I have to admit that I was worried about the January 6 committee hearings. I knew they could change hearts and minds, but I’ve watched a lot of congressional hearings, and they often devolve into partisan grandstanding and bickering. I wrote that the committee could change everything if we let them, largely to urge people to not let the far-right media—and possibly also the mainstream media—bury the findings. Like others, I worried that maybe the committee had waited too long—that in the 18 months since January 6, a powerful narrative had taken hold that former President Donald Trump had gotten away with it and there would be no justice.
But my worries abated almost immediately, when it became clear that the hearings were not the disastrous displays that were Robert Mueller’s presentation and the first Trump impeachment. Roughly 20 million Americans watched the first hearing—more than the first day of the second Trump impeachment, or the Mueller testimony. NPR’s Eric Deggans summed it up best, saying, “It is a pretty significant audience. I know there are some naysayers out there who try to compare these numbers unfavorably to other TV events, like Biden’s last State of the Union address, which drew 38 million viewers. But for a congressional committee presentation, these were pretty solid numbers, indicating a wide array of people were interested in this material. And it’s worth noting that these figures don’t include online viewership.”
Most mainstream-media outlets broadcast the first prime-time hearing, on June 9, 2022, live except for Fox News. Instead, Fox ran a commercial-free episode of Tucker Carlson’s show in which he attacked the hearings. (Fox News did air the next hearings.)
The greatest proof that the hearings are working? Trump Republicans are largely ignoring them. As George Conway told me, “Lots of Republicans want this to happen and they’re secretly rooting for Liz. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wants someone to stick the knife in [Trump]; he just doesn’t want that someone to be him.”
Conway has a point about McConnell, who in February 2021, according to the Courier Journal, said in a speech, “Put another way ... President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he was in office. Didn’t get away with anything yet.” In December 2021, he told CNN, “But I do think we’re all watching, as you are, what is unfolding on the House side, and it will be interesting to reveal all the participants involved.” Of course, even if Liz Cheney and Representative Adam Kinzinger speak for more Republicans than just themselves, those other Republicans are so cowardly (or craven) that they’re letting a group largely composed of Democrats do their dirty work for them.
And for all we already knew about January 6, the hearings have been packed with meme-able surprises, like John Eastman, a lawyer who advised Trump on how to overturn the election, requesting a pardon (in the now infamous note, “I’ve decided that I should be on the pardon list, if that is still in the works”). We learned that former Attorney General Bill Barr told Trump that his claims of voter fraud were “bullshit.” We learned that Ivanka Trump told her chief of staff that she’d heard her dad call Vice President Mike Pence “the p-word.” We learned that the angry mob came within 40 feet of Pence.
Other highlights, like the recordings of Trump yelling at Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, were familiar, but transported us back to that deeply fraught time.
The fact that so many of the witnesses are prominent Republicans is also a blow to the Trump narrative. As the AP reported:
Following [William Barr’s] testimony, many Trump supporters using sites like Reddit, GETTR and Telegram blasted Barr as a turncoat and noted that he’s disputed Trump’s election claims before.
But many others began grasping for alternative explanations for this testimony.
“I’m still hoping Barr is playing a role,” one poster said on a Telegram channel popular with Trump supporters.
One post that spread widely this week suggested Barr was paid by Dominion Voting Systems, a company targeted by Trump and his supporters with baseless claims of vote rigging. “From 2009 to 2018,” the post read, “DOMINION PAID BARR $1.2 million in cash and granted him another $1.1 million in stock awards, according to SEC filings. (No wonder Barr can’t find any voter fraud!)”
(Barr wasn’t being paid by Dominion Voting Systems; he was being paid by Dominion Energy, which … is a different company.)
Perhaps the most decisive piece of evidence that the hearings are working is an ABC poll, done after the first three hearings, showing that “nearly 6 in 10 Americans believe former Pres. Trump should be charged with a crime for his role in the Jan. 6 riot.” It’s hard to get Americans to agree on anything, let alone something as polarizing as this. As Bill Kristol tweeted, “58% of Americans: Trump bears ‘great deal’ or ‘good amount’ of responsibility for Jan. 6. 60%: Committee is fair and impartial. 29%: Hearings make me more likely to support Democrat (19% Republican).”
Will the January 6 committee lead to criminal charges? As Neal K. Katyal wrote in The New York Times recently, “Congress cannot bring criminal charges; the Justice Department must do so. And critics of the department are asking why it does not appear to be investigating these allegations. The hearings point to a potential answer: The committee is laying a foundation upon which prosecutors can build in a subsequent investigation.”
We don’t know what the Justice Department will do. But if it takes action, it will almost certainly be thanks, in part, to the very compelling testimony and proof that the January 6 committee presented to the American people.