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Will the Jan. 6 Committee Repeat the Democrats’ Russia Mistake?

President of the United States Donald Trump speaking with attendees at the 2019 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. By Gage Skidmore.
President of the United States Donald Trump speaking with attendees at the 2019 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Florida.

The Jan. 6 committee hearings are over (for now). Is former President Donald Trump?

Judging from the polls, no. Trump could win a rematch with President Joe Biden in 2024. Even the New York Times/Siena College poll that gives Biden a slender lead is consistent with a Trump Electoral College victory if it were accompanied by his usual overperformance in the battleground states.

The question the committee is attempting to answer is whether Trump should be president ever again. To a person, the panel members’ response is an emphatic no. Even if the hearings do not produce anything legally actionable, that is the takeaway they want their viewing audience to have.

On that front, the hearings have landed some blows. The final prime-time event of the summer reinforced that Trump did not intervene to stop the Capitol riot early on and was clearly reluctant when he finally did. The testimony of low- and mid-level Trump aides (more senior people have mostly declined to testify live) has been effective. But they are also mostly not reaching the Republican audience they would need to persuade, and that isn’t just Fox News’ fault.

The Democrats and their Never Trump fellow travelers are repeating an error they made during the Russia investigations. Instead of taking what the evidence clearly establishes, they want to allege a broader conspiracy. Rep. Liz Cheney has described the Trump dead-enders’ 2020 election efforts as “extremely well-organized,” which is more than a little difficult to square with anything we actually saw unfold in those months.

On Russia, it was not sufficient for Democrats to prove that Trump was indifferent at best to the Kremlin’s election interference as long as it aimed mostly at swinging public opinion against Hillary Clinton. They argued that Trump was involved in a criminal conspiracy with Russia to fix the 2016 presidential race, convincing some partisans that they even altered the tallies.

There is a lot of evidence for the former charge. As to the latter, former Attorney General Bill Barr’s summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report describes it succinctly. “The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” Barr wrote, despite “multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.”

That doesn’t mean nothing terrible was uncovered by Mueller’s investigation. But it does mean the evidence for the maximalist Trump-Russia conspiracy theories was often lacking and never reached the burden of proof necessary for a criminal conviction. By making those claims the standard, Trump was able to claim vindication when the report was finally released.

Democrats run a similar risk on Jan. 6. It is not enough for them to argue that Trump was reckless in his claims about the 2020 election, what was still constitutionally possible in terms of contesting those results at that late date in the process, and in his encouragement of his supporters to gather despite signs that a nontrivial number of them were inclined to misbehave. Trump has to have personally led an armed insurrection at the Capitol that came perilously close to overthrowing the government.

Reams of proof exist for the more modest contention and ought to be disqualifying enough. The maximalist theory is, to put it mildly, much less well supported. Even if it is more emotionally satisfying to the Resistance and Never Trump.

The key difference is that this time, the Democrats have full control of the narrative. They have brought modern television production values to the hearings. There are no pro-Trump or even netural Republicans on the panel. There is consequently no cross-examination of witnesses or skepticism when every inference goes against Trump.

What the committee loses in terms of bipartisan credibility by taking this approach, Democrats are calculating that it will gain in terms of telling a coherent and compelling story that will not later be contradicted by some report weighing evidence (though if there is a lack of subsequent Justice Department prosecutions of anyone important on non-process-related crimes, some people will figure it out).

There also isn’t the same level of expectation as with most other Trump investigations that the Orange Man will end up behind bars, though some hope for a formal disqualification from public office. So maybe this will be good enough.

But the picture they are painting of Trump as someone who doesn’t think through the effects of his behavior on other people, a trait that contributed to an extremely dangerous outcome on Jan. 6, does speak to his fitness for office. A horn-wearing man shouldn’t need to be regarded as a John Bolton-level coup plotter for Democrats to make that argument.  

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, W. James Antle III is the Washington Examiner’s politics editor. He was previously managing editor of the Daily Caller, associate editor of the American Spectator, and senior writer for the American Conservative. He is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? You can follow home on Twitter: @Jimantle.

Written By

W. James Antle III is the Washington Examiner's politics editor. He was previously managing editor of the Daily Caller, associate editor of the American Spectator, and senior writer for the American Conservative. He is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?