UVA Alum Tim Heaphy Is Making a Mark Investigating Political Violence and Its Causes

March 20, 2023
Portrait of William Antholis and Tim Heaphy

UVA alumnus Tim Heaphy, who headed the investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection, talks with Miller Center Director and CEO William Antholis about the work and its parallels to his probe of the 2017 white-supremacy rally and riot in Charlottesville. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The question from Miller Center Director and CEO William Antholis was straightforward: Do the federal prosecutors investigating former President Donald J. Trump need to be sure of a conviction before moving ahead with indictments?

Timothy J. Heaphy didn’t pause even a moment. “You don’t swing at the king unless you can knock him out,” Heaphy responded.

For months now, the University of Virginia alumnus, who also once served as UVA’s general counsel, has led a fleet of attorneys and investigators digging into the Jan. 6 insurrection. His team pored over an almost unimaginable cache of evidence, including tens of thousands of hours of video, troves of text messages and transcripts of more than a thousand interviews.

“A mountain of evidence, a blessing and curse for investigators,” he said.

For an hour at UVA’s Miller Center on Monday, Heaphy answered questions about the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, during what was normally expected to be a ceremonial transfer of presidential power. Instead, rioters who earlier chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” burst into the building and came within 40 feet of Trump’s vice president, Heaphy said.

“I didn’t know how close we came from a very different outcome on Jan. 6,” he said.

Heaphy, who earned a bachelor’s degree in 1986 and a law degree in 1991 from the University, was appointed in 2009 as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia by then-President Barack Obama. He served in the U.S. Justice Department between 1994 and 2014.

Crowd listening talk of Tim Heaphy
A capacity crowd listens intently as Heaphy explains how he and a team of investigators put together a case that led the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection to recommend four charges against former President Donald J. Trump. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

In 2017, Charlottesville city leaders appointed Heaphy to investigate the Unite the Right rally-turned-riot earlier that year. His work of probing the street clashes and the police planning and response led to an invitation that he head the House Select Committee investigation of the Jan. 6 attack. He took a leave of absence from his role as UVA general counsel to take the post.

Heaphy told the rapt crowd filling every seat in the room that the cases share striking similarities, including political violence, conspiracy believers and the “failure of law enforcement to honestly assess what they saw in plain view.”

“Jan. 6 and Charlottesville were events that were essentially planned in plain view, on open sources of social media. And for whatever reason, both times, law enforcement had a lot of advanced intelligence about the possibility of violence, yet failed to operationalize that intelligence and create a plan to keep people safe,” he said.

Heaphy predicted the Jan. 6 hearings, often broadcast in prime time and as professionally polished as a television miniseries, will likely change the future of congressional presentations. The power of the storytelling, including a mix of live testimony and videotaped interviews of witnesses, commanded attention. That idea was the politicians’, not the lawyers’, he said. And it was effective.

“If we had just published a written report, a lengthy written report, I don’t know if it would have had the same impact,” he said, “because people are used to shorter bursts of information and want it visually. … I think it changes the game going forward.”

Because of Heaphy’s work, the Jan. 6 committee recommended the U.S. Department of Justice charge Trump with obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to make a false statement and seditious conspiracy.

Portrait of Timothy Heaphy
Heaphy, UVA’s former general counsel, said the parallels between the Unite the Right rally and the Jan. 6 insurrection included political violence by conspiracy believers, and poor planning by police. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

In addition, Trump faces investigations in New York for allegedly paying an adult film actress to conceal an affair; in Georgia for allegedly trying to pressure state officials to change his electoral loss in that state; and in Florida for keeping classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago home. Heaphy told the crowd he is only involved in the Jan. 6 case, but said because of the Department of Justice’s reluctance to pursue charges close to an election, he would expect federal indictments – if they come – “in spring or summer, well in advance of the primary season.”

As he has throughout his legal challenges, Trump describes the threats as political witch hunts. And the former president’s congressional and other allies have sought to discredit the work of the investigative committee led by Heaphy, with some also seeking to diminish the perception of the severity of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

When asked why the Justice Department didn’t move more quickly, Heaphy said it could be that investigators were initially focused on the “blue-collar” crimes, “the people who were breaking the windows and fighting police officers” rather than the “white-collar” crimes that included “the political coup,” including the financing of the insurrection.

“It took us developing that and leaks, frankly, from our investigation and ultimately our hearing,” he said. “I think that they realized there’s evidence here that goes beyond the blue-collar breaking of windows, and that motivated them. They got a late start.”

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Near the conclusion of the question-and-answer session, Heaphy emphasized that it is critical for this country to better understand the divisions between people, and what is causing them.

“These events start with a core issue. On Jan. 6, it was the election, but a lot of people we talked to were just angry at the government, COVID, masking requirements. They’re angry that the government is promoting diversity and equity, so there was a racial element there as well,” he said.

“Charlottesville started about statues, but quickly became about race, about great replacement [theory] and white nationalism. So one of the lessons in both events is that there are a lot of people in this county that are sort of dispossessed and don’t believe in government, they don’t believe in media, they don’t believe in higher education or science,” he said.

After the event, Heaphy told UVA Today, “It’s bigger than Donald Trump, right? We have a problem in this country with people that believe the system doesn’t work. We need to come together and restore our democracy and not continue to stoke division.”

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