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What the January 6 hearings accomplished

Further implanting the attack on the Capitol in the public memory might be the committee’s most vital function.

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Committee Vice Chair Liz Cheney during a January 6 hearing on October 13, 2022.
Jabin Botsford/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The final televised hearing of the January 6th Select Committee didn’t have the grand finale that would have fulfilled the fantasies of the #Resistance members who tuned in to watch the proceedings gavel to gavel. This was never going to end with Liz Cheney leading Donald Trump out of Mar-a-Lago in handcuffs. Instead, it ended with a vote to subpoena Trump that may end up being more symbolically than legally important.

The hearing itself didn’t add a ton to the public’s knowledge of the attack on the Capitol. There were some new nuggets of information: Secret Service communication that gave further corroboration that Trump wanted to go to the Capitol that day, and footage of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other congressional leaders, taken by Pelosi’s daughter, scrambling to respond in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

But the nearly three-hour-long hearing functioned as a greatest hits album, with one or two new tracks as well as a chance to relive some of the signature moments from the committee’s summer of hearings as well as to revisit some B-sides.

Yet, for all this, the hearing was a success, simply because after a summer of rising inflation and landmark Supreme Court decisions — not to mention a host of other Trump scandals — it brought the events around January 6 to the front of mind.

It’s this aspect of public memory that is perhaps the committee’s most vital function. Supporters of the committee would say doing so is about preserving American democracy while skeptics would argue it is simply about preserving the Democratic Party. Regardless, the committee’s key role has not simply been uncovering new evidence of Trump’s culpability in the efforts to overturn the 2020 election — the Justice Department has its own investigation and Trump’s Twitter account served to be an ongoing criminal confession — it has been to keep an unprecedented assault on American democracy from fading away into the endless churn of the 24-hour cable news cycle.

The result is that while the attack on the Capitol hasn’t become a key issue in the midterms, it’s served as a steady background hum. Whether candidates are debating inflation or abortion, the 2020 election and its aftermath always seeps in eventually.

Most of Thursday’s hearing was an opportunity to revisit some of the most stunning and compelling testimony from the summer. It was packed with familiar faces from June and July like Cassidy Hutchinson, the former White House aide who had an entire hearing devoted to her testimony, as well as top Trump advisers like former attorney general Bill Barr and White House counsel Pat Cipollone, whose very appearances before the committee involved fraught negotiations.

The culmination of the hearing was not any new revelation about the events of January 6. Instead, it was the formal vote by the committee to subpoena Donald Trump to testify before it. The chances of the former president appearing before the committee under oath are slim to say the least — after all, it would risk Trump either making embarrassing admissions, committing perjury, or invoking his constitutional rights under the Fifth Amendment.

In contrast, if he fights the subpoena, Trump could run out the clock on the committee, whose authority expires at the end of the year. The only way for him to face consequences for refusing to cooperate is if a majority of the House of Representatives votes to hold him in contempt and then refers the case to Attorney General Merrick Garland for prosecution. Garland would then have to decide to go forward, which he has done in two of the four cases referred to him: those of former White House advisors Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro. Garland has declined to prosecute two others who have faced contempt referrals, former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and former Trump aide Dan Scavino.

While the lingering drama with Trump will play out over the coming weeks and months as the former president is facing legal battles ranging from whether he kept top-secret documents for personal use to whether he sexually assaulted a woman in a Bergdorf Goodman department store in the 1990s, the bulk of the committee’s public-facing work is done.

There still remains its report, which may include criminal referrals to the Department of Justice, as well as any legislative fixes to the Electoral Count Act to make future attempts to overturn a presidential election far more difficult. These, though, will happen after the midterm election in November.

Ironically, its biggest obstacle to keeping the attack on the Capitol in focus might be an entirely different investigation of Trump. The revelation that Trump allegedly mishandled classified documents, which led to an FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, not only took away attention from the January 6 investigation (there are only so many Trump scandals that can fit on a front page) but also led to some Republicans rallying back to the former president after he protested what he termed “a raid” on his Florida property. This put that shocking and unprecedented scandal at the front of mind for voters. But, unlike January 6, the Trump documents scandal is simply about the failing and foibles of one man. It doesn’t implicate figures across the country and across the American political system in an effort to overturn a presidential election. And while it does raise major questions of national security, there are no implications for constitutional democracy.

But that may not be the biggest issue for the committee. If the ultimate goal is to hold Trump accountable for his actions, all that matters is what the Justice Department does at the end, not whether voters can keep all the allegations straight in their heads before then.