Why the Jan. 6 committee failed to convict Trump in the court of public opinion
No smoking gun found after months of investigation with questionable practices revealing coordination between White House and the rioters
Two years after a deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol, coaxed on by Donald Trump in the waning days of his presidency, the select committee on January 6 has all but wrapped its investigation. But instead of making a firm case against Trump, the panel has floundered in convincing the American public of any grand scheme, leaving as its finale before Election Day a subpoena of the former president everyone knows is futile and nothing short of political gamesmanship.
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The committee's failure — aside from questionable procedures governing its investigation — ultimately comes down to its inability to find any smoking gun connecting Trump and his allies to the planning of the violence at the U.S. Capitol. Although powerful images came forward on the assault, the lack of any discovered coordination between Trumpland and plans to riot means no lynchpin tying them together in a convincing way.
Liz Cheney, the star of the committee after Republicans repudiated her for joining Democrats in voting to impeach Trump, said during the first televised hearing the committee would demonstrate a direct line between Trump and the assault on the U.S. Capitol. That connection never materialized. There's one account in a book by a former committee staffer about a call from someone using a White House landline to call a rioter on January 6, but even if that's true, that could have been anything.
At best, the committee produced information revealing Trump and his allies had backup plans to challenge the results in the event they lost to Joe Biden. But that was widely known in the months leading up to the election. Trump publicly declared he would seek to challenge an election loss in the court system, which he had filled during his time in office with his conservative picks. Trump ended up exercising his legal right to challenge the results, and the courts rebuffed him. Footage from Steve Bannon and Roger Stone about challenging the election results strikes me more as bluster than any coordinated attempt at a coup d'etat.
Let me be clear: Nothing could dispute the horrific nature of the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, brought on by President Trump as he spouted deranged theories about the powers of the vice president and the Supreme Court they don't have and no one would accept if they exercise them. In denial over his loss in the election, Trump sicced his ginned-up supporters on the U.S. Capitol, then was at best deeply negligent in responding to the violence that ensued, if not outright encouraging it.
The attack on the Capitol building, as well as those inside counting the electoral votes as part of the certification of the 2020 election, was an attack on the values of democracy and constitutional government. A national embarrassment was on full display, giving ample ammunition to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in efforts to discourage democracy across the globe. To those who would doubt the disruption was a terrorist attack, I would tell you the message of the political violence was clear. I personally — not just as a D.C. resident, a journalist who could have been covering the proceedings, but also as a fellow American — felt terrorized that day.
But one of the ways Trump was bad in a general sense — and what I expect will be a recurring theme for this newsletter — is he was a catalyst for other institutions to give up values that made them effective and gave them integrity. I could through any number of institutions ranging from the media, professional associations or political bodies. Under the cover of an emergency, institutions abandoned their values on the basis that the times called for it. Instead, the better response would have been to adhere to those value systems more strongly.
The Jan. 6 committee is another example of an institution acting contrary to crucial values under the guise of the emergency of having to respond to Trump. Not only did the committee fail to uncover a link demonstrating Trump helped to coordinate the assault on the U.S. Capitol, the panel had questionable procedures along the way, using the cover of the threat of Trump to act in ways that may have been otherwise seen objectionable in their own right.
An early clue about its trajectory was when the committee formed in July and Nancy Pelosi refused to allow House Republicans their choice of panelists. Among those turned away was Jim Jordan, whose function in Congress, admittedly, is largely being a Trump-supportive bomb thrower who would have liked used to the platform of the committee to start a ruckus in his favor. But vetoing his presence, as well as the membership of Jim Banks, was an indicator of where the committee was heading, predictably resulting in Republicans refusing to cooperate. Even the Benghazi committee, which Democrats ridiculed as a means to tarnish Hillary Clinton ahead of the 2016 election, was permitted by House Republicans to include Democrats' choice of panelists.
As a result, the lack of any close scrutiny was keenly felt as testimony rolled in without cross-examination. The media, eager to capitalize on the sensationalism, also was derelict in its duty of examining the testimony with a skeptical eye, declaring hearsay testimony was bombshell in headlines despite its shaky underpinnings. Cassidy Hutchinson's greatest revelation in testimony — a second-hand account of Trump trying to grab the steering wheel of his presidential limo in attempt to redirect it back to the capital — was among such accounts. Denials from the Secret Service that ever happened were seriously challenged when it was revealed the agency had zapped text message records from that time period, but no serious corroboration has come forward.
As a former White House reporter who would not infrequently follow the U.S. president in the media van of the presidential motorcade, I can tell you it strains credibility Trump would be physically able to maneuver his girth from the back of the SUV to the cab in the front, let alone have maneuverability to seek to wrest control of the vehicle.
Second, there's the process by which the committee obtained and distributed information, which was selectively leaked to the media if it contained unflattering depictions of Trump and his allies — or even Republicans more broadly.
Critics often point to the arrest of Peter Navarro, who wasn't even in D.C. on the day of Jan. 6, at Washington National Airport after being found in contempt of Congress for not turning over documents to the committee. Defenders of the committee will point out Navarro's arrest followed the regular order of finding him in contempt, the Justice Department acting on that charge and judge issuing a warrant for his arrest based on probable cause. But the same judge adjudicating his case had serious questions about the way FBI prosecutors arrested him as opposed to simply summoning him to come to court.
Steve Bannon, sentenced on Friday to 4 months in jail and a $6,500 fine on two counts of contempt of Congress, has become the latest high-profile figure to face consequences for refusing to cooperate with the committee. On one hand, anyone subjected to a subpoena from Congress should expect to face reprisal if that person refuses to comply. Executive privilege, as initially claimed by Bannon, only goes so far. On the other hand, Bannon may have thought — and may continue to think upon his announced appeal — he would be able to get away with it given the partisan nature and sketchy process of the committee.
Keep in mind Congress has very limited authority for its subpoena power and cannot simply demand testimony from any member of the American public. Such an approach was exercised by another committee, the House Committee on Un-American Activities of the McCarthy-era in the 1950s. The courts ruled Congress' power of subpoena was restricted to government oversight and didn't extend to the general public. Nonetheless, the Jan. 6 committee has issued subpoenas seeking the bank statements of private citizens, as well as at least one individual who worked for the Trump campaign, but never the U.S. government.
Lastly, the Jan. 6 committee is wrapping up its work before Election Day with a subpoena for President Trump. Given the foundations of separation of powers and executive privilege, Trump complying with the subpoena as a former president would be unprecedented in modern history. In fact, there's precedent the other way. When the House Committee on Un-American Activities sought testimony from Harry Truman in 1953, the former president refused to comply, claiming he was immune as a former chief executive. The issue never went to court for adjudication because the House ended up letting it drop.
Does anyone really think the subpoena of Trump, less than two weeks before Election Day, is anything short of political theater? Any genuine attempt to get that testimony should have been integrated into the proceedings, not saved for a surprise finale. Trump has signaled he would be willing to testify, but his lawyers will undoubtedly find a way to keep the subpoena tied up in courts based on its unprecedented nature. The subpoena is nothing short of an attempt by Democrats to keep Trump in headlines as voters go to the polls.
The proof in the pudding on the impact of the Jan. 6 committee is the public polls. According to one recent poll from Monmouth University, a plurality of Americans, 35 percent, say the investigation has actually weakened democracy, compared to the 26 percent who believe the committee helped strengthen democratic values, while another 33 percent feel the investigation has had no impact one way or the other. Only 36 percent say Trump was directly responsible for the attack, while 40 percent say he should be criminally charged.
At the end of the day, any aspersions on the actions of the Jan. 6 committee should pale in comparison to condemnation of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. No one has died as result of the committee, nor was the democratic process physically threatened on a grand scale. There is a slow-motion death, however, in disaffecting the public by cutting corners in process of American government — the very system the Jan. 6 committee pledged to defend with its investigation.
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