The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Jan. 6 committee has a vital mission, but it may not pay political dividends for Democrats

A House panel holds a hearing on charging former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows with contempt of Congress. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The House Jan. 6 committee has a clear mission that is vital for history’s sake, for democracy’s sake and to ensure nothing like the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol ever happens again. It’s a lot less clear whether Democrats will be rewarded for it in the midterm elections.

Democrats should long ago have disabused themselves of the idea that facts and evidence, no matter how damning, will produce some sort of “aha!” moment for the Republican base. It will never acknowledge the corruption — both in the traditional sense of the word and in the damage to democratic processes — that former president Donald Trump and his minions were capable of or the even greater abuses they would feel at liberty to commit should he return to power. As the results in Virginia’s gubernatorial election last month showed, these Republicans remain highly motivated.

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The more significant audience for the committee’s work, politically speaking, are those less engaged voters who showed up at the polls in 2018 and 2020 because they perceived Trump and Trumpism as a real threat. Polls and focus groups indicate that they are exhausted and preoccupied with other crises that have hit closer to home, among them the seemingly endless battle to bring covid-19 under control and the newer threat of rising inflation.

Again, Virginia offers a cautionary note. Former governor Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee, committed the strategic mistake of pivoting away from running on his own record and instead ginned up what voters rejected as an overblown case that Republican political newcomer Glenn Youngkin, now governor-elect, was actually a Trump in fleece clothing.

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So what does this mean for the committee and its processes? For one thing, it is smart to take its lead from Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, one of only two Republicans on the panel. Her recitation earlier this week of the panicked texts to then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows — from GOP lawmakers, Fox News hosts and Trump’s eldest son — was a devastating refutation of efforts we now see by many to airbrush the events of that day. Her words needed none of the embellishment that House Democrats might have been tempted to provide, had they been left to their own impulses, and that at times undermined their credibility during earlier congressional investigations of Trump. Now is not a time for parody or snacking on fried chicken from the dais.

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Although potential witnesses such as Meadows and Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon are trying to delay cooperation so they can run out the midterm clock, the committee should not be rushed in building and presenting its case. Much of this will indeed have to be worked through the court system. Compelling some crucial witnesses to testify may require granting them limited immunity from prosecution, a delicate and fraught exercise that has been necessary in the past.

Which brings us to the role of the Justice Department. It should ignore the hysteria of voices such as those that dominate the left-leaning branch of the Twitterati and their demands for immediate action against big names, including top Trump officials and the former president himself, whose role in instigating the violence happened at a remove.

Meanwhile, there is an underappreciated value in the hundreds of small-fry arrests and prosecutions that the department has been racking up against those who committed the violence on Jan. 6.

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The insurrection was, at its heart, a recruiting exercise. So it is crucial to disabuse people of the notion that, even if they are deluded into thinking they are on a mission from God, they can trash their seat of government or disrupt lawmakers from discharging their constitutional duties without consequence. Even so, there are those in the conspiratorial fever swamps who will continue to portray the rioters as political prisoners, not the miscreants they were.

Partisan divisions being what they are these days, it is anyone’s guess how all of this will play with voters next November. The investigation is likely to seem secondary to whether the coronavirus is disappearing and how well the economy is doing.

But it is also true that some things are bigger even than politics. The committee is off to a strong start, having interviewed hundreds of witnesses, collected thousands of documents and won court battles with Trump over his claims that he is protected by executive privilege from turning over presidential records. But there is much more to be done — much of it, for now, quietly. This may not pay off for Democrats next November, but democracy itself is riding on them getting it right.

Read a letter to the editor responding to this column.