Coordinated focus let House Jan. 6 panel grab the public’s attention
March 22, 2023 Updated Wed., March 22, 2023 at 12:51 p.m.
Former Georgia election worker Shaye Moss gets emotional as she testifies during the fourth hearing by the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol in the Cannon House Office Building on June 21, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
WASHINGTON — Through more than a dozen hearings, an 18-month investigation and a more than 800-page final report, the bipartisan House Jan. 6 select committee did something rare — it presented a single argument to the public.
With a level of polish that surpassed any previous panel, complete with planned speeches read off teleprompters and factual presentations replete with edited video and 3D renderings, the panel laid blame for the first violent attack on the transfer of presidential power in the nation’s history at the feet of former President Donald Trump.
The committee’s former chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said the panel “demonstrated to the public that we can get the work done without name-calling, without finger-pointing and produce a product that the public can be proud of.”
“The legacy will be that we proved it could be done,” Thompson said.
Former staff, members of the committee and experts said a whole slew of factors, including the committee’s small size, the seriousness of the topic and the nation’s attention to the attack, made it possible to convey information to the public in innovative ways.
But as much as that allowed the members of the Jan. 6 committee to coordinate on a unified set of facts and narrative, they also said the unique circumstances could make it impossible for future committees to adopt the same approach.
To bring their investigation to the American people, the committee members brought on media consultants, including former ABC News President James Goldston, to package their findings for television. They scheduled some hearings for prime-time audiences.
Committee members sat in what is now the Nancy Pelosi Room of the Cannon House Office Building, dwarfed by a screen where they projected reams of evidence. Through 10 hearings, they used thousands of texts, video clips of the attack on the Capitol and even 3D renderings of the Capitol and White House.
That approach caught the public’s attention. Cable news outlets like CNN and MSNBC engaged in a bragging rights tit-for-tat over ratings for the hearings, and reportedly more than 20 million people watched the first prime-time hearing.
Debra Perlin, a policy director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, called that a sign the committee found a way to “break through” to the public.
“Congressional hearings are kind of dry and not something the American public takes the time to engage in, even if they are important issues,” Perlin said.
Even when they were not presenting at a particular hearing, committee members rehearsed with each other and their staff in preparation that resembled a litigation team readying for trial. Each committee member staked out segments of half an hour or more, and in one instance senior investigative counsel John Wood took over questioning during the hearing last June.
Building a narrative
The committee’s approach also gave witnesses more time to make their statements — a seismic shift from a typical committee hearing where the flow of information jumps and starts every five minutes when the other party gets a chance to lob questions.
During a June hearing, Georgia election worker Shaye Moss testified for a full 15 minutes about her experience after being targeted by Trump and his allies with unfounded allegations of election fraud — which observers said connected with the human fallout of actions seeking to overturn the election.
Similarly, Rusty Bowers, the former speaker of the Arizona state House of Representatives, testified extensively about a pressure campaign from Trump and his allies in the weeks after the 2020 election.
David Rapallo, a Georgetown Law professor and former House counsel, said the select committee’s hearings “were among the most compelling and effective” he had ever seen from Congress.
“There were some moments that were surprising to me as I watched, like when Rusty Bowers was testifying and he got really choked up that Trump had asked him to violate his oath,” Rapallo said at a Georgetown Law event. “That was really compelling to me.”
The incentive to slow down and build out a narrative doesn’t exist in most congressional hearings though, according to Matt House, a former communications director for Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and now managing director for the Clyde Group.
At a typical hearing “members are climbing all over each other to present the most damning timeline or evidence at a single hearing,” House said.
Instead, House said, the nine-member committee spread out its presentation across the hearings, let the facts take priority, and “there was enough oxygen to go around.”
Perlin, the CREW policy director, said the consistent presentation “gave a taste of how unhelpful those five-minute volleys are” in normal committee hearings.
She drew a comparison to recent congressional hearings such as when Senate Republicans handed over to an outside attorney their questioning of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault during his confirmation process.
But few people remember the questions from the outside attorney compared to the uninterrupted time Kavanaugh got in his own statement as he vigorously denied the allegation.
“That was a glimpse into the fact that five-minute volleys don’t work,” for bringing out facts, Perlin said. “You need time to build a narrative and build your story.”
Former Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, said the person most responsible for avoiding that partisan pingpong in the hearing room was not even on the Jan. 6 committee. “Our biggest player was Kevin McCarthy,” he said.
The Republican leader pulled his support for the panel when Pelosi refused to allow some of McCarthy’s picks for the committee. That included Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, who would later ignore a subpoena from the Jan. 6 panel.
If the Republican leader had cooperated with the probe to some degree, “that would have allowed every subpoena, every hearing to be a s—-show,” Kinzinger said.
Ultimately, Pelosi selected former Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Kinzinger as Republicans on the panel. Former staff and members said a unified approach, both in hearings and the broader investigation, came from the work of Thompson and Cheney, who was named vice chair.
“That was a committee that has never happened in history and will never happen again. It ended up being a bipartisan committee and did bipartisan work in a small amount of time,” Kinzinger said.
Another member of the select committee, former Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., said they were able to avoid the “disjointed and not very organized” way that Congress has conducted hearings in the past.
Luria said that in other committees that have a bipartisan reputation, such as Armed Services, “everybody is still approaching (the committee) underneath a partisan current.”
“Republicans are never going to come out and applaud Joe Biden for the largest shipbuilding budget in history. I’m gonna still say we need to build more ships, and that the budget is the start, but we need to do more,” Luria said of Armed Services. “Although there’s cooperation, there’s still differences. That didn’t exist here.”
A single goal
Several experts said that the committee’s unified approach came at a cost. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., another member of the panel, said he would have preferred “a more muscular defense” of voting rights in the committee’s recommendations, since he saw the Jan. 6 attack as one part of a larger assault on the democratic process.
“But I understand that would have taxed in some ways the bipartisan consensus that we had converging around the specific events of Jan. 6 and the specific inadequacies of law relating to the presidential election process,” Raskin said.
Other observers, including Kirkland and Ellis partner Reginald Brown, said the committee’s focus ended up shortchanging other important topics like the security of the Capitol complex.
“The security story of the Capitol suffered a bit, but there are only so many stories that could be told,” Brown said last month at the Georgetown event.
Security of the Capitol complex has become a flashpoint in recent weeks, as McCarthy made thousands of hours of Capitol surveillance footage from Jan. 6 available to Fox News host Tucker Carlson. That footage originally came from the Jan. 6 committee and was handed over to the House Administration Committee at the end of last Congress.
The committee also made a major decision at the end of the summer to hold more hearings in the fall and delay their report’s final release. Cheney said the delay helped them gather more information to present to the public from more witnesses.
That move also meant the report was released at the end of the year and after Republicans won control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections.
The resolution that created the committee directed the members to propose legislation to address the attack and prevent another. Congress’ only legislative response to the attack so far, changes to the Electoral Count Act, advanced separate from the select committee.
As a result, the highest-profile, most-watched congressional investigation in decades may end up producing no legislation.
Some members of the committee and outside observers said the committee was successful in delivering the information to the public.
Former Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., who was on the Jan. 6 select committee, pointed to midterm results as a sign that the panel broke through to the American public.
“The fact that the American people resoundingly said no to election deniers to me is a clear sign that our committee was successful,” Murphy said.
Some, like Kinzinger, were a little bit more circumspect. “The real legacy is that in 10 years not a single person will willingly admit they think the 2020 election was stolen,” he said.
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