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What the January 6th Hearings Are Really About


Strangely enough, one of the sharpest takes on Thursday’s prime-time January 6th hearing on Capitol Hill came from an anchor of the “news network” that, to its eternal shame, chose not to show the proceedings live: Bret Baier, of Fox News. Having spent two hours helming coverage of the hearing on Fox’s much less popular sibling, Fox Business, Baier popped up on the main network in the eleven-o’clock hour, where he pointed out that it’s not entirely clear yet where the Democrats and Liz Cheney, one of two Republicans on the January 6th House select committee, are going with this. Is it ultimately an effort to go after Donald Trump criminally?, Baier asked. Or is it a political play to prevent him from running for President again?

The redoubtable Liz Cheney, the Republican ostracized by her party, and the resolute Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat who shared the spotlight with her at the hearings, would doubtless insist that their primary goal is to protect American democracy. There would be no reason to doubt them. But that doesn’t negate Baier’s question, and, arguably, makes it more pertinent. For, if there’s one thing the hearing reminded everyone of, it’s that Trump will represent a mortal threat to American democracy until the day he retires from politics. So, if your goal is to protect that democracy, the first question you have to consider is this: What’s the most effective way to make sure Trump remains a former President?

The most definitive move would be to charge and convict him of seditious conspiracy, insurrection, or incitement. From one perspective, the entire series of hearings—another five are expected this month, with a final report due in September—can be interpreted as a lengthy criminal referral to the Justice Department, or, at the least, as a heavy hint in the ear of Attorney General Merrick Garland. While Justice Department prosecutors have gone far and wide in their investigation into the assault on the Capitol, charging more than eight hundred people with crimes related to the riot, the Department hasn’t yet indicted anyone in Trump’s immediate orbit. The farthest Garland has gone was his pledge in January, on the eve of the anniversary of the insurrection, that his department “remains committed to holding all January 6th perpetrators, at any level, accountable under law—whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy.”

If the Feds don’t indict Trump because they don’t think there is enough evidence to secure a conviction from a jury, the job of protecting democracy from the former President will fall on his quislings in the Republican Party and, eventually, on American voters at large. In this context, the hearings provide an important public service in two ways.

First, they remind elected Republicans, whose ultimate loyalty is to themselves, that if they don’t somehow find a way to move past Trump they will spend years defending the indefensible. Because, as sure as the sun rises, Trump is going to make them do it. Hours before Thursday’s hearing started, the former President posted this monstrous statement on his social-media app Truth Social: “January 6 was not merely a protest, it represented the greatest movement in the history of our Country to Make America Great Again. It was about an Election that was Rigged and Stolen, and a Country that was about to go to HELL.”

Tucker Carlson and some other media figures who make millions monetizing Trump’s grievances and legitimizing his fantasies may be willing to continue down this road with him. But is it politically viable in the long term for establishment Republicans like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (some of whose staff members were shown in the January 6th committee’s video presentation scurrying away from their Capitol offices in terror of the MAGA rioters)? What about the “multiple” G.O.P. lawmakers who, according to Cheney’s presentation, contacted the White House in the weeks after January 6th and asked for Presidential pardons for their role in promoting Trump’s Big Lie? Some of them may privately prefer to move on as well.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that, two years from now, Trump and his MAGA hordes steamroll their way through the G.O.P. primaries, as they did in 2016, and it’s left to the American people to stop him at the voting booth. In that alarming scenario, it will be essential to have a full and accurate account of January 6th, including the attack itself, the events that led up to it, and its chaotic aftermath—when Betsy DeVos, Trump’s ultra-conservative Secretary of Education, discussed invoking the Twenty-fifth Amendment with Pence and other Cabinet members; when the spineless McCarthy talked (and only talked) about asking Trump to resign; and when General Mark Milley, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reportedly sought to limit the ability of a raging Commander-in-Chief to launch a nuclear strike.

Of course, there is no guarantee that establishing the full truth about January 6th will defeat Trump: in a democracy, the voters remain free to make awful choices. But in using the testimony of the Attorney General at the time, Bill Barr, along with Trump’s daughter Ivanka and others who were on the inside of this horrid saga, the members of the select committee have made a good start in laying out Trump’s culpability with fresh details and conveying it to anybody who is willing to watch and listen.

One Trumper who seems rattled is Trump himself. On Friday morning, he again took to Truth Social, where he accused his own daughter of being “checked out” and said that his former Attorney General “sucked.” As the hearings proceed, we’ll probably be seeing more from both of them. The next hearing is on Monday. ♦

An earlier version of this article misstated the number of Republicans on the committee.



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