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Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy.
What was once billed as six hearings over two-plus weeks by the House Select Committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol of Jan. 6, 2021, has now reached a break after eight hearings, stretched out over more than a month, with more promised in September. The committee has done about as good a job with that time as possible.
It’s found a way to take a well-known story of a president who attempted to overturn an election and keep the focus on the big picture of exactly what former President Donald Trump and his allies did to undermine the republic, while at the same time filling in lots of relevant and fascinating new details. The inquiry also planted within that story a number of sidebars likely to spark interest from the press and in social media.
Thursday night’s unnecessary but entertaining example was a swipe at Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, who famously raised a fist in solidarity with the mob — only, as the committee showed with new footage, to run for his life from the rioters a few hours later. It was a perfect made-for-social, comic-relief moment while taking nothing away from the seriousness of the proceedings.
So the committee is doing well. Does it matter? Yeah. It does.
One obvious audience going into the hearings were the journalists in the nonaligned media. For them, the hearings are basically a framing operation: The committee is trying to get them to cover Trump and his allies as opponents of democracy, rather than as opponents of Democrats.
As long as the story is Democrats against Republicans, nonaligned media are going to be tempted to treat the story as if both sides should be treated as equals. But if the story is Trump against democracy, then those same journalists will be more comfortable siding with democracy.
That kind of framing was helped by giving the two Republicans on the committee, especially Wyoming’s Liz Cheney, a central role. On Thursday, with Committee Chair Bennie Thompson isolating with a mild case of COVID-19, Cheney (and not the next-ranking Democrat) presided.
It’s been helped, too, by the parade of former Trump administration officials who are testifying against the former president. But it’s been helped most by just holding the attention of politics professionals and forcing them to reckon with how badly Trump violated his oath of office, and how monstrous his actions were.
A second audience was those Republican party actors who are neither die-hard Trump fans nor never-Trumpers — those Republicans who recognize what Trump is, but have usually gone along with him and his supporters for a variety of reasons. For them, the big case to make is that Trump is more dangerous to the party than to those in the party who oppose him. It’s not clear whether the hearings are having much effect on them or not. If Trump has lost support from this cohort, it may be more because of his limited success promoting candidates during the 2022 primaries. But his inability to put the 2020 election behind him doesn’t seem to be helping him with this group within the party.
And that points to an important audience that I didn’t recognize going in: Trump himself. Perhaps he would be focused on 2020, anyway. But surely the committee is helping fix his attention there. That means that Trump has been attacking Cheney and the Republican witnesses, which doesn’t do Republicans trying to win the 2022 midterms any good. It probably makes the case that Trump is yesterday’s news more compelling (even though, as we learned in the wobbly outtakes from a Trump statement recorded on Jan. 7, 2021, Trump finds “yesterday” a hard word to say). With the conditions otherwise excellent for a strong Republican midterm performance in November, the hearings are a good reminder of how disruptive Trump can be for his own party.
Plenty of Republican party actors are still solidly in Trump’s camp. The best comic relief from Thursday night’s session came from the House Republicans’ Twitter account, which declared early in the hearing, “This is all heresy.” The social media managers eventually managed to replace “heresy” with “hearsay,” which was scarcely more accurate. There’s a ton of firsthand evidence; many of those who could give firsthand evidence are refusing to testify; and this isn’t a trial, but a congressional hearing.
But “heresy” perfectly captured the sense of cultish belief in Trump as the only defense his supporters have. Almost two years after Trump lost the 2020 election, he’s still claiming against all the evidence that he won in a landslide, despite having been told by all of his own campaign professionals that he lost.
Republicans can choose to avoid heresy and stick with Trump. But they know where that got them. And Cheney and her colleagues on the Jan. 6 committee are doing what they can to remind them.