The looming anniversary of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot underscores the grave danger our nation faced that tragic day. Since July, a House committee has been hard at work investigating what caused the attack on the Capitol in order to take corrective steps to prevent a recurrence.
Instead of information filtered through the partisan prism of cable TV and the internet, televised hearings would allow citizens to make their own judgments.
However, little of the committee’s work has been made public. The one-year anniversary is the perfect time for the House to start conducting televised hearings in which witnesses are questioned and the evidence gathered behind closed doors is revealed. It’s essential that all Americans are exposed to how close we came to losing our democracy a year ago.
Start by subpoenaing Ivanka Trump, who was a key witness to former President Donald Trump’s inaction while his loyalists stormed the Capitol. Rep. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, announced Sunday that the committee had firsthand testimony that Trump’s daughter had twice unsuccessfully urged her father to tell the rioters to stand down.
As an eyewitness to the events and how the then-president responded, Ivanka Trump should be asked under oath to describe her interactions with her father during the Jan. 6 riot. While she is a family member and was a presidential adviser, she is not immune from giving evidence. Her being subpoenaed by the New York attorney general, something disclosed Monday in a separate probe of the Trump Organization’s finances, starkly makes that point.
Many others in the former president’s inner circle — including former White House aides, Trump supporters and Republican House members — should also be compelled to testify about the events leading up to the assault. It’s only by shining a spotlight on the actions of both the rioters and those who fomented them that traitors will be exposed and stopped from trying again.
After all, seeing is believing. Instead of information filtered through the partisan prism of cable TV and the internet, televised hearings would allow citizens to make their own judgments based upon witness testimony and evidence. For the same reason that high-profile criminal trials have been livestreamed, televising the Jan. 6 hearings would aid public confidence in the fairness of the process.
Indeed, history shows that televising congressional hearings can galvanize public opinion. In June 1972, the White House press secretary called Watergate a “third-rate burglary.” President Richard Nixon won a landslide re-election in November.
Some six months later, the Senate committee chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin, D-N.C., began televised hearings about Watergate. That summer, 71 percent of Americans watched the hearings on TV, according to a Gallup Poll. The public perception of the gravity of the Watergate cover-up dramatically changed as a result. In July of the following year, the bipartisan House Judiciary Committee voted to recommend three articles of impeachment in full view of the American public. Nixon resigned in August.
While the Jan. 6 committee has interviewed more than 300 witnesses and collected 35,000 pages of texts and other documents, the public knows next to nothing about this evidence. While the committee has revealed the issuance of subpoenas and recently its requests for testimony from two Republican congressmen, for example, the evidence being sought is undisclosed.
While the press has otherwise gleaned limited information from court filings challenging committee subpoenas and from leaks, the piecemeal news accounts obscure, and could even distort, the overall investigative findings. As important, the public’s perception is being influenced by the presentation of these scant facts by different media outlets, unlike what would happen with televised hearings.
If the Jan. 6 committee hearings were televised, American citizens could hear the unvarnished truth. The nine members of the Jan. 6 committee — including Cheney and fellow Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who voted to impeach Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 events — are of one mind: to get to the bottom of the effort to undermine the peaceful transition of power.
That contrasts with the televised 2019 House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearings about the then-president’s interactions with Ukraine. Those proceedings were complicated by Trump-supporting House members seeking to interrupt proceedings or distort the evidence.
Other salutary effects beyond reaching more Americans directly would flow from televised hearings. Currently uncooperative witnesses would learn more about what evidence the committee has gathered about their potential legal exposure than they would in a closed-door session. Recalcitrant witnesses could then reflect on whether cooperation, rather than stonewalling, would be the better option. Instead, they may try to explain away their apparent culpability or even ask the committee to request the Department of Justice to seek judicial immunity in return for testifying.
Airing the evidence could also affect two other institutions: the Department of Justice and the Supreme Court.
The House voted to hold former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows in criminal contempt on Dec. 14 and asked the Department of Justice to indict him. To date, Attorney General Merrick Garland has not done so. Demonstrating, in a public hearing, the pivotal role that Meadows played on Jan. 6 could persuade the Department of Justice of the importance of Meadows’ testimony and, therefore, the need to bring criminal charges against him for impeding the congressional inquiry.
The Supreme Court, too, will be paying attention to the actions of the Jan. 6 committee. While the court claims to be impervious to politics and public sentiment, some observers have perceived instances in which the institution appears to respond to public opinion.
Trump has petitioned the Supreme Court to block an appellate ruling last month rejecting his claim that executive privilegebars the National Archives from turning over White House documents relating to Jan. 6. If the high court accepts the case, Trump will achieve a delay of months, even if his legal claim is ultimately rejected. Public congressional hearings stressing the importance of the documents would demonstrate the wisdom of the court not becoming entangled in this dispute between Congress and an ex-president.
Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and a committee member, publicly said Sunday that the Jan. 6 committee will hold hearings in “a matter of weeks, if not a couple of months from now.” But that’s not soon enough. Televised hearings should begin immediately.
Waiting for court decisions in lawsuits by witnesses seeking to block subpoenas could result in months of delay. The Jan. 6 committee needs to press ahead vigorously and publicly. If Republicans regain the House in the midterm elections, the committee may only have until Jan. 3, when the next Congress is set to convene, to complete its work.
Louis Brandeis, shortly before he joined the Supreme Court, championed transparency in public affairs, writing, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Let televised hearings shine sunlight into the dark corners of the Jan. 6 insurrection for all Americans to see.