After five years of investigations, House lawmakers seem to have learned the hard lesson that when it comes to making a case against former President Donald Trump, a scandal simply isn’t enough to keep the public’s attention — even when it comes to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
On Thursday, the House's select committee investigating the insurrection will take its first crack at telling the sweeping story of Trump’s attempt to overthrow the 2020 election results and the resulting riot. The first of a series of public hearings, scheduled for 8 p.m. ET, is expected to have all the hallmarks of a traditional network primetime event.
House investigators are reportedly planning to use a mix of live witnesses, pre-taped interviews and never-before-seen video footage from the Capitol on Jan. 6 to weave a compelling narrative of the day and the events that led up to it. They’ve even hired a veteran TV news producer to advise on the first hearing, according to an Axios report published Monday morning.
“We humans process information through stories. We need a hero, a villain, a victim, some conflict, then resolution. It seems to me the crimes of Jan. 6 have all of those elements,” longtime Democratic strategist Paul Begala told Yahoo News. “This is no academic exercise; it could be life or death for our democracy. I’ll be watching.”
Many of the details of the Jan. 6 attack and the efforts by Trump and his advisers to throw out the voting results after he lost the White House have dotted the national discussion since the November 2020 election.
But House investigators promise there will be more to reveal starting Thursday night.
“The select committee has found evidence about a lot more than incitement here, and we’re gonna be laying out the evidence about all of the actors who were pivotal to what took place on Jan. 6,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and a top member on the committee, told the Washington Post Monday.
The lessons of stagecraft
Lawmakers have plenty of experience with wild Trump scandals, smoking guns indicating corruption and a circus-like media frenzy with each stunning scoop. And they all seemed to end in public confusion and limited action as Trump and his team of Republicans muddied the debates with conspiracy theories and misinformation.
Trump and his former aides had plenty to work with, with a litany of mistakes by the press covering the Steele dossier, the Hunter Biden laptop and other items that seemed to vindicate the former president’s grievances.
This time around, investigators may have the goods
The select committee has conducted more than 1,000 witness interviews and obtained over 140,000 documents that, the panel’s members argue, paint a picture of a plot by Trump and his allies to subvert the outcome of a presidential election, which culminated in the deadly assault on the Capitol.
While some of the key players in that effort have chosen to stonewall the committee, many more have agreed to play ball, both voluntarily and in response to subpoenas. The public hearings are expected to feature both live and taped testimony from Trump administration insiders who can shed light on the White House’s role in the campaign to overturn the 2020 election results, as well as its response to the violence on Jan. 6.
Among the former Trump officials who’ve reportedly been invited to appear at the public hearings are members of former Vice President Mike Pence’s inner circle, including Greg Jacobs, who served as chief counsel, and J. Michael Luttig, a former federal judge who advised Pence in the lead-up to Jan. 6, when Pence faced intense pressure from Trump to block Congress’s certification of the Electoral College vote. Pence’s former chief of staff, Marc Short, is also expected to appear.
Other potential witnesses include Cassidy Hutchinson, a former White House aide who worked under then-chief of staff Mark Meadows and whose closed-door depositions have already been cited as the source of multiple key details about the goings-on inside the White House during this time, as well as former Justice Department officials who resisted efforts by Trump and his allies to use the DOJ to sow doubt about the 2020 election results after the FBI said it did not find evidence of widespread voter fraud.
There has also been speculation that the panel could show clips of taped interviews with Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, both of whom also served as senior advisers to the former president.
Overall, one of the committee’s reported goals for the public hearings is to connect the dots between Trump’s bid to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s electoral victory on Jan. 6, and the violence at the Capitol that ultimately delayed the certification from taking place.
On Tuesday, the committee announced that one of the first witnesses who will testify live during Thursday’s hearing is Nick Quested, a British documentarian who prior to and during the riot on Jan. 6 was filming members of the far-right Proud Boys, one of the extremist groups that has been accused of coordinating the violent attack on the Capitol. Also scheduled to appear Thursday is Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards, who was the first law enforcement official injured by rioters while defending the Capitol.
Pro-Trump Republicans also face a new challenge
Trump and his supporters will face a new series of hurdles as they attempt to sway public opinion their way in the face of the mountain of evidence promised by the committee.
Throughout the Trump-Russia investigation and both impeachments of the ex-president, his Republican allies were able to coordinate closely with Trump and his teams and make their case on their respective committees.
After a spat between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy over who should be allowed to serve on the Jan. 6 committee — Pelosi blocked the appointments of Reps. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Jim Banks, R-Ind., because they supported efforts to overthrow the election results — Trump’s allies were largely boxed out of this investigation.
And the core of Trump’s election lie — baseless allegations of vote-rigging and fraud — has been kept off even far-right outlets in large part by legal action from voting machine manufacturer Dominion, and kept off the airwaves of hard-right outlets including Fox News, NewsMax and OAN.
And, of course, Trump himself no longer controls the White House and the ability to shift public attention, speaking (or tweeting) as the most powerful politician on earth.
But Trump’s allies, led by McCarthy and top Republicans in his leadership team, including Banks, Jordan and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik of New York, will be pushing back against the investigation in interviews and appearances. House Republicans are also planning to host a press conference Wednesday making their case, according to one person familiar with the planning.
The Republican National Committee is also coordinating a messaging strategy to paint the House investigation as a “partisan” attack on Trump, according to a memo obtained by Vox.
The country seems to have moved on for now
The battles between Trump's supporters and lawmakers investigating him, which dominated much of Trump’s four years in office, might not matter much for either side in the end, despite the historic nature of the hearings.
Democratic and progressive activists trying to drum up interest are hosting watch parties across the country, including an open-air screening near the Capitol. Fox News won’t be carrying the hearing live, though it still plans to cover the event throughout the evening, according to The Hill.
A new NBC poll found that less than half the country believes Trump was responsible for the Jan. 6 attack. And surveys of Republican voters have routinely found they broadly believe Trump’s election lies.
But surveys of GOP voters in primary contests across the country have also found that Jan. 6 and Trump’s stolen election lie are not motivating issues. Instead, concerns about inflation, the prices of gas and milk, COVID-19, the upcoming abortion decision from the Supreme Court, schooling and the recent spate of mass shootings are driving voters’ decisions.