A revealing and slightly troubling moment came early in Monday’s hearing of the January 6 committee. Representative Liz Cheney, again taking on the role of the righteous prosecutor, stressed the magnitude of the committee’s evidence that Donald Trump had been repeatedly told that his claims of massive voter fraud were crazed. Then she tellingly added, “We have much more evidence to show the American people on this point than we can reasonably show in one hearing today.”
Yet the daytime hearing ran just over two hours—including a recess. What was the rush? The 1973 Senate Watergate hearings stretched over 237 hours of public testimony with most sessions starting at 10 o’clock in morning and running until 5 or 6 p.m. In 2015, Hillary Clinton testified for 11 straight hours, with minimal breaks, during the trumped-up House Benghazi hearings. Now the most important set of congressional hearings since Watergate takes about the same time as six innings of a major-league baseball game or four-fifths of the latest Mission Impossible.
True, Monday’s hearing had to grapple with the sudden withdrawal of the day’s star witness, former Trump campaign chairman Bill Stepien, whose wife had gone into labor earlier in the morning. Forced to resort to extracts from Stepien’s deposition, the committee still produced revealing moments. On Election Night at the White House, Stepien described dealing with a “definitely intoxicated” Rudy Giuliani, who was already feeding Trump’s lost-election fantasies. Then, explaining why he later stepped away from Trump’s and Giuliani’s increasingly deranged postelection claims, Stepien said, “I didn’t think what was happening was necessarily honest or professional at that point in time.”
But even if Stepien had been there in person, it probably would have added—given the pace of the other presentations—a half-hour to the proceedings. And truncated video clips lack the emotional wallop of an actual witness in the hearing room, especially since some of Stepien’s comments were presented only as audio. What would have added drama to Stepien’s live appearance is his current role as campaign adviser to Harriet Hageman, the Trump-endorsed challenger to Cheney in the mid-August Wyoming Republican primary. Instead, TV viewers only got snippets of Stepien, including his use of the catchphrase from the Watergate hearings “at this point in time.”
While Stepien’s absence was unplanned, there was a rushed pace to the questioning of the witnesses who were there in person. The committee cleverly highlighted Chris Stirewalt, a former political editor at Fox News, who worked with the network’s decision-desk team that correctly called Arizona for Joe Biden on Election Night. What better person to cut through the blizzard of wild-eyed claims about the stolen election than a recognized on-air authority at Trump’s favorite cable network? But California Democrat Zoe Lofgren, handling the questioning for the committee, barely mentioned the pressure that Stirewalt faced afterward from Trump World and didn’t touch on his unplanned departure from Fox News in early 2021. Al Schmidt, the former GOP election commissioner in Philadelphia, mentioned the threats against his family that he received in the wake of certifying the honesty of the election. But instead of questioning Schmidt about his fears and anguish, the committee put up on the screen excerpts from the threatening emails and texts. But they were presented so briefly as to be nearly unreadable.
It is difficult to escape the feeling that the committee is overly sensitive to America’s dwindling attention span. The seven Democrats and their two Republican allies on the committee have clearly decided that a tight narrative focus is necessary to break through preexisting partisan news consumption. But they seem to be carrying this theory to extremes. Since most voters will not be watching the daytime hearings—although they were shown Monday on all broadcast networks—there is a real risk that the hearings will move too quickly to become embedded in the public consciousness. The biggest hearings in history have featured compelling witnesses ranging from John Dean during Watergate telling Richard Nixon, “There was a cancer growing on the presidency,” to the uniformed charisma of Oliver North, the Marine lieutenant colonel who had run the illegal Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deal from the basement of the White House.
The January 6 committee has already found such a witness—former Attorney General William Barr. When Barr is shown on the screen in clips from his taped deposition, he commands attention with his scorn for Trump’s stolen election claims and the former president’s ragtag legal advisers. Talking about Trump’s bizarro and debunked claim that Dominion voting machines had shifted votes to Biden, Barr said, “I thought, boy, if he really believes this stuff, he has … become detached from reality.”
Every time the committee switched to Barr’s testimony, you wanted more. If this were a normal hearing, Barr would testify all day in public. Or, if that were somehow impossible because of a prior legal agreement with Barr, then the committee should show the entire deposition rather than chopping it up into bite-size bits. In an era when Netflix will drop full seasons of a television show totaling double-digit hours all in one day, what would be the harm in releasing online now the full, unfiltered stream of Barr disparaging Trump? Especially since the committee has already said that it plans to release the full transcripts of its interviews with its final report. In similar fashion, the committee has tantalized viewers with tiny nuggets from the testimony of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Even if there is no smoking gun, no legally compelling information about the former president’s guilt, the depositions themselves hold an inherent fascination.
Monday’s hearing had a clear target audience—Republicans who had been played for suckers by Trump. That explains the planned presence of Stepien, Stirewalt from Fox News, and Ben Ginsberg, the leading GOP election lawyer. In her opening remarks, Lofgren summarized a key point about Trump’s postelection “stop the steal” fund-raising: “The Big Lie was also a big ripoff.” But rather than using witnesses to make the point about GOP loyalists being gulled into giving $250 million to Trump after the election, the evidence was hastily shown in a video presentation by a committee staffer.
There are only four more scheduled hearings of the January 6 committee. Barring new information, they are slated to end with a prime-time session on June 23. The evidence that the committee has unearthed—drawn from over 1,000 interviews conducted over the past year—seems extraordinary, with much of it coming from the words of Trump appointees and family members. It would be tragic if the hearings zip along so fast that TV viewers are left more whiplashed than convinced. To update Simon and Garfunkel: “Slow down, you move too fast, you’ve got to make the hearings last.”