Thursday night’s hearing of the Jan. 6 select committee was a fitting season finale to a six-week run of hearings in which the panel has driven the political conversation by strategically dangling, curating and doling out evidence from the panel’s investigation into Donald Trump’s role in the siege of the U.S. Capitol. There have been many illuminating moments, and Thursday night’s hearing — which featured, among other things, evidence that Mike Pence’s security detail feared for their lives and video of Josh Hawley running scared — was no exception.
Observers in and around Washington will no doubt be processing the hearings in the days and weeks ahead and asking how, if at all, these hearings may have made a difference. It’s a challenging question both because snap judgments are inherently risky when they involve lengthy and complex proceedings, but also because the committee itself had so many apparent (and at times competing) objectives for what it hoped to accomplish.
The nominal purpose of the committee was to gather and disseminate information about what caused the riot, but the members also made a strategic decision at the outset to present a clear and unique villain: Trump himself. The desire to make the former president the central focus of the hearings may have been understandable, but it also meant some big and important questions were largely ignored, like what conclusions (if any) the committee has reached about the performance of the relevant law enforcement agencies in the run-up to Jan. 6 and their genuinely shocking inability to quickly put an end to the uprising.
By focusing on Trump, the committee also seemed to absolve some key figures of their own responsibility in service of the narrative. Former Attorney General William Barr was presented as a brave truth-teller despite the fact that he himself spent months in the run-up to the 2020 election stoking concerns among Republican voters over baseless and false claims of election fraud. Bill Stepien ran Trump’s reelection campaign and spoke self-congratulatorily about being on “Team Normal” after the election despite the fact that he refused to say publicly what he told the committee and, as a result, has played a central role in the metastasis of Trump’s lies among Republican voters over the past year-and-a-half. Somehow Jeffrey Rosen, the acting attorney general on Jan. 6, was asked almost no meaningful questions about what he was actually doing that day, while Richard Donoghue, the deputy attorney general at the time, provided a made-for-TV account of a combative phone call with Trump that is hard to square with his own prior testimony about the same event.
Politically, the panel’s principal objective seemed to be to make Trump toxic and prevent him from being reelected if he runs again, but it appeared to have a larger political goal as well: to drain support for the Republican enablers who are either already in office or seeking office.
As to Trump, there is some preliminary evidence from public polls, focus groups and fundraising numbers to suggest some Republican voters are increasingly tired of Trump’s antics, but he still leads in polls when Republicans are asked whether they would vote for him in another primary. If Trump announces he will run again and starts actively campaigning for the nomination, it is possible he could consolidate a critical mass of support among rank-and-file GOP voters and reclaim his grip on the party notwithstanding the select committee’s best efforts.
As for the rest of the GOP, the relative silence of Republican Party leaders in response to the hearings largely made the committee’s point — that these people were integral in encouraging and facilitating Trump’s at-best-reckless behavior, and that there is no good reason to believe they will comport themselves any better if Trump returns to power. The revelations about some key Republican lawmakers seeking post-riot pardons helped buttress the case. So did some subtle and apparently unplanned coincidences — like when current House minority leader, aspiring House speaker and possible moron Kevin McCarthy preemptively sought to discredit the importance of the committee’s work on the morning of the first hearing, when viewers were ultimately treated to video of McCarthy’s own staff running for their lives during the attack.
The outstanding question, of course, is whether there will be any durable political impact. And that is very unclear at the moment, particularly since Joe Biden keeps hitting all-time lows in public polls amid broad public dissatisfaction with the state of the country and the economy.
The committee’s legislative objectives have been perceptible as well, though just barely, in part because of an apparent behind-the-scenes disagreement among members over what its recommendations should be. If there is any interest on the part of the committee in doing anything about the dubious performance of law enforcement and intelligence leaders in the government, it was not evident during the hearings. The one policymaking area in which the committee has unambiguously moved the needle is on reform of the Electoral Count Act, which was nicely advanced by a tight and compelling hearing focused on the absurd legal arguments offered by Trump lawyer John Eastman as part of Trump’s last-ditch effort to get Mike Pence to overturn the election results.
Of course, another key objective of the committee — probably the most focused upon in news coverage — was what we might charitably call raising questions among the public about the legality of Trump’s conduct. Less charitably, you might say the panel seemed singularly preoccupied with convincing people that Trump committed a bunch of crimes.
The merits of those claims will no doubt be heavily debated now that the committee has wrapped its first set of hearings, but the early returns on public sentiment are not particularly promising. After the start of the hearings, a series of national polls found that around half of the country believes Trump should be charged with a crime. The responses consistently broke down sharply along party lines, with Democrats largely supporting and Republicans virtually all opposing the prosecution of Trump. But the numbers are also not much different than they were in the immediate aftermath of the riot or even back in April, a couple of months before the hearings began.
The committee also made no secret of the fact that it wanted to push the Justice Department and Attorney General Merrick Garland to take a more aggressive approach to criminally investigating misconduct on the part of Trump and the people closest to him. By obtaining testimony from many Trump world insiders, the committee effectively demonstrated that the department’s so-called bottom-up investigative strategy, which has been focused on building cases from the prosecutions against the actual rioters, was both unnecessary and unwise.
A series of news reports from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal has suggested, however, that the hearings may have altered views among some senior officials in the department. The Times reported that Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony “astonished” prosecutors and “jolted top Justice Department officials into discussing the topic of Mr. Trump more directly.” Last weekend, the Journal reported that a team of prosecutors “focusing on elements of the investigation beyond the violence at the Capitol” had “in recent weeks been given more personnel, office space and an expanded mandate.”
The panel’s effort to influence the Justice Department may ultimately prove to be its most successful gambit, but there is no way to tell how significant the payoff will be. The uncertainty in other areas — including about the long-term impact of the hearings, if any, on public perceptions of Trump — also cannot be attributed solely to the quality of the work by the committee, which has faced an unprecedentedly fractured and politically divided media environment.
There is little question the committee’s members and staff deserve to be commended for conducting a historically intensive and effective investigation given the tools available to them, and for illuminating crucial aspects of a vitally important period in the nation’s recent history. Whether they will achieve their most ambitious goals — a fundamental reordering of contemporary American politics — remains to be seen.
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