Starting on Thursday night and continuing Monday morning, the House’s Jan. 6 committee kicked off a series of hearings that could help save our democracy. The committee promised to present “previously unseen material documenting” the Capitol riot, including witness testimony and video footage that proves a “coordinated, multistep effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and prevent the transfer of power.”
That’s a big promise. The committee says it has the goods — and I believe them. But that doesn’t mean that it will ultimately succeed.
Over the next few days and weeks, the committee will have to make clear, as I have long urged, that Jan. 6 was not an isolated, one-day invasion of the Capitol.
Over the next few days and weeks, the committee will have to make clear, as I have long urged, that Jan. 6 was not an isolated, one-day invasion of the Capitol, but was instead a much larger constellation of coup activities, starting long before Jan. 6 and continuing to this day. If the committee cannot prove this overall conspiracy, it will fail. Equally important, the committee must also show that the threat to our democracy is ongoing.
So, can the committee deliver?
It depends. And it depends in large part on whether the committee shows, as the Watergate committee did, what the president knew and when he knew it.
The committee has promised a blockbuster. And with two hearings down, it certainly seems off to a great start. But high expectations create the risk of unfulfilled expectations.
The Watergate hearings made no such promise and succeeded, perhaps, because they delivered more than expected. To be fair, Watergate also didn’t have to contend with Fox News or social media platforms spreading lies, and our prosecution team gave them a smoking gun tape that answered the question “what did the president know and when did he know it.” It was also a bipartisan era when facts mattered — and all news outlets had the same facts — and when Republicans followed their oaths of office.
The Watergate hearings lasted 51 days and were broadcast live as they happened, riveting the audience. White House counsel John W. Dean testified for four days — himself. And so far, there is no John Dean equivalent to narrate the full conspiracy as he did. According to Bob Thompson, a media studies professor at Syracuse University, 85 percent of American households watched some of the proceedings. As a result, Americans overwhelmingly supporting corrective legislation, the special prosecution force’s trials and President Richard Nixon’s impeachment and resignation.
The Jan. 6 committee may not need 51 days because, unlike the Watergate committee, today’s lawmakers have been putting the evidence together behind closed doors for 11 months. (The Watergate committee had hearings just two months after being formed.) Also, less time may be required because the Jan. 6 committee members are all of one opinion; there will be no time lost to the kind of partisan deflection that characterized the impeachment hearings — or most House hearings these days.
Still, I wonder if six (or seven or eight) days is enough.
Even with the shorter attention spans of today’s audience, the days allotted seems insufficient to cover the scope of potential crimes and “awful but lawful” conduct that exist here. And with those days spread over three weeks, it will be difficult to build momentum and sustain public interest among an audience used to binge watching.
The committee announcing the expected number of hearings in advance also makes them seem more like a television show than a careful unpeeling of layers of facts in a search for truth. The hiring of James Goldston, a former ABC executive, reinforces this perception. And the committee will fail if it makes the hearings seem like a shiny, but perfunctory, presentation of old facts, a predictable, well-put together march toward a predetermined goal.
A related threat to the committee’s success is a reliance on information that has already been reported, rather than the promised never-before-seen evidence. (And that’s exactly the narrative the GOP social media accounts started hammering as soon as Thursday night’s hearing was over.)
Even Nixon’s recorded voice plotting a cover-up on the Watergate tapes might not have led to convictions and a resignation without the testimony of Dean and many others.
Moreover, I know from years as a trial attorney that a recording is no substitute for a live witness. Even Nixon’s recorded voice plotting a cover-up on the Watergate tapes might not have led to convictions and a resignation without the testimony of Dean and many others.
Thursday included the live and extremely powerful testimony of Officer Caroline Edwards as well as the surprisingly potent recorded testimony of former Attorney General William Barr, Ivanka Trump and the committee’s investigator. But in person would have been even more effective. Monday's hearing included multiple live witnesses, although former Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien had to drop out at the last minute because his wife had gone into labor.
Thankfully, success does not require persuading Fox News viewers that the information the committee presents is the truth. Fox News has already announced it will not broadcast the hearings. (And it might not make much of a difference if it did.) Fox can no longer be called Fox News; it has become Fox Entertainment and Opinion.
Nor does success require proof of crimes — that’s DOJ’s role, not Congress’— though I’m sure the committee will argue crimes have occurred. But it does require, besides proof of the conspiracy I mentioned above, persuading some undecided voters (and Democrats) to head to the polls in November.
And ultimately, in today’s polarized politics, to avoid failure, the committee must do more than prove their case. They must present witnesses that rebut the predictable Republican attempts to undermine the evidence — not to mention, whatever Tucker Carlson says this month.
On the whole, the committee’s opening night was impressive. I am encouraged that it has been advised by great trial tacticians like my former Watergate partner, Richard Ben-Veniste. But I am concerned about the time limits and the risk that lawmakers have overpromised. And I truly hope that the committee emphasizes that these hearings are about more than the violence of Jan. 6 — something it did not do effectively on Thursday.
Personally, I would have used the opening night to sketch all of the component plots within the conspiracy to destroy our democracy and overturn the election, not just list them as coming attractions. Also, I was not impressed by what they called “never before seen” video that looked just like hours of video we have already seen.
I respect the committee and will be watching carefully to see whether their promised blockbuster revelations are delivered this month. There's still time for them to connect the dots and deliver the smoking gun their hype promises. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said the hearings will “blow the roof off the House.”
I hope he will be proved right.