On Thursday, the select committee investigating last year’s January 6 Capitol attack will hold its first of its prime-time televised hearings. While the committee held a hearing last year with officers who confronted the mob of Trump supporters, this will be the first hearing when many people will be paying attention. (Incidentally, it’s been scheduled for a day when there are no games for the NBA Finals and few major marquee Major League Baseball games, meaning that sports fans won’t have many other viewing obligations.)
The hearings also come just after the Justice Department decided to indict former president Donald Trump’s economic adviser Peter Navarro for contempt of Congress; this, while it declined to indict Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows and his deputy chief of staff Dan Scavino.
For their part, Chairman Bennie Thompson and Vice Chairwoman Liz Cheney called the decisions “puzzling”, saying both men clearly had knowledge of Trump’s role in trying to overturn the 2020 election. “We hope the Department provides greater clarity on this matter,” the two said in a statement. “If the Department’s position is that either or both of these men have absolute immunity from appearing before Congress because of their former positions in the Trump administration, that question is the focus of pending litigation.”
Both clearly believe that the Justice Department abdicated its duties and seem willing to criticize it when they feel it has failed. But whether the decision actually changes anything is another question altogether.
The crucial question underpinning the whole investigation is what made the assault on the Capitol so dangerous in the first place. Was this a simple security failure, allowing people who committed the first successful raid on Congress since the War of 1812 to enter the building with relative ease? Is it the fault of a former president consistently peddling lies about the election? Or does the blame go to Trump’s team, who tried to execute a dubious strategy to illegally subvert the election results and reinstall Trump as president against the will of the people?
The committee would obviously like to reel in Trump as its big fish, but that is incredibly unlikely, especially given how tepid Attorney General Merrick Garland has been with regard to indictments. Along with Navarro, he’s also indicted former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon, but many others from Trump’s orbit are so far untroubled.
Similarly, as Axios reported on Sunday evening, while panel vice-chair Liz Cheney might be focused on targeting the former president, she is not as enthusiastic about some of her Democratic colleagues’ bolder ideas, such as Representative Jamie Raskin’s proposal to abolish the Electoral College.
Cheney is reportedly interested in reforming the Electoral Count Act, which sets the ground rules for certifying the election results. Those ground rules were central to Trump’s ploy to get former vice president Mike Pence to overturn the election results at the point of certification. Such a proposal from Cheney stands a much better chance, and a bipartisan team of Senators – including mercurial Democrat Joe Manchin – have been discussing it for months. An endorsement from the January 6 committee could give the idea credibility in the Senate, even with some Republicans.
Andrew Solender and Alayna Treene of Axios also reported that House Republicans are planning their own counterprogramming. Elise Stefanik, who replaced Cheney as chair of the House Republican Conference, told Breitbart News that her team was working in close contact with the former president and that the conference “will be pushing back in a rapid response fashion”.
Stefanik also repeated a key talking-point of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy: That the US Capitol was ill-served on January 6 by inadequate security arrangements. (Of course, the House would not need adequate security or need to worry about a breach on January 6, had the former president not spent months whipping his supporters into a frenzy to the point of inciting a riot.)
But that point doesn’t just exist on the right: Josh Dawsey and Jacqueline Alemany at the Washington Post reported last month that Representative Stephanie Murphy – a retiring moderate Democrat from Florida who frequently criticized progressives in her own party – wanted the committee to focus less on Trump and more on security problems. Expect Republicans to use those words against her.