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The most likely impact of the Jan. 6 hearings on Trump

Republicans aren’t very likely to be convinced Trump committed a crime. But they seem open to turning the page on him.

Former president Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines in October 2021. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

It’s the question on most everyone’s tongue amid the Jan. 6 committee hearings — and especially after Cassidy Hutchinson’s explosive testimony: Will it ultimately matter?

It’s a fair question. Donald Trump has skated past any number of controversies, scandals and pretty stark evidence stemming from the Russia investigations, and his poll numbers have been remarkably static. He lost reelection, but it was closer than most people realize. And with Republicans perpetually unpersuaded by the evidence against him, his base has remained intact, and Trump has continued to exercise a huge amount of control over his party. He also has a decent shot at regaining the presidency should he run in 2024.

Of course, everyone has a breaking point. But with Trump and GOP-leaning voters, it might not even need to be about that. Indeed, there’s a credible case to be made that the most likely effect of the Jan. 6 hearings isn’t criminal charges against Trump or his party breaking from him fully, but a more gradual realization that it might be best to move in a different direction in 2024 — if for no other reason than Trump’s baggage.

That doesn’t mean it will happen, and party leaders have demonstrated remarkably little ability to move their party in that direction when they have tried (including after the “Access Hollywood” tape in 2016 and after the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021).

But there are signs that the GOP base is open to that and is potentially moving in that direction already.

First, let’s tackle how Republicans feel about Jan. 6. We don’t yet know what Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony might mean, because it only just happened. But polling conducted before that hearing provides a mixed verdict on the GOP’s response to Jan. 6.

Former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified on June 28 about President Donald Trump’s actions surrounding the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

An ABC News/Ipsos poll released last week suggested a slight increase in the percentage of Americans and Republicans who thought Trump should face criminal charges — 58 percent overall and 19 percent among Republicans. As The Post’s Philip Bump wrote, those numbers were up from previous Washington Post/ABC News polls asking the same question shortly after the insurrection and again in April 2022, when only around 1 in 10 Republicans thought Trump should be charged.

Other polls, though, haven’t borne out such a shift. A Quinnipiac University poll showed virtually no change in the percentages of Americans (46 percent) and Republicans (15 percent) who thought Trump committed a crime, at least based on what we knew through June 20. Ditto a more recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll, which showed a virtually unchanged 15 percent of Republicans saying that Trump committed a crime.

A big reason might be that Republicans aren’t really internalizing the evidence. The YouGov poll showed relatively few Republicans are even paying attention to the Jan. 6 hearings, and significantly fewer trust the information they’re getting. For instance, only 26 percent say they had heard and believed the news that Attorney General William P. Barr told Trump his voter fraud allegations were “bullshit,” despite Barr testifying under oath to it and the committee heavily featuring that testimony. And only 13 percent had heard and believed that half a dozen members of Congress had sought pardons, as the committee disclosed last week. (About 4 in 10 Republicans said they had heard about each story, but either doubted them or weren’t sure they were true.)

But this poll also contains some instructive findings when it comes to the hearings’ potentially more subtle effects.

The poll over time has repeatedly asked whether Trump bears blame for Jan. 6. Relatively few Republicans say he does: Just 28 percent say Trump bears at least “some” blame.

But in the next question, the poll asks whether people blame “Republicans who claimed the election had been stolen.” Here, 40 percent of Republicans say those members of their party bear at least “some blame.”

The finding is somewhat nonsensical. Trump was Exhibit A of “Republicans who claimed the election had been stolen,” and his conduct went far beyond just making claims. Yet fewer Republicans say he bears blame than other Republicans who merely echoed his message? You could make a strong case that Republicans know that kind of rhetoric caused Jan. 6; they just don’t like the idea of pinning the blame on Trump personally, because he’s their party’s guy.

Beyond that, there’s Trump’s apparently growing vulnerability in the 2024 primaries, mostly by virtue of a potential challenge from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). Earlier this year, we highlighted polls suggesting that matchup could be competitive. Then last week came a University of New Hampshire poll showing DeSantis pulling even with Trump in the crucial first primary state.

The Yahoo/YouGov poll also bears this out; it shows Trump at 44 percent and DeSantis at 33 percent when it comes to which one of them people would like to see as the 2024 GOP nominee.. That’s not as close than the UNH poll, but it’s remarkably close given Trump’s supposed stranglehold on the party.

The poll also shows 56 percent of Republicans say they want Trump to run again in 2024. That number was as high as 78 percent in Quinnipiac polling late last year.

The other thing we should remember here is that the dynamics somewhat differ from Trump’s previous controversies and scandals. After “Access Hollywood,” the party had little choice but to run with Trump; he was their nominee in the ballot the following month. When Trump was president, defending him was about maintaining his legitimacy and keeping Republicans in power. Amid Trump’s 2021 impeachment, Republicans in Congress had to pick a side because they had to vote on it.

Today, there’s less onus on Republicans to truly defend Trump. Indeed, if they preferred, they could simply allow the evidence against him to build without trying too hard to spin it. It might blow back on their party to some degree, but there’s little evidence the matter truly looms over their expected gains in the 2022 midterms.

None of which is to say Republicans will actually dump Trump. The base still prefers him, even after all we’ve learned. And in the immediate aftermath of Jan. 6, many Republicans seemed to believe that would be the final straw, and seem to have been proved wrong. But Trump’s status as the presumptive 2024 nominee is looking more presumptuous. And the Jan. 6 hearings’ likeliest potential impact would seem to be providing a gust of wind for those seeking to turn the page.

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