The Jan. 6 hearings are often compared to the Watergate hearings, but they shouldn’t be because the Watergate hearings tried to get to the truth. These new hearings just seek to “Get Trump.” Here’s my new column from Real Clear Politics.
Hardly a day goes by when some dyspeptic George Will-type doesn’t solemnly invoke the Watergate hearings as the only precedent for the House Jan. 6 committee hearings chaired by Rep. Benny Thompson.
I knew Sam Ervin, and Benny Thompson is no Sam Ervin. OK, I didn’t really know Senator Sam, but like millions of others I watched him chair the Senate Watergate Committee, and I got to know and trust him for his fairness, his sense of humor, and his humility.
Those are three qualities that are not just lacking in Thompson, but mysteriously absent from every member of the House Select Committee to Investigate the Attack on the United States Capitol (hereinafter known as the Get Trump Committee).
If you were looking for a word to describe Thompson, Adam Schiff, Liz Cheney, and Adam Kinzinger, how about smug, sanctimonious, self-satisfied? Take your pick. Any of them would accurately describe the demeanor and character of all the members of the Jan. 6 committee. In fact, the current committee is as far from the Watergate committee that was investigating campaign practices of President Nixon as a monkey is from a monk.
Start with this forgotten fact: The Watergate Committee was created by a unanimous vote of the Senate, truly bipartisan and truly reflective of a national mandate to learn the truth about the Watergate break-in. The Get Trump Committee was created by a vote of 222-190 in the House, with only two Republicans voting to support the partisan assault on President Trump – namely Cheney and Kinzinger, both of whom had earlier voted to impeach Trump and who had already made up their minds that he was a danger to the country.
The Watergate Committee had Republicans selected by the Senate minority leader to serve on the committee to ensure that Republican President Richard Nixon got fair treatment. The Get Trump Committee has only two Trump-hating Republicans among its members, namely the aforementioned Cheney and Kinzinger, who were selected not by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy but by the Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. McCarthy had originally appointed five members to the committee, but then withdrew those after Pelosi refused to seat two of them because they made it known that they would actually ensure that President Trump’s rights were protected in the hearings.
As currently constituted the committee has afforded Donald Trump no rights whatsoever. There is no minority counsel. There is no ranking member. There is no Republican-appointed legal staff working to challenge the narrative put forth by the Trump-hating majority. Worst of all, there is no cross-examination. Of course not. After all, cross-examination has been called the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth. If you aren’t after the truth, you don’t allow cross-examination. Just ask Stalin.
Another point of divergence: The Watergate Committee did its most important work in public, whereas the Get Trump Committee does its questioning in secret, only bringing witnesses into the light of day when they have been sanitized, groomed, and sworn to the proposition that Trump is a danger to the republic. Most of the witnesses are reduced to sound bites and snippets that have been clipped and collected out of hours of testimony, then shaped into a pastiche of anti-Trump paranoia. The few witnesses who are deemed suitable for prime time face no challenges, no hard questioning to test their stories, but just the fawning appreciation of Thompson and Cheney for sticking to the approved narrative: Orange Man Bad.
So despite the recurring appearances of Watergate figures John Dean and Carl Bernstein on TV hyping the current investigation, there is nothing remotely appropriate in the comparison.
A more fitting parallel to the Jan. 6 committee hearings, and yet one that the mainstream media assiduously avoids, is the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s when Sen. Joe McCarthy and his allies sought to demolish the reputations of their political enemies, up to and including President Dwight Eisenhower.
McCarthy rose to fame in 1950 when he announced he had a secret list of 205 officials in the State Department who were communists. This was shocking news, and as the United States fought the war against communism in Korea, McCarthy stoked fears of a Fifth Column in our own government that was working against our democratic interests. He parlayed his unsubstantiated claim into a powerful political weapon and was put in charge of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, where Sens. Susan Collins and Carl Levin later said, “McCarthy’s zeal to uncover subversion and espionage led to disturbing excesses. His browbeating tactics destroyed careers of people who were not involved in the infiltration of our government.”
Consider the similarity to the Get Trump Committee’s paranoid narrative about thousands of “insurrectionists” in and out of the government. They are the scapegoats for a brazen plan to crush Trump and foil his obvious intention to return to the White House via the 2024 election. Under the guise of an investigation into the violence of Jan. 6, the Democrats are abusing the powers of Congress to wage war on free speech, free thought, and free elections.
But we can and must hope that the Get Trump Committee will follow the same ruinous arc as the McCarthy investigation. First McCarthy’s committee used lies, smears, and innuendo to destroy the lives of innocent Americans, but then those lies boomeranged and brought down both McCarthy and his power-mad crusade after he targeted not just the State Department but also the U.S. Army.
With McCarthy in charge, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in the fall of 1953 started to look into supposed improprieties in the Army Signal Corps as well as the personal lives of a variety of military personnel. But by the spring of the following year, McCarthy’s own behavior came into question when the Army accused him of trying to get special privileges for a former member of his staff who had been drafted. It was this that led to McCarthy’s downfall when the Senate ordered an investigation into the senator’s tactics and ethics.
The so-called Army-McCarthy hearings were raw, dramatic, and televised live, not in the style of the Get Trump Committee’s “show trial” setting, but as unscripted psychodrama with McCarthy’s penchant for persecution on full display to the nation.
Most famous, of course, was attorney Joseph Welch’s defense of a young lawyer in his firm who had once belonged to a radical trial lawyers guild and whom McCarthy tried to use to smear Welch himself as a harborer of communists.
Welch’s famous response to the attack on his colleague was the beginning of the end for McCarthy:
“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty, or your recklessness. … If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty, I would do so. I like to think I’m a gentle man, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me. … Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. … You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Although the investigation largely cleared McCarthy of wrong-doing in his claims about the Army, his popularity plummeted as the nation watched the unbalanced performance of a man who would say anything to destroy his enemies, truth be damned.
I have little doubt that a similar fate would await Rep. Cheney and her colleagues on the Get Trump Committee were they brave enough to invite witnesses in for live testimony in front of the television cameras. But they are not brave. They do not permit Trump’s aides and allies to face their accusers publicly, nor do they allow the calling of witnesses to exonerate the former president.
They are afraid to admit that Trump asked his supporters to march “peacefully and patriotically” to the Capitol. They will never call Nancy Pelosi to the stand to defend her own lapses of judgment on Jan. 6, nor will they ask the FBI to explain their use of informants in the crowd that day. They certainly don’t want to acknowledge the many irregularities in the 2020 presidential election, all of which seemed to benefit Joe Biden.
No, this is not the equivalent of a Watergate hearing, nor even the detestable McCarthy hearings. In both of those, there was due process that allowed the truth to be sought in a fair and impartial manner.
Ironically, it was Sam Ervin himself who was one of the people responsible for ending the witch hunt that McCarthy had unleashed on America. Just one month after Ervin was appointed senator from North Carolina in 1954, he was named by none other than Vice President Richard Nixon to join a bipartisan committee of three Republican senators and three Democratic senators who would decide whether McCarthy deserved to be censured by the full Senate for his outrageous behavior.
Even in that role, where as a Democratic senator he could have tried to railroad McCarthy for his own gain, Ervin insisted on seeing that his political enemy received fair treatment, including the right to cross-examine witnesses against him and to be investigated in open hearings.
Ervin declared at the time: “It is important that all persons concerned have a fair shake.”
That is one thing you will never hear Liz Cheney say, and it is certainly something that Donald Trump has never received from the media, from Democrats in Congress, from his own Justice Department, or from this committee.
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