Jan. 6 panel looks for legacy beyond the midterms

A photo is taken during a House Jan. 6 committee hearing
Peter Afriyie
A photo is taken during a House Jan. 6 committee hearing on Thursday, October 13, 2022 to focus on former President Trump’s efforts to remain in power following his 2020 election defeat.

The House committee investigating last year’s attack on the U.S. Capitol captivated the country through much of the year, dominating headlines, attracting blockbuster ratings and uncovering damning new evidence about the lengths to which former President Trump sought to keep power after his election defeat.  

How successfully the panel sold its public argument that U.S. democracy remains under threat is a deeper question — one complicated by the likelihood that the House will be taken over next year by a Republican conference dominated by Trump’s defenders.  

Still, in a country bitterly divided along partisan lines, advocates for the panel say its value should never have been judged by the midterm outcomes. Historic vindication, including how much the panel’s revelations may have damaged Trump’s political future, will be the better gauge, even it doesn’t come immediately.   

“I don’t think that we should measure the Jan. 6 committee’s success in terms of whether it changes people’s minds, because at this point, the partisanship is essentially so baked in that we can’t expect that it will,” said Quinta Jurecic, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a senior editor at Lawfare. 

“That was simply an impossible metric. I do think that it has been extraordinarily successful if you define success in other ways. It’s been successful in uncovering new facts about Jan. 6. I think it has shown us evidence that Trump was far more personally and closely involved with efforts to contest and overturn the election and then with the violence on Jan. 6 than we knew — just a degree of personal involvement that simply wasn’t in the public record before the committee carried out this work. That is huge.”  

While members of the Jan. 6 panel insist the midterms have been no factor in their deliberations, they’ve also sounded clear warnings that Republicans defending Trump’s actions — including the crop of GOP leaders poised to gain power if the House flips — pose a ready danger to the country’s long tradition of honoring the outcome of elections.  

“Kevin McCarthy is the biggest disappointment of a congressman that I know, not because of what he’s said or done, it’s because he knows better,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) told CNN this month, referring to the California Republican minority leader who’s in line for the Speakership. “He said it like a week after January 6. He said the truth. And then that power — that ‘stars in your eyes’ comes out — and he has to become a Speaker.” 

A series of surveys released in recent days reveal that, while issues related to democracy are on voters’ minds, those concerns pale in comparison to rising inflation and other economic anxieties.  

In a recent Harvard CAPS-Harris poll, the attack on the Capitol ranked 19th among a list of issues deemed by respondents to be most important to the country. 

“This is the line you are always walking in politics and issues writ large. When they first started the hearings, I think everybody knew that was going to be the moment where they were going to capture the most people’s attention. But keeping that attention through the election in a way that might have moved the needle is much harder to do,” said Cassie Smedile, executive director of the America Rising PAC, a Republican-led political action committee.   

Smedile said voters have “other issues in front of their face.” 

“I give them credit for putting together a captivating presentation, at least on the onset. But it’s really hard to compete with the issues that the American people have to put top of mind,” she said.  

The trend has exasperated Democratic leaders, who are fighting against the odds to keep the House and sounding dire warnings that the same Republicans who voted in large numbers to overturn the 2020 election results can’t be trusted to defend the country’s democratic traditions.  

“What they did to our democracy is a terrible thing,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in an interview with MSNBC last week. “If people don’t value it, I can’t answer for that.” 

Still, there are some signs the committee was able to bring to the forefront an issue that otherwise may have mattered little in the election. A recent New York Times-Siena College poll found that 7 percent of respondents named “the state of democracy” to be the single most important issue facing the country. At first glance the number appears low, but it also ranks third on the list, above crime, immigration, abortion, health care and climate. Only the economy and inflation ranked higher. 

“The committee is contributing to that,” said Jesse Rhodes, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who has conducted polling on Jan. 6. 

Those polls have consistently shown a sharp partisan divide between those who say they want to learn more about Jan. 6 and those who say it’s time to “move on.” But even amid that rift, the majority of respondents say they back efforts to identify and punish those involved with the riot. 

The data also indicates that “Donald Trump’s brand has definitely taken a hit” throughout the hearings, Rhodes said. While he remains the GOP’s 2024 front-runner, the lack of an endorsement from Trump would mean little to voters as they assess other candidates, even as 37 percent of respondents indicated that an endorsement from Trump would make them “much less likely” to support his chosen candidate. 

“It’s evident that the investigations are making people aware of the threats to our democracy, and they are eroding Donald Trump’s brand and enthusiasm for him,” Rhodes said. 

“But at the same time I would definitely concede that in comparison with more immediate economic concerns about inflation and about the cost of living, it’s going to play a secondary role. And that’s just a natural part of politics,” he added.  

And there were other ways the committee has served a trailblazing role for others in Congress. 

The panel’s presentation has attracted viewership like few others. Even its daytime hearings generated a significant audience, peaking with the 13 million viewers who tuned in for a last-minute hearing called to present testimony from White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson. 

While the Jan. 6 panel featured two Republican members, Kinzinger and Liz Cheney (Wyo.), GOP leaders opted not to participate after Trump condemned the process. That meant the public hearings were absent the typical ping-ponging between questions from both sides of the aisle, and it empowered the committee to tell its story seamlessly. While that format is not likely to be replicated in future select committees — Trump complained the GOP left him defenseless — the panel’s application of multimedia has set a new bar for relaying both evidence and a narrative.

“They’ve really done astonishingly good work in terms of showing what a congressional committee can be capable of under the right circumstances. They’ve discovered new information; their presentation of information has been really crisp and gripping. It’s not something that we’ve really seen in previous congressional hearings, anything like this,” Jurecic said. 

“They made the hearings the centerpiece of conversation to the extent that Trump was complaining that he didn’t have anybody up there to defend him. … That ability to seize the news cycle was really powerful and did force some on the right to pay attention.”

Tags 2022 midterms Adam Kinzinger Adam Kinzinger Donald Trump Donald Trump Jan. 6 attack Jan. 6 panel Kevin McCarthy

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