June 13

By Susan Milligan

It had a graphic video of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, with previously unseen footage that brought fresh pain and visible cringes from the House hearing room. It had a high-minded opening statement about American democracy, followed by a recitation of what was promised to be devastating testimony from witnesses. It had a few cameos from the likes of Ivanka Trump, her husband Jared Kushner and President Donald Trump’s former attorney general, Bill Barr, who colorfully described telling the former president that claims of election fraud were “bull——.”

The prime-time opening salvo of what is commonly known as the Jan. 6th committee, with all its TV drama and test of the competing allegiances of political party and country, recalled another congressional investigation, stemming from events that started almost 50 years ago to the day: Watergate.

But unlike those previous hearings, it appears unlikely that the probe into the Jan. 6 insurrection – no matter what the evidence unearthed or findings found – will produce a similar sea-change in American politics. For one thing, the country is far more deeply divided along party lines, and Capitol Hill Republicans – unlike the GOP during the Watergate era – have almost uniformly rejected the very legitimacy of the hearings themselves.

Despite the snub, the hearings are generating attention after pledges from members of new disclosures about the planning, participation and aftermath of the attacks. Even the first night delivered a few new tidbits. Members confirmed that GOP Rep. Scott Perry – who refused to testify before the committee – had sought a presidential pardon while Trump was in office. Other unnamed members of Congress made the same plea as the Pennsylvania lawmaker did, said Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, vice chairwoman and one of just two Republicans on the panel. That would be a startling indication that the GOP lawmakers thought they had done something wrong.

It’s all building up to what committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson called “an attempted coup … a brazen attempt to overthrow the government.” At the heart of it, the Mississippi Democrat said, was Trump himself.

“Donald Trump was at the center of this conspiracy … and he spurred a mob … to subvert democracy,” Thompson said. “The violence was no accident. It was Trump’s last stand, his last chance to halt the transfer of power.”

Whether the deftly produced opening will reach those who have not been following the inquiry is another question. Conservative favorite Fox News, unlike other networks – both cable and broadcast – did not air the hearing live. House GOP leaders – including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, whom Cheney said was “scared” the day all of Congress was targeted by a violent mob – declared they would not watch the hearings and instead have “counter-programming” for those uninterested in watching.

For those who did tune in, there was a lot of jarring footage and testimony to absorb. And while the basic thrust of the committee’s case was nothing new to close followers of the investigation and the legal journeys of those charged, the assemblage of interviews, video and testimony put the events of the day into a powerful narrative Cheney said would connect the dots among insurrectionists, White House confidantes and Trump himself.

Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards delivered emotional testimony of being attacked by insurrectionists and the moment she realized that she herself was a target.

“I was slipping in people’s blood, catching people as they fell,” Edwards told the panel. “It was carnage. It was chaos. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that as a police officer, as a law enforcement officer, I would find myself in the middle of a battle.”

And while the carnage was going on, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there was a radically different response from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who refused to reject the electors for President Joe Biden.

Pence “issued very explicit, very direct, unambiguous orders. … He was very animated, very direct, very firm,” Milley said. Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, meanwhile, told Milley, “We have to kill the narrative the VP was making all the decisions. We need to establish the narrative.”

Video snippets of interviews the panel conducted in its investigation provided more detail meant to link Trump to the attacks. Several members of the Proud Boys and other participants were shown on camera telling the panel they went to the Capitol at the request of the defeated president.

“Trump asked us to come,” said Robert Schornak, who has been sentenced to 36 months’ probation for his role in the riot.

Several members of the Trump White House and campaign teams told Trump the truth – that he had lost the election and there was no evidence of widespread fraud, interviewees told the panel. And Ivanka Trump, in a brief taped video appearance, said she “accepted” Barr’s assessment that her father had indeed lost reelection.

When Trump campaign lawyer Alex Cannon told Meadows in mid to late November 2020 that they weren’t finding evidence of fraud that would overturn the election, Meadows responded, “So there’s no there, there,” Cannon testified by video.

One White House insider who seemed to miss the trend among Trump staffers to rein in the former president was Kushner, who served as a senior adviser to Trump.

Asked if he was aware of threats by the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, to resign over Trump’s efforts to overturn a democratic election, Kushner said, “I kind of took it to be just whining.”

Thompson and Cheney told viewers they were just getting started – there are six hearings scheduled for June – and that the investigation is still going on. The final report, Cheney said, might well include information and conclusions not revealed in the public testimony.

But without the bipartisan buy-in seen 50 years ago after Watergate, the hearings might simply result in revelations without reforms.

“The Watergate hearings were bipartisan hearings. The Republicans were fully engaged and very vigorous members of the committee,” says Northwestern University history professor Kevin Boyle, who has written extensively about 1960s America.

“In the end, when it reached its climactic point, it was the Republicans who convinced Nixon it was time to resign. This is a completely different political world from that. This is a world in which the Republican leadership did condemn what happened Jan. 6 and immediately backed off” when the GOP base and Trump himself objected, Boyle says.

That case – which stemmed from the June 17 break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel and subsequent implications of President Richard Nixon’s role in it – was a painful revelation for Americans and for Nixon’s GOP colleagues on the Hill. Ultimately, Nixon, egged on by fellow Republicans, resigned, and a slew of government reforms followed.

Congress created the Federal Election Commission and put limits on how much money political campaigns can raise and spend. With a new “Watergate class” in Congress, including 91 new House members elected in 1974, months after Nixon resigned, lawmakers continued the reforms. They created the Ethics in Government Act, imposing mandatory financial disclosures for Congress, candidates and some executive branch officials while overseeing executive branch ethics requirements.

Through the Inspector General Act, Congress put in place formal investigators at 12 federal agencies (since expanded to 73 offices of inspector general) to keep accountability and integrity in the executive branch. Watergate surely shook Americans’ faith in government, but the reforms helped the image of the legislative branch, which had approval ratings as high as 68% in the aftermath of Watergate, according to Gallup polling.

The Watergate hearings, in fact, did have an impact on public opinion: Before the widely viewed hearings were held, just 31% of Americans viewed it as a “serious matter,” according to Gallup. After the damning sessions, that number grew to 53%.

But with GOP leaders in Congress dismissing the role of the Jan. 6 committee even before the hearings began, such a turnaround among the public is less likely.

“I don’t think (the hearings) are going to transform the partisan divide in any way,” Boyle says. “That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.”

Indeed, while perhaps not touching the whole of government, the potential political consequences remain formidable – especially to some GOP elected officials whose involvement in the very episode is being investigated.

A Mississippi congressman, Michael Guest, faces a runoff in his bid to be renominated as the GOP candidate this fall. His opponent, Michael Cassidy, focused his campaign on the fact that Guest voted to create the Jan. 6 committee. Republican J.R. Majewski, who attended the “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the insurrection, won a congressional primary in Ohio.

Michigan GOP gubernatorial candidate Ryan D. Kelley was arrested Thursday on misdemeanor charges after being accused by prosecutors of damaging federal property during the attack on the Capitol. The GOP’s gubernatorial nominee in Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, also attended the rally. At least 18 currently serving Republican state legislators were at the event, according to a tally by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

Cheney, meanwhile, made it personal when she drove home that point in addressing her fellow GOP lawmakers.

“To my Republican colleagues I say: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone,” she said. “But your dishonor will remain.”