GOP’s committee boycott backfires

by Jonathan Bernstein

Tuesday’s hearing of the House committee investigating the assault on the U.S. Capitol of Jan. 6, 2021, provided a stark reminder of how the boycott by all but two Republicans has set the context of the proceedings. Remember: After Speaker Nancy Pelosi vetoed Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s suggestions for Republicans to serve on the panel, McCarthy pulled all Republican participation, leaving Pelosi to name two Republican adversaries of former President Donald Trump who defied the boycott.

The hallmark of these hearings has been that they’ve run smoothly. They start on time. There is no partisan sniping. No motions made and argued over. The use of taped segments has been professional and effective. The hearings even appear to end on time.

The committee has been shockingly effective at teasing each session in advance without giving away the bulk of their story. There’s even a ritual at the end in which Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the senior of the two Republicans, previews the next hearing and drops a bombshell, supplying the media with a sidebar story and keeping everyone’s interest up to the last moment.  Tuesday’s Cheney surprise was the revelation that Trump tried (unsuccessfully) to contact a committee witness.

It’s not unusual for a lot of what happens in congressional hearings to be scripted; indeed, it’s pretty normal. But even when partisanship is minimized and members are cooperative, representatives almost always read off their own individual scripts, with no more than halting coordination even within the parties. For a hearing to be centrally scripted … that’s highly unusual.

Some of this would have been possible had there been additional, dissenting Republicans on the committee. But it would have been a lot harder. Even if the other Republicans had been pro-democracy and acted in good faith — unlikely, but let’s suppose — they probably would have appealed to the impulse of many journalists to hold both parties responsible for any disputes that break out. More likely, they would have deliberately provoked fights to make the story about committee squabbling, rather than the evidence presented. They also could have selectively leaked things from the depositions to take the steam out of the hearings. But even just adding minority member time would have broken up the force and the effectiveness of the presentations.

To be sure, it would also have given critics a chance to expose weak points in the committee’s argument. Tuesday’s session demonstrated how. The topic was actions taken by Trump after losing the 2020 election, from mid-December up to Jan. 6, with the committee trying to pin the eventual violence on Trump himself.

If the committee’s goal was simply to prove that Trump was aware of the potential for violence, including violence by organized militia-like groups, and even encouraged it, it was successful. However, I thought it was less successful at tying Trump directly to those groups. Overlap between the extended Trump camp and the extremist groups was exposed  but a few skeptics on the committee could have pushed the majority harder about whether there was more to Trump’s involvement than simply inspiring anyone who was willing to follow him to commit mayhem.

I don’t mean to minimize what the committee did demonstrate, which was certainly more than enough to produce a legitimate impeachment and conviction if Trump was still president, and may now be enough for indictment and conviction. And the committee has said that it hasn’t yet revealed all the evidence it has gathered. But the feel of the hearing would have been different had there been someone present to poke holes at the conclusions drawn by the current members. Different, but perhaps not weaker; after all, one defense Trump can now trot out on the political stage is that no one is standing up for him in the committee, which is true even if the bulk of what is being presented is irrefutable.

One thing that is clear after eight hearings: Pelosi was correct to veto the Republican attempt to add committee members who were deeply involved in Trump’s plotting. But that still left McCarthy with plenty of options, including strong Trump supporters who didn’t get involved in planning to overturn the election and, in doing so, to overthrow the legitimate U.S. government.

Because if there’s one thing that’s been obvious starting on Election Day 2020 and is even more obvious now that we’ve seen hours of evidence, not to mention 18 months of Trump’s public behavior, that overthrowing the government is exactly what Trump and his allies were attempting to do. Unfortunately, it seems that there are only two Republicans in the entire House of Representatives willing to side with democracy and against the former president. But they’ve made the committee a lot more effective.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy.