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What to expect from the January 6 hearings

The House committee on the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot hopes for a public reckoning on the events that culminated in the attack.  

January 6 Committee Votes On Contempt Charges Against Trump Aides Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The House committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol is ready to revisit a day that has already faded from many Americans’ minds, using a series of splashy hearings this summer — the first is Thursday in primetime — to produce a full, public reckoning over the events that culminated in the attack.

The legal and political impacts the public hearings will have are uncertain. Even with all the attention they are sure to get, few expect findings will massively shake up public opinion or shift the political winds for Democrats, who currently face dismal poll numbers for midterms elections. There is no scenario in which the work of the select committee leads to Donald Trump being frogmarched out of Mar-a-Lago, or even with top Republicans publicly denouncing him in the same way they did in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

Instead, the test for many on the Hill is whether the hearings can, at the very least, produce sufficient momentum to ensure passage of reforms they hope would prevent efforts like the one taken after the 2020 election from happening again.

Rep. Adam Schiff, one of the Democrats on the committee, told reporters on Wednesday that the committee’s role is “not a prosecutorial one.” Rather, he said, its role is “to expose everything that went on that put our democracy at risk and propose reforms to protect our country going forward.”

How to watch the January 6 hearings, and what you’ll see

Thursday’s primetime hearing will be the first installment in a series of hearings throughout this month and perhaps into the summer. It will begin at 8 pm ET and be carried live by the major broadcast networks, most cable networks and online (but not on Fox News).

The next hearings are scheduled for Monday at 10 am, Wednesday at 10 am and Thursday at 1 pm. The subsequent hearing dates have yet to be publicly announced by the committee.

The committee is going to great lengths to make the primetime presentation compelling , including bringing in former ABC News president James Goldston as a consultant.

They will gather Thursday in the Cannon Caucus Room, an ornately decorated space that is rarely used for hearings. Using live witnesses as well as video, images and other documents, it will represent an opening argument by the January 6 Committee, as it shares the fruits of over 1,000 depositions and interviews it has conducted and 140,000 documents that it has gathered since it was established by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last summer.

The committee’s goal over the course of the summer is to lay out the effort to overturn the 2020 election in detail, not just its culmination in the attack on the Capitol but the step-by-step effort by Trump to reverse his loss, including efforts to pressure local officials and plotting with figures like lawyer John Eastman and Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark to provide some sort of legal justification for his actions.

Democrat Elaine Luria of Virginia, a member of the committee, told Vox that the hearings will provide an “opportunity for people to have a comprehensive, chronological and thorough” accounting of the events leading up to January 6.

The hearings are expected to feature live testimony from a number of witnesses who can shed new light on the attempts to reverse the outcome of the 2020 election. Thursday’s hearing will feature two witnesses, Caroline Edwards, a Capitol Police officer injured in the line of duty on January 6 and Nick Quested, a documentary film maker who was embedded with the far right group the Proud Boys that day.

Future hearings will feature witnesses to Trump’s efforts to overturn the election.These potentially include Greg Jacob, the former counsel to then Vice President Mike Pence and Cassidy Hutchinson, a personal aide to Meadows. Both have already given depositions to the committee and could shed key light on the former President’s actions on January 6 and in the days and weeks before.

There is also the potential for the committee to air clips of its taped depositions as part of the hearings. This could include both obscure figures as well as well-known names like Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.

A lot of shocking information unearthed by the committee has already been leaked and shared with the public. Last week, CNN published more than 2,300 text messages that former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows previously turned over to the committee.

Luria said that while there have been piecemeal leaks in recent months, and that there has been ample reporting on elements around the attempt to overturn the election, the committee this summer will offer a “digestible” way “for the average person to understand the totality and the gravity” of the effort.

Who are the committee members running the hearings?

The committee is chaired by Democrat Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, but Republican vice chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming will also play a prominent role.

Cheney has been a driving force within the committee and constant presence in depositions, and she cements its bipartisan credentials. Cheney has been a vocal Trump critic who is now regarded as a heretic by many within her own party. But she still is the former chair of the House Republican Conference and the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Cheney is one of two Republicans serving on the committee, along with Adam Kinzinger (IL). Both Cheney and Kinzinger were appointed by Pelosi, and both now face an uncertain political future. Kinzinger is retiring from Congress at the end of this term, and Cheney faces a primary challenge from a Trump-backed candidate.

The Democrats on the committee include Schiff, who has faced similar national spotlight when he was the lead manager in Trump’s first impeachment. Jamie Raskin (MD) was the lead manager in Trump’s second impeachment. There are seven Democrats on the committee, all appointed by Pelosi.

What impact will the January 6 hearings have?

Republicans are already laying a full-scale effort to blunt the hearings’ effects on public opinion. In a memo first reported by Vox, the Republican National Committee laid out talking points to push back on the hearings as “partisan” while painting Democrats as the “real election deniers.”

Republican surrogates from different wings of the party have been mounting efforts to preemptively push back on the select committee, ranging from Trump allies on Capitol Hill like Elise Stefanik of New York and Jim Jordan of Ohio to outside advisors of the former president like Matt Schlapp, the chair of the American Conservative Union. In a piece for the Federalist, Jordan went so far as to claim that the ultimate goal of the hearings had nothing to do with the attack on the Capitol or efforts to overturn the election. Instead, it was an explicit effort to “delegitimize conservative views so that they don’t need to be debated or even addressed in polite society.”

In contrast, Democrats have been wary of speaking out much about the committee before the hearings begin. The Biden White House will be monitoring the hearings but does not have any plans to engage publicly on the hearings; others are trying to hold their fire and let hearings speak for themselves without risking any damage to its nonpartisan patina.

One Democratic strategist, who asked not to be identified in order to speak candidly to Vox, thought that revisiting the events of January 6 was not likely to have any significant political impact in and of itself. However, the strategist thought that it would help if it stayed in the news in the run up to the midterms simply as another reminder to the voters of why they supported Democrats in 2018 and 2020 and rejected the “MAGA Republican Party.” However, Democrats are cognizant that they are less than a year removed from former Gov. Terry McAuliffe losing a bid for a second term in Virginia that focused heavily on Trump and the Capitol riot.

The real test is simply what revelations come from the hearings. The past 18 months have seen an endless trickle of news out about the events leading up into the attack on the Capitol. This hasn’t just happened in court documents filed by the committee or in leaks about its proceedings. There have been best-selling books on the topic that have broken new ground.

The question is whether what emerges from the hearing, either as a new discovery or as a viral moment of some kind, can break through. And, of course, even if it does, it’s unclear what impact it will have on public opinion.

There is no expectation that anything the committee does will cause Republicans to irrefutably break with Trump; after all, the GOP did not do so in the immediate aftermath of the attack. However, there is the hope that it can provide momentum to reform the electoral process to reduce the number of chokepoints at which an embittered, sore loser like Trump can wreak political chaos.

Schiff said Wednesday that “we were fortunate that the last election wasn’t close and that Biden won it commandingly. But if it should come down in the future to a single state and an interpretation of the Electoral Count Act, then God help us because there is so much ambiguity in that law it could lead to a real constitutional crisis.”

Further, it could raise public awareness as to just how close Trump came to success in his efforts to reverse his election loss. Luria said the culminating work product of the committee will not be the hearings, but the final recommendations and report due out in the fall. That greater awareness would be sufficient for the select committee in the eyes of some on Capitol Hill.

Then again, some have higher hopes for the hearings. As Kinzinger told reporters outside the House chamber on Tuesday night, “It’ll change history.”