The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Jan. 6 committee’s zeal to impugn Trump is in danger of backfiring

Cassidy Hutchinson, former aide to Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, is sworn in on June 28 to testify before the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. (Shawn Thew/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s refusal to acknowledge Joe Biden’s 2020 victory should disqualify him from the future support of any American. But the one-sided and sloppy procedures too often employed by the Jan. 6 House committee are providing more fodder for Trump’s stubborn partisans.

Never have we seen such a scripted production masquerading as a congressional hearing. Narration and questions are carefully read from a teleprompter. The witnesses even appear to have been coached to pause at specific points to await the next prepackaged query. While chair Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) and vice chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) do the heavy lifting, other committee members sit in zombie-like silence, unless it’s a day designated for one of them to perform, too.

The committee’s tactics are particularly disturbing for those of us who identify and empathize with Trump supporters, but want the GOP to abandon the former president. We know that following a well-worn playbook pitting the same basic collection of usual adversaries against Trump will not succeed at changing minds.

It would be helpful for some committee members to at least feign some skepticism or curiosity regarding testimony. For example, when retired federal judge J. Michael Luttig testified on June 16 that “Trump and his allies and supporters” present a “clear and present danger to American democracy,” it would have been beneficial for a committee member to pipe up with, “Judge Luttig, do you mean to say that millions of Trump supporters across the nation are plotting to overthrow the 2024 election if it doesn’t go their way?” Luttig, in turn, might have clarified that the targets of his allegations were specific Trump associates or elected officials, not average Americans.

This week’s hastily presented hearing featuring Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, would have benefited immensely from some cynical inquiry. The nation was presented a gossipy mess of “here’s stuff I heard that Trump did,” some of which was immediately refuted. Yes, Hutchinson was under oath and others weren’t, but even under oath, there is little jeopardy attached to merely recounting what others told you, even if it turns out to be wrong.

Most head-turning was Hutchinson’s hearsay account of Trump’s alleged rumble with his Secret Service detail inside an SUV on the day of the Capitol riot, wherein Trump supposedly first grabbed at the steering wheel, then made a “lunge” toward the throat of a second agent.

Numerous news outlets reported almost immediate denial of the story, although generally from anonymous sources. But as George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley tweeted: “It is the type of problem that arises when the focus of a hearing is persuasive rather than investigative. The account fit the narrative and the underlying fact seemed simply too good to check.”

Still, someone on the committee playing the role of skeptic could have perhaps challenged her on the details, as well as another episode wherein she said she personally heard Trump “say something to the effect of, ‘I don’t f-ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the f-ing mags away.” Her habit of couching her recollected conversations in terms of people saying “something to the effect of” leaves plenty of wiggle room for later revision.

Everything Hutchinson said on Tuesday may well be true. But it’s more likely that she got some things wrong. By rushing her in front of the cameras without more fact-checking — or wiser heads determining to prune her testimony to only events she witnessed firsthand — the committee opened the door for her entire appearance to be summarily dismissed by critics. Such sloppiness doesn’t harm Trump nearly as much as it impugns both the committee investigating him and journalists too eagerly relaying its overscripted and faulty narrative as news.

The committee is anxious to prove that Trump knew the election wasn’t fraudulent and yet engaged in numerous unsavory tactics to engineer and encourage an attack on the U.S. Capitol in an effort to prevent Biden’s certification as president. It’s a misguided objective, and will likely never produce evidence that will be trial-worthy. It is clear that Trump acted irresponsibly on Jan. 6, but it remains highly unlikely that Trump was involved in actually planning the attack on the Capitol.

As shocking as they are, what is more damning than the images from Jan. 6 is the scene on Jan. 20, 2021, when Biden took the oath of office with Trump nowhere in sight. Refusing to personally participate in the peaceful transfer of power for all the world to see is the mark that will forever stain Trump’s legacy. The Jan. 6 committee is distracting us from a dereliction of duty that Americans should really focus on the most, and of which Trump is most clearly guilty.