Whenever the January 6th Committee has said that it was “considering” subpoenaing this or that Trump aide, Palmer Report has pointed out that this meant the committee was absolutely 100% going to subpoena that person; this kind of language is merely meant to allow the committee to appear judicious in its decision making process in the eyes of the voters in the middle.
Sure enough, subpoenas went out yesterday to the likes of Steve Bannon, Dan Scavino, and Mark Meadows (and yes, to answer your next question, the committee will absolutely end up subpoenaing Donald Trump). But this very good news was immediately met with shouts of “they’ll never show up to testify” from defeatists on social media who very much appear to want to lose, so they can feel the most rage. Here’s the thing.
The defeatists have this fascinatingly simplistic view of how politics works. In their eye, both sides always have a magic wand that can be waved to produce any results at any time. To the hear the defeatists tell it, the Republicans are always going to wave the magic wand and “get away with it all.” And the Democrats are always refusing to wave their magic wand, which is why they need to “grow a spine.”
This is, of course, how a seven year old might think politics works. But because the defeatists are so clinically addicted to wanting to feel the outrage of losing, wanting to feel clever by predicting that the other side will magically get away with it all, and wanting to foam at the mouth about how their own side is blowing it, it doesn’t matter that the political worldview they’ve laid out is that of a child. It only matters that this childlike framework allows them to convince themselves that they’re justified in predicting total loss, so they can feel outrage over it.
Unfortunately, because so many political activists are so clinically addicted to this kind of doomsday outrage, far too many major pundits (on TV and online) make a career out of pandering to this nonsense. These doomsday pundits do extraordinary damage by feeding the defeatist beast instead of attempting to steer the defeatists toward political sanity.
So of course we’re already seeing predictions about how these subpoenaed individuals will just not show up to testify and magically get away with it. But nothing comes within a million miles of working that way. Remember when the doomsday pundits all insisted that Bill Barr would never show up and testify to Congress? He ended up testifying, as most congressionally subpoenaed individuals do.
In reality, fighting a congressional subpoena in court is a drawn out process that requires fancy lawyers in court and ends up being very expensive. For that matter, people like Bannon need free publicity to draw attention to their online propaganda empires. Of course the subpoenaed individuals will have to weigh the possibility of incriminating themselves during their testimony, which is why these things are layered and nuanced and come down to a matter of leverage – not the simplistic magic wand explanations.
Most likely, some of the people subpoenaed today will end up testifying when they’re supposed to, and some won’t – and that’ll be a win for the committee. They don’t need to score with every witness they target; they’re not teachers taking attendance. They just need to land enough witnesses in order to make the case they need to make to the viewing public.
One crucial detail that most pundits leave out is that congressional investigations are not criminal probes. That’s right, of all the congressional hearings and probes you’ve ever tuned in for, not one of them has ever been a criminal investigation. Officially, congressional probes are fact-finding missions. Their practical goal is to educate the public and change the minds of voters. But they can (and do) make criminal referrals to the Department of Justice, which is a big part of the strategy.
Even once some of these witnesses do opt to show up and testify, that’s when the doomsday pundits will move the goal posts by insisting that the witnesses will either lie or plead the Fifth, and this will magically get them off the hook. But these are actually good things. When a hostile witness invokes the Fifth Amendment on live national television, that just tells everyone watching at home that the witness is guilty of something, and that the committee’s assertions are true.
And if a witness gets caught lying to Congress, that’s a felony. The committee can then either use that as leverage to pressure the witness into coming back and telling the damaging truth (this worked with Gordon Sondland during impeachment), or the committee can make a perjury referral to the DOJ and send that person to prison. Of course the defeatists have a response to that; they’ve already made the false claim that Attorney General Merrick Garland has decided to let the January 6th ringleaders off the hook. But that’s simply a made-up doomsday narrative, and there’s no evidence to support it. If the committee makes legitimate criminal referrals, there is every reason to expect that the DOJ will bring charges accordingly.
It’s important to keep in mind that once a hostile witness is actually testifying to Congress, it often plays to a draw. The committee leaders manage to trip up the witness into accidentally admitting to some damaging truths, while the witness manages to give airtime to a few misleading narratives. It’s often the build-up to the testimony where the real action happens behind the scenes. A witness might offer to turn over certain evidence in exchange for being allowed to testify in private, and so on. In such case the committee will have to determine whether the witness is bluffing when he threatens to spend his life savings dragging out the subpoena in court. These are all nuanced judgment calls, but of course the doomsday pundits seize upon them as opportunities to claim that the Democrats are “weak” and “caving” and such. Again, this stuff reads like it’s straight out of a child’s storytime – but the doomsday pundits are only ever trying to appeal to your emotions, not to your brain cells.
The bottom line is that the committee only needs to successfully lean on a fraction of these individuals to publicly testify, and it’ll be a win. The only determining factor in the success of such hearings is how many minds were changed in the audience at home (neither base ever changes its mind; it’s only the voters in the middle who matter in these situations). And if any of the witnesses either plead the Fifth or get caught lying, that’s a huge bonus. But no matter how this plays out, most liberal pundits will spin it as a loss for the Democrats, because that’s the narrative that scares and outrages liberal activists into staying tuned in day after day. It just doesn’t have anything to do with the reality of how politics works or what’s really going on.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report