After four years of what often seemed like nonstop shouting, Donald Trump’s presidency may be remembered by history for 7 ½ hours of uncharacteristic silence.
On Tuesday morning, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa of The Washington Post reported on the lengthy unexplained gap in the official White House telephone record for Jan. 6, 2021, the day far-right rioters violently attacked the United States Capitol in an effort to overturn the 2020 election. That gap, uncovered in 11 pages of records provided to the House select committee investigating the attack, implies that Trump neither made nor received a single phone call across the entire duration of the Capitol attack.
The investigations into the topic have done little to get the attention of the general public, let alone challenge a flood of disinformation warping how Americans view the attack.
Not only is that claim unbelievable given the flood of other White House phone calls and text messages the House committee knows took place that day, it’s a strong indication that Trump and his associates were actively engaged in an effort to cover up the president’s actions — and inactions. The House committee is now investigating whether Trump might have communicated with allies through disposable burner phones or more covert means that didn’t leave a damning paper trail. (The Post reported that “a Trump spokeswoman said that Trump had nothing to do with the records and had assumed any and all of his phone calls were recorded and preserved.”)
Yet instead of amplifying this and other disturbing findings to the American people, the House Jan. 6 committee has remained an almost invisible and largely ineffectual presence in American political and cultural life. What happened?
The bipartisan House select committee launched with the promise of prime-time, televised hearings that would put prominent Trump administration officials under oath to explain exactly what happened in the White House as radicalized Americans were raiding their own government and help combat Trump’s “big lie” that the 2020 election win for Joe Biden had been rigged by Democrats and other shadowy forces.
The Jan. 6 committee was right to aim for prime-time hearings. From Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s iconic appearance at the Senate’s 1963 hearings on organized crime to John Dean’s searing Watergate testimony to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, the striking image of sworn testimony and pointed congressional questions remains a powerful force in America’s political imagination.
Even misfires can make their mark on cultural memory. Republicans’ hearing on the 2012 terrorist attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, failed to pin any wrongdoing on then-President Barack Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but “Benghazi” enjoys a second life as political shorthand for a hearing heavy on made-for-television theatrics that puts political opponents on the defensive, where the political fallout can be tremendous even if the policy misdeeds were minimal. The Benghazi hearing also brought news of Clinton’s private email server to broader public consciousness — an issue that dogged Clinton throughout the campaign and contributed to her 2016 loss.
But when it comes to the biggest political breach of the past decade, the investigations into the topic have done little to get the attention of the general public, let alone challenge a flood of disinformation warping how Americans view the attack. A combination of timidity, poor messaging and a lack of blockbuster witnesses has diminished the impact the committee’s work might have had. And there’s little time for course correction. The Jan. 6 committee faces severe time pressures, not least because many Republicans are intent on disbanding the committee if the GOP retakes the House in November, which looks likely.
“The committee is making the same mistake as Mueller,” warned former Clinton White House press secretary Joe Lockhart, referencing special counsel Robert Mueller’s strict media silence during his two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. “The public deserves to be updated on a regular basis.”
Mueller seemed to believe that staying out of the public eye would grant his investigation credibility among both Democrats and Republicans. Instead, Mueller’s disappearing act gave Trump and his political cronies the space they needed to flood the media with unchallenged spin. The Jan. 6 committee is at risk of making the same shortsighted misstep.
Republican witnesses, of course, have made things harder for the committee by being uncooperative. Yet the committee has been hesitant to use its legal authority to compel testimony from powerful Trumpists.
Only a handful of Republicans have been directly called out. The committee in October recommended a contempt prosecution for Steve Bannon. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows got his criminal referral in December, though he has yet to be charged. On Monday, the committee referred White House aides Peter Navarro and Dan Scavino to the Department of Justice for contempt of Congress charges.
Part of the committee’s fear of handing out more criminal referrals likely comes from a desire to not appear overly political in the eyes of the public. Charging too many prominent Trump administration officials may lead Americans to believe the GOP’s perpetual “witch hunt” accusations are true. But going soft on crooks won’t stop a Republican Party that has been relentlessly attacking the committee since before its formation was even finalized.
“Public hearings will generate attention, but the most important thing is exercising power to hold Republicans who incited the insurrection and who are obstructing the investigation legally accountable,” former House staffer and communications consultant Aaron Huertas advised. “That’s the right thing to do, and it rightfully generates news and attention. It represents significant action, not just discussions.”
But even those held in contempt by the House have little to fear in the short term. First referred for prosecution almost half a year ago, Bannon’s federal criminal trial isn’t even scheduled to begin until July 18. If the committee hopes this creaking federal criminal procedure will loosen Republican tongues around what Trump knew and did on Jan. 6 before it’s disbanded, it’s likely a hope in vain.
The committee’s invisibility is all the more baffling because recent news surrounding prominent Republicans’ activities on Jan. 6 is both bizarre and attention-grabbing.
The committee’s invisibility is all the more baffling because recent news surrounding prominent Republicans’ activities on Jan. 6 is both bizarre and attention-grabbing. The committee is considering asking Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, a well-known peddler of conservative conspiracy theories and the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, to appear before the committee.
Thomas became the focus of national attention after her text messages to Meadows urging him to assist in overturning the lawful results of the 2020 election. That such a flatly antidemocratic sentiment came from one of the Republican Party’s most internally influential individuals should terrify Americans. But unless the committee demands a full, prime-time hearing for Thomas, most Americans may never hear the full story.
It would be a tragedy with steep consequences for our democracy if Congress allows the violence of Jan. 6 to fade from memory without pursuing real, public accountability for those who incited and supported its antidemocratic goals. The select committee is running out of time to present to the nation a full and fair accounting of what happened that day. Without major public hearings to galvanize public opinion and legal accountability for all of those who materially supported this attack, America will never fully account for the scope of Republicans’ complicity, even if the gap in Trump’s calls that day is filled in.