The House Select Committee investigating the U.S. Capitol insurgency has long since abandoned the idea of being a narrowly focused search for facts, as members use their probe to try to defend democracy in its escalating battle with Donald Trump.
The panel returns to the public Thursday after its late-summer break with a televised hearing that sources tell CNN will serve as a pre-midterm warning that the former president is a clear and present danger to free elections.
But are the American people listening? And do the committee’s efforts to undermine Trump’s 2022 cadre of election deniers, vowing to ensure he never again tastes presidential power, have any chance of success?
While there are dozens of Republican nominees running for federal and state office on a platform of Trump’s lie that 2020 was stolen, this year’s tumultuous campaign is most notable for other issues that have overtaken the shock waves of the attack on the Capitol for only 21 months ago.
New consumer price index data released on Thursday showed inflation rose 8.2% in September year-on-year. By one measure, the cost of living index returned to its highest level since August 1982 last month. On a monthly basis, overall consumer prices rose by 0.4% from August.
Republicans are painting a dystopian picture of a nation in the grip of a crime wave to try to turn the election into a referendum on President Joe Biden. While the president claimed that Trump’s “MAGA” fans had embraced “semi-fascism” and some Democratic campaigns have run ads warning of an autocratic GOP, Democrats are riding far harder on the conservative Supreme Court majority’s overturning of abortion rights and their new law, that trims some costs for prescription drugs.
Polls repeatedly show that voters see the economy – a far more pressing issue in everyday life than the threat to American democracy – as their biggest concern. Their anxiety was explained by the latest inflation data. Grocery bills are just a pain right now. Frozen potato products are up 10%, pork products other than sausages are 5.5% more expensive, according to U.S. producer price index data released Wednesday. While it would be too simplistic to say that voters are more concerned with the price of French fries than the price of democratic freedoms, it would not be far off the mark.
New CNN/SSRS poll numbers released Thursday show the economy and inflation are of particular concern to voters in competitive congressional districts. While 59% of registered voters nationally call the economy extremely important to their vote, that rises to 67% in these districts. The proportion who call inflation so important rises from 56% to 64%.
Given the increasingly strident warnings from committee members about the danger Trump-backed candidates pose to democracy, it’s hard not to see Thursday’s Jan. 6 hearing as a midterm intervention. And since Trump is already a hot favorite for the GOP’s 2024 presidential nomination, warnings from committee members from both parties that he may never seek office again are by definition highly political.
Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, a member of the panel from Maryland, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday that the hearing would sound the alarm about Trump’s continued incitement and his contamination of the 2022 election with voter fraud.
“There continue to be subtle calls for … violence, things like saying, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader has a death wish,” Raskin said, referring to comments the former president made about the Kentucky Republican. “And the refusal of a large number of Trump-inspired candidates to accept the reality of Trump’s defeat in 2020, when Joe Biden beat him by more than 7 million votes, 306 to 232 in the Electoral College,” the Maryland lawmaker added.
“So the denial of the election is rampant, and there continue to be, you know, very scary insinuations about embracing or tolerating political violence.”
The committee is of course about more than politics. It has built an exploration record for posterity. It has depicted the attack on the Capitol in graphic terms. It has shown that many of those who stormed the Capitol did so believing they were acting on Trump’s orders. Using the testimony of courageous Republicans who stood up to the former president, the committee has unpacked his ruthless plan to steal power. The investigation has shown that Trump made a conscious choice not to intervene when his mob threatened the lives of lawmakers. And it has documented the fate of those like two former election workers in Georgia who faced an attack from Trump partisans simply for their role in making sure the people’s voices were heard in the 2020 election.
And the impact of the committee’s work may also play out in the coming months and years, especially if it takes into account assessments of Trump’s fitness for office in a possible election campaign in 2024. The committee may already have played a decisive role in shaping public opinion opinion around Jan. 6 in the event that the Justice Department ultimately decides to file charges following its separate investigation into the events surrounding that day.
But since committee members have described their work in such political terms, it is also fair to consider its effectiveness as a political entity.
The panel’s run of televised summer hearings were effective, and in their highly produced and accusatory style, set a new precedent for how the formal theatrics of a congressional investigation could be modernized. However, some of that momentum appears to have ebbed during their late summer break. And there must be shocking new evidence and storylines on Thursday to make a big impact in the frantic final days of the midterm election showdown.
But while the committee had transformed Washington, there is little evidence that it has dominated conversations outside the capital, in a nation still struggling to shake off the ravages of a once-in-a-century pandemic and deal with rampant inflation and growing fears of a recession.
There has been no comparable national moment of shock and understanding that occurred during the Senate Watergate hearings that opened in 1973 and held America spellbound. It may not be the committee’s fault.
Given the divided state of the media and the polarization of the country, shared national moments of catharsis are now rare. And tens of thousands of voters have been convinced by Trump’s false claims of election fraud pumped out around the clock by the conservative media. So many minds were certain to remain closed, however damning the committee’s findings. That is the nature of modern American politics.
The most striking example of this can be seen in the wreck of rep. Liz Cheney’s Congressional Career. The committee vice chair knew she was sacrificing her role near the top of the GOP with her outspoken criticism of Trump over his attacks on democracy, when she had already lost her leadership position in the Republican Conference of Representatives because of it.
But she also failed to convince Republican voters back home in Wyoming that the threat to American democracy was the biggest concern. She lost her primary in a landslide to a Trump-backed rival, underscoring that there is no market in most of the Republican Party for a message that Trump represents a mortal threat to free elections.
Still, Cheney vows she’s barely started and is committed to opposing any White House led by the former president, who continues to flirt with excitement at his raucous rallies.
“I think what you’ve seen consistently and increasingly is that Donald Trump continues to suggest and say the same things that we know caused violence on January 6,” Cheney told CNN.
Some Democrats have used the slurs that followed the 2020 election to bash their Republican opponents. Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, widely seen as the most vulnerable Democrat in the Senate, accused GOP opponent Adam Laxalt of being “the face of Donald Trump’s campaign to overturn Nevada’s election results” in a recent spot. And an ad for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in North Carolina’s competitive 13th Congressional District blasts Republican nominee Bo Hines for saying the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and for supporting him in defunding the FBI.
But the economy remains the driving force in the meantime. In a new CNN/SSRS poll released Wednesday, Biden’s approval rating rose — to 44%. But only 36% of American adults approved of his handling of the economy. And just 32% were satisfied with the president’s handling of inflation.
Inflation is such a destructive force—especially in the way it drains the economy of those least able to afford it and is felt in every aspect of daily life—so it’s no surprise that it’s uppermost in voters’ minds as the election approaches .
But the difficulty pro-democracy advocates have had in making their fight a decisive political issue — at least in these midterm elections — underscores the findings of experts who have studied the rise of authoritarian societies abroad. Often voters only realize their democracy is dying when it is too late.