Politics

So Is the Jan. 6 Hearing Going to Nail Trump or What?

A primer on the coup inquiry’s big moment.

The three representatives are seated on an imposing panel with three American flags and two flags bearing the House of Representatives seal behind them. Thompson, who is bald with a white beard and glasses, is speaking.
From left: California Rep. Zoe Lofgren, Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, and Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney in the Capitol on March 28. Jabin Botsford/Washington Post via Getty Images

The House of Representatives “select committee” investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol is holding a public hearing at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday night.

What’s the deal with this hearing?

It’s an effort to prove that Donald Trump and the people around him conspired to overturn the results of the 2020 election, which led to a deadly riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, for which they bear responsibility.

What is this committee and how is it different from the one that took testimony last year from a Capitol police officer with a prominent neck tattoo?

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It is the same committee, composed of seven Democrats and two heretical Republicans (Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger). The hearings last year were part of its investigatory phase, which purportedly involved more than 1,000 interviews, mostly done in private. Now, over the course of six June hearings, the first and last of which will be broadcast during prime time, it is going to present what it has learned. The committee may hold more hearings later, and is expected to issue a written report in September.

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Prime time! Someone’s getting glammed up!

Yes, and the committee has reportedly employed a former ABC News executive and Good Morning America producer to frame its material in the most dramatic and informative way possible. Video presentations will be involved.

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Good Morning America? Will there be a segment in which Rep. Liz Cheney tries to cook a soufflé with Emeril?

Probably not, but LOL, can you imagine?

Video presentations of evidence? Is this a trial?

No. The congressional committee is not a prosecuting body, and Trump was already impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate in early 2021 on a charge of “inciting insurrection.” Even if the committee believes Trump committed more traditionally defined crimes—and it reportedly does—it’s up to the Department of Justice to actually prosecute. Nevertheless, with these hearings, the committee is definitely trying to prove crime-y behavior.

Are these hearings being held at this juncture and in this manner in an attempt to maximize the political damage they inflict on Donald Trump and the Republican Party?

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Yes, Democrats have been fairly honest about that. And it’s defensible. Most Republicans in the Senate voted against convicting Trump, which would have barred him from holding office again, and the Department of Justice under President Joe Biden has been extremely cautious about pursuing prosecutions that could be perceived as partisan.

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Jan. 6 would manifestly not have taken place if Trump had acknowledged publicly that he lost the 2020 election and that it was conducted fairly. But no prosecutor has (yet!) been willing to say they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Trump participated in a conspiracy to prevent Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Which leaves the proverbial ballot box as the venue in which Trump can be held sweepingly accountable for what he did, prevented from trying it again, and prevented from accumulating enough allies in Congress to make it possible.

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Are you suggesting the very existence of democracy itself has become a partisan issue in this country?

That’s an overwrought way of putting it, but sure, at least at the national level.

Then may God help us all.

Yes, sure.

So, this is it? The last chance?

Not quite. Separately, a state attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, is investigating whether Trump or his allies could be charged for his efforts to invalidate the results of the 2020 election in that particular state. Those efforts most notably included a phone call to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger urging him to “find 11,780 votes,” the number that he would have needed to defeat Biden.

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Also, as we said earlier, the select committee could choose to make criminal referrals of Trump et al. to the DOJ. The department is conducting its own extensive investigation of Jan. 6 and has charged more than 800 people with related crimes, but has not given any indication as to whether Trump or any of his advisers or staffers will join that list.

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In the meantime, what is the committee’s strategy?

Its members say they will convey the full breadth of Trump’s responsibility for the violence on Jan. 6—not just his silence and inaction during the three hours that elapsed between the breach of the Capitol and his tepid video message urging rioters to leave, but his role in creating and encouraging wild claims about election fraud (and wild theories about how Republican officials could purportedly use such fraud as justification for interrupting the transition of presidential power).

While the outlines of this story are already known, the hope is that detailed footage, messages, and interviews with staff members who were present at key moments—some of the evidence being previously unseen—will prove shocking and newsworthy. (Most of the senior figures who were subpoenaed are playing legal chicken in an effort not to testify, although Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., and Ivanka Trump were interviewed.) Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin has even seemed to suggest that the committee has evidence that Trump participated in “concerted planning and premeditated activity” related to the attack on the Capitol itself.

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Does the idea that history can turn on dramatic moments in national hearings misread the anomalous (and problematically circumscribed) period of relative political consensus and mass media gatekeeping that existed in the United States during the early years of the Cold War?

Probably.

But?

In a country as closely divided as the U.S. is, achieving something tangible might not require cinematic, stirring oratory or a public opinion landslide. A more realistic goal is to put Jan. 6 back at the top of mind for a high-leverage swath of independent voters (who, according to one fairly recent poll, are still largely upset that the riot took place and support the committee’s work).

Will it work?

No one knows, and that’s why these kinds of articles always have to end with a rhetorical flourish rather than a factual statement. In other words … may God help us all.

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