What We Know Now: The Jan. 6 Hearings | Opinion

A few things about the proceedings of the Jan. 6 Committee are already evident, although it appears there's a good deal more to come.

From a historical perspective, it was an irresponsible blunder for the Republican leadership to scupper a bipartisan commission to investigate the events of Jan. 6. Such a commission was needed to bind up the nation's wounds, to heal, and to prevent a renewal of the nauseating events of that day from ever happening again.

Sometimes the right thing is also the politically expedient thing; it's the job of the statesman to find those intersections, even to bring them about. The Republican leadership didn't want a commission, however bipartisan, or any discussion for that matter on the subject of Jan. 6. They wanted to focus on inflation, the subject that would most help them in the midterm elections. Moreover, as a general strategy, the Republicans took what might be best described in psychological terms: It was hard to say nothing happened, but the means of coping with the trauma were so threatening that it was better to minimize the events altogether. That attitude set up a second blunder.

From a political perspective, it was absolute madness to insist that if two members of the House, vetoed from serving on the committee by the speaker on the grounds that they were likely to be called as witnesses, nevertheless be named as committee members. When the speaker refused to include them along with several other nominees by the House minority leader, his reaction was to withdraw all Republican participation.

This betrayed a mindless assessment even of his own interests. It is said that former President Donald Trump pulled his trademark hair out over this. "Where are my defenders?" he is said to rage. Trump may not be especially knowledgeable about constitutional norms, but he knows his TV. Allowing free primetime programs to be handed over to the former head of ABC News would be suicidal. Fox recognized this right away and simply acted as though nothing was happening with the hearings, refusing to broadcast them. Now the committee can expand the length of the hearings, contract out its production values to seasoned professionals, carefully edit the clips all without any on-air adversary, much less the interference that usually turns committee hearings into a bore. Imagine the star of The Apprentice being quizzed by his employees; suppose they could shout, "You're fired!" "Has the world gone mad?" our late producer-in-chief must be asking.

From a legal perspective, the hearings have established the evidentiary basis for concluding that Jan. 6 was only one event in a long campaign of constitutional attacks by Donald Trump to ensure that whatever the outcome of the election, he would be returned to office.

Roughly speaking there are two attitudes about law in America, and both have their place. One views law as a set of hurdles to be overcome, neither wrong nor right, but simply rules that must be mastered so they can be complied with, at a minimum amount of expense, monetary or otherwise. Rules can be changed—that's what lobbyists are for—but there is no intrinsic goodness or fairness about a regulation that requires a taxpayer to disclose his income for the purposes of assessing an income tax. Another perspective sees law as a moral and ethical quest. The very pursuit is the point. The majesty of the law is not exalted simply by predictability but by purpose. Here Trump, the disruptor, is something of a hybrid. He wishes to reform the law, or at a minimum, undermine its predictability for no higher good than aggrandizing himself. It would have been idle not to foresee that he would use the power of the presidency to undermine its unquestioned legitimacy in order to reverse a political failure of his own.

The U.S. Capitol is pictured
The U.S. Capitol is pictured. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

That may be cold comfort to those who despise that system, the Swamp, the Blob, the State (Deep or otherwise), but it is good news for the country.

The past few months have witnessed a sustained assault on our constitutional institutions that is unprecedented in my lifetime. The threats to the U.S. Supreme Court to pack its membership or strip its power of judicial review can only originate in immense frustration—to which the abortion decision will certainly add—because they are so patently self-destructive of the true ideals of those urging such would-be "reforms." The violent assault on the Capitol and Congress were also an assault on the presidency and the legitimacy of the incoming president. Who would have thought that such an attack on that institution would come from an incumbent?

There are reports that the White House appealed to the municipal authorities in Washington to change the date of the Stop the Steal rally from Jan. 21, the day after the inauguration to Jan. 6, the day the electoral count vote was to happen; and also to change the venue of the rally so that the space around the Capitol could be added to that of the Ellipse for which a permit had been originally sought. If these allegations are proved, in light of all the other evidence the committee has released, it is hard to see how the most memorable act of Trump's presidency will not have been the attempted destruction of that institution.

Philip C. Bobbitt is a professor at Columbia Law School and director of its Center for National Security. He is the author of The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.