By Lisa Hagen
For almost a year, a House committee has had the arduous task of poring over thousands of hours of depositions and over 100,000 documents as part of its wide-ranging investigation into the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol. But its members are confronting the biggest challenge yet: making troves of information digestible for an exhausted public months away from an election.
The Jan. 6 select committee will embark on a month-long series of public hearings starting Thursday in prime time to share with Americans what they’ve learned about the coordination of efforts to disrupt Congress’ certification process of President Joe Biden’s victory. They’re expected to reveal new details about who may have been involved – including at the highest echelons of power – and what happened in the aftermath.
Members are trying to spark interest around the findings and share new information even as opinions on the attack have shifted over the past year and a half both inside and outside of Washington. And the hearings come on the backdrop of a pivotal midterm election this fall that has been dominated by ongoing issues like inflation and high gas prices.
Donald Trump, who was impeached for his handling of Jan. 6 days before leaving office but was ultimately acquitted by the Senate, will undoubtedly be a key player in the hearings, but he won’t be the only focus. The committee is reportedly expected to weave in testimony from others in the administration – including from the taped depositions of Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who both served as advisers – to help them reconstruct the day.
“It was not one person, and of course, these hearings are very different from what took place in the second impeachment of Donald Trump, which was about one person and one crime inciting insurrection against the union,” Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a Democratic member on the panel, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “But here, we’ve been tasked with determining a comprehensive inventory of facts relating to what took place.”
“We just have an absolute mountain of evidence about what took place, and our problem is really distilling the core elements of all of these events to share with the people. But I hope that all of the most important material evidence will be made available to the public,” he added.
From the outset, the committee has sought to fight back Republican accusations of politicization, despite GOP lawmakers having blocked the creation of an independent commission. Democrats instead pursued a select committee where the party had veto power over membership. After objections to several members, GOP leadership pulled out, leaving House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California to seat seven Democrats and two Republicans – Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois – who were shunned over voting to impeach Trump a week after Jan. 6.
Attitudes toward the attack rapidly changed within Congress itself. While some Republicans initially condemned the attack and even implicated Trump, many of them backed away from those remarks and kept defending his claims of 2020 election fraud. Others are staying silent.
Political observers say the hearings come with some risks – like coming off too partisan – and should focus on giving a solemn account of what transpired. But Norm Eisen, who worked with Democrats as an adviser during Trump’s first impeachment, believes the committee “has done a very expert job of learning those lessons” from that proceeding and has already accounted for much of that.
“Where the committee needs to be careful and where they can fall down is if they forget the fact that they’re fact finders. They should not give the American public the perception that it’s an attack on Donald Trump. This is truly an attack on democracy,” former Sen. Doug Jones, Alabama Democrat, said at a panel this week held by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Defend Democracy Project. “It’s going to be difficult for them to walk that fine line, continuing to be the fact finder and not the prosecutor.”
The Democrat-led committee will also be trying to reach skeptical Americans. Recent polling from NBC News found 55% of Americans believe Trump was somewhat or not responsible for the riots, compared to a year earlier when a majority believed he held most of the responsibility. The panel will also need to contend with fatigued voters who are dealing with economic and public health crises.
But Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said she was surprised by the degree to which voters are paying attention to Jan. 6 based on a poll conducted in April, especially among independents and newer Democratic voters. It still takes a backseat to economic concerns, which is so far giving the GOP a boost.
Still, Democrats acknowledge Jan. 6 may not help drive much momentum in the midterm elections but that it’s important for the long term, especially when it comes to future threats to voting and elections.
“This is not just about the 2022 election, folks. This is about the long-term health of this country and democracy,” Jones said. “It may be too late in some districts … to have a real impact this go-round, but for the long-term effect, people should not forget what’s going to come out of this committee, and they need to be reminded about it as they go forward.”
The committee still appears aware of the optics of such a hearing, especially in an election year. Axios reported it brought on former ABC News President James Goldston as an adviser. And the strategic decision to hold the hearing in the 8 p.m. hour likely increases the number of viewers rather than during the workday.
Some surprises or previously unknown developments are expected, including never-before-seen footage from the day. But some of the big news to emerge from the committee’s investigation has been publicly disclosed or leaked to the media. Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows’ texts have perhaps been the most revealing and enlightening so far about what went on behind the scenes at the White House.
The committee has also been tied up in legal fights to enforce subpoenas since a number of former White House officials are pointing to Trump’s declaration of executive privilege, which was later denied by Biden. Lawmakers believe those requests for information could shed light on what happened on Jan. 6, how much those in the administration knew and what transpired at the White House after reports of riots breaching the Capitol.
Because of that, the House has voted to hold several people in contempt for defying subpoenas and sent the criminal referrals to the Justice Department. A federal grand jury later moved to indict Trump’s former trade adviser Peter Navarro and chief strategist Stephen Bannon.
And the subpoenas have more recently gone beyond Capitol rioters and Trump’s inner circle. The committee has also turned its attention to their colleagues and ensnared five House Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California.
But how much the hearings break through – especially with target audiences and persuadable Republicans – is a big wildcard. Fox News won’t air Thursday’s primetime hearing live, and many GOP lawmakers argue Democrats are using it to “distract” from economic issues.
While the Democrat-led committee may try not to make them all about Trump or steer more clear of politics, Republicans see it as a flat-out attack on the former president and their party as a whole. Others in the party may bypass the hearings altogether and dedicate all of their focus to the November elections.
“This committee is not about seeking the truth,” House GOP Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik of New York said Wednesday in a pre-buttal to the primetime hearing. “It’s a smear campaign against President Donald Trump, against Republican members of Congress and against Trump voters across this country.”
What comes after the hearings is still a major question mark. The committee will issue a report and may make recommendations, but members don’t have authority to levy any charges. But they can make the case to judges and prosecutors who will be the ones to carry out any punitive actions. Plus, they can suggest reforms to safeguard elections as well as the transfer of power.
Regardless of substantial reforms or dramatic revelations, many see the end goal as a much-needed reckoning for America so it can prevent another Jan. 6 in the future as contentious issues like abortion, border security, gun rights and the midterm elections loom.
“The way these hearings have played out in our history, they were partly about individual accountability in the sense of criminal wrongdoing or other questions, but on a more fundamental level, about the nation coming to terms with dark episodes in our history and figuring out how to reckon with that and move forward,” says Daniel Weiner, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Elections and Government program. “That’s ultimately the purpose of these sorts of investigations.”