Opinion

Will the Jan. 6 hearings make a difference?

The sharpest opinions on the debate from around the web

In June, the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot will hold a total of six public prime-time hearings to present its findings and "tell the story of what happened" in Washington, D.C., on that fateful day in the winter of 2021.

But will the public actually pay attention when the time comes? Will the proceedings make any difference? And should Americans watch out for a potential "criminal referral" against former President Donald Trump, as committee member Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) has previously hinted? Here's what the experts are saying.

1

Success should be about congressional oversight

If the Jan. 6 hearings culminate in the "criminal referral" of Trump, then they'll actually belie the true purpose of the committee, which was "to produce an official account of what happened and compel members of Congress to go on the record about where they stand in light of that information," political analyst Julian Zelizer wrote for CNN. Whether or not the panel sways public opinion or is able to "shock the nation is a different question." Rather, the committee should remain focused on "the vital congressional role of oversight." 

"If nothing changes, but we have a much more [thorough] understanding of how the anti-democratic efforts of 2020 and 2021 unfolded, our nation will still be better off for it," Zelizer added.

Whether or not there's a criminal referral is "beside the point," added attorney and former federal prosecutor Ankush Khardori in Politico. For one thing, Khardori writes, Trump's second impeachment was its own version of a criminal referral — and we all know how that turned out. Not to mention that such a recommendation under the current administration would have "strong and unavoidable political overtones," much to its own detriment. 

Rather, the panel should focus on providing the public with an accessible, "clear," and "comprehensive" account of what happened on Jan. 6, which "would be a considerable public service and a welcome contribution to the historical record that may also be useful to any potential future prosecutors," Khardori wrote.

2

Six hearings won’t be enough

Six hearings won't be enough for the committee to make an "indelible impression" on America, Bloomberg columnist Jonathan Bernstein argued. In comparing the few public Jan. 6 hearings to lengthy, watershed hearings of the past, Bernstein opined that perhaps the panel is bad at considering — or has just deemed unimportant — the "public side of the investigation."

"No matter how dramatic the dozen hours [or] so of hearings turn out to be, the members are basically abandoning any attempt to build momentum in the way that the Watergate committee did, and that Iran-Contra committee did in 1987," Bernstein said. The Watergate hearings, for example, were so consequential culturally "in part because of their length." Sure, no one watched every moment, but because they were so thorough and so long, they were "impossible to avoid."

There's always still the chance that the Jan. 6 committee's six-episode strategy prevails, Bernstein conceded. "But I'm not sure exactly which audience the committee is targeting."

3

The next summer blockbuster?

Others, meanwhile, have predicted the hearings will not only garner public attention and intrigue, but will have an audience and impact similar to that of a summer blockbuster, like the new Top Gun.

If the committee succeeds in its mission — bringing about justice — "it will truly be the biggest blockbuster of this summer," Dean Obeidallah wrote recently for CNN. For one thing, Obeidallah noted, just think of the potential cameos: perhaps former officials, Donald Trump Jr., or former Vice President Mike Pence could make an appearance.

Mother Jones' David Corn has also posited that by moving the hearings to prime time, the committee stands a chance of achieving something that hasn't been pulled off in a long time: "a congressional hearing that makes a difference."

"The January 6 committee will not be seeking to win a legal argument, though at the end of its deliberations it could well recommend prosecutions," Corn argued. "Its main task is to inform the public, create a historical record, and to highlight the threat to democracy that has not yet been eradicated." But it stands a better chance of succeeding in this mission if "it can present forceful storytelling with a dash of pizzazz."

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