Jan. 6 Hearings Invoke Patriotism to Urge Voters to Break With Trump

The Jan. 6 hearings at times have resembled a criminal trial in absentia for former President Donald J. Trump. On Thursday night, the proceedings suddenly felt more like a court-martial.

A 20-year Navy veteran and a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard led the questioning by House members. Five times, Mr. Trump was accused of “dereliction of duty.” The nation’s highest-ranking military officer provided withering recorded testimony of the commander in chief’s failure to command. A former Marine and deputy national security adviser testified in person that the former president had flouted the very Constitution he had sworn to protect and defend.

Over eight days and evenings, the Jan. 6 committee has relied almost exclusively on Republican witnesses to build its case that Mr. Trump bore personal responsibility for inspiring and even encouraging the riot that ransacked the Capitol. But on Thursday, the committee’s casting, choreography and script all appeared carefully coordinated to make a subtly different case to a particular subset of the American people — voters who have not yet been persuaded to break with Mr. Trump — that their patriotism itself dictates that they break with him now. “Whatever your politics, whatever you think about the outcome of the election, we as Americans must all agree on this — Donald Trump’s conduct on Jan. 6 was a supreme violation of his oath of office and a complete dereliction of his duty to our nation,” said Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, a Republican and Air Force veteran who helped lead the questioning.

Witness after witness portrayed in vivid detail how Mr. Trump consumed hours of Fox News coverage on Jan. 6, 2021, in his private dining room, rather than directing American forces to intervene and stop the bloodshed.

“No call? Nothing? Zero?” Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said incredulously in audio played from his deposition.

The summer hearings have been a blockbuster by Capitol Hill standards, drawing big audiences and redefining what a congressional investigation — at least one without dissenting voices — should look like. The season finale, as it were, brought together all the plot lines of the previous episodes to portray Mr. Trump as a singular threat to American democracy, a man who put his own ambitions before everything else, including the well-being of lawmakers and his own vice president — and continued to do so even after the rioting and violence had subsided.

“I don’t want to say, ‘The election is over,’” Mr. Trump said in an outtake of the taped address he delivered to the nation the day after the assault, which was obtained by the committee and played on Thursday. “I just want to say Congress has certified the results without saying the election is over, OK?”

Weaving together clips of his own aides testifying about their frustrations, live questioning and never-before-seen video footage, the committee used the language of patriotism to try to disqualify Mr. Trump as a future candidate by appealing to that ever-more-endangered species in American politics: genuine swing voters whose opinions on the attack were not fully calcified.

“He could have stopped it and chose not to,” said Deva Moore of Corpus Christi, Texas, who said she came away from the hearings “horrified.” “I think he is guilty of insurrection. He encouraged his supporters, who have every right to support him — he encouraged them to violence and murder.”

Ms. Moore, who called herself a political independent, voted for Mr. Biden in 2020 but has been disappointed by aspects of his record and said she would not back him again. She does not hold Jan. 6 against Republicans in general: It “only affects how I feel about Trump,” she said.

It is unclear if the hearings are changing many minds, or if they are drawing an audience who already agrees with their conclusions. Polling points to a sharp split between the opinions of Americans who are glued to them and those who are tuning them out. A Quinnipiac University poll this week showed that 69 percent of Americans who said they were following the hearings closely believed that Mr. Trump had committed a crime related to trying to change the election results. But only 22 percent of those who said they were not thought that he had committed a crime.

“Because of how they put it together and presented the case with all Republican witnesses, from the judgment of history, they’re going to be seen as having unraveled quite a caper,” said Lee M. Miringoff, the director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. “It may not be transformational in and of itself, but I do think it’s impactful on differing constituencies.”

The hearings are certainly being watched. The first, in June, ranked as the most-watched telecast of the second quarter, gathering nearly 20 million viewers across multiple networks. Among nonsporting events, it ranked second only to the State of the Union in terms of audience size. The early estimate for Thursday’s hearing from Nielsen was 17.7 million viewers.

But Fox News, one of the most important outlets for reaching Republican voters, has proudly ignored some of the proceedings.

“One of our producers just said that on every other channel, they’re playing some kind of Jan. 6 hearing,” Tucker Carlson, the channel’s popular prime time host, said tauntingly on Thursday. “Jan. 6?” he said. “Because that’s the biggest thing going on in America right now.”

Republican strategists involved in 2022 congressional campaigns say the hearings have barely registered for voters thinking about the midterms. But some strategists believe the proceedings may affect perceptions of Mr. Trump, contributing to fatigue with him among Republican voters as they begin to think about the next presidential campaign.

“It would be a mistake to assume that the Jan. 6 hearings are having no political effect at all on Republicans,” said Whit Ayres, a prominent G.O.P. consultant. He said the hearings seemed aimed at “Maybe Trump” voters: people who voted for Mr. Trump twice and approved of his job performance, but would be open to supporting other Republicans in 2024.

“It will get into the water,” Mr. Ayres said. “The way that translates in polling terms is an increase in the number of Republicans who would like to see someone else be the standard-bearer in 2024, someone who might pursue many of the same policies but carry less personal baggage than Donald Trump.”

Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the committee’s vice chair and one of Mr. Trump’s most outspoken Republican critics, called his behavior on Jan. 6 “indefensible” during Thursday’s hearing. She accused him of having so manipulated his supporters in stoking the falsehood of a stolen election that he “turned their love of country into a weapon against our Capitol and our Constitution.”

“Donald Trump knows that millions of Americans who supported him would stand up and defend our nation were it threatened,” Ms. Cheney said. “They would put their lives and their freedom at stake to protect her. And he is preying on their patriotism.”

Republican voters will render a verdict on Ms. Cheney far sooner than on Mr. Trump as she seeks to fend off a Trump-fueled primary challenge next month. She is widely considered the underdog.

Democrats believe the deadly events of Jan. 6 remain a potent part of the argument against returning Republicans to power, as they seek to make the midterm campaigns a choice between two parties rather than a referendum on Democratic leadership. The hearings, some argue, have served as a powerful reminder of the Republican lurch toward extremism.

Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist who was a pollster on Mr. Biden’s 2020 campaign, said there were signs that the hearings were breaking through with independents, especially independent men, who have been disapproving of Mr. Biden.

“They are really responsive to the arguments of, ‘This is a criminal conspiracy. This is trying to overturn the elections. This is trying to overturn the will of the people,’” said Ms. Lake, who is polling and conducting focus groups on the subject. “And that makes independent men very feisty.”

Still, some voters are skeptical of the hearings.

“They’re biased with a predetermined outcome,” said Richard Smith, 69, of Maricopa County, Arizona, who voted for Mr. Trump in 2020 but believes Mr. Biden ultimately won. He said he would prefer that Mr. Trump not run again. “There’s a point where you just accept events and move on, and he doesn’t seem to be able to,” he said.

Independent voters remain divided on the question of whether Mr. Trump committed a crime in the aftermath of the 2020 election. In a New York Times/Siena College poll conducted in early July, a 49 percent plurality said Mr. Trump had committed “serious federal crimes” and a 56 percent majority said he had threatened American democracy.

David Winston, a veteran Republican pollster, said that he believed voters were paying attention to the hearings, but that many were discounting some findings because Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans were solely in charge.

“There’s an understanding that it’s one side of the story. The electorate takes that into account,” Mr. Winston said. “There is no evidence that it’s moved anybody.”

Indeed, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll in recent days showed that the share of Americans who think Mr. Trump bears a great deal or a good amount of blame for the riot has been virtually unchanged since a week after it happened.

For at least some Republicans, the hearings have been a reminder of a dark chapter in the party’s recent past. “The peaceful transfer of power is fundamental to the very foundation of our country,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member from Mississippi. “What happened that day and what led to it are a terrible stain on our party.”

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