Episode 3 of the House select committee hearings on the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, promised to be a must-see, Machiavellian drama, replete with “Game of Thrones” levels of deceit and treachery: the story of a power-hungry ruler who threw his loyal servant into the proverbial dragon pit as part of an elaborate scheme to retain the throne. But that’s not exactly what viewers got when they tuned in Thursday to catch the latest in a series of live hearings explaining how former President Trump’s “Stop the Steal” campaign culminated in last year’s storming of the Capitol.
The hearing’s theme was the pressure Trump placed on then-Vice President Mike Pence to reverse the 2020 election results in his favor, and the mortal danger Pence faced when he refused to follow those orders. Given the intrinsically theatrical nature of their relationship (i.e. minion and master), expectations were unfairly high, so the first half of the proceedings felt like a disappointment. Or more like a snore. But given the setting and the characters, a dip in the action was bound to happen.
The committee’s greatest challenge — capturing the attention of viewers while exploring complicated legal issues — finally caught up with it during the first half of Thursday’s hearing. The first two were dramatic, cohesive, tension-packed and even grimly funny installments where video depositions, security and smartphone footage, documents and in-person statements were presented in crisp, compelling fashion. But legalese and lengthy live testimony eclipsed the drama on Day Three, turning the proceedings from a gripping narrative into a dry, if necessary, schoolhouse lesson.
Beginning with witness J. Michael Luttig, the former federal judge who advised Pence about his role in certifying the 2020 election, the committee that had previously produced a prestige drama had delivered C-Span instead. Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) questioned Luttig about the legality and historical precedent of a vice president overriding the will of the people. His explanation of the rule of law turned the human frailties on display — corruption, betrayal, the thirst for power — into a law professor’s lecture, and many on social media responded like kids passing notes in a classroom. Even those in attendance in Washington looked bored. But buried in all the careful verbiage there were explosive remarks from the conservative judge: If Pence had succumbed to Trump’s demands, he said, it “would have plunged America into what [he] believed would have been tantamount to a revolution.”
To be fair, it’s near impossible to produce a thrilling TV episode dedicated to a single character without the star of that particular act. Thursday also marked the first time the committee’s efforts to drive its point home were hamstrung by not having its key witness on the stand, and the lack of testimony from Pence was a major limitation. It’s like dedicating an entire episode of “Breaking Bad” to Jessie, but only seeing Walt (perhaps he’s still chained up in the meth lab).
But the second half of the hearing did its best to fill some of those holes with new information.Greg Jacob, former counsel to Pence, told the committee in a taped deposition that lawyer John Eastman, an architect of the “Big Lie” and much of what transpired from the White House around the push to overturn the election results, admitted in front of Trump that pressuring of Pence violated the law. That was before Trump tweeted to his followers at 2:24 p.m. Jan. 6 that Pence “doesn’t have the courage to do what’s necessary.”
Introducing more visual evidence — depositions, emails, tweets, footage of insurrectionists storming the building — also helped the committee paint a vivid picture, connecting ever more dots among events leading up to Jan. 6. An email exchange between Eastman on the day of the riot was also particularly powerful in proving that Eastman knew Pence did not have the power to nullify the election — and Trump knew as well. As Jacob wrote to Eastman: “Thanks to your bullshit we are now under siege.” Eastman replied that it was Pence’s fault. Jacob replied, “Did you advise the President that .. the VP does not have the power to decide things unilaterally?” Eastman’s reply is damning: “He’s been so advised, but you know him, once he gets something in his head, it’s hard to get him to change course.”
Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands), who helped helm the proceedings alongside Cheney and Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), added a highlight of his own when he revealed that Eastman emailed Rudy Giuliani in the days after Jan. 6 asking to be included on a list of potential recipients for a presidential pardon.
Whether any of this registered with viewers, or voters, is harder to tell, but it wasn’t just the dull opening act that left the committee on its back foot. Members themselves may have been responsible for raising expectations, or at least excitement levels, when the committee dropped some major bombshells from its investigation in the lead-up to Thursday’s hearing.
First was a release of Capitol police security footage from inside the building Jan. 5, showing a group led by Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) taking pictures and videos of stairways, security posts and tunnels, areas that are “not typically of interest to tourists,” according to the panel. (Loudermilk denied giving a tour of the Capitol complex on Jan. 5, then later admitted to giving the tour but denied any wrongdoing.) Then came news that the committee has email correspondence between Eastman and Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, conservative activist and wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — reportedly showing that Ginni Thomas’ efforts to overturn the election were more extensive than previously known — and that it will pursue an interview with her. (Thomas has said she “looks forward” to it.)
Day Four promises a focus on Trump and his allies’ campaign to get state legislators and election officials to change the results of the vote. But will it be good TV? As shallow as that question sounds, it’s a valid one. The electorate needs to pay attention. Procedural affairs are a hard sell. And as Thursday showed, striking the right balance is about as easy as getting a straight answer out of a Washington politician — or getting a former vice president on the stand.