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The Plot Darkens in the Latest Episode of Jan. 6 Hearings

Incorrigible.
Incorrigible. (Photographer: Bloomberg/Bloomberg)
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The most important comments from the third public hearing this month of the House Jan. 6 committee came right at the end. After the panel heard testimony detailing the efforts to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to illegally try to overturn the election, former Judge J. Michael Luttig pointed out that even now, “Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy.”

That’s “because to this very day, the former president and his allies and supporters pledge” — if they lost next time — “they would attempt to overturn that 2024 election … but succeed in 2024 where they failed in 2020.” Luttig, who advised Pence prior to Jan. 6, continued: “I don’t speak those words lightly. I would have never spoken those words ever in my life, except that that’s what the former president and his allies are telling us.”

The committee’s hearings have done an excellent job for the most part in reminding us that, for all the details, what this is really about is an effort by a president of the United States to unlawfully overturn an election — and, therefore, to overthrow the government and the constitutional order. And as Luttig emphasized, the threat continues.

The trick for the committee is to keep this main point in the forefront, while also telling the full story that goes with it and including enough fascinating details to keep the attention of key audiences. As political scientist Shana Kushner Gadarian says, “the tactic of focusing on one person at a time in these committee hearings — Trump, Pence, [John] Eastman — to build the narrative is very smart.”

In addition, members of the committee have been willing to defer to others to allow the story to flow clearly. After three hearings, we’ve only heard from four of the nine members. I can’t underline strongly enough how extraordinary it is for the other five — each one of them an ambitious politician — to sit silently through hours of live TV coverage, all for the benefit of the committee as a whole.

In the session on Thursday, California Democrat Pete Aguilar led the questioning but turned over the floor to a committee staff lawyer for a good part of the session. That allowed Aguilar to point out that the committee has a bipartisan staff: The lawyer was a Republican who served in the George W. Bush administration.

No one who is fanatically loyal to Donald Trump is going to be impressed that the committee is functioning in a bipartisan way or that the damning evidence comes from people from the former president’s administration. The true believers simply dismiss the Republican participants in the hearings as RINOs — Republicans in name only. But the panel should and certainly may impress open-minded Republicans who are skeptical of Trump but also wary of House Democrats as well as folks in the “neutral” media trying to assess how seriously to take the proceedings. And perhaps it will impress Justice Department prosecutors.

I remain convinced that the committee erred badly in waiting so long to hold these hearings, and in spending so little time on the public portion of the case. Yes, given the model they’ve chosen, they’ve done an excellent job. And had they gone into public hearings back in February, or last November, they would have been working with a much smaller base of information. We wouldn’t have had some of the blockbuster testimony. So there are some advantages of having waited.

Still, there’s at least some evidence that the hearings are producing information now that could have been available six months ago. “New evidence is breaking every single day now,” committee member Jamie Raskin says. “Suddenly a lot of people want to tell the truth.” Perhaps that’s just a coincidence. But as we’ve seen in other investigations, once some people talk, the incentives change for everyone else to get their perspective on the record. That process could have happened months ago.

On top of that, reporters get new leads to follow. There’s even a chance that the process can (as it did during Watergate) spark a race by the participants to prosecutors to cut the best deal before someone else does. But even without that airing the investigation has generally found a good way to generate new information. All of that was delayed in the months we were waiting for hearings.

Even in the deadly serious business of investigating an attempt to overthrow the government, hearings can provide light moments, giving us entertaining characters — some sympathetic, some not at all — and memorable phrases and anecdotes. We heard on Thursday that Pence reacted to Trump lawyer John Eastman’s suggestions that he break the law by saying it was “rubber room stuff.”

More appears to be left on the cutting-room floor. Referring to White House lawyer Eric Herschmann and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, my Bloomberg colleague Timothy L. O’Brien was surely correct to point out “the contrast between Herschmann’s clear, principled testimony and the smug, scurvy testimony from Kushner that those worried about illegalities were ‘whining.’”

But that contrast would have been so much more notable had we had live testimony rather than taped highlights from both Herschmann and Kushner. This wasn’t going to happen given the schedule the committee set — a choice it could have made differently.

Such criticisms aside, what the committee is presenting continues to be devastating. Thursday’s hearing detailed how Trump and his allies were committed to using methods of trying to overturn the election that were obviously contrary to the law, and that they knew and simply didn’t care. Earlier in the week, we heard how they also knew, and didn’t care, that their accusations of fraud were not true.

We learned again, too, just how close the nation came to an even worse disaster on Jan. 6 — that the mob stirred up by Trump came within only 40 feet of Pence and his security escort as they fled to safer ground.

It’s still almost hard to believe that it all happened. And that many Republicans are running in 2022 — and already for 2024 — on a platform of making sure they’ll finish the job next time.

For weekend reading, here are some of the best items from political scientists this week:

• Sarah Binder at the Monkey Cage on the Jan. 6 committee and what the point is in having hearings at all.

• Matthew Green at Mischiefs of Faction on the House Freedom Caucus.

• Matt Grossmann talks with Edward Miller about the John Birch Society.

• Tamar Mitts and Jack Snyder on the effect of being kicked off Twitter.

• Matthew Shugart on Israel’s coalition government.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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