WASHINGTON — The Republican plan for parrying the House Jan. 6 committee was supposed to be a simple one. GOP officials would keep a tight focus on rising prices and treat the hearings as a sideshow that voters would deem irrelevant.
And, once again, former President Donald Trump is junking the script.
Trump posted a flurry of notes about the hearing Friday morning on his social media site, even as the party sought to capitalize on a jarring piece of bad economic news that reflects poorly on President Joe Biden: In May, inflation hit a 40-year high.
The hearing Thursday drew an audience of about 20 million — including a few from Trump-world. In the hours after the committee finished, Trump allies embarked on a frenzy of tweeting and texting in hopes of blunting specific claims.
Trump mentioned the inflation rate on his platform, Truth Social, but devoted far more space to a hearing that GOP operatives were hoping to ignore. (Trump launched Truth Social after being booted from Twitter, giving him a vehicle to reach his supporters unfiltered.)
“I think it’s fine to correct the record so it’s not just a stream of uninhibited talking points,” said one former Trump White House aide, “but I think the vast majority of the energy should be spent on the economic issues.”
The 45th president took aim at his former attorney general, Bill Barr. The committee played video testimony of Barr saying he specifically told Trump that there was no widespread election fraud in 2020.
Barr was “a weak and frightened attorney general,” worried about running afoul of Democrats, Trump wrote in one post. He reiterated the unfounded claim that the election was stolen and appeared to disparage his eldest daughter, who was a senior adviser in the West Wing. The committee aired a snippet of Ivanka Trump’s testimony in which she said she respected Barr and was influenced by his conclusion that Trump legitimately lost.
“Ivanka Trump,” her father wrote, hadn’t studied the election results and had “long since checked out and was, in my opinion, only trying to be respectful to Bill Barr and his position as attorney general (he sucked!).”
Trump’s claim that his daughter had “checked out” doesn’t jibe with his earlier portrayal of her as a dynamo. At an event in the White House in 2019, he credited Ivanka with finding jobs for 14 million people. She campaigned in a Senate run-off election in Georgia in December 2020, telling voters she had spoken to her father earlier that day and he had wanted her to convey the message that he “will never stop fighting for you.” And she was with her father in the White House on Jan. 6.
Discrediting individual witnesses is at odds with the strategy Republicans devised ahead of the hearings.
The party had largely settled on trying to mock Democrats for devoting any time all to Jan. 6 when parents are scrounging for baby formula and motorists are facing $5 a gallon for gas.
An ad released by the Republican National Committee on Thursday captured the GOP’s approach. The ad faulted Biden for inflation, crime and the chaotic troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. At the end, a message on screen reads, “But what do Democrats focus on?” followed by a reference to the Jan. 6 committee.
But getting Trump to disregard the hearings may be too much to expect: He's never excelled at staying on message. People close to him said that he remains fixated on the idea that he was robbed of a victory and it’s impossible to get him to drop the subject. In the days after the Capitol riot, according to the committee, one of Trump’s confidants, Fox News host Sean Hannity, sent a text message to the White House press secretary: “No more stolen election talk.” Hannity’s advice didn’t take.
One national Republican campaign strategist said the committee will have difficulty sustaining public interest in the additional hearings scheduled this month when there are so many competing storylines that, polling shows, are of greater interest to Americans. In this view, Republicans don’t need Trump to draw any more attention to their hearings; they’ll fade on their own.
“There’s quite a bit of polling showing that this [the Jan. 6 committee] is not a focus for voters right now,” the strategist said. “With everything else happening in the world, I don’t see how they continue to break through that. There are so many other issues that are top-of-mind.”
Another GOP strategist, asked about the fallout from the hearings, said: “Like most of America, I did not watch.”
Missouri Rep. Jason Smith, a Trump ally and former member of GOP leadership, said he fell asleep watching Thursday’s hearing and suggested Democrats are drawing from a tired playbook amid horrible economic news.
“Talking Donald Trump is the only unifying thing for Democrats right now, so I am not surprised they have made this into a made-for-TV movie production,” Smith told NBC News. “Unfortunately for them, I haven’t found anyone outside of Washington, D.C., who is watching.”
Yet many did. Bill Palatucci, a Republican National Committee member from New Jersey, said he tuned into the hearing Thursday and watched “with a heavy heart.” He questioned the notion that the hearings aren’t worth peoples’ time.
“This was clearly a seditious insurrection against our representative democracy,” Palatucci said. “Voters can have two different thoughts in their minds. They aren’t happy with how the Democrats have conducted the fight against inflation, and at the same time, they can be completely disturbed and angry at the former president for his conduct.”