Editor’s Note: Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor and Republican campaign adviser, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
I’ve been wondering who the House select committee investigating the January 6 riot sees as its primary audience. On Thursday night, it was pretty clear: Attorney General Merrick Garland. I am sure the committee members would love to change public opinion (which hardened fairly quickly in the weeks after the attack on the Capitol) and to convince Republicans that former President Donald Trump cannot be trusted again with the presidency.
But Thursday’s hearing felt like a desperate plea to the Department of Justice to indict Trump and his co-conspirators for what was repeatedly called an “illegal” attempt to circumvent the results of the 2020 election. Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who co-chaired the committee, delivered a long presentation that felt like the opening arguments of a criminal trial. The phrase “you will hear…” was used multiple times, just the way a prosecutor would lay out an opening argument to a jury before proceeding with evidence and witness testimony.
The initial construction of the hearing may have hampered its effectiveness. Committee chairman Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson’s long speech (complete with his own personal narrative and historical anecdotes) had virtually nothing to do with the matter at hand and risked losing people who might have tuned in for something other than the usual boring congressional pablum. Thompson’s comments about the “peaceful transfer of power” rang a little hollow given that he personally voted in favor of objecting to the results in Ohio during the counting of former President George W. Bush’s electoral college votes in 2005.Thompson was always a strange choice to lead this committee, given his history of trying to interrupt a previous president’s electoral college certification.
They should have started with Cheney and gotten to the point more quickly. Once she came to the plate, she delivered a compelling presentation that left little doubt about what happened that day. Cheney has become public enemy number one to Trump and Thursday night she got her chance to swing back in prime time television. She didn’t miss.
The jarring video of the riot (some of it was new) seemed familiar. We did, after all, watch the storming of the Capitol unfold on live TV and have seen hours of footage since then. But it was, nonetheless, enough to make your blood boil all over again to watch rioters defile our Capitol and make America seem like a banana republic. I have no doubt that some people who invaded the Capitol had no idea they would be doing so that day when they appeared for the pre-riot rally. However, it is impossible to watch the video and not conclude that a great many people had prepared to invade in advance given their gear and behavior.
Caroline Edwards was a compelling witness. A Capitol Police officer on January 6, 2021, her firsthand account of being knocked unconscious and matter-of-factly describing the animals who did that to her as they stormed the building was a stark reminder that this riot wasn’t a bunch of confused tourists who accidentally wandered in to a restricted area. She called what happened that day “carnage” and “chaos,” two words that ought never be needed when describing the mechanics of our American constitutional order.
Will this change anything politically? I continue to believe that the issue of January 6 will have little to no impact on the November 2022 midterm election. Americans are rightly preoccupied with inflation, the economy, crime and the general malaise that has fallen over our country. President Joe Biden’s approval rating, now at 39% according to CNN’s Poll of Polls, will have a bigger impact on whether Republicans retake Congress than these hearings.
But the real political manifestation of these events will come in 2024. Trump seems like he’s itching to run again for the presidency, and the Republican Party will have to decide if he can be trusted with the awesome power of the office again, or if it wants to risk a third popular vote loss against a dramatically weakened Biden or some other Democrat.