The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This Jan. 6 hearing was the best showbiz yet. Will it matter? Hmm.

Former deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger, left, and Sarah Matthews, a former White House deputy press secretary, testified on Thursday before the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Analyzing the House Jan. 6 committee hearings has been a special challenge, considering how far they veer from traditional congressional hearings. Each one has been designed to evoke a visceral response through the use of skillfully edited audio and video packages under the artful direction of a professional network news producer. As such, commenting on them is less like dissecting a congressional hearing and more like reviewing a tightly scripted point-of-view documentary, a la Michael Moore or Oliver Stone.

With that caveat in mind, Thursday’s prime-time spectacle can be summed up as the rare late-entry sequel — the eighth in the series — that surpasses its predecessors, especially measured by its emotional wallop.

While the hearing was, like its predecessors, short on new revelations, this slickly produced drama effectively highlighted Donald Trump’s dereliction of duty, as president, in his nonresponse to the riot at the U.S. Capitol. His negligence was magnified by the perverse pleasure he apparently took in watching his supporters attempt to disrupt a constitutional act being overseen by his own vice president, Mike Pence. Trump’s betrayal of Pence will forever be unconscionable.

Taking their turn narrating the hearing were two committee members, Reps. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). Their teleprompter readings were smooth and professional. More interesting were two former Trump officials who resigned in protest after the Jan. 6 riot. Matthew Pottinger, who served on Trump’s National Security Council, and Sarah Matthews, a former deputy White House press secretary, were wholly believable as young patriots who could no longer in good conscience serve a reckless president in whom they once believed.

Both cited a Trump tweet attacking Pence as a breaking point. “It was him pouring gasoline on the fire and making it much worse,” said Matthews. Pottinger, explaining his decision to resign, said, “I simply didn’t want to be associated with the events unfolding at the Capitol.”

Still, even a person guilty of some things might not be guilty of everything. Trump deserves fairness and accuracy in how his actions are depicted. Eight hearings have come and gone and we have yet to see played the portion of Trump’s Ellipse remarks when he urged the crowd to march “peacefully” to the Capitol. That’s an unfair omission by the committee.

The notion that Trump had the power to call off the insurrection during its earliest stages is debatable. The rioters were fueled by emotion and were likely surprised that they had so easily tumbled into the halls of Congress. They might well have carried on for the next couple of hours regardless of admonitions from Trump. But the fact remains that Trump had a responsibility to try. He had a duty to strongly condemn the incursion and demand an immediate end to the uprising. Instead, he sat back and enjoyed it, and that’s inexcusable.

Cartoon by Ann Telnaes: Some things Trump might have been doing during the mob attack at the Capitol

If these presentations included any effort at balance, someone might have suggested an alternative to the scenario of a meticulously planned military-style insurrection failing to complete its objective and only dispersing when Trump gave the order. What more likely happened was a raucous, poorly organized demonstration run amok, finally abating when everyone got tired and decided to go home. It was still a shameful attack on democracy.

The hearings’ lack of fairness and complete absence of spontaneity are two reasons they have squandered the opportunity to be taken seriously by anyone not already in the choir. Just as Trump’s rallies are filled with adoring followers who cheer everything he says just because he says it, these hearings have been hailed primarily by those who have little regard for the veracity or relevancy of what is presented as long as it’s critical of Trump.

But the real downside of these presentations — or upside, if you prefer hearings presented showbiz-style — is that if Republicans take over the House next year, as widely predicted, they’ll follow the same template, targeting Democrats with damning Hollywood-style mini-documentaries in the guise of hearings. And, following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lead, they’ll deny committee seats to Democrats they deem potentially disruptive.

But that’s for later. For now, the Jan. 6 select committee is promising more episodes between now and November, a logical scenario because these hearings were always as much about distracting everyone from the many domestic problems plaguing voters, with the midterm elections approaching, as about holding the former president accountable and curtailing his future White House hopes.

Does any of this matter? If Trump runs again and wins the Republican nomination, his chances in the general election will depend much more on where inflation and gas prices are by the fall of 2024 than anything that happened on Jan. 6, 2021. Right or wrong, that’s the harsh reality of the priorities that really decide elections.

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