The January 6 committee has made it official: After a year of meeting in closed session, interviewing over 900 witnesses and gathering more than 100,000 documents, the committee will hold at least eight public hearings. The action will commence on live TV with the first hearing on June 9.
If all goes as anticipated, the hearings will prove what most of us already believe--that the violence that nearly toppled American democracy was incited by none other than the 45th president of the United States, Donald John Trump, and his inner circle of sycophants, grifters, advisers, aspiring felons and assorted nut-jobs.
"The hearings will tell a story that will really blow the roof off the House," Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said late last month at an event hosted by Georgetown University's Center on Faith and Justice in Washington, D.C.
To Raskin, who is one of seven Democrats on the committee and a recognized constitutional scholar, Jan. 6 is the story of an attempted coup orchestrated by Trump. "No president has ever come close to doing what happened here in terms of trying to organize an inside coup to overthrow an election and bypass the constitutional order," Raskin added at Georgetown. And no president, he continued, has ever used “a violent insurrection made up of domestic violent extremist groups, white nationalist and racist, fascist groups in order to support the coup."
Echoing Raskin, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., says the panel will “tell the story about what happened” by way of a multi-media presentation, combining live witness testimony with videos of the attack on the Capitol shot in real time. According to CNN, the committee has even hired a prominent writer—whose identity has not yet been disclosed—to draft a compelling script to accompany the presentation. Prepare yourselves for a narration delivered by James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, Peter Coyote or someone of equal gravitas. Prepare yourselves, in short, not only to be informed, but to be entertained as well.
At the end of the day, however, nothing the committee presents will matter unless the hearings attract millions of eyeballs. Decades ago, Americans were transfixed by the Senate Watergate hearings. Today, sadly and tragically, the public’s interest appears to be waning. As a society, we are both polarized and impaired by short attention spans.
According to an analysis of recent polling published by FiveThirtyEight, Americans are moving on from Jan. 6, even if Congress isn’t. Among the polls cited in the analysis are a Navigator Research survey from April 4 that found 39 percent of registered voters think the Jan. 6 committee is too focused on the past. An earlier poll from the Pew Research Center, also cited by FiveThirtyEight, contained similar findings.
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At the same time, several other polls taken this year show that Republicans, by overwhelming majorities, continue to believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen. An even more alarming poll by Hart Research and The New Republic magazine, published on April 14, found that 57% of GOP voters believe the insurrection was “an act of patriotism.”
With metrics like these, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the Jan. 6 hearings wind up with ratings rivaling those of the Weather Channel. Viewers of MSNBC and CNN will tune in. Viewers of Fox, Newsmax and OAN will tune out.
There is one way, however, for the Jan. 6 committee to seize the moment and avoid becoming an historical footnote—it can subpoena Trump and add him to its witness list.
Trump may be the most loathsome charlatan to ever sit behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, but he is still boffo on the small screen. If Jamie Raskin and his colleagues want to tell the story of Jan. 6 to the largest possible audience, they would be well advised to open and close every hearing with an appeal to Trump to come forward and tell his version of the story. To drive home the point, the committee could set aside a chair reserved exclusively for Trump at the witness table. The chair would remain empty and unoccupied unless and until Trump opted to plop his ample girth upon it.
Now, I’m not naïve. I don’t believe for a second that Trump would obey a subpoena or appear voluntarily. Nonetheless, it would be political malpractice not to call him to testify. And at least some members of the Jan. 6 committee are on record agreeing with me. In October 2021, in an appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation," chairman Thompson said that no one, not even Trump, was “off limits” for the committee. And as recently as April 14, another member, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-CA, told National Public Radio that “it would be a mistake” to finish the work of the committee without inviting Trump to take the stand.
Serving a subpoena on Trump would be fully consistent with those past declarations, and undercut any criticism, whether offered by Trump or his enablers, that the committee had lost its nerve and somehow ducked the former president.
Trump has long said that he wants a televised debate about election fraud. He’s boasted that any such event would turn into a “ratings bonanza.” Slapping him with a subpoena would be the committee’s way of calling his bluff and exposing him as a coward when he inevitably backs down.
Subpoenaing Trump would also be a bold move, and just the kind of gesture a dying democracy needs for its revival.