Capitol Attack

Will the January 6 Committee “Open People’s Eyes” to Trump’s Malfeasance?

Members of the committee have teased new witnesses, Secret Service text messages, and a “minute by minute” accounting of Trump’s actions on January 6. As Republicans continue to tune out the investigation and legal action remains uncertain, the final—for now—prime-time hearing will be the panel’s biggest test yet.
Adam Kinzinger listens during a hearing of the January 6 committee in July.nbsp
Adam Kinzinger listens during a hearing of the January 6 committee in July. Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Of all the probes into Donald Trump’s nefarious conduct over the last half decade, none has been as effective as the one being carried out by the January 6 committee. Congressional investigations during Trump’s presidency were rendered futile by his endless stonewalling. Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation was perhaps overly cautious — and the report he produced was essentially tossed into the wastebasket by Trump’s attorney general, William Barr. Trump’s first impeachment trial was damning, but based on a complicated tangle of campaign hijinks and foreign policy intrigue; his second was also damning, and covered the same subject matter as Bennie Thompson’s panel, but necessarily focused only on what we all watched play out during the deadly insurrection.

The January 6 committee has done a remarkable job of probing deeper into that attack, presenting compelling evidence that the pandemonium of that day was actually something more like controlled chaos. It has built that case through a combination of aggressive investigation and a series of public hearings, set to culminate in prime time Thursday, that feel more like an episodic television thriller than a Capitol Hill proceeding. Its work could not only become a blueprint for prosecutors, should they be interested, the committee also clearly hopes it could bring about Trump’s long-overdue political downfall. “This,” Republican committee member Adam Kinzinger told CBS News’ Face the Nation on Sunday, “is going to open people’s eyes in a big way.”

Will it, though?

For all the committee’s success so far, the answer to that question remains unclear. Congressional investigators have spent seven hearings painting a portrait of a man rapidly losing his grip on reality and power, and going to great lengths to cling to it. The details so far have been stunning, deepening our understanding of how this unprecedented attack on our democracy came to be and underscoring the need to keep Trump away from ever again returning to office. “We have filled in the blanks,” Kinzinger told Margaret Brennan on Sunday, previewing the hearing he’ll co-lead this week, which will focus on Trump’s actions during the attack. “If the American people watch this, particularly I say as to my fellow Republicans, watch this with an open mind, and is this the kind of strong leader you really think you deserve?”

This week, the committee is expected to go “through minute by minute” Trump’s “dereliction” January 6, per Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat on the January 6 committee; it may also present Secret Service text messages from that day that an inspector general told the panel had been deleted. As it continues its investigation, it may also schedule more hearings, including as it wraps up a report on its findings this fall. “We have a responsibility to present the things that we have uncovered," Democrat Elaine Luria told CNN's State of the Union Sunday, saying that the investigation was continuing to ramp up rather than wind down. In Thursday's proceedings, Luria said, the committee would present testimony from witnesses who did not appear in previous hearings — including “people who were close to the president.” 

“We’re going to plow ahead and get our job done,” Lofgren said on ABC’s This Week Sunday. ‘Find all of the facts and then lay all the facts out for the American people.” 

Polling suggests that the committee is having some impact; most Americans seem to believe that the insurrection was planned, and that Trump should face legal consequences for instigating it. And Trump, for all his dismissals of the “un-select committee,” as he calls it, clearly feels threatened: He attempted to tamper with a witness, as Liz Cheney alleged at the conclusion of the last hearing, and has reportedly suggested to associates that he hopes running for president again would help him avoid potential prosecution. But polls also suggest that the hearings aren’t getting through to Republicans, who not only appear to be tuning out the revelations the panel has put forth, but increasingly inclined to regard the January 6 attack as a “legitimate protest.”

That’s not to suggest the committee’s efforts are in vain; the story of January 6 — and its lead-up and aftermath — must be told. But it’s hard to feel much confidence that Republicans’ eyes will suddenly be pried open, as Kinzinger suggested. There was already ample evidence, accumulated from decades in the public eye, that Trump was dangerously unfit for office; he rose to power because the GOP either ignored or outright embraced it all. To this point, they have given little reason to believe they wouldn’t do so again. Indeed, Republican lawmakers seem more interested in avenging Trump than in anything that can be called soul searching. “I think you’re going to see him play a lot harder ball when he takes the majority than people realize,” a Trump ally told CNN of Kevin McCarthy, who has suggested he could retaliate by greenlighting his own congressional investigations if Republicans take the House in the midterms.

That could, of course, change as the committee presents new evidence. What the people — and Attorney General Merrick Garland — will do with those facts? That remains to be seen.