The Memo: How the Jan. 6 panel is using Republicans to go after Trump

One key group has taken a surprisingly modest role in the first public hearings of the Jan. 6 committee: Democrats. 

When it comes to in-person witnesses, video testimonies and even statements from the dais, the people making the big headlines have mostly been Republicans. 

This was especially true of the panel’s second public hearing on Monday.  

William Barr, who served as attorney general under former President Trump — and who was once a hated figure for liberals, in part because of his response to the 2019 Mueller report — delivered some of the most devastating assessments of Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. 

Former Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien was not far behind.  

Stepien had intended to testify in person but canceled at the last minute after his wife went into labor. But video clips from his testimony to the select committee, which is investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, were just as effective. 

Telling details also came from in-person witnesses such as Al Schmidt, who was at one point the sole Republican on the Philadelphia County Board of Elections; Byung Pak, who had been nominated as a U.S. attorney by Trump before incurring his displeasure; and Republican lawyer Ben Ginsberg. 

Meanwhile, up on the dais, the most compelling figure remains Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the panel’s vice chairwoman and the most high-profile anti-Trump Republican on Capitol Hill. 

The leading role given to Cheney — who dominated the first hearing, held in prime time on Thursday — and the emphasis on Republican witnesses seem clearly intended to neutralize attacks on the panel from Trump loyalists in the GOP.  

Trump’s circle and much of the broader GOP has condemned the panel as a partisan exercise.  

In its earliest days, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) alleged it amounted to a “sham process.” 

Just before the public phase of the hearings kicked off last week, House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) branded it “Speaker Pelosi’s sham political witch hunt” in an interview with Fox News. 

But those arguments look less persuasive when the committee itself is leaning so hard on Republicans to make its case. 

On Monday, figures like Barr, Stepien and Schmidt were scathing of Team Trump’s central — and false — contention that the 2020 election had been stolen from them.

Clips from Barr’s video testimony showed him describing such claims at various points as “bullshit,” “bogus and silly” and “complete nonsense.” 

Barr also recalled meetings and conversations with Trump that left him fearing that the then-president had “become detached from reality” — one of Monday’s most memorable lines. 

Schmidt, a former Philadelphia city commissioner, offered a withering response to the claim from Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani that 8,000 votes had been cast in the names of dead people in Pennsylvania. 

“Not only was there not evidence of 8,000 dead voters voting in Pennsylvania, there wasn’t evidence of eight,” Schmidt said. 

More bleakly, Schmidt also explained how he faced a series of online threats after Trump tweeted about him critically in the wake of the election.  

Ginsberg, the GOP election lawyer and a veteran of the deeply contentious 2000 presidential election, among other battles, stated simply, “The 2020 election was not close.”  

He noted that President Biden’s margin of victory was well beyond the scale of anything that could conceivably be turned around by recounts. 

Some of those witnesses, such as Barr, have been very public in breaking with Trump. Others, like Ginsberg, are rooted within the GOP establishment and have a long record of criticizing the former president.  

But someone like Stepien, who worked to get Trump reelected and who has generally avoided public condemnations of him since then, is in a different category. 

Stepien’s portrayal of the weeks after the election was vivid. He recounted how Trump’s inner circle split into “Team Normal,” centered around himself and close aides, and a separate “Rudy’s Team,” spearheaded by Giuliani and engaged in more delusional flights of fancy. 

Of the latter effort, Stepien noted, “I didn’t think what was happening was necessarily honest or professional at that point in time” — a conviction that was deeply held enough for him to then step back. 

Together, the testimonies formed an emphatic case that Trump and his allies were willfully ignoring the facts of the matter as they desperately sought to reverse his defeat in the weeks after Election Day. 

Whether they will have any effect on public opinion is an entirely different matter. 

Millions of Democratic voters have long ago concluded that Trump incited the insurrection — the offense for which he was impeached. Millions of their Republican counterparts will never accept that to be the case.  

A Pew Research Center poll in January, one year on from the insurrection, found that the House select committee itself was viewed through a similar partisan prism. 

Seventy-nine percent of Republicans said they had little or no confidence in the fairness of the panel’s work at that time, while 65 percent of Democrats said they were “very” or “somewhat” confident. 

Still, even those deeply divided figures leave some modest swath of the population open to persuasion. 

 The Republican voices that the panel has amplified most can only help it make its case. 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Al Schmidt Bill Stepien Jan. 6 Capitol attack Jan. 6 Committee Liz Cheney William Barr
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