Tuesday's public hearing conducted by the January 6 committee brought no bombshell revelations, just the ongoing, steady accretion of testimony and evidence that is being woven into a coherent and convincing narrative of the former president's frenzied efforts to hold onto power following his defeat in the November 2022 election. The closest thing to a surprise was the extensive video footage of White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, who finally agreed to testify for committee investigators, prompted apparently by Cassidy Hutchinson's testimony at the public hearing on June 28. Cipollone's testimony was consistent with accounts previously provided by Hutchinson and others.
Throughout the hearings the media has lasered in on the more scandalous tidbits—the word "salacious" has been aptly employed in this regard. Coverage of Cassidy Hutchinson's second-hand account of an altercation between Trump and a secret service agent who refused to allow him to join his mob at the Capitol on January 6 is typical. The tabloid treatment got a boost with reports that Secret Service agents disputed details about a physical altercation, although not that Trump was mightily upset when his bodyguards insisted on returning him to the White House that day.
Tuesday's feature story was the bizarre December 18 meeting where the kraken team of Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, Mike Flynn, and the CEO of something called Overstock.com made it into the White House to see Trump without an appointment, no slot on the president's calendar, unbeknownst to White House staff. It turns out that Powell and Flynn were escorted into the White House by a former aide of Peter Navarro. The aide is now one of two conservative activists, and rivals it seems, engaged in peddling material from the hard drive on Hunter Biden's notorious laptop and a journal purportedly written by Ashley Biden (Alex Thompson, Max Tani, The Holy War over Hunter Biden’s laptop, Politico, West Wing Playbook, July 13, 2022). When Cipollone, senior adviser Eric Herschmann, and others got wind of what was going on they crashed the meeting. What followed was the stuff of tabloid glory: six hours of heated exchanges, screaming, intemperate language—Giuliani recalled telling the White House contingent that they were pussies—and near fisticuffs. Hutchinson in a tweet at the time said the scene was unhinged.
This sort of thing is not irrelevant. It is yet more evidence showing the former president not as an unwitting victim of crazy-bad advice but as someone who actively sought out anything no matter how insane, as some of it was characterized by cooler heads, that might be utilized as rationale for overturning the election he lost. The more colorful elements of the story were indicative of the caliber of the people he was happy to listen to when they told him what he wanted to hear.
Proposals that Powell be made a special counsel to investigate voting fraud and that the president authorize the Defense Department to seize voting machines were shot down. Cipollone told them that seizure of voting machines was a bad idea and, moreover, they could not do it. When asked by the committee investigator why this was a bad idea, Cipollone was incredulous. "To have the federal government seize voting machines? That's a terrible idea for the country," he said. "That's not how we do things in the United States. There's no legal authority to do that…I don't understand why we even have to tell you that's a bad idea for the country."
This brings us to a salient point about the committee's aims, as Will Saletan, writing at The Bulwark, explains: "Cipollone was staring at the investigator in bewilderment. His facial expression said: You idiot. Wasn't the answer obvious? Why had the committee subpoenaed him to ask such an elementary question?" The public hearings have, Saletan argues, made the reason clear: "The committee's principal goal isn't to expose crimes. It's to restore truth and sanity."
Saletan lays out his case:
The investigation has found plenty of evidence that Donald Trump and people around him broke the law. Ideally, that evidence will lead to prosecutions. But even if Trump and his accomplices don’t go to jail, the country needs to be immunized against his lies about the election and the insurrection.
Those lies haven’t gone away. They’ve been taken up by Republican candidates and are widely believed by rank-and-file Republicans. In a recent Economist/YouGov survey, 75 percent of Republicans and 36 percent of registered voters still say Joe Biden didn’t legitimately win the election.
This is the audience the committee wants to reach. Hardcore deniers won’t listen, but there’s a broader audience of conservative skeptics—people who don’t trust Democrats or the mainstream media—who need to hear the truth about the election and the insurrection. And they need to hear it from witnesses they’re likely to trust: those who supported Trump or worked for him. (The Real Goal of the Jan. 6 Committee, The Bulwark, July 13, 2022)
I think there is more to it, but this is certainly a crucial element of the committee's work.
Appearing in person on Tuesday were Jason Van Tatenhove, former spokesperson and senior aide to Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, and Stephen Ayres, an ordinary family man, a Trump supporter from Ohio who believed what he read on social media about fraud and a rigged election. He attended the "Stop the Steal" rally because Trump told him to come; once there he marched to the Capitol because Trump told him to do it (Hannah Grabenstein, Who is Stephen Ayres and why is he testifying in the Jan. 6 hearings?, PBS, July 12, 2022).
Van Tatenhove broke with the Oath Keepers when they welcomed white nationalists and "straight-up racists" into the fold. The final straw, he said, came when he walked into a grocery store in the small Montana town where he lived with his family and heard members of the group denying the Holocaust. "He testified that he once refused a request by Rhodes to create a deck of playing cards of Democratic enemies like the ones the Pentagon issued showing high-value targets in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Rhodes wanted Hillary Clinton to be the queen of hearts" (Hannah Allam, Ex-Oath Keeper outlines dark worldview behind U.S. Capitol attack, Washington Post, July 12, 2022).
Van Tatenhove touched on another important function the committee serves when he warned that we need to quit mincing words. What Stewart Rhodes, the Oath Keepers, and other self-styled militias have in mind is armed civil war. This did not begin with January 6. Van Tatenhove referred to past confrontations such as the standoff between Clive Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management over grazing fees. I think of the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge here in Oregon in 2016. Van Tatenhoff said he fears for the world his three daughters and granddaughter will inherit if we do not start holding these people to account.
Ayres has pleaded guilty to disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds, lost his job, and had to sell his house. His life has been changed, he said, by following Trump's call on January 6, and not for the better. In the hearing he came off as contrite, and not only because he has suffered for what he did. He no longer believes the election was stolen. For one thing, he said, it would be too big. There would be no way to keep something like that secret. For some time I have thought of it this way: Does anyone really believe Democrats are competent to pull off election fraud on anything remotely approaching the scale required to change the outcome of a presidential election? For one thing, they would be twittering all over themselves. For another, well, they are Democrats.
From the contrary corner. John Bolthead, I mean, Bolton, caused a stir when he rejected the idea the January 6 was a carefully planned coup. "That's not the way Donald Trump does things," he told CNN's Jake Tapper. "It's rambling from one…idea to another, one plan that falls through, and another comes up." Bolton knows about these things because, he says, "As somebody who has helped plan coup d’état, not here but other places, it takes a lot of work, and that's not what he did" (Rebecca Falconer, John Bolton says he helped plan foreign coups, Axios, July 12, 2022). Well. Russia, China, and others among the usual suspects jumped all over this. Bolton declined to get into specifics with Tapper. One might think that a House or Senate committee with oversight in this area would call Bolton on the carpet and suggest that he get into some specifics.
Washington Post columnist Gary Abernathy is an affable conservative from Ohio. Abernathy served as editor of three Ohio newspapers from 1983 to 1996, then worked in Republican Party politics in Ohio and West Virginia before returning to journalism in 2011. He was editor of one of the few newspapers that endorsed Trump for president in 2016. I know him primarily as an occasional stand-in for David Brooks on the PBS NewsHour Friday politics segment Brooks and Capeheart (previously Shields and Brooks).
The veil of affability drops off when the conversation turns to the January 6 committee, for which Abernathy exhibits nothing but contempt in the five columns he has thus far devoted to it. In the most recent he acknowledges
what was already established: By insisting against all credible evidence that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent, President Donald Trump incited the Capitol riot, dangerously directed his anger toward his own vice president and, most damning of all, refused to participate in the peaceful transfer of power on Jan. 20, 2021. (Let’s admit it: The Jan. 6 committee isn’t uncovering anything new, Washington Post, July 12, 2022)
Beyond this Abernathy will not go. He bristles when as he sees it millions of noble Trump supporters are tarred by association with "fanatical backyard warriors and armchair militants," contending that committee is overzealous and partisan, politically slanted, "designed for the sole purpose of indicting Trump and his supporters—first in the realm of public opinion and then by motivating the Justice Department to bring charges." Proof is Nancy Pelosi's rejection of Jim Jordan and Jim Banks when Kevin McCarthy put them forward to be members of the committee. Ignored is the all too reasonable suspicion by anyone who pays attention to Jordan's shenanigans on other committees that his function, and presumably that of Banks as well, would be to disrupt the proceedings, not to mention the fact that Jordan is up to his wrestling tights in election conspiracy-mongering and mischief. Also ignored by Abernathy is the fact that the House committee was formed only after Republicans rejected a proposal to create an independent commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection.
On the other hand, no evidence has yet been presented that Trump donned a Burberry trench coat and fedora, gave his Secret Service minders the slip, and rendezvoused with Stewart Rhodes and Enrique Tarrio in the dark corner of some sleazy DC Starbucks on a rainy night in December to map out the special military operation for January 6. I give Abernathy that much.
The next public hearing is scheduled for prime time July 21 and will present a minute-by-minute account of what happened on January 6.