Not since the Watergate hearings has a congressional committee captured the nation’s attention to such profound effect.
- The inquiry has tracked what Trump was doing behind closed doors at the White House on Jan. 6.
- Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney has seen a political career crashed, and launched, for serving on the panel.
- Even Trump has questioned the House GOP’s decision not to participate in the investigation.
The final report from the Jan. 6 committee is still weeks or months away, but the special House panel appointed to investigate last year’s assault on the Capitol already has changed the political world.
Even before what may be its final public hearing on Thursday, the special committee has revealed behind-the-scenes details about what happened that day and reshaped attitudes toward Trump among some voters. The panel has propelled the prominence of his chief nemesis on the committee, and it has tested how Congress can do the job of oversight.
The repercussions are notable given that the panel was launched 15 months ago amid a partisan furor. Senate Republicans filibustered a proposal to form an independent, bipartisan Jan. 6 commission. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi then created a special House committee, she rejected two of the five members Republican leader Kevin McCarthy proposed, prompting the GOP to refuse to officially participate at all. Skeptics argued there wasn’t much left to learn.
Yet not since the Senate Watergate hearings a half-century ago has a congressional committee captured the nation’s attention to such profound effect.
Here’s a look at what the Jan. 6 committee has done, and how.
1. Tracking Trump
It wasn’t hard to see what the rioters who breached the Capitol were doing on Jan. 6, 2021. They were captured in a thousand videos, often recorded on their own cellphones, as they smashed windows, doused Capitol police officers with bear spray, climbed onto the Senate dais, and roamed through the Speaker’s suite, shouting menacingly, “Where’s Nancy?”
But the Jan. 6 committee has now also revealed what Trump was doing behind closed doors at the White House, in the lead-up to the defiant “Stop the Steal” rally he addressed on the Ellipse at noon that day, and during the violent hours that followed.
Testimony from White House aides, a former attorney general, even the president’s older daughter showed Trump had been told by his own top officials that he had lost the 2020 election, fair and square. They described a president who sometimes seemed unhinged as he tried to overturn those results, smashing his lunch plate against the wall in anger and scuffling with a Secret Service agent in his limousine. They detailed the 187 minutes he stayed publicly silent and out of sight as mayhem on his behalf erupted on the Hill.
What did Trump do on Jan. 6?: A breakdown of the 187 minutes Trump was out of view on Jan. 6 as aides urged him to act
It is true that the committee’s hearings haven’t significantly changed views toward him or that day among Republicans, most of whom remain on Trump’s side, or among Democrats, who were already solidly against him. But a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll taken after the hearings found that almost a third of independents, 31%, said the panel’s presentations made them view the attack as more serious than they had thought before.
There is more ahead: The committee’s final conclusions haven’t yet been reached, and its most explosive decisions, including whether to recommend the Justice Department undertake a criminal investigation of Trump, haven’t yet been made.
2. Costing, and launching, a career
Liz Cheney was a three-term congresswoman from Wyoming and a rising figure in the House GOP leadership, considered a possible future senator or House speaker. She was a member of one of the GOP’s leading families, the daughter of a vice president who had the partisan credentials of being demonized by Democrats.
Then came the Jan. 6 assault.
Cheney had voted against Trump’s first impeachment, undertaken for attempting to extract a political favor from Ukraine’s president by using U.S. military aid as a lure. But after the storming of the Capitol, she voted in favor of his second impeachment on a charge of “incitement of insurrection.” She and another renegade Republican, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, agreed to serve on the Jan. 6 committee, giving the inquiry some patina of bipartisanship.
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During the hearings, she has emerged as a leading voice denouncing Trump for an attack on democratic fundamentals and chastising fellow Republicans for failing to stand up to him.
For all that, she was first pushed out of her leadership post, as chair of the House Republican Caucus, then faced the ire of Trump and his supporters in her bid for a fourth term in Congress. Two years earlier, she had won the Republican nomination for Wyoming’s sole House seat with 75% of the primary vote; in August, she carried just 29% of the primary vote in a rout by challenger Harriet Hageman.
She lost her standing in her state, but she has gained a megaphone nationwide. Despite her conservative credentials on policy, the hearings have made her an icon to many Democrats and a pariah in her own party. Her approval rating was a dismal 20% among Republicans, a USA TODAY poll found. But her rating among Democrats was more than triple that, at 63%.
During the final weeks of the midterm election season, she has vowed to campaign against Republican candidates who back Trump’s debunked assertion that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. When she leaves Congress in January, what her next role might be, and where, isn’t clear.
But she doesn’t rule out a run for the White House. That is “something I’m thinking about,” she says.
3. Telling a story
The Jan. 6 committee has succeeded in turning a set of congressional hearings, typically dry and dense affairs, into a serial drama – more Netflix than C-SPAN.
The cast of characters has included heroes, among them the Capitol Hill police officers who testified at the opening session. There have been villains, including Trump attorney John Eastman, concocting legal challenges to the election even though he knew they weren’t grounded in the law. There have been surprises, such as the revelation of congressmen seeking presidential pardons. There have even been moments of gallows humor; consider the description of Rudy Giuliani as too drunk on Election Night to be taken seriously by those around him.
In short, the Jan. 6 committee has succeeded in making a complicated story understandable and compelling, a possible model for public inquiries down the road.
“The dearth of press conferences by DOJ prosecutors is a good thing for doing justice, but it also leaves the public in the dark about the scheme to overturn the election,” Anne Tindall, a lawyer with Protect Democracy who has worked on Capitol Hill and in federal agencies on congressional investigations, said in an interview. “The January 6th Committee has filled that gap, informing the public about what happened and who was responsible.”
The hearings’ discipline reflected the guidance of a veteran TV executive, James Goldston, who was hired by the committee to help produce them. It also has relied on the willingness of the committee members to allow two designated representatives lead the questioning at each hearing. The others relinquished their traditional five-minute turns in the spotlight.
They have been willing, in short, to shut up.
Millions of Americans have watched the hearings on TV – 20 million for the opening prime-time hearing and 17.67 million for the prime-time hearing that closed the summer, according to Nielsen Media Research. The six daytime sessions in June and July drew healthy audiences of between 10.16 million and 13.23 million.
Even the decision to hold some hearings during the day, including the coming final one, reflects a strategy.
“It’s true, it’s not in primetime,” California Democrat Zoe Lofgren, a member of the committee, said on CNN. “I would note, however, that in the past, Fox News does play our hearings if the hearing is in the daytime.”
And Fox is the network that draws the lion’s share of the viewers the committee most needs to reach, the ones still skeptical about what happened on Jan. 6.
Trump didn’t want to use word ‘peace’ in Jan. 6 tweet, witness says
Sarah Matthews, the former White House deputy press secretary, said former President Trump did not want to use the word ‘peace’ in tweets on Jan. 6.
Patrick Colson-Price, USA TODAY
4. Silencing the GOP
Another factor made it possible for the Jan. 6 committee to present crafted hearings: the absence of the opposition.
The seven Democrats and two Republicans on the panel agreed from the start on the basics, on the seriousness of the Jan. 6 assault and on the imperative to hold those responsible accountable. Pelosi had rejected McCarthy’s nomination of Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jim Banks of Indiana as members; both had voted against certifying the election of Joe Biden as legitimate.
The House Republican leader argued that his decision to respond by refusing to name any members cost the committee its claim to being truly bipartisan. But it also meant there were no Trump supporters at the table to raise objections, to challenge the questioning, to disrupt the narrative. Outside the hearing room, few congressional Republicans have been eager to comment on the proceedings to reporters.
Even Trump came to question whether McCarthy’s decision proved to be a smart move.
“I like Kevin very much, but in retrospect, it’s not fair when you have – I don’t know how many people they have on the committee in total – but whatever it is, and you have nobody to give the opposing point of view,” the former president complained in an interview with Punchbowl News. “The Republicans don’t have a voice.”
5. Defining congressional powers
The Jan. 6 committee has pushed the boundaries of Congress’ power to investigate. Their inquiry also has run into its limits.
For years, the ability of the legislative branch to conduct oversight has eroded in the face of pushback from presidents, defiance from prospective witnesses and its own partisan divisions. In this case, the Jan. 6 panel issued more than 100 subpoenas and pursued legal action against some who refused to comply. Trump adviser Steve Bannon is scheduled to be sentenced next week after being convicted of contempt of Congress for failing to comply with a committee subpoena.
Playing hardball in some cases has persuaded many others to cooperate, said Norm Eisen, a veteran Washington lawyer who served as co-counsel for the House Judiciary Committee for Trump’s first impeachment, in an interview: “When you demonstrate that you are willing to go to the mat, the vast majority of people will not want to test your proven resolve and they will voluntarily comply.”
The hearings have featured testimony, in person or on video, from dozens of people close to Trump: family members Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, his attorney general William Barr and White House counsel Pat Cipollone; his campaign manager Bill Stepien; and the vice president’s chief of staff, Marc Short.
But the committee’s strategy hasn’t always worked. Five Republican congressman have been subpoenaed, including McCarthy and Jordan, but argue that the panel’s subpoenas aren’t constitutional or valid.
Time could be on their side: If Republicans regain control of the House in the midterm elections, the committee’s tenure is likely to expire when the new Congress is sworn in on Jan. 3 – three days short of the second anniversary of the Capitol assault it is investigating.