The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol begins its hearings tonight for the American public, hoping to shine a spotlight on the discoveries from its months of painstaking inquiry. How should we measure success?
As veterans of congressional and other official misconduct investigations, we will be watching for whether the committee persuades the American people that the insurrection didn’t end on Jan. 6, 2021, but continues, in places all across the country; motivates Americans to fight back in the midterm elections; and, if warranted, encourages prosecutors to bring charges against those who may have committed crimes, up to and including former President Donald Trump.
The future of our democracy may well depend on the achievement of these objectives.
First, the committee must use the televised hearings to emphasize to viewers that Jan. 6 was but one battle in a wider war against American democracy. Yes, there are gaping holes that remain to be filled in on the events of the day itself, like Mr. Trump’s 187-minute refusal to intervene while the mob was violently attacking the Capitol and the 457-minute gap in White House phone records. But the hearings must widen the scope to a larger narrative that begins in the run-up to the insurrection and continues in its long aftermath.
The through-line of that narrative runs roughly from Mr. Trump’s declaration in August 2020 that the election could be “the greatest fraud in history” to his attacks through misinformation and spurious lawsuits on a fair election and his exhortation to his supporters to march to the Capitol on Jan. 6 and continues in the scores of “Big Lie”-driven bills and midterm candidates roiling American politics from coast to coast.
The committee enjoys an advantage for its presentation: the absence of Republicans like Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz, who have too often brought a circus atmosphere to House hearings. Mr. Jordan was barred from serving by the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, when the committee was being formed, and House Republican leadership subsequently boycotted broader representation. Fortunately, two Republicans are serving — Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger. A bipartisan, unified committee will ensure that the drama will come from the story itself rather than the shenanigans of some committee members.
The hearings must also inspire action. In this setting, that would normally mean triggering legislative reforms. After Watergate, Congress passed new laws as safeguards against systemic abuse. But with today’s politics, new bills are unlikely to see broad support. The committee must navigate around that logjam — and explain that the Big Lie is still going strong and motivate Americans to defeat it at the ballot box.
Just last week, in Pennsylvania, Dr. Mehmet Oz, a Trump-endorsed election skeptic, became the Republican Senate nominee. If he becomes the deciding vote in a closely divided Senate, that will not bode well for reform legislation to prevent election sabotage — and for honest certification of future presidential electors.
In Pennsylvania, Dr. Oz will actually be the less intense “Stop the Steal” Republican candidate. Doug Mastriano, who was a leader in efforts to overturn the 2020 election in the state (and was subpoenaed by the committee), won the Republican primary for governor. Across the country, Mr. Trump has endorsed over 180 Republican candidates, most of whom have supported his false stolen-election claims. This year, they have, in effect, set up a counternarrative to the committee’s work.
To elucidate the threat to democracy, the committee doesn’t need to wade into overt electioneering. It simply needs to maintain a relentless focus on the continuing threat of the Big Lie.
The committee can do that without sacrificing bipartisanship and by maintaining objectivity because no party has a monopoly on pro-democracy candidates, as proved by the officials of both parties who came together to defend democracy in 2020. In other nations where democracy has been threatened, leaders of widely varying ideologies have set aside partisanship and joined forces against illiberalism. The bipartisan committee and other Democrats and Republicans must make clear the larger stakes represented by Mr. Trump’s election-denying allies.
Finally, the hearings should compile and make accessible as much evidence as it can to aid federal and state prosecutors who might bring charges against possible wrongdoers. Ultimately, it’s up to those prosecutors — most prominently at the Justice Department and in Fulton County, Ga. — to act on the evidence. But the committee can motivate and support them. Hearings that develop a coherent, grounded and galvanizing narrative necessary for a successful prosecution will help prosecutors, as well as the media and the public, to understand any possible crimes.
If the evidence warrants it, the committee should not shy away from transmitting criminal referrals. Alternatively, it could share a Watergate-style “road map” that could serve as a guide to the evidence without drawing legal conclusions. Congress has amassed a mountain of information over the course of its investigation — which includes taking over 1,000 depositions — and prosecutors should benefit from that.
The ultimate success of the committee rests on whether it uses the hearings to build a partnership with American voters to see the truth of what happened on Jan. 6, 2021, and what is still happening.
NormanEisen served as special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the first Trump impeachment. E. Danya Perry is a former federal prosecutor and a New York State corruption investigator.
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