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The powerful legacy of the Jan. 6 committee

We saw cowardice and stonewalling but also staggering political courage

It will be hard to forget the courage of Cassidy Hutchinson, who spoke up while her political elders cowered, Shapiro writes. Above, Hutchinson prepares to testify on June 28.
It will be hard to forget the courage of Cassidy Hutchinson, who spoke up while her political elders cowered, Shapiro writes. Above, Hutchinson prepares to testify on June 28. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When the 1973 Senate Watergate hearings took an August recess, almost all the key witnesses had already appeared, and Richard Nixon’s approval ratings had plunged to 31 percent in the Gallup Poll.

But even then, voters were ambivalent about the hearings. 

According to Gallup, only 34 percent of Americans were paying a “great deal of attention” to the televised hearings. And a poll by the Opinion Research Corporation found that a 53 percent majority believed that the hearings should be halted, with the investigation turned over to prosecutors.

On the other hand, Gallup revealed that a staggering 87 percent had watched some of the hearings, either live or rebroadcast. Another Gallup survey found that Americans, by more than a 2-to-1 margin, believed that the Watergate committee was motivated by a desire to “get at facts” rather than to “discredit” Nixon.

And Nixon, of course, survived for another year before he resigned in August 1974.

The point of all this wallowing in Watergate is to illustrate the difficulties of measuring the effects of the House select committee investigating Jan. 6. 

With the last hearing before the election slated for Thursday afternoon and the existence of the committee expiring with this Congress, there is an irresistible temptation to reach a definitive conclusion about the success or failure of the committee.

Good luck with that. For, as with Watergate, the evidence is murky. 

On one hand, it is easy to make the case that feelings about Donald Trump are so baked in that nothing can dislodge them. 

The Monmouth University Poll found that there was virtually no difference in the attitudes from late June to late September regarding Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. In the latest Monmouth poll (released Sept. 27), 38 percent of Americans said Trump was directly responsible for the attack on the Capitol, 25 percent believed that the former president encouraged the rioters, and a die-hard 33 percent felt that the election-denying president had done nothing wrong.  

In similar fashion, Monmouth has found consistent attitudes regarding the legitimacy of the 2020 election since Joe Biden’s inauguration. The September numbers show that 63 percent of Americans called the election “fair and square,” while another 29 percent embraced evidence-free conspiracy theories about voter fraud vaulting Biden to victory.

Yet it is hard to argue that Trump has somehow been vindicated. A late September ABC News-Washington Post poll found that 52 percent of the electorate believes that Trump should be prosecuted, whether it’s for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, his mishandling of classified documents or his deceitful fundraising practices. 

But assessing the work of the Jan. 6 committee should not be limited to polling numbers. 

During Watergate, virtually every key figure testified in Senate hearings. Conversely, the current House committee has been stymied at every turn. Repeatedly, the committee has had to grapple with defiance of congressional subpoenas, bogus claims of executive privilege and a group of Fifth Amendment insurrectionists.  

Against this backdrop of stonewalling, it is impressive how much new detail about Trump’s behavior around Jan. 6 has been unearthed. Three months after she testified in late June, the revelations provided by Cassidy Hutchinson are still riveting. 

Hutchinson, a 25-year-old assistant to Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows, testified that the president in a fit of rage had thrown his lunch against the White House wall. Normally, serving a president does not include wiping up ketchup and picking up shards of porcelain. 

Even more alarmingly, Hutchinson reported that she had heard on Jan. 6 that Trump had grappled with his top security aide in the presidential limousine as he demanded to be taken to the Capitol. While some details from Hutchinson’s secondhand story have been challenged (but not under oath), no one credible is denying that Trump was determined to go to the Capitol. 

What remains unknown is what Trump’s endgame was on Jan. 6. 

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Mark Danner credibly speculates that Trump intended to confront Vice President Mike Pence in person. Danner pictures Trump leading his ragtag army onto the floor of the Senate. Under this scenario, Danner wonders, “Would President Trump have … held out his famously small hand, and demanded the certificates certifying the electoral votes of the ‘stolen’ election?”

The hearings have provided a crash course in political courage. It remains fascinating that a junior White House aide like Hutchinson could muster the moxie to testify in public while her craven political elders cowered in fear of Trump’s wrath. 

The willingness of Republicans Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger to defy their party in defense of democracy is now a familiar story. But nothing can take away the brutal truth of Cheney’s words during a June prime-time hearing: “Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”

In the end, the Jan. 6 hearings should not be judged by the short-term goal of damaging Trump’s reputation and poll ratings. The nine members of the committee were creating as complete a historical record as possible of the most dispiriting day from American democracy since the Civil War.

It is a role that all nine House members have embraced with creativity, seriousness of purpose, a lack of ego and an unshakable commitment to the truth. A half-century from now, I hope that the Jan. 6 committee is remembered with the same reverence with which we now recall the Senate Watergate committee under Sam Ervin. 

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.

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