Democracy defenders know what the Jan. 6 committee hearings due to begin Thursday must not do: follow the example of the Mueller report. That report and its author’s testimony were long, confusing and inconclusive.
The committee has two audiences. The most critical is the public at large. Rational Americans not already determined to exonerate Trump should be convinced of his intimate involvement in the coup, of the seriousness of his actions and of the need for prosecution. Ideally, there should be a groundswell of support for prosecution.
The evidence must be so compelling that Republicans’ ongoing efforts to perpetrate the “big lie” and to rationalize or downplay the insurrection make them look foolish, dishonest and malicious. Perhaps that will encourage the media to stop treating Trump enablers as normal politicians and confront them at every opportunity about their betrayal of the country.
The second audience is the Justice Department. Its attorneys must be convinced by the facts presented that failure to prosecute is unthinkable. While the committee will not be bound by rules of evidence, the proceedings can go a long way toward illustrating just how compelling an account can be painted for a jury. Whether the committee makes a formal referral or not, Justice Department officials confident of successful prosecution should come away with powerful ammunition to convince their more reluctant colleagues.
With those two audiences in mind, the hearings should meet five requirements of a successful investigation: For starters, the committee must solidify its own credibility, debunking Republicans’ baseless attacks on its legitimacy. By delegating the bulk of questioning to counsel, with its members’ thoroughly professional demeanor, by assigning large roles to the two Republicans on the committee and with constant reminders that the star witnesses are Republicans who supported and/or worked for Trump, the committee can achieve this. The committee must not assume viewers know this case is built on the documents and testimony of Republicans. (It therefore cannot neglect to ask: Are you a lifelong Republican? Did you support the former president’s election and reelection?)
Second, the committee should be able to concisely define what this is all about: a conspiracy by the then-president and his enablers to steal an election and thereby subvert our democracy. There will be all sorts of legal terms (“conspiracy to defraud the United States,” “seditious conspiracy”), but the committee must make certain that viewers understand the fundamental issue.
Third, viewers must come away convinced Trump was at the center of a nonviolent coup underway even before the election. It included a concerted plan to spread the “big lie,” to file frivolous lawsuits to undermine the results, and to concoct fraudulent electoral slates and throw out valid ones. The plot also entailed Trump’s attempt to bully his own vice president, the secretary of state of Georgia, the Justice Department and state legislators into preventing the legitimate winner from taking power. No one should doubt that Trump acted “corruptly” after repeated warnings that there had been no significant fraud.
Fourth, Americans should be certain which officials enabled the coup (a raft of Justice Department officials, senators who objected to the electoral vote count, etc.), as well as which officials stood up to Trump (Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Vice President Mike Pence, acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen). Who betrayed our democracy? Who defended it?
Fifth, the committee must reach a clear conclusion and make recommendations. The committee must determine Trump’s criminal liability, make an urgent plea to fix the Electoral Count Act to foreclose future nonviolent coups, and convince the public that the threat is not behind us. The committee should be blunt: If these plotters are not punished, other politicians will do the same. A scheme to subvert election results by a combination of intimidation, disinformation and specious fraud claims is already underway. Our democracy hangs in the balance.
Cynical pundits will proclaim the hearings produce “nothing new.” Others will intone that “it won’t change anyone’s mind.” Committee members should ignore such claptrap.
Tell the complete story. Identify those engaged in criminal activity. Recommend action essential to defend our democracy. If they do that, they will fulfill their oaths and secure their historical legacy.