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The 6 January hearings: a reckoning for Donald Trump?

The congressional hearings are unlikely to rescue the Democrats from the midterms – but they could save US democracy

Did America really need a series of televised hearings into the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021? I was sceptical before the recent congressional sessions, said Max Boot in The Washington Post. “What more is there to be said, I wondered?”

The evidence of Donald Trump’s guilt in inciting an insurrection was so glaring that it was hard to see what a select committee could add. It’s not like Watergate, “where the scandal happened behind closed doors. The entire nation saw Trump’s incendiary remarks and tweets, and the riot that followed, on national television.” But these hearings have proved more than justified. They’ve been forensic and gripping. There has been no “grandstanding”, no petty point-scoring; just facts, explanations and “the relentless march of evidence”.

We heard how Trump’s own attorney general, William Barr, called him “detached from reality”, said Quinta Jurecic in The Atlantic. We heard how family members and advisers pleaded with him to call off the mob, insisting there was no evidence of electoral fraud. We saw fresh footage of rioters attacking police and chanting “Hang Mike Pence” – a fate Trump reportedly said his vice-president deserved. In live testimony, a Capitol police officer described “slipping in people’s blood” amid “hours of hand-to-hand combat” that left her and more than 140 officers injured. Some 20 million people tuned in for the first hearings, which were crafted with the help of a former president of ABC News into what The New York Times described as something akin to “a documentary or a must-watch mini-series”.

This “made-for-TV drama” certainly had some “arresting moments”, said Miranda Devine in the New York Post. But the Democrats are “delusional if they think hysterically dramatising the events of that sad day will help them in the midterms or move the dial one iota on public perception of the Biden administration’s failures”. The clear aim of these hearings is to make sure that Trump is never elected again, said Marc A. Thiessen in The Washington Post, but they may have the reverse effect. Voters have more pressing concerns right now. Many will be asking: “Why are these people rehashing 6 Jan when I have to choose between filling my gas tank and feeding my family?”

The hearings are unlikely to rescue the Democrats from a midterm drubbing, agreed Jonah Goldberg in the Los Angeles Times. They’ve benefitted US democracy, though, by creating “a safe space” for some Republicans to acknowledge what actually happened, and distance themselves from Trump’s stolen-election lie. Another useful function of these hearings, said Neal K. Katyal in The New York Times, has been to lay the foundation for a future criminal case against Trump. Attorney General Merrick Garland surely has to bring charges now. The committee has laid out strong evidence that Trump committed “serious federal crimes”, including attempted obstruction of an official proceeding – in this case the 6 January vote certification. Trump could also be charged with wire fraud, for duping his own supporters into donating $250m to an “official election defence fund” to overturn the election, which never existed; the money was just lumped in with the rest of Trump’s war chest.

Garland faces “an excruciatingly difficult decision”, said Ken Dilanian on NBC News. Filing charges against Trump could cause civil unrest. No former president has ever been indicted, let alone by an opposing administration. But failing to hold him accountable for his attempt to subvert democracy could be “even worse”.

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