In news of the Republican effort to overturn the 2020 election, we have reports this week of House Republicans being intimidated into casting their votes with former President Donald Trump on Jan. 6; we have a Trump-backed challenger for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Georgia explicitly criticizing the incumbent for not cheating for Trump; and we have new details made public about former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows’ efforts to subvert the vote.
Oh, that third one? You might’ve missed it on Wednesday, and that reflects a continuing problem the House select committee on Jan. 6 is having. Those seemingly important revelations about Meadows were framed by the committee as part of the main story they’re telling, which is about whether key figures will cooperate with the probe or not. So The New York Times story about the back-and-forth between Meadows and the committee didn’t mention those details until the 11th and 12th paragraphs; a Politico story focused mainly on a lawsuit Meadows filed and didn’t mention the committee’s findings at all. The Washington Post did a much better job, to the credit of reporters Jacqueline Alemany and Josh Dawsey, but it seemingly did so despite the committee’s efforts, not because of them. A taste of the Post story:
“The new materials show Meadows was involved in early discussions to appoint an alternate slate of electors to replace those prepared to certify Joe Biden the victor in certain states, including an email sent days after the election that described ‘a direct and collateral’ attack on the results …
“The text messages produced by Meadows also include a Nov. 6, 2020, correspondence ‘with a Member of Congress apparently about appointing alternate electors in certain states as part of a plan that the Member acknowledged would be ‘highly controversial’ and to which Mr. Meadows apparently said, ‘I love it.’ “
That seems important! Far more important, really, than the negotiations, lawsuits and countersuits over whether various witnesses will testify and under what conditions. Not that what is essentially an effort to pierce through a cover-up isn’t also worth some attention. But as usual, and despite the old and false saw to the contrary: What’s most important are the crimes, not the cover-up.
We keep hearing that the committee has been hard at work; they’ve now heard from more than 275 witnesses, and have apparently gathered more documents than I’ve had losing tickets at the racetrack. Perhaps when their promised hearings finally begin — at some point after the one-year mark from the Capitol riot — we’ll finally get the payoff. But as month after month passes, it becomes easier and easier for Trump and his allies to convince people that all of this is ancient history. And the more that unorganized information emerges, such as the details of Meadows’ involvement, the more the hearings will seem like a rehash. Or at least that’s what Trump’s allies will claim.
It’s not just that. Fights over enforcing subpoenas are nothing new, and even though what’s happening here — the extent to which people are hiding behind dubious privilege claims — is in fact different, it probably looks a lot like normal partisan squabbling to most people, including many in the press corps. What Trump, Meadows and former White House adviser Steve Bannon were doing before and after the 2020 election looked nothing like normal. What the mob did on Jan. 6 wasn’t normal. That’s where the committee needs to direct its focus.
Moreover, we know the fight over witnesses and subpoenas won’t end soon. Bannon was held in contempt by the House and indicted over his refusal to honor a subpoena, but we learned Wednesday that his trial won’t begin until July 18. We can certainly expect further attempts to delay, along with appeals if Bannon loses. In other words, unless the House is prepared to use its power of inherent contempt or the witnesses change their minds, we shouldn’t expect to see the courts bail out the committee any time soon.
Of course, that shouldn’t stop the investigators from fighting hard to enforce their subpoenas. And they should make clear that they’re facing a cover-up from Trump and others. But that simply can’t be the main story the committee generates. Even before the hearings begin, they should be figuring out a communications strategy that puts the attack on democracy and the threat to the rule of law front and center, and frames the fight over witnesses and documents as a supporting story, not the main event. Every week they fail to do so, it will get harder to tell the real story.