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The Real Goal of the Jan. 6th Committee

Yes, the committee is unearthing evidence that could lead to prosecutions—but that’s not its main aim.
July 13, 2022
The Real Goal of the Jan. 6th Committee
(Composite / Photos: GettyImages)

One of the strangest moments at Tuesday’s hearing of the House January 6th Committee was an exchange between committee investigators and former White House Counsel Pat Cipollone. In the interview, recorded on Friday and replayed at the hearing, Cipollone was being asked about a draft executive order—discussed at a bizarre White House meeting on Dec. 18, 2020—that would have authorized federal seizure of state voting machines to re-investigate the election.

Question: Why was this, on a broader scale, a bad idea for the country?

Cipollone: To have the federal government seize voting machines? That’s a terrible idea for the country. That’s not how we do things in the United States. There’s no legal authority to do that. . . . I don’t understand why we even have to tell you why that’s a bad idea for the country.

Cipollone was staring at the investigator in bewilderment. His facial expression said: You idiot. Wasn’t the answer obvious? Why had the committee subpoenaed him to ask such an elementary question?

After eight public hearings and dozens of such questions, the reason is clear: The committee’s principal goal isn’t to expose crimes. It’s to restore truth and sanity.

The investigation has found plenty of evidence that Donald Trump and people around him broke the law. Ideally, that evidence will lead to prosecutions. But even if Trump and his accomplices don’t go to jail, the country needs to be immunized against his lies about the election and the insurrection.

Those lies haven’t gone away. They’ve been taken up by Republican candidates and are widely believed by rank-and-file Republicans. In a recent Economist/YouGov survey, 75 percent of Republicans and 36 percent of registered voters still say Joe Biden didn’t legitimately win the election.

This is the audience the committee wants to reach. Hardcore deniers won’t listen, but there’s a broader audience of conservative skeptics—people who don’t trust Democrats or the mainstream media—who need to hear the truth about the election and the insurrection. And they need to hear it from witnesses they’re likely to trust: those who supported Trump or worked for him.

Look at the committee’s witness list: former Attorney General Bill Barr, former Trump White House legislative director Marc Short, former Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien, former Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller, multiple Trump campaign lawyers, and numerous other Republicans and former Trump allies. These witnesses were interviewed because they had inside information. But often, the committee has asked them simple questions to which the answers are well known: Did Trump ever produce evidence of widespread fraud? Should he have conceded? Did Vice President Mike Pence have legal authority to block the electoral count?

The committee hasn’t just posed these questions. It has featured the answers in video clips.

That’s why much of Cipollone’s testimony was broadcast at Tuesday’s hearing. His answers were largely useless for prosecution, since he refused, on grounds of attorney-client privilege, to discuss his conversations with Trump. Instead, the clips showed Cipollone affirming basic statements of truth, law, and morals.

“I assume, Pat, that you would agree the president is obligated to abide by the rulings of the courts,” Liz Cheney, the committee’s vice chair, told Cipollone in one clip. To which Cipollone replied: “Of course.”

If these questions and answers seem pointless to you, as they did to Cipollone, that’s because you’re not the target audience. The committee doesn’t care that Cipollone found the questions stupid or boring. It cares that he was Trump’s White House counsel. Americans who won’t listen to Rep. Jamie Raskin, Rep. Adam Schiff, or other Democrats will listen to Barr and Cipollone.

The fight in the Trump White House after the 2020 election was the same fight that’s still going on in the GOP. It isn’t between conservatives and RINOs. It’s between people who give a damn about evidence and people who don’t.

On that point, the committee asked Cipollone about the Dec. 18 White House meeting. In that encounter, Sidney Powell, Mike Flynn, and other election-fraud conspiracy theorists faced off against skeptics led by Cipollone and Trump adviser Eric Herschmann.

“We were asking one simple question,” Cipollone told the committee: “Where is the evidence?” The responses from Powell’s side, he recalled, were statements such as “What do you mean, ‘Where’s the evidence’? You should know.” Powell and her allies, in Cipollone’s account, showed “a general disregard for the importance of actually backing up what you say with facts.”

Herschmann recalled a similar exchange at the meeting. He said Powell refused to accept the dozens of court rulings against Trump’s fraud claims because, she asserted, “The judges are corrupt.” Herschmann’s response to her was: “Every one? Every single case that you’ve done in the country, you guys lost. Every one of [those judges] is corrupt? Even the ones we appointed?”

That’s what the committee wants Trump sympathizers to hear: Even Trump’s lawyers and Trump’s judges found no evidence to support his election conspiracy theories.

In her closing remarks, Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Democratic member of the committee, summed up the point of the hearing: “Our committee’s overriding objective is to fight fiction with facts.”

And that matters, even if none of the people behind the coup attempt goes to jail.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.