Jan. 6 hearings test Trump’s political fortunes and GOP’s desire to ‘forget’

Filed in Latest post by on July 23, 2022 0 Comments

Over eight televised hearings revealing the fullest account yet of President Donald Trump’s role in provoking the carnage at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the House panel examining the attack has made clear its primary target audience: Republicans.

The star witnesses have been Republicans. The Democratic committee members have gone out of their way to praise Republicans who stood up to Trump, chiefly his vice president, Mike Pence. And the committee’s vice chair, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), has openly appealed to Republican voters. On Thursday night she beseeched them to drop the man they have long revered a man who “preyed on their patriotism,” she said, by lying to them about a stolen election.

“Can a president who is willing to make the choices Donald Trump made during the violence of January 6 ever be trusted with any position of authority in our great nation?” she asked in her closing statement.

But it’s not yet apparent whether Republicans are listening.

Polls show GOP views of Jan. 6 have barely budgeted. And at the summer meeting of the Republican Governors Association — held in Aspen, Colo., this week — the hearings hardly came up.

Even Larry Hogan, the anti-Trump Republican governor of Maryland who is considering a White House bid in 2024, offered a measured assessment of the committee’s influence. Among the subset of Republicans following the proceedings, Hogan said in an interview on the sidelines of the summit, “it is having an impact because they’re hearing from people in the White House and members of the administration and supporters who are giving facts that are eye-opening.”

But most Republicans, he noted, “are not watching and not paying attention, and it’s not going to impact them.”

Committee members have made no secret that they consider Trump a threat to American democracy, and that their aim is no less than eliminating the possibility that he will again hold power.

Through witness testimony and other evidence, the committee has shown that Trump summoned his supporters to DC on Jan. 6 with claims of voter fraud he was told repeatedly were false; knew protesters were armed and yet directed them to the Capitol anyway; resisted entreaties to quell the violence and instead persisted in efforts to delay the certification of Joe Biden’s victory; and refused, a day after the siege, to affirm that the election was over.

Trump’s choices escalated tensions and set US on path to Jan. 6, panel finds

Amid those revelations, Trump has forged ahead with preparations for another presidential campaign, eyeing a fall announcement.

Yet even as he does so, there are indications of possible shifts underway, with support for his prospective candidacy softening and Trump himself stewarding over the lack of backing he has received on television and online from his fellow Republicans as the committee makes his case.

Trump has called the hearings — which are expected to resume in September and probe the Pentagon’s response, Capitol security and fundraising by Trump and his allies, among other topics — a “scam.” He has mostly not watched the hearings live — he golfs almost every day — but has monitored the coverage, watched some of the proceedings on tape and polled friends about the revelations, according to advisers who, like others quoted for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.

He has grown most animated about the testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson, a former top aide to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and urged allies to contest his account. He has been especially angered seeing some of his close associates on camera criticizing his actions or disputing his claim that the election was stolen, four advisers said. A Trump spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump has also urged House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and others to push back more aggressively against the committee, and has complained there are no Republicans on television defending him. He has asked aides and advisers to attack the committee online, with his posts on Truth Social, the online platform set up by him and his allies, not getting as much traction as he once got on Twitter.

Many of his advisers watch to see whether any of the revelations are “referable,” in the words of one, or whether the Justice Department will be taking action to prosecute him. Hogan said he believes much of the ultimate impact from the hearings will depend on “what happens with potential actions by the Justice Department.”

An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey released this week found barely any change since December 2021 in the share of people who view the events of Jan. 6, 2021, as an insurrection and a threat to democracy. About half identified it that way, while a quarter, including 2 of 5 Republicans, described it as an unfortunate event, but in the past and not one to worry about.

The same share of Republicans said it was a political protest protected under the First Amendment. Independents appear to have evolved in their thinking, with 52 percent of them now saying it was an insurrection — a nine-point increase from December.

The clearest sign of the committee’s impact, said some pollsters, is not Trump’s favorability within the GOP, which remains sterling, but rather attitudes about his possible future candidacy.

“You can see the effect of the hearings in the percentage of Republicans who want him to run again,” said Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican pollster. “A great many Republicans are protective of him and defensive of their support for him but increasingly of the view that he carries way too much baggage to be the nominee in 2024.”

A New York Times-Siena College poll released last week was the latest to show a diminishing share who want him to run for president again. Just 49 percent said they would support him for another nomination.

That data is in line with findings from focus groups conducted since the hearings began last month by Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist and founder of the anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project. In several sessions with Republicans who voted for Trump in 2020, she said, not a single participant wanted him to run again in 2024, compared with overwhelming majorities who favored a third campaign in dozens of focus groups before June.

“They think the hearings are stupid and they like Donald Trump.” Longwell said. “But they’re making a political calculation about who can win.”

Staff, strategists and donors across the GOP spectrum — from Trump critics to devotees — said any fallout for the former president would not be based on a substantive reevaluation of him but a tactical one.

“Republicans want to forget about January 6,” said a top aide to a gubernatorial nominee who beat a Trump-backed candidate in a recent GOP primary.

That feeling may cause some voters to tire of Trump, in part because of his focus on debating the results of an election he lost. Republican primary voters “by a margin of 2 to 1 in Midwestern states want candidates and elected officials to focus on the future, not the past,” said Joe Lakin, a Republican media consultant in Missouri.

Republicans who have chosen to stick with the former president could also see their standing harmed by that preference. To the extent that the Jan. 6 hearings did come up at the Republican gathering in Aspen, according to people in the meetings, it was in the form of warnings about the general-election viability of Trump-backed candidates and “election deniers,” as a top aide to one governor labeled such contenders.

Frank Luntz, a veteran GOP pollster who attended the meeting in Aspen, said he detected “frustration” among Republican voters “that Trump’s putting them through this.”

Aim fallout from the hearings would affect “only Trump,” Luntz argued. That’s in notable contrast with Cheney’s prediction last month, directed at her Republican colleagues who have continued to support the former president: “Your dishonor will remain.”

Many Republicans may never hear that message because they have already dismissed the hearings as a partisan exercise, said donors and strategists. Republicans blocked the creation of an independent commission last year, and McCarthy pulled his five picks for the committee after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rejected two of them. That left a committee composed mostly of Democrats, along with two anti-Trump Republicans.

“The people tuning into it are people who have taken a position one way or another,” said Stephen B. King, Trump’s ambassador to the Czech Republic and a Republican donor and former party official.

Trump has rarely faced political costs when backed against a wall, said Brian Ballard, a lobbyist and top Trump fundraiser who also chaired Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ grand opening in 2019.

“I kind of agree with President Trump’s pronouncement when he was running for president the first time, when he said he could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose support,” Ballard said. “I don’t see anything in the coverage that would significantly alter his support in the party.”

Advisers to other leading Republicans believe the hearings are solidifying concerns about Trump’s weakness. In their estimation, it’s less that the hearings on their own will disqualify Trump as a potential nominee, but rather that they will remind people of the things they dislike most about him.

Two Florida lobbyists who have fundraised for DeSantis, a potential contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, said the hearings could intensify “Trump fatigue,” as one put it. “I think a lot of people want normalcy. Policies without the craziness.” The other said the committee lacks credibility among Republicans but could still create discomfort about “Trump’s drama.”

Alyssa Farah Griffin, a former Pence aide and White House communications director who has spoken out against Trump, said attitudes are more malleable “for those who are on the margins and are not ultra MAGA.”

“I think it’s weakened him in a massive way,” she said. “It reminds people of the drama and the four years of having to explain why they supported him.”

A looming GOP primary, Griffin said, means “it’s not a binary moment. It’s not him versus Biden. Do they really want to go back through that whole fiasco? They’re also reminded of the noise and the drama and the division. We can support someone else. There are other good candidates.”

The hearings are breaking through to conservative media, said Longwell, the anti-Trump strategist conducting the focus groups with Trump voters, “even if it’s just complaints about them.”

She relayed examples from recent sessions.

“I feel like there’s too many people against him right now,” a Wyoming voter who backed Trump in 2020 said in a focus group, according to Longwell. “I feel like somebody else needs to step in that has similar views but not as big of an ego.”

A vote in Washington state who also favored Trump in 2020 put it bluntly: “Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.”

“He did some good things when he was in office,” the voter said, “but I think he just needs to accept the fact that he lost.”

Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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