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Proof Launches Stage 2 of Its January 6 Coverage
Proof’s January 6 reporting—which has provoked lawsuit threats from and texts between key January 6 actors, and often appeared in the U.S. House record—is moving from investigation to evidence review.
“He [Seth Abramson] is like a dog with a bone.”
— Trump adviser Katrina Pierson to Women for America First Cofounder Amy Kremer, referring to the January 6 reporting at Proof
The first two years of Proof have been a wild ride.
This media outlet evolved into a sprawling, 14-section center for curatorial journalism that accrued a readership of 75,000 and became one of the Top 15 political substacks in the world.
It was cited in the successful House January 6 Committee referral of Steve Bannon for criminal prosecution by the Department of Justice. Its reports were entered into the Congressional record during the second impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump. It was the subject of private texts between two of the key event-planners behind January 6, Trump adviser Katrina Pierson and Women for America First capo Amy Kremer.
In 2022, the House January 6 Committee even reached out directly to Proof for aid.
Shortly thereafter, Proof published the fourth book in the New York Times-bestselling Proof series: Proof of Coup: How the Pentagon Shaped An Insurrection. The book tells the story of events so critical to national security, politically sensitive, and (not to put too fine a point on it) historically contingent—because they remain under active federal investigation—that they don’t even appear in the sprawling final report of the House January 6 Committee.
Proof has been the subject of lawsuit threats from key January 6 figures Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, as well as the co-founder of the Proud Boys, Gavin McInnes.
And Proof is currently being sued for $25 million by an attorney linked to the Flynn family, Kash Patel, Truth Social head (and former GOP congressman) Devin Nunes, and the First Amendment Praetorians (bodyguards for Flynn, Ali Alexander, Patrick Byrne, Sidney Powell and other Trumpist leaders in the post-election period in 2020).
January 6 reporting at Proof has been cited by major-media news outlets around the world, and even helped launched a Brazilian congressional inquiry into the actions of neo-fascist Eduardo Bolsonaro, the son of Trump ally and former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. (You can read much more about the odd, frenetic history of Proof here.)
And now, in these opening hours of 2023, Proof is about to enter a striking new phase in its celebrated January 6 investigation.
The Three Stages of An Investigation
From its founding in January 2021—just a week after the events of January 6—Proof has followed (a) the curatorial journalism methods I taught as a journalism professor at University of New Hampshire, and (b) the investigative methods that I employed as a federal criminal investigator in D.C. in the 1990s. My journalistic and investigative practices are informed by years of criminal defense work in multiple jurisdictions as an attorney, up to and including coordination and execution of investigative and trial-advocacy strategies in First-Degree Murder cases.
Every investigation worth its salt has at least three discrete stages.
(1) Building a theory of the case and collecting supporting evidence. Since every criminal case begins, on the defense side at least, with certain documents already prepared by the government—most notably police reports, but in some cases also photographs, timelines, witness interviews, maps, and other such investigative work product—an investigator is often in a position to develop an initial theory of the case (that is, a narrative of what most likely happened in a given situation and why) with the aid of these seminal documents.
January 6 is no exception. The work of law enforcement agents, corporate journalists, and independent researchers gave Proof a mountain of data with which to work in building a theory of the case for the coup plot behind January 6, as well as potential plans of action for collecting additional evidence that might confirm or deny such a theory. Those who don’t actually read Proof, and only casually consume social media content that discusses Proof, often mistake my work as a curatorial journalist (a type of investigative journalist) who has a background in criminal investigation and trial advocacy as the advancement of hard-and-fast notions about how a given criminal conspiracy unfolded. In fact, what Proof offers is the routine work of an investigator and a curatorial journalist—revealing what existing reliable evidence tells us, with an eye toward encouraging future investigations based on a well-sourced theory of the case.
To the extent Proof often ends its reports with explicit proposals for additional federal investigation(s), this project is clear to anyone who reads Proof and has a background in any of law, criminal investigation, or curatorial (investigative) journalism. It is also clear to anyone who simply approaches the work of this media outlet in good faith. All too often, however, what critics of Proof there are either never read Proof or do so with no background in (or even interest in) the professional pursuits that animate this site.
So much of the work that readers of Proof have found here over the last two years has been the basic work of a simultaneously journalistic and legalistic investigation in its earliest stages: synthesizing seminal evidence to create an investigative plan firmly rooted in a theory of the case, a theory that self-consciously remains unproven but is undergirded by what evidence presently exists. And since, in the law, proof is evidence that tends to support a given theory of a case (only those with no knowledge of the law equate the word proof to the phrase proof beyond a reasonable doubt), this publication has—from the day of its birth—been denominated Proof. If the aim of every report on this site had been to offer “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” for some ironclad and presumptively immovable theorem rather than “proof” advancing a mutable theory of the case, it would’ve instead been called Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.
So how do we know that Proof was successful in Stage 1 of its January 6 investigation?
For the reasons stated above: its work spooked key January 6 figures to the point that they obsessively discussed it backchannel, and in some instances even tried to shut it down; it was cited as part of the permanent Congressional record a number of times, including during both an impeachment trial and a successful federal investigation and prosecution of white-supremacist Trump adviser Steve Bannon; and it was deemed so essential to the journalism surrounding January 6 that not only was it repeatedly cited by major media, but led to the House January 6 Committee reaching out to its author.
Katrina Pierson, the trusted Donald Trump presidential adviser who was in charge of the precipitating event on January 6—Trump’s incitement-to-insurrection rally at the White House Ellipse, now the subject of a sprawling federal criminal investigation by the FBI—opined in 2021, as we now know from the House January 6 Committee’s final publication of data, that this author was “like a dog with a bone” when it comes to January 6: in other words, per the definition of that phrase, “stubborn, tenacious, persistent, relentless, and dogged.” While there can’t be a much better endorsement of the work done by Proof since mid-January 2021 than this, the fact that some media columnists—non-reporters whose job, more or less, is to capriciously separate U.S. journalists into the cool and the uncool—have written hit-pieces about Proof shot through with barely disguised envy underscores that few media outlets have been as successful at tearing down the layers of misinformation, disinformation, rumor and innuendo surrounding the events of January 6 as this one.
Which is why there was always going to be a Stage 2 to Proof’s January 6 reporting.
(2) Evidence review. Once any available initial (seminal) evidence has been reviewed, and a theory or dueling theories of the case developed, and evidence supporting that theory or theories pursued, a time inevitably comes for the most critical determination of all: has one theory of the case won out, in view of all the evidence now compiled?
Determining this takes an encompassing and sometimes lengthy evidentiary review—a process not nearly as dry as it sounds, as it operates upon not just seminal evidence and early supporting evidence but the entire universe of available evidence that the case investigators have been able to compile, collate, and curate over a protracted period of time (in the case of January 6, approximately two years).
It’s at this stage that a final determination is made about “what really happened.”
While invariably some evidence once desired will be finally found to be unavailable—will even have been destroyed or degraded, perhaps intentionally—it is in this second stage that decisions can and must be made, with the evidence present, about whether the evidence is sufficient to warrant a criminal prosecution (if the investigators are government investigators) or what defense will be offered if or when a prosecution commences (if the investigators are defense investigators).
What differentiates these two different perspectives are their ambitions. What conjoins them is that each must make a good-faith effort to determine “what really happened.”
Just as a prosecutor, aided by his or her investigators, can’t proceed with a prosecution unless he or she believes the case they will offer to a jury is a fully realized, evidence-undergirded narrative roughly answering to the description “what really happened”, a successful defense to criminal allegations always starts with—but may or may not end with—a similarly fully realized, evidence-undergirded narrative. Simply put, a defense attorney and defense investigator can’t do their jobs properly if they don’t have a fully formed record (whether memorialized or simply memorized) of what happened in a given criminal incident. They need this to determine how to use that record (or just some of it) to force government agents to meet their constitutional burden of proof.
Needless to say, if the defense’s theory of a case ends up not bearing any meaningful relation to “what really happened,” the theory is doomed to be reified in court as a losing defense strategy. While the defense theory of the case need not be a totalizing narrative, it also cannot be contradicted in significant ways by the evidentiary record if it hopes to have any chance of success.
So how does this translate to Stage 2 of the January 6 investigation at Proof, which is about to be launched?
Now that the House January 6 Committee has published not just an 845-page final report but the entirety of the “non-sensitive” portion of its evidentiary record—which includes over a hundred notable witness transcripts—the seminal evidence related to January 6 (much of it already synthesized by DOJ in its prosecutions of January 6 foot-soldiers and by some independent researchers via the online #SeditionHunters effort) can be conjoined to this new evidence, and to existing theories of the case, to form the most complete picture of the events of January 6 we have ever had. Books like Proof of Coup—which cover information that was left out of the House January 6 Committee report for national security and political-sensitivity reasons (e.g., fear of destabilizing institutions that defend the nation’s soil and the President of the United States)—can also become a critical part of this encompassing evidentiary record.
You may now be asking, “Yes, but doesn’t the House January 6 Committee’s final report constitute the conclusive synthesis and summation of the January 6 record?”
And the answer—perhaps surprisingly—is no.
The reason the House January 6 Committee not only released a final report but all the evidence upon which it relied is because its work was curtailed far more dramatically than many realize. Had the Democrats not lost the House of the Representatives in the 2022 midterm elections, we could expect the House January 6 Committee to have continued its work for at least two more years. We would have had more hearings, more witness interviews, a longer final report, and—above all—much, much more federal litigation in an effort to force certain subpoenaed witnesses to honor their subpoenas. Moreover, because DOJ likely needs to make its charging decisions with respect to the January 6 coup plotters (as opposed to merely its foot-soldiers) in 2023, we would expect that a House January 6 Committee not prematurely shuttered by Republican gains in the House in November 2022 would have gleaned an enormous amount of additional data from anything DOJ already has or will soon find that will be made public via its hotly anticipated prosecutions of the masterminds of January 6.
The Committee is aware, in other words, that legions of corporate and independent journalists have been waiting to assist the Committee in its investigative work. All that these people and entities (which include this author and this media outlet) have been waiting for is the release of the evidence Congress has developed as it chased down various theories of the case of January 6 which—to be candid—Proof helped develop both directly and indirectly.
Now that this evidence has been made public, Stage 2 of the January 6 investigation—which is also Stage 2 of the January 6 investigation at Proof—can begin. It is likely to last almost the entirety of 2023.
But what about Stage 3? When will that stage begin, and what form will it take?
(3) Prosecution. In cases with only one defendant, calling the “prosecution” stage an “investigative” stage would make no sense. Indeed, one of the only things Law & Order gets right about the criminal justice system is the native divide between police and prosecutors (though, remarkably, the show and its numberless offspring get wrong precisely who these entities represent; in the criminal justice system, the “people” are represented only by juries, while judges represent the impartial face of the law and both police and prosecutors represent, in the most literal sense imaginable, the government).
In a situation, like the one emanating from the events of January 6, in which 1,000+ foot-soldiers and as many as fifty coup plotters may ultimately be charged—though we should have much more confidence that the former will happen than the latter—the prosecution stage is also an investigative stage because certain coup plotters may cut cooperation deals with the federal government to save their own skins. Such deals require these wrong-doers to divulge to investigators everything they know about the January 6–related crimes others may have committed.
In this way, new prosecutions can become part and parcel of existing investigations.
In the case of January 6, Stage 3 is almost certain to overlap somewhat with Stage 2 because (a) Stage 2 may take as long as a year, (b) DOJ appears to be operating on a political calendar that presumes that all politically sensitive prosecutions relating to January 6 must be launched by mid-2023 (in an effort to conclude them all by the end of Summer 2024, with an eye toward minimal overlap with the 2024 general election), and (c) it is a sure bet—if past is precedent—that DOJ will let certain coup plotters off the hook who it should in fact have prosecuted, which will only complicate (while also stoking new interest in) Stage 2.
For journalists, Stage 3 is of course not about prosecutions but about reporting on prosecutions, which usually involves little more than detailing what happens in court (and perhaps on occasion opining on how events could have or should have developed differently). Proof will likely conduct some journalism of this sort in late 2023 and 2024—after all, its author has a law degree and practiced criminal law for many years—but it is not likely to be as bracing or complex a process of discovery as Stage 2 will be.
It is the ambition of this author to have the Stage 2 investigation of January 6 at Proof be the most comprehensive—and essential—such journalistic coverage in the United States.
If that sounds like a preposterously lofty goal, perhaps it is: certainly, January 6 is already as reported on and analyzed an event as America has ever seen.
But as we have already seen, coverage of the House January 6 Committee Final Report is, at least in major corporate media, fairly shallow. Only a handful of newly released January 6 witness transcripts have been given any attention at all, and this attention has generally been (a) not from lawyers, (b) focused only on one or two very obvious takeaways, (c) so transient that the assumption of major media appears to be that Americans can’t focus on any discrete piece of evidence for more than a day or two, and (d) disconnected from the best research on January 6 (which frankly has come from obsessive independent researchers with an eye for detail, rather than major-network TV producers with an eye toward producing satisfying one-off “A” blocks).
What is needed now are researchers, historians, and investigative journalists who will, with academic precision, take discrete pieces of evidence and plug them meaningfully into the vast network of data the historic January 6 investigation has become. If major-media coverage of January 6 has devolved into briskness, redundancy and shallowness, it must now be durable, incisive and profound. It’s with this in mind that Proof says the following: that it aims for its readers to be the best-informed students of January 6 anywhere in the world.
This goal isn’t a small one—not when January 6, 2021 has turned out to be merely the launch of an ongoing far-right insurrection inside America, one that aims to replace our democracy with an authoritarian, Christofascist tyranny. January 6 doesn’t matter because of what it was in American history, but because of what it is right now.
In view of all this, the idea of Proof starting 2023 by launching Stage 2 of its January 6 investigation is at once exhilarating and terrifying. Proof has already uncovered, via its soon-to-be-launched “January 6 Files” series—which decodes, contextualizes, and networks the most important January 6 witness transcripts in exhaustive detail—acts of perfidy and possible sedition that couldn’t even have been contemplated, let alone reported on, prior to the release of witness transcripts (in the scores and more) by the U.S. House of Representatives over just the last two weeks.
What Proof asks of its readers, in advance, is a certain degree of patience. There are so many documents newly available for review by January 6 historians, researchers, and January 6 beat reporters that it is tempting to think they can be adequately unpacked in quick-hit major-media “listicles” addressing just a handful of the most high-profile witness transcripts. In fact, Stage 2 will be a painstaking process that may take, as was noted above, almost the entirety of 2023.
I intend this introductory essay to serve as a personal invitation for you to take a year-long journey with me right here at Proof, a place where the journalism is indeed—and very proudly so—“like a dog with a bone”: stubborn, tenacious, persistent, relentless, and dogged.