Will We Ever Know the Full Truth about Jan. 6? A Conversation with Hugo Lowell, Guardian reporter covering the Jan. 6 investigation.
I’m pleased to bring you this interview with Hugo Lowell, who is a congressional reporter in Washington and covers national politics for the Guardian. Hugo's coverage has focused on the House select committee investigation into the January 6 attack on the Capitol and the role played by former president Donald Trump. He broke the story that Trump's former White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, turned over to the committee a presentation recommending Trump declare a national security emergency to return himself to office.
He was also first to report that Trump had directed former aides to refuse cooperation with the investigation, and that Trump personally called political operatives at the Willard Hotel hours before the Jan. 6 attack and sought ways to stop President Biden's certification. Before covering Congress, Hugo wrote about the Russian doping scandal and the IOC for the "i" newspaper. Our conversation took place on April 1, 2022, and has been edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): In a way, you straddle two vantage points on the American political system, because you cover the U.S. Congress for the Guardian. Do you think that that gives you a different perspective on what goes on in Washington and in Congress?
Hugo Lowell (HL): I think it does, but more because of my own professional background. I previously covered sports and sports politics. I covered FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, the Russian doping scandal, and other episodes of corruption. Working on those kinds of stories gave me the best preparation for covering Congress and Jan. 6. Once you've covered those, everything else seems a lot easier and more open and reporter friendly.
Covering complicated and controversial investigations is maybe why I've been able to uncover things that other people have missed.
RBG: That leads to my next question. You've broken important stories that shed light on the actions of Trump and his inner circle. What’s your secret? (laughter). And how do you see Jan. 6?
HL: I've approached the January 6th committee and its investigation into Trump's role in January 6th and the Capitol attack by talking to a bunch of different people on Capitol Hill, including former Trump administration officials. I tried to piece together a theory of how the committee was going to go about its work and my own theory of how things came together on January 6th.
And I use those as a guide to my coverage and to think, where will the committee go next? Is it investigating these threads that I've picked out? Am I properly incorporating what the committee is examining in my own work? That way, I have a guiding sense of what is the ultimate goal that the committee is trying to achieve and what I’m trying to achieve in understanding what happened on January 6th.
RBG: The protagonists of this event, from Trump to Roger Stone and Steve Bannon, are people who have been working against democracy for decades, using disinformation but also secrecy. Do you think we'll ever find out the full story of January 6th, either from the work of journalists like yourself, or the work of the committee?
HL: I do. I think these things always come out in the end, whether it's through a court process or the committee's investigation or reporting. For instance, there are some former Trump administration officials that might not talk to the committee, but might be quite prepared to talk to reporters, especially after the fact. Or people who might not want to talk to reporters, but they think, well, if I get subpoenaed, then I'll be prepared to cooperate. There are avenues for the information to get out.
In the case of former Trump officials, they just cannot get over the love of taking credit for things. This is the one thing that has struck me in this investigation, whether it's Bannon or Stone, or Garrett Ziegler, an aide to Peter Navarro in the White House.
They love taking credit for things that are borderline or actually unlawful or present serious threats to democracy. They revel in the spotlight. So, I feel like at some point the truth will eventually emerge.
RBG: Yes, the glamour of lawlessness. Very familiar. And on that note, have you developed ideas about Trump’s ability to survive whatever is thrown at him?
HL: I'm sure there are far more sophisticated people who've done really close analyses of how Trump's operated, but as a reporter I think that part of the reason a lot of the scandals seem to just get forgotten is because the news cycle moves on and there's just so much shocking news that comes out.
I did a story on John Eastman, the Trump lawyer who came up with this plan to throw the election, including returning Trump to office by rejecting slates of Biden electors. There was an email that Eastman sent where he acknowledged and conceded that he knew full well that his plan was unlawful and that it violated the Electoral Count Act.
Arguably, this is a really crucial piece of evidence, right? And if the Justice Department ever moves to indict anyone connected to that plan or the Willard [Hotel] effort, or any sort of scheme to violate the Electoral Account Act, there we have it, in black and white, that they knew it was unlawful and they pressed ahead anyway.
And then within a week, everyone, including myself, had all but forgotten about it because the next scandal had dropped. Ginni Thomas's text messages were out.
And I think the central feature of Trump, certainly during his four years in office, and now, while he's being investigated, is that shocking news comes out all of the time and everyone seems to just move on. It's quite extraordinary.
RBG: Yeah, that's a big problem when you have someone who is so unlawful in so many ways, as is Trump. The magnitude of ethics and other violations is hard to grasp.
HL: Yes, and these scandals only remain a thing if reporters continue to talk about them and put them in their stories. Otherwise, the momentum is lost and whether it’s shocking illegality or other kinds of shocking behavior, the perpetrators get a pass.
RBG: Are you optimistic about the future of democracy in America? You are uncovering the details of attempts to overthrow our democracy. But you're also following the diligent work of the House committee.
HL: I’d say I'm optimistic, but I have to reserve judgment until the committee completes its work. And if they do uncover criminality, whether the Justice Department takes action on it and whether it leads to some indictments. It's incredibly reassuring that the House select committee has been able to uncover so much information that we didn't previously know, whether it’s Eastman’s emails or Trump’s call logs.
Everyone likes to talk about how Congressional subpoenas have lost their power, but I think the select committee has reaffirmed its power. They've managed to get people to come in and talk to them. By going down routes of criminal contempt of Congress for subpoena defiance, people have started to come in.
When I first did that story about how Trump was telling his aides to defy the committee, the kind of the conventional thinking in Trumpworld was, the select committee's not going to be able to find anything because we will all just claim executive privilege. And the committee is going to be a joke.
And what happened is after they held Bannon in contempt, everyone else started to cooperate. It's actually proved that Congressional subpoenas still actually carry a lot of weight, both for everyday members of the public who might get subpoenaed and for Trump administration officials. Now they weren't so confident about the fact that they wouldn't have to testify when they were getting hauled in to the House office building.
RBG: It’s the usual authoritarian arrogance toward the rule of law, plus an underestimation of the value of legal and investigative process. And when they saw the rule of law enforced, and consequences laid out, they changed their behavior.
HL: Right. But on the flip side, it is worrying because while the contempt of Congress for Bannon came very quickly and convinced a lot of other administration officials to cooperate with the investigation, the Mark Meadows contempt has been sitting around for several months now. The pace of justice is very, very slow. Maybe necessarily, so, because we are going through due process and we're going through machinations that maybe we did not have during the Trump administration.
But there is a palpable fear among people connected to the investigation that even if the select committee uncovers unlawful and illegal behavior, if it takes the Justice Department too long to move on it, and Trump, for instance, declares his  candidacy, is the Justice Department really going to want to indict a presidential candidate months before an election? If that's what the timeline turns out to be.
So, there is a fear that if things take too long, all of this may be for nothing. And I think that weighs on the members and it weighs on the staff. And it weighs on me as well as a reporter trying to chronicle this investigation.