Drunk Rudy. Loser Trump. How the Jan. 6 hearings’ wild comedy weakens the Big Lie
Insurrection is no joke. But it was hard not to laugh during the Jan. 6 Committee’s public hearings on Monday as the theme of Day 2 came into focus: the truth behind The Big Lie. Witness after witness testified to the outlandish schemes, absurd conspiracy theories and drunken advice President Trump used to falsely declare he’d won the 2020 election.
What emerged was a picture of a Trump White House whose alternate reality makes “Veep’s” fictional Selena Meyer look like a policy wonk: There were “the suspicious black suitcase”; ballot mules; rigged voting machines; deep state operatives; armies of dead voters; a deceased Venezuelan communist conspiring to sink the incumbent. Peter Sellers couldn’t have concocted a more deranged flight of fancy.
The televised hearing, helmed by Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), signaled a tonal shift from the violence and horror of the attack on the Capitol documented in Thursday’s emotional, prime-time premiere. The proceedings delivered on the committee’s promise to examine the events that led to the attempted coup in clear installments, or episodes. “Trump rejected the advice of his campaign experts on election night, and instead followed the course recommended by an apparently inebriated Rudy Giuliani to just claim that he won,” said Vice Chairwoman Liz Cheney’s (R-Wyo.) in her opening statement, setting up viewers for a juicy segment examining the former New York mayor‘s role. (Giuliani’s attorney denied that he was drunk to CNN.)
Preferring substance over spectacle, real emotion over grandstanding, the first night of the Jan. 6 hearings successfully grabbed America’s attention.
Like any compelling TV series, levity is critical to keeping viewers invested in an otherwise heavy story. Audiences can only take so much trauma before they turn away, especially when the story is still unfolding. Consciously or not, Monday’s live broadcast wove comic relief into a larger narrative of powerful men behaving badly and once again showed that the hearings are a far cry from the usual political theater. Instead, the committee highlighted the ludicrous culture inside the Oval Office and underscored the absurdity of the Big Lie.
Through the sworn statements of close aides, advisers and family members, including Ivanka Trump, we learned that many in Trump’s inner circle knew and voiced that such assertions were dangerous, and those who pushed the lie were fueled by an intoxicating mix of malfeasance, corruption and hubris. Testifying to the flimsiness of the “Stop the Steal” campaign, former lawyer for the Trump White House Eric Herschmann told the committee he confronted John Eastman, the attorney behind the election fraud strategy, the day after the Capitol riot. “I said to him, ‘Are you out of your effing mind? I only want to hear two words coming out of your mouth from now on: orderly transition.’” In another clip, former Atty. Gen. William Barr spoke to the ridiculousness of the fraud claims directly, calling them “silly” and “bogus.”
Live witnesses included former Fox News digital political director Chris Stirewalt, veteran GOP election lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg, Byung J. “BJay” Pak, the former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia who resigned following the leak of a recorded phone call in which Trump pressured state officials in Georgia to “find” enough votes to overturn Biden’s victory there, and Al Schmidt, a Republican former city commissioner in Philadelphia. And in a twist that seemed to have pulled out of a sitcom comedy, former Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien was unable to testify live because his wife went into labor. (In a deposition clip, he positioned himself and his allies as “Team Normal” in the effort to stop the “rigged election” nonsense spouted by Giuliani and company.
Those who were able to testify in person not only established that the former president and his associates knew he’d lost the 2020 election and still pushed claims of election fraud for political and financial gain. They also showed that Trump and his cronies did so with the subtlety of the Keystone Kops.
A series of congressional hearings about the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol have been televised. Here’s what you need to know.
Stirewalt testified in the hall that once Arizona was called for Biden in 2020, he knew the chance of some kind of fraud overturning the election was almost nonexistent: “He needed three states, and in order to do that … you’re better off to play the Powerball than have that come in.” In Schmidt’s description, the president’s claim that 8,000 dead people voted in Philadelphia was “fantastical” and “absurd” — but the consequences of Trump’s wrath, including threats from the president’s followers, was all too real. And Ginsberg pointed to the almost laughable chasm between the Trump camp’s claims and the truth: Not only was the 2020 election not nearly as close as they claimed, of more than 60 cases that included more than 180 fraud claims, not one was found credible in a court of law.
The hearing closed with a video presentation revealing how Trump and associates used The Big Lie to raise $250 million from people for bogus efforts such as the “election defense fund” — a nonexistent operation.
“Not only was there The Big Lie, there was The Big Ripoff,” said Lofgren. And the title for a forthcoming comedy show based on the hearings was born.
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