When it came to the first public hearing of the Jan. 6 House Committee, Democrats had overhyped it and Republicans incorrectly dismissed it as irrelevant.
Both groups missed the larger point.
What it signified was the first complete accounting of the only attack on the Capitol building in over 200 years.
While elements of the hearing may have felt like a legal trial — with opening statements and witnesses — it is not a legal procedure. What does that mean, practically speaking? Taking it to the extreme, even if they overcovered evidence that someone should be charged with a crime, the decision to do so would be up to the Department of Justice.
And while it might have come across to some as pure political theater, the first two hours of what appears to be a seven-part public hearing had something going for it: No one was disagreeing with the basic facts. The disagreement came in whether it was worth reexamining the events of that day in prime time this many months later.
So what should we take away from Thursday night’s hearings? Let’s take a look.
The committee is creating the official historical accounting of Jan. 6
The two hours of television toggled back and forth between CSPAN-like viewing of politicians making speeches and compelling, high-production videos showing what one Capitol guard testified was “carnage” and “chaos.”
Some viewers turning in may have wondered what the point of it all was and where the proceedings were going. Early on, it seemed the focus would be on the fact that this would be the fourth time Congress would hold major hearings involving Donald Trump. (First there was the Robert Mueller investigation, then two impeachment hearings, and now this one.)
But while Trump is the major figure, he is — so far — only one part of this latest story. The other part is the actual planning and execution from radicalized groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys.
And even then, the point is not about Trump’s political future, or that of the extremist groups. It’s about whether Congress, through the power of subpoena, can create a rich, sometimes searing history of that day and the events leading up to it.
Whether people want to watch it or vote on it, for now, appears secondary to that desire to craft an official historical record.
Many in Trump’s inner circle knew the ‘Big Lie’ was a lie
For all the talk about crafting that official historical rendering, there was one element of Thursday night’s hearing that may impact politics in the near term.
The idea that the 2020 election was somehow stolen is a major through line in Republican politics right now. For Republican candidates running in this year’s midterm elections, saying the last presidential election was stolen is as expected (at times demanded) from the party’s base as it is to support low taxes and the building of a wall along the Mexican border.
Yet on Thursday, the committee showed videotaped testimony from those in Trump’s inner circle saying they knew the former president lost his bid for reelection fair and square. Under oath, the Trump campaign’s lawyer recalled that White House chief of staff Mark Meadows once indicated “there was no there, there” about election fraud claims. Then there was Jason Miller, the president’s former spokesman, who described being in the Oval Office with Trump when the campaign’s data cruncher told him he would lose. Trump’s attorney general, meanwhile, made such a convincing case that Trump had lost, it led to the president’s own daughter, Ivanka Trump, saying she no longer believed her father’s claims.
In other words, even if some continue to falsely suggest there was widespread voter fraud that would have overturned the 2020 election, they are pushing a point that many in Trump’s own inner circle never believed from the start.
Video is a powerful tool. Congress should use it more.
Nothing captured the tick-tock of the events of Jan. 6 or created emotions like the well-produced video snippets aired in the hearing, largely from body cameras, cellphones, and security cameras during those hours when the attack was underway.
But if the video was by far the most powerful tool employed Thursday night, it wasn’t used all that much.
Those on the committee said this would be must-see television. They said they would take the lessons learned from the Trump impeachment trials and produce what was, essentially, a documentary that was both gripping and based on new evidence. And yes, what did air was gripping. But it was a short interlude. The bulk of the nearly two-hour hearing was reserved for Congressional speechifying at desks.
There’s a lesson here. In a world of growing partisanship, a video, unlike a political speech, can offer a more unimpeachable window into what happened. It removes the partisan lens, to some degree, and allows the viewer to draw whatever conclusion they see fit.