Thursday afternoon brought a familiar feeling to much of the country: Okay, so now what?
The conclusion of what is expected to be the final hearing of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol was a formal vote to subpoena former president Donald Trump for testimony. That culmination was unquestionably theatrical: Past subpoenas have not been so publicly presented, and the committee’s hearings have always included a deliberate element of showmanship. It was meant to serve as a deliberate coda to the public effort.
And now that’s done, as other investigations of Trump and Trump’s behavior have been done, without any noticeable effect on Trump himself. Leading to that familiar question: What was the result?
The answer, as is usually the case, is complicated. It is also necessarily impossible to offer in entirety, given that we are less than 24 hours removed from the hearing’s conclusion. But there are clear accomplishments that can be articulated and places where the hearings obviously didn’t accomplish the committee’s desired goal.
They made a convincing case for Trump’s culpability. This is probably the most important outcome of the hearings, and one that I detailed at length Thursday. While there was no serious question that Jan. 6 was a function of Trump’s rhetoric and exhortations, the committee’s work fleshed out the public’s understanding of how widespread and how cynical Trump’s behavior was.
They presented new, important information about the day of the riot and the weeks and months that led up to it. The committee hearings focused heavily on Trump, by design, but there was a great deal of investigation into the other circumstances surrounding the riot. During the hearings, we were presented with new details about what occurred at the Capitol that day and how law enforcement and elected leaders responded. We got a better sense for how people in Trump’s orbit worked to keep him in power.
But since the hearings were focused on Trump, it’s safe to assume that the expected report from the committee will include more details about those ancillary elements of the day’s violence. Even over the course of two hours, you can convey only so much information in a televised presentation. A written document offers far more space to detail what’s been learned, and it’s safe to assume that the committee’s report will be replete with such information.
The committee collected evidence that folded into the Justice Department’s probe. The committee still might make a criminal referral to the Justice Department centered on Trump’s actions related to Jan. 6. But it doesn’t necessarily need to; the department has been conducting an investigation into the riot for some time.
In fact, the department publicly requested that the committee provide it with transcripts from interviews with witnesses. Attorney General Merrick Garland stated more than once that he and his team were tracking the committee’s work. So even if there isn’t a formal referral, it’s clear that the hearings and the committee’s work were seen as useful to law enforcement.
The hearings exposed serious questions about other individuals and groups. In Thursday’s hearing, committee members repeatedly indicated that they felt testimony provided by people affiliated with the Secret Service was not credible, elevating new concerns about the reliability of the organization tasked with protecting senior government officials. The hearing also highlighted a number of Trump allies who refused to answer questions before the committee but have been happy to talk to conservative media.
And that was one hearing. We can expect that the final report will document other failures, including in the decision-making process that left the Capitol poorly defended in the face of the obvious, documented threats that law enforcement was tracking.
The hearings helped solidify a partisan response to the day’s events. It was inevitable that any public probe of Trump’s actions would lead to an entrenchment among Trump’s supporters. For all of the criticisms of the committee as being imbalanced against Trump, there is no structure that would have been treated as valid by Trump and his base. We’ve seen this so many times before: the Russia investigation, the Ukraine impeachment. Any questioning of Trump and his behavior is illegitimate, whatever form it takes.
But it’s still the case that the committee provided a foil for Trump, something he could point to as equivalent to the “Russia hoax” or “Impeachment Hoax #1” or whatever he calls it. Doing something to understand what led to the riot was important (as even people including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) once acknowledged), but as soon as there was an effort to do so, it was necessarily going to become a point of attack for Trump and his allies (including McCarthy).
No smoking gun linking the White House to the violence emerged. This is understandably subjective; that Trump bears responsibility for the day’s violence is hard to argue. He stacked the gasoline-soaked logs, he passed out lighters, he suggested that a giant bonfire would be nice. But there’s no video or record of him telling someone to start a fire.
It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. No evidence emerged that Trump or those close to him knew rioters would try to break into the Capitol. No evidence was presented that people close to Trump knew what extremist groups were plotting for the day, despite the available evidence of links between Trumpworld and those groups.
Again, the Capitol riot was only part of Trump’s multipronged effort to retain power, something the committee documented thoroughly. But despite speculation that he or his allies might have direct links to violent actors, none emerged. There’s no evidence that he did anything but contentedly stand by as violence occurred — inaction rather than action.
The hearings didn’t obviously change Americans’ views of Trump. Part of what the committee hoped to accomplish, Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) has suggested, was to demonstrate to Americans that Trump should not again be given high public office.
If that was a goal, the committee hearings do not appear to have been successful. Polling from YouGov shows that favorability ratings of Trump have moved within a narrow range since the beginning of the year. Since the beginning of the year, Trump’s favorability overall has averaged 42 percent, exactly where it is now. Among Republicans, the average has been 82 percent; in YouGov’s most recent poll, he was at 80 percent. That’s not a significant difference.
This is only one measure of how people view Trump, certainly, and many people who would almost certainly not broadly be supported for president are nevertheless viewed favorably by the public. (Rob Gronkowski, for example.) But that brings us to the next consideration …
Did the committee hamper a Trump 2024 bid? Former House speaker Paul D. Ryan made headlines after the committee hearing by suggesting that Trump’s political future was bleak.
“I think Trump’s unelectability will be palpable” by 2024, he said. “We all know that he will lose. We all know that he is so much more likely to lose the White House than anybody else running for president on our side of the aisle, so why would we want to go with that?”
It’s not clear that this assessment depends significantly on the committee’s work. That Trump lost to Biden in 2020 is a good signal he might lose to him in 2024, as well. That Trump is vehemently disliked by so many Americans, in contrast to other potential Republican candidates, also may give Republican voters pause.
One theory holds that the accrued weight of questions about Trump and the scandals that have always lingered around him might disincline Republican primary voters. Perhaps. And perhaps the committee’s thorough documentation of Trump’s efforts might contribute to that — push Trump from his current position into Gronkowski terrain. We’ll have to see.
Will Trump be indicted? It’s very unlikely that Trump will accede to the subpoena that the committee authorized Thursday. He likes to make big showy statements about offering testimony, about how he has nothing to hide, and then he (wisely) scampers back behind his attorneys once the moment arrives.
But that’s irrelevant, really, to the core issue. The subpoena was the culmination of the televised hearings, but the process moves forward. It may well be the case that by this time next year, Trump is indicted on charges of having a role in cultivating the circumstances that led to the Capitol riot.
Which would probably trigger a familiar feeling: Okay. So now what?