What happened last January 6 is not exactly a whodunit. To put it in Clue terms: It was Donald Trump and his fan club, at the Capitol, using disinformation and brute force.
Anyone who didn’t watch the day’s events unfold on live television—after months of buildup, also in public—can still watch the 40 minutes of on-the-ground footage that The New York Times edited together. And yet, despite all the connections uncovered, documents obtained, and perpetrators arrested ever since, the Congressional committee tasked with getting to the bottom of what much of the entire country watched happen in real time is about to enter its second year. The longer it goes on, the further away this investigation gets from its point.
We already know all we’ll ever need to know about the who, what, when, where, and why of the Capitol riot.
All that’s left is to actually do something with that information.
Let’s face it: The 1/6 select committee has already descended into the realm of farce. Once Trump allies like Steve Bannon and Dan Scavino began ignoring the committee’s subpoenas last fall, everyone else in their orbit fell in line like dominoes. Getting these people to testify will now require wading through miles of bureaucratic red tape over the course of several contempt trials scheduled to start in late summer. This stalling tactic apparently holds more appeal for its participants than the disincentive of a potential month or more of jail time. One only hopes that the committee itself isn’t planning to drag out the investigation until closer to the midterms in a misguided effort at political showmanship.
Extracting testimony from Trump’s goons hardly seems worth the squeeze at this point anyway. Bannon, for instance, already has a podcast on which politicians talk openly about future conspiracies to “fix 2020 like President Trump said.” Anything he, Mark Meadows, and the rest of their cohort say in testimony could scarcely be more shocking or damning than what they’ve already said in public—a key feature of Trump’s blunt approach to politics from the beginning.
Perhaps these ongoing efforts will seem worth it once the committee releases its findings, hopefully in the public hearings its members have signaled are coming. In the meantime, the whole operation mainly seems to revolve around breathless news drops, like the recent one in which sources claimed that Trump watched the Capitol riots on TV—as though any sentient being had ever considered he might not have done that—and the one about how Sean Hannity is a hypocrite, an equally obvious conclusion. If these supposed revelations offer any indication about the scale of bombshells to come, it is not an encouraging one.
The longer the investigation continues, the more it resembles that other Trump investigation that hung around like an albatross: Russiagate. Plenty of well-meaning liberals spent several years waiting on pins and needles for a deus ex machina buried within the mythic Mueller Report—perhaps grainy footage of a Trump-Putin handshake in a Moscow garage. The fact that such evidence never materialized ultimately blunted the impact of what happened right out in the open, such as Trump’s plea for Russia to hack his 2016 opponent’s emails, Russia’s subsequent one-sided interference in the election, and Trump’s obsequiousness toward Russia thereafter. Absent the media-driven expectations of a smoking gun, drawn out for years, these basic facts might have been incriminating enough in the court of public opinion.
It is crucial that the same inflated perceptions of what evidence of guilt might actually look like not take hold once again.
Already, though, liberal hopes for the January 6 committee seem to have risen beyond the realm of reality—setting up believers for a fall back to earth just as rough as Russiagate. The search for which members of Congress may have helped Stop the Steal organizers prepare for January 6 carries a familiar whiff of armchair conspiracy sleuthery. What did Madison Cawthorn know and when did he know it? Who cares? Nothing the committee could dig up about his or any other congressperson’s individual actions in the lead up to January 6 could be any more alarming than the bigger picture as we already know it.
We already know that Trump telegraphed in advance that he would not accept the election results if he didn’t win, and that he proceeded to cry foul immediately upon losing. (It should go without saying that—despite several investigations, statewide recounts, and SCOTUS consideration—proof of widespread fraud was never found.) We already know that the entire Republican political and media apparatuses lined up to indulge and amplify his false claims. We already know that Trump singled out January 6 as a day of reckoning in his efforts to overturn the election, that he instructed his fired-up supporters to “fight like hell” when they showed up that day, and that those supporters who broke into the Capitol explicitly sought to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s win, among other nefarious goals.
We already know that instead of condemning his supporters’ actions or attempting to deescalate, Trump waited 90 minutes into the siege to say anything at all, and when he did, it was a tweet impugning then-Vice President Mike Pence for not overturning the election. (He would later tweet a video urging the mob, “Go home. We love you. You’re very special.” And then he would issue one more tweet hours later, declaring, “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”)
Finally, we already know that despite all that we already know, support for Trump among Republicans remains extremely high.
Everything else that the committee might uncover is just details. It’s what the investigators—and all of us—do with what we already know that matters.
Airing out the findings on TV is a strong start, but it won’t be the silver bullet some might expect. Congress is made up disproportionately of septuagenarians who recall too fondly the days of Watergate, when both sides overcame their partisan differences to agree that President Richard Nixon had to go—following televised hearings, of course.
Those days are long gone.
The entire Biden presidency has been a test case that proves simply pretending Republicans are still reachable does not automatically manifest the desired results. (To be clear, Democrats have plenty of problems all on their own.) There is no modern equivalent of those 18 missing minutes of Nixon tapes that will get the Jim Jordans and Ted Cruzes to magically admit that their hero did indeed incite and enjoy the Capitol riots, whether televised or otherwise.
But perhaps what’s even more important than what does air on television is what stays off of it. The mayhem of January 6—and everything that led up to it—seems to have forced mass-media outlets to recognize the connection between disinformation and extremism. If there is any hope to be found for those fearing Trump’s expected run in 2024, it’s in the way that most major networks have adapted their coverage of the former president over the past year.
Earlier this week, Trump announced he would make a speech commemorating the events of January 6, a bit of typically Trumpian counterprogramming to the White House’s scheduled events for the day.
He then canceled the speech a day later, reportedly because too few networks planned to air it live.