Before the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol started its hearings, it was easy to wonder who the hearings were for exactly. Americans’ views on the violence have become entrenched, congressional hearings aren’t what they used to be, and the GOP has seemingly not paid a price for rallying behind false election claims that incited anti-democratic violence.
But after the first few sessions of the hearings, the committee’s audience is clear, as is its strategy to change minds. These are hearings for Republicans, by Republicans.
Despite the GOP leadership’s boycott of the committee, it has relied almost exclusively on testimony from Republicans, conservatives and members of then-President Donald Trump’s inner circle to detail the attack and the events leading up to it. For Republicans who are following these hearings, the call is coming from inside the house.
The testimony has come from a far wider network than the Republican figures who have long since been written off by Trump and his loyalists as “RINOs,” or “Republicans in name only.” The hearings have featured several segments from interviews with Bill Barr, Trump’s former attorney general. Barr testified that he repeatedly told Trump the election-fraud claims were baseless and that the Department of Justice had investigated the claims and found no evidence of widespread fraud. “I made it clear I did not agree with the idea of saying the election was stolen and putting out this stuff, which I told the president was bullshit,” Barr was heard saying in a tape of his deposition played during the first hearing. “And, you know, I didn’t want to be a part of it, and that’s one of the reasons that went into me deciding to leave when I did.” While the two parted on bad terms over Trump’s incessant yet disproven claims of election fraud, Barr is a lifelong conservative who not only served under President George H.W. Bush but was also a loyal ally to Trump as his attorney general.
We’ve also heard from many legal experts in Trump’s orbit who tried to convince the former president that the “Big Lie” was baseless, such as former White House attorney Eric Herschmann. In a recorded deposition played during one hearing, Herschmann recalled conversations with Trump lawyer John Eastman — a major architect behind Trump’s attempts to overturn the election — disputing that there was a legal path forward. After the Jan. 6 attack, Herschmann said Eastman continued to push for a way for Trump to hold onto power, to which Herschmann says he replied, “Are you out of your effing mind?”
During the hearing on Tuesday, the committee underscored that the individuals who were pressured most by Trump’s claims were in fact former allies. The first question asked of Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state of Georgia, and Rusty Bowers, the speaker of the Arizona House, was whether it was fair to say that they, as fellow Republicans, wanted Trump to win. They both answered yes. Bowers himself campaigned with Trump in 2020. It would be hard to dispute the conservative bona fides of most of the witnesses we’ve heard from, and even Trump seems to recognize this, instead claiming that much of the damning testimony is the result of misleading video editing.
The testimony of conservative witnesses has also underscored how much pressure Republicans faced to fall in line with Trump’s claims. In many cases, Republicans were faced with putting their political career on the line to stand up for the truth or else go along with a lie.
The committee faces a difficult challenge in reaching Republicans. Even after days of hearings, recent polling shows Republicans have a very different view of what happened on Jan. 6. Sixty-one percent of Republicans believe Trump acted appropriately on Jan. 6, according to a Yahoo News/YouGov survey conducted June 10-13, and 59 percent said they don’t believe the attack was part of a conspiracy to overturn the election. In fact, 74 percent of Republicans in that survey said they believe Jan. 6 was caused by “left-wing protesters trying to make Trump look bad,” a claim that is not supported by any evidence.
Just as it was more compelling to have Republican lawyer (and later senator) Fred Thompson ask the question that broke open the Watergate hearings, Jan. 6 and the Big Lie that led to it are stories for Republicans to tell. These are not adversaries dramatizing the events for political gain. These are dyed-in-the-wool conservatives from all levels of government sounding the alarm against their own party and its leader because what they witnessed was too disturbing to let happen. If the committee has any hope of breaking through to Republican voters, this is it.