It had to happen: Because of the January 6 select committee’s disciplined, scripted, riveting rollout of evidence that twice-impeached Donald Trump schemed to overturn the results of the 2020 election, the media now talks about it like it’s a hot new reality-TV show. Last Thursday’s tick-tock of the 187 minutes of violence at the capitol, during which Trump either did nothing or egged on the crowd, wasn’t the “series finale,” we’re told, but a “season finale” designed to keep us tuning in to this hit show when it returns in the fall.
I guess that’s progress. Reporters aren’t mocking it, minimizing it, or saying that, however bad it looks for the GOP, it won’t help Democrats because… fill in the blanks. They’re not defaulting to the both-sides Beltway media cynicism that helped get us to this forsaken political place. The hearings have been good TV, tragedy and treason professionally presented, and those in the mainstream news-entertainment industrial complex can’t ignore that.
There are two big takeaways from this “season.”
Disgraced former President Donald Trump encouraged and abetted the mob that stormed the Capitol, from his December 21 Tweet urging supporters to mass in Washington, D.C., on January 6, promising it “will be wild,” through his tweet that day excoriating Vice President Mike Pence, to the appalling video he cut January 7, in which he refused to tell the violent insurrectionists “you don’t represent me,” or to promise they would be “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” The petulant tyrant was at minimum comfortable with his supporters using violence to keep him in power; it’s increasingly clear he fomented it. And by continuing to this day to push the lie that the election was stolen, he’s still riling up his deranged loyalists.
We learned that Pence did his constitutional duty in certifying the Electoral College results that day—but not much more than that. It seems Pence did help call in backup for police when Trump wouldn’t, and refused to leave the Capitol for fear that he’d be spirited away and unable to certify the results that tragic day. But given other testimony, from his staff and others, about what they knew about the violent threats, he had a duty to speak out earlier about what he was seeing—and he currently has a duty to testify before the committee, and to the grand jury convened by Attorney General Merrick Garland, if he hasn’t already.
We learned more about those two takeaways in last Thursday’s hearing, and in news breaks since then. At the hearing, we heard testimony from an “unnamed security official” that Pence’s Secret Service detail was so convinced violence was coming that “there were calls to say goodbye to family members. For whatever the reason was on the ground, the VP detail thought that this was about to get very ugly.” We learned in a prior hearing that Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, had alerted the Secret Service on January 5 that Trump’s escalating attacks on the vice president, for refusing to reject Biden’s electoral vote victory on January 6, could mean danger for his boss. Now we know Short has also talked to the grand jury convened by Garland. How can Pence still avoid telling authorities everything he knows about the violence planned for that day?
As for Trump, Thursday’s hearing detailed his inaction—and even worse, his encouragement—during the three-plus hours when thousands of rioters stormed the Capitol, brutalized police, and called for violence against Pence and Democratic members of Congress. Two White House staffers testified that they resigned when, rather than call off the mob, Trump tweeted mid-afternoon that Pence “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.” In the words of one, that was “pouring fuel on the fire”; indeed, the committee showed Pence and his family being whisked away from the mob just two minutes after Trump’s tweet.
Maybe most memorable were outtakes the committee obtained from Trump’s January 7 video, ostensibly made to calm the political waters and denounce the attack, that showed him rejecting some of its clearest, toughest language. “I don’t want to say the election is over,” he whines to daughter Ivanka, who is on the spot helping him rewrite the draft speech. (Dutiful Ivanka accepted all of his edits.) He also wouldn’t say the mob wasn’t part of his movement, or that they’d face swift repercussions from law enforcement.
On Monday Representative Elaine Luria displayed another hallmark of the committee’s media savvy: She released on Twitter previously unseen committee interviews with Ivanka, Jared Kushner, and Trump toady Johnny McEntee, in which they talked about the struggles to get Trump to deliver his supposedly conciliatory January 7 speech. Hearings star Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to chief of staff Mark Meadows, said Trump made the video partly because of “large concern of the 25th Amendment possibly being invoked,” meaning that cabinet officers might declare him unable to perform his duties.
Kushner stood out for passively answering “I don’t know” when asked why cuts in Trump’s prepared remarks were made–when he obviously knew that Trump was unwilling to repudiate his mob or promise that they’d face prosecution. McEntee testified that he was asked by Kushner to endorse the video idea because Trump didn’t want to deliver the remarks in the first place, citing as his evidence “the fact that somebody has to tell me to nudge it along.” The former White House personnel director seemed remarkably self-aware that his main claim to influence was his role as a yes-man to the president. If he thought the video was a good idea, that might convince Trump.
I’m resisting predicting what influence this “season” of the committee’s work will have on Americans’ perceptions of Trump. Right now, polls are ambiguous. The percentage of Republicans who say the hearings have changed their minds about Trump is in the single digits, according to the most recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll. On the other hand, the survey found that 31 percent of self-described independents say they view the attack “more seriously” than before.
The “series finale” vs. “season finale” distinction resides in the fact that last week’s hearing was supposed to be the committee’s last, at least until it completed its report. But one of the most important outcomes of the televised blockbusters to date has been to motivate more people, many of them former administration officials and staffers, to come forward with new evidence of Trump’s role as coup director. “We have much work yet to do. And we will see you all in September,” Cheney declared as she gaveled the season finale to a close. “There’s so much more,” Luria promised MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on Monday night.
Nevertheless, the media spent Tuesday hyping dueling speeches by Pence and Trump to admirers in Washington, D.C. The pathetic Pence repeatedly praised the “Trump-Pence” administration’s achievements. “I don’t know that the president and I differ on issues, but we may differ on focus,” he told one questioner, after a speech that insisted his focus was the future, not the past. But Pence is delusional if he thinks he has a future in GOP presidential politics. A New York Times/Siena College poll this month found that 49 percent of Republicans would back Trump if the primaries were held right now, 25 percent would back Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and only 6 percent said they would support Pence.
Later in D.C., Trump criticized “the January 6th Unselect Committee of political hacks and thugs.” He also made ludicrous transphobic jokes. (That’s the 2022 GOP midterm play, by the way.) He never mentioned Pence, or even acknowledged him.
Trump has been slightly hurt by the committee hearings. But Pence has been destroyed. Despite his staff’s testimony, he didn’t testify, and he couldn’t publicly take one side, reliably, or the other. He couldn’t even take his own side, actually, which reminded me of that Robert Frost line: “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.”
Pence is no liberal, but he won’t even publicly defend himself here. Pandering to the still Trump-loving GOP base won’t get him the nomination in 2024. Whether Trump can get it depends on whether the January 6 committee’s next season is as riveting as this one.