By Jeff Zeleny, Chief National Affairs Correspondent
Before the congressional hearings this month, Franzetta Ivy offered private prayers for the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, hopeful that all Americans would watch the historic proceedings with open minds.
“I prayed for the best outcome — that God’s will, not my will or anybody else’s will, be done,” said Ivy, a pastor and a Democratic voter in the suburbs of Atlanta. “I prayed that they would tune in and watch, so they can see for themselves. You don’t just go by what somebody says, you should investigate and search it out to see for yourself.”
While millions have watched this month as the first four televised hearings have shed an unsparing light on former President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election, it’s far from certain whether Ivy’s prayers have been answered.
Conversations with Democrats in Atlanta and Republicans in the surrounding suburbs this week provide a reality check for the high bar facing the House committee in breaking through at a moment of extreme polarization.
Many Americans seem to have simply tuned out, with Republicans citing their disdain for the mostly Democratic makeup of the committee, lack of interest in yet another divisive act from Washington or the simple fact of being busy with summer and exhausted with politics.
“I really think they are just after Trump,” said Bill Kumle, a Republican retiree out for an afternoon walk here earlier this week. “They’re not after the truth.”
A half-century after Watergate captivated the country and ultimately led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation, the remarkable revelations of the House select committee are competing with other distractions in a deeply divided nation.
A new Quinnipiac University Poll found that nearly 6 in 10 Americans are following news about the work of the committee at least somewhat closely, although only about one-quarter say they are following it very closely. So far, the poll found, the hearings do not seem to be changing minds about whether Trump committed a crime, with 46% of adults saying he did and 47% saying he did not.
Early measures of the hearings’ impact and comparisons to Watergate may be fraught, given the vast differences in how Americans consume news and information today, with much of the January 6 committee testimony designed to be shared on social media. More than 20 million TV viewers watched the first prime-time hearing on June 9, according to estimates, while television viewership fell to about half that for the subsequent daytime hearings.
The findings — so far, at least — are largely seen through a familiar partisan lens that has dominated the Trump era.
“The committee overall is swayed more on the liberal side than the conservative side and it’s not something that interests me,” said George Nozick, who has been picking up bits and pieces of the hearing through news accounts. “With inflation, gas, the border and everything else, I choose to take it easy.”
Nozick is among the Republicans in Georgia who have never believed Trump’s false claims that he won the state, which is again emerging as a crucial battleground in November’s midterm elections. And Nozick believes the former President crossed a line when he called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger looking “to find 11,780 votes” to usurp the will of the voters. Republican voters in the Peach State rebuked Trump’s efforts to oust Raffensperger — along with GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, who also had rebuffed Trump’s entreaties to overturn the 2020 election — in primaries earlier this year.
“Our ex-President is just focused on his own wants and needs,” Nozick said. “To me, that’s not good. You’ve got to move on and accept what is and go on from there.”
Even so, Nozick said he did not see the value in the committee’s investigation. He said he would read its final conclusions but that he’d prefer for the country and his party to move on.
Bipartisan admiration for Pence
Interviews with people from both parties found widespread support for former Vice President Mike Pence and admiration for his conduct overseeing the certification of the Electoral College vote for Joe Biden as the Capitol was under siege.
“I’m not a big Mike Pence fan, but I really respect what Mike Pence did,” said Frank Richards, a retired Democrat who was eating lunch as the hearings played on television at Manuel’s, an Atlanta tavern. “I really think he was extremely brave to go back into the Capitol with folks who wanted to lynch him and carry through with his responsibilities.”
Ruth Atkinson, a Republican who believes the hearings are a waste of her time and the government’s money, echoed that praise for the former vice president.
“I think Pence had to do what he did,” Atkinson said. “I think he saw what was going on and I think he spoke the truth.”
Despite new details of the lengths Trump and his allies went to try to overturn the election results, even after Attorney General William Barr and others inside the White House and the campaign advised against those schemes, Atkinson and many other Republicans blasted the committee as partisan.
“I’m not a fan of Liz Cheney. I don’t know why she’s doing this,” Atkinson said. “She’s gone over to the Democratic side.”
The criticism of Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who is vice chair of the committee, echoed across virtually every interview with a GOP voter. Cheney, along with GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, has been relentlessly targeted by Trump and his loyalists.
Richard Bianco, a Republican here who said he had voted for Trump in 2016 but not in his bid for reelection, said he wished the Justice Department were conducting the hearings and investigating, rather than Congress. The department is conducting its own investigation, but not through public hearings.
“By going through Congress, nothing is going to get done quickly,” Bianco said. “I’m a Republican and a lot of people need to be held accountable, but we’re not getting anywhere.”
Harvey and Patricia Newman of Atlanta said they have watched nearly every moment of the hearings in Washington, even recording the sessions if they are not at home.
“I would like to hope that people of all political persuasions understand the threat that this represents and what we need to do as a nation to prevent this from ever happening again,” said Harvey Newman, a retired college professor, who praised the committee’s thoroughness.
“This is an attack on our democracy,” said Patricia Newman, a retired financial adviser, chatting as she finished lunch before the hearing began on Tuesday. “I do not think the Watergate hearings rose to that level or even close.”
The Newmans, both Democrats, said finding the truth for history is important, but even more so for protecting the integrity of future elections.
“I hope it’s more than just for history,” said Patricia Newman, who believes the hearings should result in criminal charges for some top officials. “If they get off, I can’t tell you how worried I am about 2024.”
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