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A video of former President Donald Trump speaking during a rally, as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol holds a hearing at the Capitol in Washington, June 16, 2022.J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press

Three days of hearings on the Jan. 6 insurrection are done, two more are to come next week, but increasingly it is clear that the story of this investigation and the challenge the United States faces as a result of the Capitol riot boil down to a searing question from the distant past – and an alarm bell from the troubled present.

The question senator Howard Baker Jr. of Tennessee posed during the Watergate hearings has relevance and resonance today: “What did the president know,” he asked on June 25, 1973, “and when did he know it?”

And now we know how close Donald Trump came to defying more than two centuries of custom, an 1887 election law and the Constitution. That threat was summarized in blistering language uttered in eerie calm Thursday by a retired federal circuit-court judge with impeccable conservative credentials.

“[The] declaration of Donald Trump as the next president,” said J. Michael Luttig, who served on the country’s second-most-powerful bench after working in two Republican administrations, “would have launched America into what I believe would have been tantamount to a revolution within a constitutional crisis in America, which in my view would have been the first constitutional crisis since the founding of the Republic.”

Republicans have characterized the hearings as a partisan sham, some Democrats believe the committee still hasn’t sealed its case, and television critics have described the sessions as either too flat or too slick. But they have managed two substantial accomplishments.

They have given a Trump answer to the question posed of Richard Nixon and they have provided perspective on the real danger growing out of the Capitol riot – not the damage to the building, which was easily repaired, but the potential damage to the constitutional scaffolding of the United States, which when fragmented is not easily restored.

“Trump set out very deliberately to kill the spirit of a nation,” said former Republican governor William Weld of Massachusetts, who as a young man served as an aide to the committee that prepared impeachment articles against Mr. Nixon and who mounted a brief challenge to Mr. Trump for the 2020 Republican nomination, in an interview. “That spirit – the idea that in America the ‘fix’ is not ‘in’ – is why people all over the world wanted to come to the United States. But Trump wanted to make sure that the ‘fix’ was always ‘in.’ Watergate was an isolated incident that people in the Nixon White House worked to cover up. The people in the Trump White House worked to foment a conspiracy.”

Now it is clear that the question Mr. Baker asked about Mr. Nixon has a clear answer when it comes to Mr. Trump: The president knew everything about the effort to overturn the election (though not so much about the Constitution and the responsibilities of his vice-president, Mike Pence, whom he badgered to deny the presidency to Joe Biden).

“To the day he died, Senator Baker was proud of asking that question,” said Tom Griscom, who for decades was Mr. Baker’s closest aide. “It became a question over time that many other people used in trying to find the truth.”

And as a result of Mr. Luttig’s testimony Thursday, it is clear that the danger was not confined to the 2020 election but instead was a threat to the entire political framework of the country.

His remarks, televised internationally and captured on tape, may be remembered when the Capitol rampage is as far in the past as Watergate is to us today. But his written statement, released ahead of his appearance before the committee, put the matter in even more stark and urgent terms: “paralyzing constitutional crisis.”

The element that ties the two marquee moments together – the Baker question and the Luttig statement – is what the hearings have shown in sharp relief: that Mr. Trump knew from the start what he was doing; that he knew the flying buttresses of his argument were weak and compromised; that he was told his plan was illegal; and that he pressed ahead anyway.

Some of the committee members’ remarks lacked subtlety, some showed little respect for the nuances, but all – two Republicans and seven Democrats – proceeded with gravity and a sense of history.

That sense of duty was best personified by a little-known congresswoman on the committee, Democrat Elaine Luria, a one-time Navy engineer whose nerves were tested while operating nuclear reactors on combat vessels, boarding ships commandeered by Iraqi oil pirates, launching fighter planes to attack terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan and commanding 400 sailors in a combat-ready unit. She was elected to the House four years ago in a district that includes Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore and that sided with the successful GOP gubernatorial candidate, Glenn Youngkin, in last November’s election. She faces a tough re-election battle in November.

“If I don’t get re-elected because of this,” Ms. Luria, 46, told The New York Times, “that’s OK.”

In displaying her willingness to lose to do what’s right, she provided a stark contrast to Mr. Trump’s determination to win.

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