Millions of Americans have watched over the last six weeks as a bipartisan U.S. House panel holds public hearings documenting the actions of former president Donald Trump and his inner circle in relation to the January 6, 2021, attack by a violent mob on the U.S. Capitol.
Twenty million viewers tuned in on June 9 for the hearing's opening day, aired nationally on primetime television. Still, it is unclear what effect, if any, these proceedings will have, despite bringing to light a mountain of new details on what was taking place in the Trump White House before and during the insurrection, which sought to block Congress’ certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election.
Democrats hope the hearings, including one Thursday, will spell the end of Trump's political career and possibly more, according to Dillard University Urban Studies and Public Policy Professor Robert Collins.
“What Democrats would love is to discover enough evidence of criminal wrongdoing – strong enough proof that former president Trump incited his supporters to storm the Capitol to overturn the 2020 election results – that the Justice Department would bring criminal charges against him and his co-conspirators,” Collins told VOA.
“But that’s kind of a longshot ‘Hail Mary’ because there are issues indicting a former president,” Collins added. “If they can at least damage him politically so he can no longer successfully run for office, I think Democrats would be pleased.”
By contrast, many Republicans express cynicism about what these hearings will accomplish.
“Nothing will come out of this hearing,” said Alberto Perez, a Republican voter from the rural town of Blairsville, Georgia. “It will be a reflection of what the Democrat-led Congress has accomplished in these past two years. Absolutely nothing.”
Trump’s most ardent supporters view the hearings as a one-sided, partisan witch hunt that is spreading lies. This despite the fact that two Republicans sit on the House Select Committee and that members of Trump’s inner circle, including his daughter and son-in-law, as well as household names in the Republican Party, like former attorney general William Barr, have provided hours upon hours of often-explosive testimony.
Even so, Christine Carney, a Trump voter from Coatesville, Pennsylvania, suspects the proceedings will have the opposite effect of what the House panel intends.
“If anything, it’s making Republican voters stand behind Trump even more,” she told VOA. “It’s obvious they’re building up these lies about him and finding more lies every day.”
Carney and other Trump supporters see the hearings as an attempt to cause the former president’s supporters to break from him.
“Trump is independent-minded and they don’t want someone to run the country that they can’t tell what to do,” she said. “They lie, cheat, steal, plant evidence, and threaten people to lie in court so they get what they want -- to make sure he doesn’t get back in office.”
Former Trump loyalists testify
While there is no evidence of the tampering Carney is suggesting, the hearings have produced a steady stream of witnesses once loyal to the 45th president.
Cassidy Hutchinson, a former White House aide and assistant to former chief of staff Mark Meadows, provided testimony many viewers found compelling. Among other things, she spoke of Trump’s determination to join rioters at the Capitol on Jan. 6 despite his security detail’s insistence that doing so would put him in physical danger.
On another day of the hearings, members of the Proud Boys – a far-right group that took part in the insurrection – expressed remorse for their actions and placed some of the blame on the former president.
Democrats hope rank-and-file Republicans across the nation take note.
“You have insurrectionists testifying and showing a real sadness because they feel they were duped by Trump,” said Corrine Glazer, a Democratic voter in Los Angeles, California. “Not that long ago they trusted him and followed his every word. I feel like if their minds changed, then maybe hearing them testify changed other Republicans’ minds, as well.”
On the second day of hearings, a potentially game-changing moment took place when former attorney general Barr testified that he told Trump he did not agree with the then-president’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
“This was a huge deal because you’ve got the president’s hand-picked attorney general telling us Trump was, in his words, ‘detached from reality’,” said Collins from Dillard University. “He had the resources of the U.S. government behind him and couldn’t find evidence of the fraud Trump was claiming. That’s powerful, I think.”
New polling data
A poll released Thursday found that 57% of Americans believe Trump deserves “a good amount of the blame” for the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. According to the NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, 92% of Democrats blame the former president compared to just 18% of Republicans.
Fifty percent of those surveyed believe the former president should be charged with crimes based on the evidence presented at the House hearings, but only 28% think he will face criminal charges.
The poll found that 80% of Democrats say they are paying attention to the hearings, compared to 55% of independents and 44% of Republicans.
Viewership of the proceedings has fallen. Nine million Americans tuned into the third hearing, less than half the total for the first.
“I haven’t been watching the hearing at all, and I haven’t been watching mainstream media either,” said Perez in Georgia. “I imagine it’s the same for most MAGA Trump supporters. This hearing has no credibility in our eyes.”
But many Democrats say they still find the committee’s public activities worth watching.
“Personally, it’s a relief to see testimonies prove that Trump’s character is as bad as I already saw it,” said Glazer from California. “But stations like FOX aren’t showing the hearings and are barely commenting on it other than to mock Democrats. It’s no wonder it’s not reaching many Republicans.”
The hearings have been held months before Americans go to the polls in midterm elections that will determine which political party controls Congress, a fact not lost on voters.
“It’s just a partisan exercise meant to hurt Republicans in this November’s midterm elections,” Jay Williams, a consultant for many top Republican politicians, told VOA. “Maybe these hearings will fire up the Democratic base, but most voters are worried about more important things to them such as the economy.”
Collins of Dillard University agrees the hearings are unlikely to impact the midterms. The 2024 presidential race, however, could be another story if Trump seeks to return to the White House.
“I see a lot of people looking at polls, not seeing much change, and assuming these hearings are having no effect on Trump’s popularity,” Collins said, “but that’s not how human psychology works. Our minds change slowly and only when we’re exposed to frequent and repeated evidence of something.”
Some experts believe the hearings are providing a unique example of this. Whereas Trump’s critics typically attack him on multiple fronts at once, the House Select Committee has been able to focus exclusively on his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, keeping the public focused on an event that shocked the nation.
While indicators are modest so far, the committee’s efforts appear to be making some headway. According to a Morning Consult/Politico survey conducted after Hutchinson’s testimony, the share of Republicans who said Trump misled Americans about the 2020 election increased by 5 percentage points to 30%.
Even such small shifts in numbers could prove consequential for the Republican presidential primary contests in 2024.
Even so, Collins said the House Select Committee has a long way to go to destroy Trump’s viability as a political candidate. The former president’s supporters agree.
“I’d still be thrilled to vote for President Trump in a primary and a general election,” said Carney of Pennsylvania. “Life was great when he was in office and I’d rather go back to that than continue with the way things are going.”
This mindset has proven both frustrating and perplexing to Democratic voters who believe the hearings’ findings should not only make the former president unelectable, but also land him in jail.
“Stupid people will do anything to avoid admitting they made a mistake when they voted for him, I guess,” said Alex Kingbix, a Democratic voter from New Orleans, Louisiana. “They have to put up with him and double down, or else risk being exposed for the terrible damage their vote has caused.”