What we know about the days leading up to the Capitol attack

As the Jan. 6 committee begins public hearings, we get two perspectives on what happened during the Capitol attack and the days leading up to it. Donell Harvin, former head of Homeland Security and Intelligence for the District of Columbia and senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation, and Andrea Bernstein, journalist and co-host of the 'Will Be Wild' podcast, join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And to discuss more about what we do and do not know about January 6 and the days leading up to it, I'm joined by Donell Harvin. He is the former head of homeland security and intelligence for the District of Columbia. He is now a senior policy researcher with the RAND Corporation.

    And Andrea Bernstein, she's an investigative journalist and co-host of the "Will Be Wild" podcast. It's an eight-part series about the Capitol attack.

    And we welcome both of you to the "NewsHour."

    Andrea Bernstein, I'm going to start with you.

    You have done so much reporting on this already. What are the main unanswered questions out there that you have about January the 6th?

  • Andrea Bernstein, Investigative Journalist:

    It is great to be with you, Judy.

    And hello to Donell, who we spoke to for our podcast.

    I mean, I think the biggest question we still don't know is, to what extent was the president and/or his advisers aware of plans to attack the Capitol on January 6? We do know a stunning amount of information now that we did not know on January 6 about what President Trump — then-President Trump did.

    We know he pressured his vice president, Mike Pence, not to certify the vote. We know he pressured his acting attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, to send a letter to state legislatures telling them not to send up slates of electors. We know that he contemplated asking the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security to consider impounding election machines.

    So, we know that all of that was going on in the president's mind. We also know that he tried to get Georgia to find 11,780 votes. However, what we don't know is, did he know anything about the plans, well-developed by early January, as we now know from the various prosecutions that have moved forward? Did he know about that? Were there any intermediaries? What kind of knowledge did he have of the specifics?

    So, that's one of the things that I will be looking to see if the hearings answered — answer. That said, even if they don't, it doesn't mean that the president didn't try to interfere with the peaceful transfer of power. We know that he did.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Donell Harvin, in your capacity at the time as the head of homeland security for the District of Columbia, you were seeing enough out there that worried you that caused you to say to others that they should be prepared, that something was coming.

    What did you see?

    Donell Harvin, Former D.C. Chief of Homeland Security and Intelligence: Well, thank you for having me.

    We saw a lot of information, what we call intelligence, that suggested that this would happen. And, to be quite honest with you don't need to be a highly trained intelligence operative, like my staff are, were, to know that was coming. You can just open up Twitter or Facebook and see some of the vitriol that was going on around January 6, which really was the bulk of what we were looking at.

    Our job is to kind of sift through those thousands, tens of thousands of posts, and look for what we call posts of concern, intelligence, bits of intelligence that we can string together, particularly from worrisome individuals or groups, that would lead us to think that the threat environment had changed or evolved.

    And we saw that evolve and get even worse in the weeks leading up to January 6.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you — you tried to get higher-ups around the government to do something about it. Many of your warnings were not heeded.

    Andrea Bernstein, you know — you were looking at what was going on with one of these extremist groups, the Proud Boys. What did you see in terms of planning on their part? What did you learn later about the planning on their part?

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    Well, I think that we knew from very early on — you could see it right in the videos — that members of the Proud Boys went to the Capitol early, before the president even had begun speaking in some cases, and were president — present for many of the pivotal events of that day, for example, breaching the initial outer barricades, breaking the windows and getting into the Capitol that way.

    But what we learned this week in an indictment that was unveiled by the Department of Justice was that they had planned to attack the Capitol. They had a fairly sophisticated understanding, according to prosecutors, of how the constitutional process worked. They believe that, if they could delay the certification, that it wouldn't be valid.

    They were prepared to provoke a constitutional crisis, according to these papers. Now, they have pleaded not guilty, but it's a very serious charge. And it is now the second seditious conspiracy case. There's another one against the Oath Keepers. In that case, the leader of the group wanted to contact the president on January 6. We don't know why he thought he could. But that's one of the things we may learn in these hearings.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Donell Harvin, from where you sat, watching all this closely, watching it unfold, reading Twitter and other online sources, how close do you think the country came to actually having a coup take place?

  • Donell Harvin:

    I think we came incredibly close, in my professional opinion.

    Lawmakers came within hundreds of feet or just minutes of an angry, violent mob. And I have no doubt that, if they came across a lawmaker, irrespective of the party, that there would be a lot more than shouting.

    The other thing is that you look at the fragility of our democracy, if it hangs on one individual doing what's morally and constitutionally right. And were it not for Mike Pence being able to be whisked away safely by his Secret Service detail, and then returning to do the business of the government, we would have a different conversation quite possibly now.

    And so I'm really interested to see where the January 6 Committee takes us. But I think that we came very, very close to having a constitutional crisis, as Andrea said. And we saw all this being played out online and before this — before January 6. This is exactly what these groups were aligning together to do. It was to disrupt the constitutional process of the election and to stir a lot of people to come to D.C. and create anarchy, essentially.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Andrea Bernstein, I know you have stayed in touch through your reporting with a number of these individuals who belong to these extremist groups.

    How do they look back on what happened? And what — and what do they think of this committee process?

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    Well, I think one of the things that's very disturbing is that January 6 brought a lot of these groups together. And many of them remain defiant and unrepentant.

    And intelligence experts have told us that January 6 was the beginning, that we are still suffering from these same forces, and that we need to really examine what could happen in the future, because these things have not gone away.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Donell Harvin, just quickly, is your view the same, that you think these groups are still determined to do something?

  • Donell Harvin:

    Absolutely.

    Our domestic intelligence enterprise has assessed that many of the individuals that were not caught or arrested that day or didn't travel to D.C. were upset that they didn't get an opportunity to do it. And they felt that they could have made a difference had they come to D.C.

    And so I think the fight — the fight is going back to the states.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Donell Harvin, Andrea Bernstein, we thank you both.

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we will have full coverage of the January 6 hearings tonight and in the coming weeks.

    Tonight's hearing begins at 8:00 p.m. Eastern here on PBS.

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