The Memo: Jan. 6 committee hopes to go out, for now, with a bang
The Jan. 6 committee is returning to prime time on Thursday for what is likely to be the final public hearing of an initial series.
Thursday’s hearing promises to delve into the three-plus hours that elapsed between the end of then-President Trump’s fiery rally at the Ellipse and his first, belated efforts to disperse the rioters.
One of the panel’s two GOP members, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), told CBS News’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday that the hearing would “open’s people’s eyes in a big way.”
On Wednesday, a committee aide told reporters on a conference call: “One of the main points that we’re going to make here is that President Trump had the power to call off the mob — he was the sole person who could call off the mob — and he chose not to.”
Claims like that, in addition to the prime-time billing, have raised expectations for Thursday’s hearing.
The panel, which has for the most part told its story in a compelling way, will be wanting to go out with some explosive revelations.
Two former Trump White House officials are expected to testify: Matthew Pottinger, who served on Trump’s National Security Council, and Sarah Matthews, who was deputy press secretary. Both resigned on the day of the insurrection.
Thursday’s hearing will also have a fresh dash of controversy in the shape of missing text messages from Secret Service agents.
The Secret Service has said messages were lost as part of a scheduled device migration and has vehemently denied covering anything up. But that hasn’t satisfied committee members, including Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who told reporters Wednesday that the fate of the missing messages “remains a big mystery to me.”
Specifics aside, the nature of Thursday’s hearing — which brings at least an intermission curtain down on the series of public hearings that began on June 9 — sparks evaluations of what the committee has accomplished so far.
On that question, there is a dichotomy between the significance of the information the panel has laid out, which has been considerable, and its likely electoral impact, which looks fairly negligible.
Trump has suffered some damage around the edges.
That shows up in a variety ways, including the number of Americans who tell opinion pollsters the former president should face criminal charges. That figure reached 58 percent in an ABC News-Ipsos survey last month.
More amorphously, there is a sense that even some Republicans broadly sympathetic to Trump would like a different nominee in 2024. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), in particular, is showing strength in the polls.
Democratic strategist Mark Longabaugh insisted that Trump was now in “a more weakened political position than he has been in since he left the White House.” He added, “The damage is starting to accrue. You’re Teflon until you’re not.”
But those changes might ultimately amount to slight shifts, of uncertain permanence, in the political landscape.
The bigger picture is that Trump remains the clear favorite to win the GOP nomination if he enters the race — and that he is broadly popular with Republicans as a whole.
The hearings are taking place in a shockingly polarized political environment — a significant difference from the Watergate hearings of the 1970s to which they have frequently been compared.
An Economist-YouGov poll released Wednesday made that plain.
Asked how much responsibility Trump bore for the events of Jan. 6, 85 percent of Democratic voters said the answer was “a lot” or “some.” Only 17 percent of Republican voters agreed. Fifty-four percent of GOP voters said Trump bore no responsibility at all, and 21 percent said he bore only “a little.”
The same poll showed that almost three-in-four Republicans believe the fiction that underpinned the insurrection— that President Biden had not won the 2020 election legitimately. Eighty-three percent of GOP voters said they had a favorable impression of Trump — an opinion shared by just 42 percent of the general population.
Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist but a Trump critic, told this column regretfully that he was “not convinced” the hearings have had any major political impact.
“The people who believe that it was an insurrection have seen all the evidence that it was an insurrection. They watched the testimony, they saw the videos,” Tyler said. “People who don’t think it was an insurrection have not watched the hearings, and they think they are a farce. The two sides are the two sides.”
Such claims are not just anecdotal.
TV ratings show that on occasions when the three major cable networks have televised the hearings live, CNN and MSNBC have seen significant audience boosts, while Fox News has often lost viewers.
The hearings have sought to at least blur the partisan lines by leaning heavily on Republican sources in the public testimony.
They have made political stars of previously obscure figures.
Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, is the most obvious example. But the same could be said to a lesser degree of Rusty Bowers, the Republican Speaker of the Arizona House, and several White House lawyers, such as Eric Herschmann, who resisted the most outlandish claims by Trump’s loyalists.
It has also shown high-profile figures like former Attorney General William Barr, former Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien and even the president’s elder daughter Ivanka Trump pushing back on some of his claims, albeit with varying degrees of ferocity.
Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, said that, despite the deep partisan divisions, the hearing might have had some impact on “this preciously small sliver of genuinely ‘middle’ folks who are persuadable.”
But Reeher also noted that this was unlikely to have a decisive effect on future elections, especially when the nation is grappling with major problems in the here and now, notably the highest inflation in four decades.
It is, of course, possible that the committee could have some surprises left on Thursday evening.
But for now, it seems likely that its major contribution will be to the record of history, rather than changing the electoral landscape.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage. Additional reporting by Rebecca Beitsch and Michael Lillis.