading up to the insurrection, and detailed recollections 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 blunt, I was kind of disgusted with myself. I became somebody I never thought that I would become.”

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

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