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The Jan. 6 committee begins hearings with a big challenge: Capture public attention

Whether the public hearings will be considered a success for Democrats largely depends on what comes after and whether legislation or prosecutions follow.
Protests As Joint Session Of Congress Confirms Presidential Election Result
Demonstrators try to breach the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021. Victor J. Blue / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Seldom has a set of congressional hearings opened amid so much anticipation and, at the same time, so little guarantee of success.

The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol will hold the first of at least a half-dozen public hearings this week, having already promised stunning revelations that would lay bare just how dangerously close the U.S. came to losing its democracy.

“It’s all about democratic resiliency. Can we fortify our institutions and our people against insurrection, coups and violence?” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a committee member, told NBC News. “I hope we will be able to spur the country to make the necessary reforms to solidify democracy.”

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Thursday is when the suspense lifts and the nine-member committee gets to tell all. 

But what will success look like? The question has weighed on committee members and congressional Democrats who have invited the panel to present both a definitive accounting of the riot and tangible solutions to prevent another.   

What comes later is likely to determine whether the committee’s work is judged a success or a failure, according to interviews with more than 20 committee members, other lawmakers, witnesses, congressional aides and political strategists. 

As the panel sees it, the hearings can’t just come and go. Members are looking for accountability. The committee isn’t a law enforcement body, so it can’t prosecute anyone. Yet if members lay out a compelling story about the far-flung effort to deny Joe Biden his rightful victory, it could pressure the Justice Department to ramp up its own inquiry.

“I am really very hopeful that what [the committee] will produce will be a road map — not just for Congress, but for the Department of Justice and for the American people who want to preserve our democracy,” Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, who was trapped in the gallery of the House chamber during the riot on Jan. 6, 2021, said in an interview.

'Maximize telling the story'

If the committee is to succeed on its own terms, members will need to stoke enough outrage that voters demand concrete actions preventing anyone else from subverting the peaceful transfer of power. They’ll need to leave a national audience sufficiently alarmed that the politicians and prosecutors who track public opinion decide they must act and act now.

That won’t be easy. A slew of leaks in the run-up to the hearings could leave viewers with a feeling they’ve heard it all before. What’s more, a year and a half after that harrowing afternoon when a violent mob tried to stop certification of Biden’s victory, many Americans have moved on. A Quinnipiac poll in January showed that 44 percent of the country believed too much was being made of the attack on the Capitol, compared to only 38 percent five months earlier.

There’s no doubt that the committee is well positioned to sway opinion. The first hearing will open in prime time with wide network news coverage (Fox News, a conservative outlet, didn’t respond to an inquiry about whether it would carry the hearing live). Over the course of the month, the panel will show video of the events surrounding Jan. 6 that the public has never seen , while publicizing hours of testimony from people tied to Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the election.

As the hearings unfold, members are expected to show that the Trump forces knew they had lost in 2020 yet pushed the baseless claim that the election was stolen anyway. They will lay out how the former president and his associates implored then-Vice President Mike Pence to block certification of Biden’s win even though he had no authority to do so as the electoral votes were tallied. And they’re likely to reveal what Trump did and didn’t do in the West Wing in the hours when a mob breached the Capitol in a violent effort to keep him in power.

Two witnesses who the committee hopes will testify publicly are Marc Short and Greg Jacob, senior Pence advisers who were with him in the Capitol when rioters stormed the building, looking to hang him.

A Republican who has informally advised committee members said: “There’s a sense within the committee that there is a very limited period for them to do this and win public opinion. There’s been this concern that even if they report their findings, does the Justice Department do anything with that? So they’re trying to figure out how to maximize telling the story to the public.”

The country is just as combustible as it was pre-Jan. 6 — maybe even worse.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif.

Equally important to the committee is shoring up a democracy that, when it was challenged, proved more fragile than most Americans had suspected. A triumph for the committee would be for the hearings to advance legislation — now languishing in Congress — to stop candidates from exploiting ambiguities in the Electoral Count Act, the 19th century law that controls how presidents are elected. A bipartisan group of senators has been meeting quietly to revamp the law but has made scant progress

To the extent that the hearings persuade Americans that the Electoral Count Act of 1887 needs to be overhauled so the losing candidate isn’t somehow sworn in as president, it will boost the chances that a reform measure will pass.

“The country is just as combustible as it was pre-Jan. 6 — maybe even worse. We have to certify again in January 2025,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., one of the Democratic prosecutors in Trump’s second impeachment trial. “What recommendations do they make so that we don’t find ourselves in the midst of another attack?”

'Show trial'

Republicans have a simpler task. All they need is for busy Americans to tune out. If the hearings turn out to be a bust, the GOP succeeds in its mission. It has been hard at work discrediting the committee, depicting it as a collection of hard-edged partisans focused on gotcha material that would help Democrats keep control of Congress in the midterms. Republicans are betting that the hearings will backfire as Americans focused on high gas prices and empty store shelves question why Congress is devoting so much time to a riot at the Capitol 17 months ago.

A national Republican campaign strategist said that if “Democrats are talking about January 6 and we’re talking about gas prices, they’re going to lose 40 seats” in the House.

After the committee subpoenaed him and other GOP lawmakers, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., recently told reporters: “My view on the committee has not changed. They’re not conducting a legitimate investigation. It seems as though they just want to go after their political opponents.” 

Hoping to blunt accusations that it is carrying out a political vendetta, the committee continually emphasizes its bipartisan makeup. Two of the nine members are Republicans: Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. But both are scorned by Trump’s MAGA movement.

“It’s a show trial,” Peter Navarro, a former senior Trump administration official, said of the upcoming hearings. “It’s something straight out of Stalin and the cultural revolution. It’s a show trial, that’s all it is.”

(A federal grand jury indicted Navarro on Friday for refusing to comply with a subpoena from the committee. In an interview days before the indictment, he said the committee has exceeded its mandate. “The only thing these committees are supposed to investigate are matters that will allow them to make better rules, regulations and legislation — not to put people behind bars,” he said.)

'All about Trump'

Even some Democrats are leery of how the committee has gone about its work. One complication is that the two Republicans, Cheney and Kinzinger, are both considered potential 2024 Republican presidential candidates, meaning they could face Trump in the primaries. So all nine members of the committee are vulnerable to the charge that they’re using the hearings as a cudgel to gain political advantage over their rivals. Cheney has already asserted that the committee has compiled enough evidence to refer Trump to the Justice Department for criminal charges.

A better approach would be to concentrate on the threat to democracy and not make Trump a singular focus, said Doug Jones, the former Democratic senator from Alabama who recently worked on behalf of the White House to help shepherd Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination through the Senate.

“Accountability, I’m afraid, is unachievable in this political era.”

Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn.

“It’s not their job to build a criminal case. That’s [Attorney General] Merrick Garland’s job,” said Jones, a former federal prosecutor. “There will be this temptation [in the hearings] to make this all about Trump. And when they do, they’re going to lose a lot of people. At the end of the day, this was about an assault on democracy. That’s what it continues to be about.”

If the committee falls short of its goals — if the hearings fail to safeguard democratic norms and punish those who sought to overturn the will of the voters — there’s a consolation prize that members seem willing to accept. 

In the fall, they’ll issue a report based on the 1,000 interviews they’ve conducted and the 140,000 records compiled to date. Democrats hope the report will stand as a definitive account of what happened on Jan. 6. Like the Warren Commission and 9/11 Commission reports before it, the treatise will be mined by historians coming to grips with an episode that shook the nation at its core.

The goal, said Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., “is one of principle: to ensure Americans and the historical record are afforded an account of what happened, why it happened and who enabled it to happen. 

“Accountability, I’m afraid, is unachievable in this political era.”