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Jan. 6 Committee Should Stop Dragging Its Feet

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The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol has once again delayed its public hearings; the latest estimate is that they’ll happen in June.

It’s possible that there’s a good reason that the committee has been so slow. I’ve speculated that its members mistakenly think that their report is more important than it is, or that they think they need to have every piece of the puzzle solved before moving on to public hearings. But maybe there’s something else that we don’t know.

What I can say is that there are real costs to waiting.

First, the committee must contend with the argument that January 2021 is ancient history, and that filling in the details of what happened isn’t as important as confronting any number of current or future challenges. To be sure, this is a phony argument. An attempt to overthrow the Constitution is a grave matter, especially considering that many of those involved, including former President Donald Trump, are still involved in politics — and, for that matter, seeking to purge the Republican Party of anyone who resisted Trump’s scheming. But there’s no question that the “ancient history” charge rings true to a lot of people, including many of those the committee members most want to reach. And the longer the probe takes, the stronger that argument will seem.

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Second, speaking of the audience for these hearings? Democrats are pretty much all convinced that what happened was a major threat to the republic, while Trump’s strongest supporters will never agree that he did anything wrong. But weak Republicans and true independents might be open to new information. So will those in the news media who pride themselves on being neutral between the parties. For those folks, the closer the hearings are to the midterm elections the more they’ll seem like a ploy to win elections. Never mind that such hearings aren’t a very convincing method of electioneering. The point is the closer we get to elections, the more people looking for excuses to blame both sides for being “political” will find one, rather than confronting the reality that a former president and a significant portion of his party have turned against democracy and the rule of law.

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Third, it appears that the committee members are trying to learn as much as they possibly can before moving to a public presentation of the evidence. To do so, they’re using subpoenas and trying to compel people to present evidence. That’s all fine. What hearings potentially can add is public pressure on witnesses. We can be certain that the committee is going to make some of those who have refused to testify look bad, just because their stonewalling will look like a coverup. On top of that, those who have complied with the committee will no doubt tell a version of the story that makes them look good at the expense of others. Those others may feel the risks of testifying are not, after all, as dangerous as leaving a one-sided story out there uncontested. There’s no guarantee that this dynamic will actually produce new compliance and new information, but it’s certainly plausible, and there’s no real way to know until things get started.

For any of this to matter the hearings have to go on for an extended period, which is yet another reason to get started sooner rather than later. They also must be compelling to watch. I’m less worried about that. The setup of the committee — small, and filled with people who take their charge seriously — should work very much in its favor. And yes, the substance, even more than a year later, remains shocking, distressing and very, very important.

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