Five questions that hang over the Jan. 6 committee’s public hearings
The biggest moment of the Jan. 6 House Select Committee’s existence is about to arrive.
On Thursday evening, the panel will hold the first of its televised hearings. The event will take place in prime time and be broadcast by almost every major network and news channel.
For some, it will be the most dramatic congressional investigation since the Watergate hearings a half-century ago.
Others — committed supporters of former President Trump, in particular — will likely tune out the hearings.
Here are five big questions that have yet to be answered.
What will we learn that’s new about Trump?
Democrats are promising explosive revelations about the former president’s role in fomenting the attack on the Capitol.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) on Tuesday promised in a CNN interview, “We’re going to see how much Trump was involved. Trump ran this show. He ran it from the time he lost the election in November, and he did it with his son, or sons, and all of his henchmen up there.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the committee, told The Washington Post in a Monday interview that the panel had “found evidence about a lot more than incitement here.”
Raskin added, “I think that Donald Trump and the White House were at the center of these events. That’s the only way of really making sense of them all.”
Ironically, the main difficulty Democrats may face in making the case against Trump is the vast amount that is already known.
Trump was, after all, impeached by the House only one week after the insurrection, becoming the only president in history to be impeached on two separate occasions.
At a rally at the Ellipse near the White House, immediately before the assault on the Capitol, he told supporters, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” And he also told them that President Biden, if certified as the election’s winner, would be an illegitimate president.
There have also been subsequent media leaks about other things the panel may have uncovered — including, recently, the suggestion that Trump was sympathetic to the demands of some of his supporters to “hang Mike Pence,” then the sitting vice president.
There could be more shocking evidence to come. But the knowledge already in existence sets a high bar.
Can the panel incriminate the Republican Party more broadly?
The committee famously features just two Republicans — Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), who serves as vice chair, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) — both of whom are vigorous Trump critics.
That leaves the wider GOP in the panel’s crosshairs, especially if it can pin culpability for specific misdeeds on other members of the party.
No fewer than 147 Republican members of Congress voted to invalidate the election results in some shape or form on the evening of the insurrection, with debris still littering the Capitol’s hallways.
Yet, at that time, senior members of the GOP were willing to acknowledge Trump’s culpability.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in February 2021 said on the Senate floor that Trump was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.” In a recorded call with colleagues later obtained by two reporters for The New York Times, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called Trump’s actions “atrocious and totally wrong.”
But McConnell voted to acquit Trump on the impeachment charge in the Senate and McCarthy made his peace much more publicly, traveling to Mar-a-Lago to meet Trump. Last week, Trump endorsed McCarthy for reelection to the House.
The GOP would far rather talk about the issues bedeviling Biden than Jan. 6.
But if the committee can make a compelling case with fresh and additional evidence, Republicans may have little choice.
Can the Democrats put on a show?
For good or for bad, the theater of politics matters.
So, one question will be how compelling Democrats can make the hearings.
The first hearing is likely to be the most important of all, much as the first presidential debate in a series tends also to be the most vital.
All three major broadcast networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, have said they will shelve their regular programming and replace it with live coverage of the Thursday hearing. So too have CNN and MSNBC. Controversially, Fox News will not air the hearing live, instead confining such coverage to Fox Business.
Conservatives have taken umbrage at the decision by the committee to turn to a former president of ABC News, James Goldston, to help make Thursday’s presentation as compelling as possible.
Axios, which first reported Goldston’s involvement, wrote that he was “busily producing” the hearing “as if it were a blockbuster investigative special.”
We’re about to see the results.
Do the hearings change the political agenda?
There is little doubt that Thursday’s hearing will eclipse almost all the political news out of Washington. For that night at least, it will be the only show in town.
But how long will that effect last?
Trump allies have promised “counterprogramming” to push back on the narrative being advanced by the committee.
House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) is kicking off that effort Wednesday, at a morning news conference with House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and ardent Trump allies Reps. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
Stefanik told Fox News that she and her colleagues were “pushing back against lame-duck Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi’s sham political witch hunt.”
More broadly, the White House has spent months on the defensive, embattled by a host of problems including inflation, high gas prices, an infant formula shortage and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The hearings will give Democrats a chance to put the GOP on the back foot — but for how long?
Can the panel shift public opinion?
Politically, this is the biggest question of all.
Many independent experts, and even some liberals, aren’t at all sure the answer is yes.
For all kinds of reasons, opinions around Jan. 6 have calcified.
While Democrats see Trump’s culpability as self-evident, many Republicans seem willing to dismiss anything the panel uncovers.
Meanwhile, a politically segmented media environment combines with the bias-reinforcing dynamics of social media to deepen those divisions.
That doesn’t mean the committee is wasting its time. New evidence regarding Jan. 6 is important by its nature.
But it may not be enough to change many minds.