Here’s what you need to know.
Political and moral accountability
The hearing included many of the hallmarks of past congressional investigations of major governing scandals, including Watergate in the 1970s and the Iran-contra hearings in the 1980s. Such investigations typically seek to determine the facts of what happened, create an authoritative narrative about the scandal and assign political — even moral — accountability.
To that end, during the hearing, the committee chairman and vice chairwoman, Reps. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) and Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), outlined their findings. Most important, they suggested the committee will use the hearings to connect the dots between President Donald Trump’s efforts to interfere with the peaceful transfer of power and the ensuing violent attack on the U.S. Capitol. Who should be held accountable? Thompson was blunt, saying that Trump was “at the center” of a conspiracy “aimed at overturning the presidential election … and replacing the will of the American people with his will to remain in power after his term ended.”
The hearing showcased what the committee has already learned, rather than hosting the kinds of live, dramatic revelations about President Richard M. Nixon’s actions that came during the 51 days of the Watergate hearings. The hearing did unveil new evidence, as promised, including video from Capitol surveillance cameras and depositions from Trump administration officials, family members and campaign advisers. Still, the evening was tightly choreographed. The committee showed a video montage of Jan. 6 events that was extremely raw — but carefully curated nevertheless. The testimony from the first Capitol Police officer injured during the attack was graphic and gut-wrenching, but the committee knew it was coming.
Expect the next hearings to be similarly choreographed: On-air time is too short for the committee to discover new evidence during the public hearings. Under its authorizing resolution, the committee disbands 30 days after submitting its final report (and no later than the end of the Congress later this year). With the investigation ongoing, that leaves no room for public surprises as the committee marshals its case against Trump.
Expanding the scope of conflict
If the investigation unearths evidence of criminal behavior, whether by the former president or his aides, the committee would probably share that with federal prosecutors. And the committee surely plans to use the fruits of its investigation to help secure bipartisan Senate support for modernizing and coup-proofing the Electoral Count Act — the creaky federal law under which Vice President Mike Pence was required to announce the results, and which Trump tried to subvert in his effort to overturn the election result.
But don’t lose sight of the committee’s core political goal.
In the words of political scientist E.E. Schattschneider in his 1960 book “The Semi-Sovereign People,” the prime-time launch of the hearings is all about “expanding the scope of conflict”: Drawing the audience off the sidelines and into the fight. Most Americans have not been paying much attention to the committee’s work. Despite many leaks, the panel has largely worked behind closed doors, fewer Republicans now hold Trump responsible for the violent attack, and likely voters care most about the economy and rising inflation.
Well-choreographed, prime-time shows offer the panel the chance to make the Jan. 6 events electorally important to the public again: to make a broader case against entrusting Trump and his supporters with power. Schattschneider suggested that the weaker team is typically the one that wants to get the audience off the sidelines. Trump’s disinformation campaign that Democrats “stole” the election requires a strong counternarrative, if the committee wants a broader array of American voters to consider its findings relevant.
Can the committee get the attention of most Republicans? Probably not. GOP-favored Fox News counterprogrammed, airing such things as debunked conspiracy theories about Jan. 6. In general, GOP lawmakers so far remain loyal to (or fear crossing) Trump and his supporters. Still, Vice Chairwoman Cheney kept GOP colleagues in her sights, suggesting there is evidence that several Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Scott Perry (Pa.), had sought a presidential pardon for their involvement in Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results. Given this, at least one expert suggested that those lawmakers perhaps considered their actions at least legally questionable.
High-profile congressional hearings increasingly resemble a circus: grandstanding by lawmakers eager to pitch partisan messages to their base, short clocks for witness testimony, and a rise in communications staff alongside a decline in policy wonks staffing committees.
That was true in part because both GOP committee members had long ago broken with Trump, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had rejected the Trump loyalists and “big lie” believers whom House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) tried to appoint instead. That meant no GOP panelists tried to defend him. Some critics decried the committee’s partisan slant, despite the two Republicans. Of course, a Senate GOP filibuster last year blocked consideration of a measure that would have created an evenly balanced, bipartisan expert commission to investigate the Capitol attack. Pelosi in turn exploited her discretion under House rules not to seat two of the House GOP leader’s five picks for the special committee on the grounds that both had threatened to sabotage the investigation.
Also, Democrats showed remarkable discipline for lawmakers seeking reelection: Only the chair and vice chair spoke during the two-hour hearing. That’s unusual, reflecting both how squeezed the committee is for time this summer, and how urgently Democrats seek to persuade the public to hold Trump accountable for an attempted coup. Committee members probably will divvy up the scarce time on air, giving each panelist a chance at the spotlight as the hearings continue.
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