What did Trump know, and when did he know it?

People are already saying the Jan. 6 hearings won’t matter — but they’re wrong

Video screens display an image of Donald Trump before his speech to supporters near the White House on Jan. 6, 2021.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Video screens display an image of Donald Trump before his speech to supporters near the White House on Jan. 6, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 7, 2022 at 6:00am

The chronology is so symbolically perfect that it borders on the eerie. 

Next week, we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. And this Thursday night marks the start of the House Select Committee public hearings on the Jan. 6 insurrection — a chilling event that displaced Watergate as the gravest threat to American democracy since the Civil War. 

Little more than two years after the Watergate burglars were captured by the police, President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace. But these days, there is a cynical attitude that nothing will change with the Jan. 6 hearings. 

We live in a cable TV culture in which it is standard practice to assess the political impact of any event before it happens. So, in a determined effort not to overhype the hearings, most commentators are now downplaying them. 

These pundits stress that news consumption has become so siloed that the only people following the hearings closely will be those who already despise former President Donald Trump. No matter what the revelations are from the hearings, they won’t penetrate the Fox News bubble and will have to compete with a torrent of lies from Mar-a-Lago. 

A case can also be made that there have already been so many leaks from the committee and so many nuggets revealed in court documents that there will be (warning: Watergate cliche ahead) no “smoking gun.”

Armchair experts argue that Americans no longer have the attention span to watch any type of protracted congressional hearings. Also, at a time of hyperpartisanship, there are supposedly too few voters in the middle whose voting behavior might be influenced by the hearings. 

In short, the widespread feeling is that the era when the 1973 Watergate hearings could galvanize the nation has come and gone. Instead, the upcoming hearings will be just another blip in a tumultuous news environment that has hurtled from Ukraine to Roe v. Wade to inflation to Uvalde.

The problem with these glib judgments is that there is literally nothing in modern political history that compares to the Jan. 6 hearings. Never has a congressional committee spent months investigating what was, in effect, an attempted coup to overturn a valid election. 

It is forgotten how slowly the Senate Watergate hearings began as they offered more boredom than bombshells. 

After the opening day of the hearings in May 1973, Jules Witcover, in a front-page Washington Post story, noted the “five hours of mostly colorless and snail’s-pace testimony.” The article concluded, “The investigation doesn’t intend to sacrifice thoroughness … for sensationalism just to hold the TV audience.”  

Limited to as few as six hearings this month, the Jan. 6 committee cannot offer even a hint of tedium. In contrast, the leisurely Watergate committee held 51 days of hearings over a six-month period. 

The two impeachments of Trump do not offer valid precedents either. 

The 2019 impeachment of Trump over Ukraine was initially handled by the House Judiciary Committee, an unwieldy body with more than 40 members riven by vicious partisanship.

Conducted in the shadow of the assault on the Capitol, the 2021 impeachment was, of necessity, a rushed job offering powerful videos from Jan. 6, but no high-profile witnesses. 

What makes the Jan. 6 hearings different from standard congressional fare is the unity of its members. The two stalwart anti-Trump Republicans on the committee are as determined to get at the truth as the seven Democrats. 

Despite the rumpled country-lawyer charms of Sam Ervin, the Senate Watergate committee initially included pro-Nixon stalwarts such as Tennessee Republican Howard Baker. In fact, Baker’s famous tagline (“What did the president know, and when did he know it?”) was designed to highlight the supposed flimsiness of the circumstantial evidence fingering Nixon.

Starting Thursday night, all nine members of the Jan. 6 committee will, in effect, be asking the same question, “What did Trump know, and when did he know it?” And this time around, there will be no Trump defenders on the TV screen. 

Most voters who will be watching the hearings have not kept up with the piecemeal revelations of what the committee has discovered. There is also an emotional power to hearing stories told by live witnesses rather than reading about them in anonymously sourced news stories. 

Perhaps the biggest bombshell so far has been Trump’s reported reaction to the shouted threats by the Jan. 6 rioters to hang Mike Pence. Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, told aides that Trump had suggested — perhaps jokingly — that hanging might be appropriate for his vice president. 

As chilling as this story is (and even a Trump joke would have been in excruciatingly bad taste as the Capitol was being overrun by a mob), it would be telling to hear it verified in live testimony by White House aides who were there.

All evidence suggests that the nine committee members understand how pivotal it is to hold the attention of TV viewers. It will be, at minimum, refreshing to watch hearings without the usual outbreak of congressional bloviating. 

A recent NBC News poll found that 45 percent of the electorate believes that Trump was “solely” or “mainly responsible” for the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. The big question is whether — after the hearings are over — a significant majority of voters will come to feel that Trump triggered the worst attack on the Capitol in history by American citizens.

June 2022 will be as important a month for American democracy as June 1972 and its aftermath. May the final outcome be as satisfying as Watergate, since our wounded nation is too fragile to survive a future replay of Jan. 6. 

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.