The congressional hearings into the January 6, 2021, aborted coup continue to offer the drama of a meticulous reconstruction of a crime—but the tenor of the proceedings has radically changed. While the first hearings last Thursday ran on prime time and reached a large audience of more than 20 million, the subsequent hearings have aired during the workday and are geared toward hard-core political insiders. The star of the first hearing was Officer Caroline Edwards, who offered a gripping and dramatic account of the violence she witnessed in the assault on the Capitol.
“I saw friends with blood all over their faces,” she recalled. “I was slipping in people’s blood.” Edwards added that “it was carnage. It was chaos.”
The main figure of the third hearings, a week later, was a very different figure, retired judge J. Michael Luttig. As opposed to Edwards’s stirring words, which conjured up the image of a heroic band of a law enforcement officers overwhelmed by a howling mob, Luttig spoke in the slow, cautious, and deliberate voice of a superannuated jurist. Words dripped out of Luttig’s mouth with the aggravating sluggishness of thick molasses. Surely I was not the only viewer who needed to fortify myself with black coffee to remain awake while Luttig offered his abstract constitutional disquisition. Luttig’s lackluster performance called to mind a similar occasion when Democrats hoped to score points by getting special prosecutor Robert Mueller to testify in the summer of 2019, only to find him a singularly uninspiring witness. Democrats keep hoping they can win over their opponents by giving the platform to a respectable Republican patriarch. To date, this strategy has failed.
The events of January 6 were so startling that even a legalistic sluggard like Luttig was able, in the end, to gather himself together to make a statement as to their import. When compressed on the printed page rather than mumbled into a microphone, his words acquire a genuine urgency. “I have written…that today—almost two years after that fateful day in January of 2021—that still, Donald Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy,” Luttig said.
Luttig was given celebrity treatment in the hearing. He was specifically singled out for praise by committee chair Bennie Thompson, who also took pains to hail what he saw as the heroism of former Vice President Mike Pence in resisting threats from Donald Trump and his mob.
In order to win credence as a bipartisan enterprise, the hearings gave pride of place to Luttig as an example of a good Republican who stood for the Constitution above party loyalty. Luttig’s biography made him perfect for the role. He clerked under the late Anton Scalia, the most celebrated Supreme Court justice on the right. Luttig also served under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush before being elevated by Bush into being a circuit-court judge. Equally important, John Eastman, the legal Svengali who masterminded Trump’s attempted coup, clerked under Luttig.
Beyond laying out the case against Trump and his inner circle, the purpose of the hearings has clearly been to sort out the decent Republicans from the miscreants. Luttig and Eastman (who appeared only in prerecorded testimony where he repeatedly took the Fifth Amendment—at least 100 times—in refusing to answer questions) were presented as a study in contrasts, as were Mike Pence and Donald Trump. The presentation was designed to draw in Republican support for the anti-Trump case.
Never Trump Republicans make up a small minority of the GOP and occupied only two of the seven seats on the investigating committee (Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger). Yet, in a very real sense, Never Trump Republicans were the guiding spirits of the hearings, setting the agenda of trying to present a narrative that redeems the party as a whole while holding guilty only a few individuals (Trump and his inner circle). Even most of Trump’s advisers were allowed to recast themselves as members of a “Team Normal” that tried to blunt the former president’s worst instincts.
This redemptive narrative was most evident when Greg Jacob, Mike Pence’s counsel, was asked if his faith helped him through the ordeal. Jacob mentioned reading scripture on January 6. “Daniel 6 was where I went,” Jacob said. “And in Daniel 6, Daniel has become the second in command of Babylon, a pagan nation, that he completely, faithfully serves. He refuses an order from the King that he cannot follow, and he does his duty consistent with his oath to God.”
Mike Pence, by this account, was a Daniel caught in the lion’s den, saved by staying true to his oath to the Constitution and his faith in beneficent Providence.
One can take a less pious and more cynically secular view of Pence. Here was a man who claimed to be a Christian but hitched his wagon to the utterly profane Donald Trump, who provided Trump cover that allowed him to get the support of evangelical Christians, who put up with all of Trump’s lies and crimes, and who finally broke with Trump on January 6 only because it would have gotten him into legal jeopardy. Subsequent to January 6, Pence hasn’t cooperated with efforts to investigate Trump’s failed coup, instead talking about how he wants to move on—actions clearly designed to preserve his status in the Republican Party.
Far from being a heroic biblical Daniel, Pence is better seen as a hypocritical and oily scoundrel out of Charles Dickens, a Uriah Heep or a Seth Pecksniff.
The whole strategy of getting Republican buy-in for the hearings and for future legal prosecution of Trump is doomed to fail. Trump remains the dominant force in the Republican Party. Support for Trump guides how Republicans see the hearings. The Washington Post summed up a poll from YouGov that offered a dismaying account of Republican opinion. According to the newspaper, “Nearly three-quarters of Republicans said that ‘left-wing protesters trying to make Trump look bad’ deserved at least some blame for the attack—more than blamed Trump or even the Trump supporters obviously involved in the day’s violence. Among those who said they didn’t watch coverage of the House committee hearings, half blamed these theoretical leftists.”
The hearings are designed to give Republicans a face-saving off-ramp for leaving Trumpism behind. If they accept the findings of the hearings, they can still be proud Republicans and only reject a handful of leaders. They can even keep Mike Pence if they just reject Trump. But there’s little evidence that most Republicans want to take up this offer.