The Jan. 6 committee begins hearings with a big challenge: Capture public attention

The Jan. 6 committee begins hearings with a big challenge: Capture public attention

Seldom has a set of congressional hearings opened amid so much anticipation and, at the same time, so little guarantee of success.

The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol will hold the first of at least a half-dozen public hearings this week, having already promised stunning revelations that would lay bare just how dangerously close the U.S. came to losing its democracy.

“It’s all about democratic resiliency. Can we fortify our institutions and our people against insurrection, coups and violence?” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a committee member, told NBC News. “I hope we will be able to spur the country to make the necessary reforms to solidify democracy.”

Thursday is when the suspense lifts and the nine-member committee gets to tell all.

But what will success look like? The question has weighed on committee members and congressional Democrats who have invited the panel to present both a definitive accounting of the riot and tangible solutions to prevent another.

As the panel sees it, the hearings can’t just come and go. Members are looking for accountability. The committee isn’t a law enforcement body, so it can’t prosecute anyone. Yet if members lay out a compelling story about the far-flung effort to deny Joe Biden his rightful victory, it could pressure the Justice Department to ramp up its own inquiry.

“I am really very hopeful that what [the committee] will produce will be a road map — not just for Congress, but for the Department of Justice and for the American people who want to preserve our democracy,” Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, who was trapped in the gallery of the House chamber during the riot on Jan. 6, 2021, said in an interview.

‘Maximize telling the story’

If the committee is to succeed on its own terms, members will need to stoke enough outrage that voters demand concrete actions preventing anyone else from subverting the peaceful transfer of power. They’ll need to leave a national audience sufficiently alarmed that the politicians and prosecutors who track public opinion decide they must act and act now.

That won’t be easy. A slew of leaks in the run-up to the hearings could leave viewers with a feeling they’ve heard it all before. What’s more, a year and a half after that harrowing afternoon when a violent mob tried to stop certification of Biden’s victory, many Americans have moved on. A Quinnipiac poll in January showed that 44 percent of the country believed too much was being made of the attack on the Capitol, compared to only 38 percent five months earlier.

There’s no doubt that the committee is well positioned to sway opinion. The first hearing will open in prime time with wide network news coverage (Fox News, a conservative outlet, didn’t respond to an inquiry about whether it would carry the hearing live). Over the course of the month, the panel will show video of the events surrounding Jan. 6 that the public has never seen , while publicizing hours of testimony from people tied to Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the election.

And they’re likely to reveal what Trump did and didn’t do in the West Wing in the hours when a mob breached the Capitol in a violent effort to keep him in power.

Two witnesses who the committee hopes will testify publicly are Marc Short and Greg Jacob, senior Pence advisers who were with him in the Capitol when rioters stormed the building, looking to hang him.

A Republican who has informally advised committee members said: “There’s a sense within the committee that there is a very limited period for them to do this and win public opinion. There’s been this concern that even if they report their findings, does the Justice Department do anything with that? So they’re trying to figure out how to maximize telling the story to the public.”

A bipartisan group of senators has been meeting quietly to revamp the law but has made scant progress.

“The country is just as combustible as it was pre-Jan. 6 — maybe even worse. We have to certify again in January 2025,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., one of the Democratic prosecutors in Trump’s second impeachment trial. “What recommendations do they make so that we don’t find ourselves in the midst of another attack?”

‘Show trial’

Republicans have a simpler task. All they need is for busy Americans to tune out. If the hearings turn out to be a bust, the GOP succeeds in its mission.

They’re not conducting a legitimate investigation. It seems as though they just want to go after their political opponents.”

Hoping to blunt accusations that it is carrying out a political vendetta, the committee continually emphasizes its bipartisan makeup. Two of the nine members are Republicans: Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois.

(A federal grand jury indicted Navarro on Friday for refusing to comply with a subpoena from the committee. In an interview days before the indictment, he said the committee has exceeded its mandate.

‘All about Trump’

Even some Democrats are leery of how the committee has gone about its work.

“It’s not their job to build a criminal case. That’s [Attorney General] Merrick Garland’s job,” said Jones, a former federal prosecutor. “There will be this temptation [in the hearings] to make this all about Trump. And when they do, they’re going to lose a lot of people. At the end of the day, this was about an assault on democracy. That’s what it continues to be about.”

Democrats hope the report will stand as a definitive account of what happened on Jan. 6. The goal, said Rep.

“Accountability, I’m afraid, is unachievable in this political era.