There is an old expression in the media that some facts are just too good to check. It is a recognition that journalists can sometimes be reluctant to endanger a good story by confirming an essential fact. The Select Committee on the Jan. 6th riot is facing a similar accusation this week after critical witnesses not contradicted some of the most explosive assertions of last week’s witness, Cassidy Hutchinson. Specifically, critical witnesses said that no one on the Committee reached out to confirm her account of former President Donald Trump lunging for the wheel in “the Beast” in a physical altercation with his security team on that day. The controversy highlights the failure of the Committee to offer a balanced investigation.
Many of us support the effort to bring greater transparency to what occurred on Jan. 6th and these hearings have offered a great deal of important new information. Indeed, it has proven gut-wrenching in the accounts of lawyers and staff trying to combat baseless theories and to protect the constitutional process.
Yet, the heavy-handed approach to framing the evidence has been both unnecessary and at times counterproductive. The strength of some of this evidence would not have been diminished by a more balanced committee or investigation.
We have been discussing the highly scripted and entirely one-sided presentation of evidence in the Committee. Indeed, witnesses are primarily used to present what Speaker Nancy Pelosi referred to as “the narrative” where their prior videotaped testimony is shown and they are given narrow follow up questions. They at times seem more like props than witnesses — called effectively to recite prior statements between well-crafted, impactful video clips. It has the feel of a news package, which may be the result of the decision to bring in a former ABC executive to produce the hearings.
That framing has led to glaring omissions. The Committee has routinely edited videotapes and crafted presentations to eliminate alternative explanations or opposing viewpoints like repeatedly editing out Trump telling his supporters to go to the Capitol peacefully.
What is striking is that offering a more balanced account, including allowing the Republicans to appoint their own members (in accordance with long-standing tradition), would not have lessened much of this stunning testimony. Yet, allowing Republicans to pick their members (yes, including Rep. Jim Jordan) would have prevented allegations of a highly choreographed show trial. It would have added credibility to the process. Indeed, much of this evidence would have been hard to refute like the deposition of former Attorney General Bill Barr on the election fraud allegations.
It would also have protected the Democrats from what occurred last week. A former top aide to Mark Meadows, Hutchinson shocked the world with her second-hand account of an unhinged and violent president trying to force the security team to drive him to the Capitol. (There has not been a contradiction of the underlying account that Trump was prevented from going to the Capitol — an allegation that raises some serious legal questions, as discussed in yesterday’s column).
The allegation that Trump physically tried to stop or direct the car suggested that he was not just angry but out-of-control in that critical moment. The Committee combined that account with later testimony of how some were considering removing him from office under the 25th Amendment.
If the Committee had a single member with a dissenting or even skeptical viewpoint, such testimony could have been challenged before it was thrown before the world. A Republican-appointed member would have likely sought confirmation from the obvious witnesses or the Secret Service. After all, the Secret Service was cooperating with the Select Committee and had already offered information on that day.
Hutchinson recounted a story that she insists was given to her by Tony Ornato, the former deputy chief of staff for operations. She said that Ornato told her that Trump lunged at a Secret Service agent and tried to grab the wheel of a presidential SUV when agents would not allow that.
In fairness to Hutchinson, her testimony could still be true even if the account is false…if that is what Ornato told her.
However, Fox News is reporting that Ornato was “shocked” by the testimony. He and Bobby Engel, the top agent on Trump’s Secret Service detail, both testified previously and this is a hardly a detail that they would omit from their accounts.
What is even more notable is the alleged failure of the Committee to reach out to them or the Secret Service to confirm that account before making it the highlight of a national hearing. Indeed, the hearing was suddenly called with little prior warning to highlight the new and explosive allegations.
This is the peril of an investigation that occurs in an echo chamber. Such “gotcha” moments are powerful in the moment but can also be equally damaging if later challenged.
This is the type of problem that arises when the focus of a hearing is persuasive rather than investigative. The account fit the narrative and the underlying fact seemed simply too good to check.