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Opinion Expectations about prosecuting Trump may be shifting

Fani Willis, district attorney for Fulton County, Ga., talks with a member of her team during proceedings on May 2 to seat a special purpose grand jury to look into the efforts of Donald Trump and his supporters to overturn the results of the 2020 election. (Ben Gray/AP)
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Many Republicans and mainstream media commentators have intoned that the House Jan. 6 committee’s hearings wouldn’t draw ratings or change voters’ minds. That was wrong. In fact, the evidence presented thus far has been far more impactful than the punditocracy predicted.

The first hearing, shown in prime time, generated close to 20 million viewers. The next, during midmorning, attracted 11 million. But even that misses the true impact.

The hearings have dominated front pages and figured prominently in network and cable TV news coverage. People are discussing them widely on social media. The question is no longer about Donald Trump’s role in the attempted coup (there is no doubt his fingerprints are all over it); instead, the country is avidly debating whether there is sufficient evidence of Trump’s corrupt intent to prosecute him for it.

One poll from Democratic firm Navigator Research found that “the House investigation is garnering attention from the public, with 63 percent of respondents saying they have heard ‘a lot’ or ‘some’ about the hearings." Even more telling: “An increasing number of Americans believe that it is important to uncover the truth behind the attempted coup; respondents said that the hearings were important by a 15-point margin, up five points from April.” That increase is largely driven by independents, 45 percent of whom now say the investigation is important, compared with 26 percent who say the opposite.

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Other polls confirm these findings. A new ABC News-Ipsos poll released on Sunday found that 58 percent of Americans think Trump should be charged criminally, up about six points from a similar poll in April.

There is also some anecdotal evidence that the hearings are getting through even among some Republicans. Retiring Michigan Rep. Fred Upton had this exchange with Dana Bash on CNN’s “State of the Union”:

BASH: Do you think the case the Jan. 6 Committee is presenting is resonating with moderate Republican voters and independents?
UPTON: Yes, I think so.
I think the overriding issue certainly is the economy and gas prices. But I think there's been real interest in what's going on. You have got, obviously, your different factions that are not going to turn it on and watch. They made their decision some time ago.
But, yes, I think that it’s had an impact on voters across the country. And we will see how this thing plays out. The committee has been very careful not to divulge any details in advance of their hearings.

As the hearings continue this week and beyond, the country will learn even more about Trump’s involvement. Committee member Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) on NBC News’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday suggested that more evidence and “tips” are coming in. That’s a critical benefit of public hearings: Those sitting on the fence might feel more comfortable coming forward. Other witnesses might not have realized the importance of information they’ve had all along.

In other words, the amount and value of evidence that Trump was at the center of the coup plot will only continue to build. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), another committee member, recently suggested there is evidence that Trump was directly involved in the scheme to come up with alternative slates of electors.

The serious tenor of the coverage and widespread interest in the evidence have several consequences. The first is that it might influence critical prosecutors, such as Fani Willis in Fulton County, Ga. She will no doubt be avidly watching Tuesday’s testimony from two Georgia state officials regarding the efforts of Trump and then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to pressure election officials to “find” just enough votes to flip the state. And depending on the testimony of other witnesses such as Rusty Bowers, the Republican speaker of Arizona’s House of Representatives, other state investigations might be possible.

Second, the committee has already heightened interest in another promising line of inquiry: Trump’s alleged scheme to raise money for his campaign’s election lawsuits through what the committee says is a nonexistent fund. Committee member Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) explained that “the average donation was under $20” and that “these were donors who were not rich, but they responded to his appeals, which were fraudulent. And I don’t think that’s right.” Whether the alleged scam raises criminal or civil liability will no doubt be the subject of vigorous investigation among state prosecutors, state attorneys general and class-action lawyers. Without the hearings, it’s doubtful that ever would have occurred.

Third, in the event the Justice Department decides not to prosecute Trump and his closest cronies, Attorney General Merrick Garland will be under tremendous pressure to justify why the mound of evidence is not enough. Garland has vowed to ignore all politics, and his decision will inevitably involve whether he thinks a jury can find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If anything, public expectations might be shifting such that a refusal to prosecute would seem shocking to most Americans.

In sum, the hearings are already having a palpable impact on the public’s perception of Trump and on state officials as they contemplate their next steps. In the end, the public might not be surprised if they lead to multiple actions against the former president and his closest aides.