The public hearings of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol got underway last night. It’s a television show, and self-consciously so. The first day’s hearings were broadcast in prime time, and the committee consulted a television news producer about its presentation. Instead of the usual congressional format where witnesses are asked questions in five-minute increments by a rotating cast of House members, the committee adopted a narrative style for the proceedings and included a lot of pre-made videos. Watching it was more like watching a “true crime” drama on a network like Investigation Discovery than watching a normal congressional hearing on C-SPAN.
Turning a deadly attack on the government into a TV show is not a bad thing, especially not in a country that has the collective attention span of a pond of goldfish. Republicans have spent the 18 months since the attack relentlessly pushing a false narrative about what happened on that day and why. They’ve downplayed an attempted coup led by a Republican president, Donald Trump, and tried to turn it into a benign pep rally that got a little out of hand. They’ve tried to make people forget the officers who were killed or injured, or took their own lives. They’ve tried to memory-hole the attempt to capture and potentially kill members of Congress and the vice president. They’ve tried to absolve Trump of responsibility for the attack, even though the insurrectionists were there at his request, following what they thought to be his orders and operating with the freedom he enabled by failing to call in the National Guard to secure the Capitol.
A slick, high-production value show, replete with eyewitness testimony and new, dramatic details about the complicity or worse of well-known elected officials might be exactly what the country needs to snap it back to reality. These people tried to overthrow the government: If they are not held accountable, they will try again.
Whether the show will work is anybody’s guess. Many of the people who watched the first episode already know how dangerous Trump and his supporters are, and how desperately they need to be brought to justice. Many of the people who don’t know these things, or don’t care, or support the violent overthrow of the government, didn’t watch. The hearings were carried live on every cable news channel except Fox, which has the highest percentage of viewers who needed to see it.
However, I am not willing to grade the “success” of the select committee’s efforts on whether the people on Fox look up from a Trump infomercial long enough to watch the actual news. I’m not grading the committee on the curve set by the Republican Party establishment, which has already shown an inability to stand up for itself in the face of Trump and his base of insurrectionists. I don’t give a damn about what white supremacists think, and I’m not interested in whatever “data” Nate Silver or David Shor divine from counting the number of Confederate flags displayed at a diner in Ohio.
For me, these hearings and their effectiveness come down to an audience of one: Attorney General Merrick Garland. The Department of Justice and the FBI have decided to let the select committee take the lead on the investigation into the Capitol attack. The committee has issued the subpoenas, taken the depositions, and collected the testimony about what Trump knew, when he knew it, and what he did about it.
In the best possible version of events, the DOJ and Congress have been working in parallel, from opposite ends. Garland and the DOJ have focused on the low-level criminals and ground-level shock troops for the attack (over 800 people have been charged so far), while Congress has focused on Trump’s advisers, family, and inner circle: the people who actually planned the attempted coup. Now that the committee is making its work public, and releasing the testimony and evidence, Garland and the DOJ should be able to swoop in and back up the committee’s investigative work with actual charges for the powerful people who were ultimately responsible for January 6.
But I don’t know that the best-case scenario, in which politicians are actually held accountable in this country, will happen without public outcry and pressure on Garland. I don’t know that Garland, whose instinct appears to be to avoid “political” fights by letting Republican politicians off without charges, will take on the difficult effort of prosecuting Trump and his insurrectionist cronies unless the select committee makes the case so obvious that it essentially forces his hand.
I believe this because I’m old enough to remember the Mueller report. I actually read the report, and it made a clear and compelling case that Trump should be indicted for obstruction of justice. But the Mueller report was a failure because Mueller let Attorney General Bill Barr summarize his report. And Barr, of course, summarized it inaccurately—in a way that made it seem like Trump was “exonerated” and Barr had no more work to do. By the time Congress realized the sheer fraudulence of what Barr had told the American people, it was too late. The media ran with Barr’s narrative, and when Congress finally got around to holding hearings on the matter, it wasn’t a TV show; it was a dry book report where the lead character was a tired, reticent institutionalist who kept telling goldfish to do 448 pages of reading.
The select committee has already avoided some of the mistakes of the Mueller report, and that includes not letting the current attorney general summarize its findings. The American people are not going to hear Merrick Garland’s version of why Merrick Garland doesn’t have to do any more work. They’re going to hear what happened, who is responsible, and what Garland must do next.
At least they will if it’s a good show. Whether the select committee is successful will really depend on what the definition of “success” is. For me, success is Garland watching the hearings, and realizing that everybody else is watching him.