WASHINGTON — Rachel Paine Caufield was telling a conservative friend about her evening plans: catching up on the latest instalment of the hearings into the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riots.
Sure, it's not "Game of Thrones," but the congressional spectacle has nonetheless made for riveting television thus far, and the Drake University politics professor wanted to be ready for questions about the potential impact on midterm elections this November.
"His response was very clear," Caufield said, laughing at the recollection. "He said, 'Has anyone called to ask you how $5-a-gallon gas is going to affect the midterms?'"
That, in a nutshell, is the problem for embattled Democrats: as campaign issues go, nothing — not abortion, not guns, not even a violent and potentially illegal effort to subvert the U.S. Constitution — trumps the political rocket fuel that inflation is giving their rivals.
"The general idea here is that somehow or another, a group of people who otherwise support Trump and believe that the 2020 election is a lie will suddenly change their opinion when presented with this evidence," Caufield said.
"I don't think that's ever going to happen."
On Thursday, the third public session since the select committee of U.S. lawmakers made its prime-time, made-for-TV debut June 9, there was a clear effort to resonate with viewers in a way that congressional hearings hadn't done since Watergate half a century ago.
Slick new graphics, the seamless integration of riot footage and video testimony and a measured, well-paced narrative all gave the proceedings a sense of urgency and drama — the product, presumably, of hiring former ABC News president James Goldston to produce the spectacle.
Thursday's episode focused on former vice-president Mike Pence, a self-described "born-again, evangelical Catholic" whose ceremonial role during the joint session of Congress on that fateful day made him the centre of attention — and the hero of the piece.
Pence, of course, had been under pressure for weeks from Trump to reject the Electoral College votes from a number of states that day on the basis of the outgoing president's fabricated claims that the 2020 election had been stolen. His refusal to do so enraged the rioters outside.
The committee saw newly released photos of Pence, from the safety of an underground location deep in the Capitol complex, reading a tweet from Trump accusing him of betrayal, even as a mob of protesters was running throughout the building and demanding, "Bring out Pence."
Secret Service agents, meanwhile, were rebuffed by the vice-president in their efforts to spirit him away from the complex to safety, his former counsel Greg Jacob testified.
Pence "did not want to take any chance that the world would see the vice-president of the United States fleeing the U.S. Capitol," Jacob said. "He was determined that we would complete the work that we had set out to do that day, that it was his constitutional duty to see through."
Every hero needs a villain, and the committee produced not Trump, but John Eastman, the law professor who put forward a now-debunked legal theory that a loosely worded constitutional amendment would give Pence the wiggle room necessary to do the president's bidding.
Eastman's theories amounted to little more than "constitutional mischief" that was "incorrect at every turn," testified J. Michael Luttig, a former federal judge whose own advice on that day helped to inform Pence's decision to stand firm.
Eastman later asked to be considered for a presidential pardon — a request that went unheeded.
But if the Democrats getting hammered in the midterms is a foregone conclusion, what's the point of persisting? Caufield said there are likely several.
In the U.S., midterm elections always include a wide slate of state and regional contests, and Democrats may be thinking in terms of saving the furniture in those elections where President Joe Biden's abysmal approval ratings will be less of a factor, she said.
And then there's the money.
"I don't think it's the Trump supporters that the committee is trying to speak to, I think it's a group of Republican donors," Caufield said, reminding them that Trump's nomination for the 2024 presidential ticket is still not a fait accompli.
"It's kind of saying, 'Don't acquiesce. Here's all the evidence. We want you to remember that there are real consequences when Donald Trump becomes the party nominee.'"
Melissa Haussman, a political science professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, suggested there may be more granular political opportunism at play among members of the select committee — particularly Rep. Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who is persona non grata with her own party.
On Monday, Cheney and committee chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, disagreed publicly on the question of whether the committee's findings with regards to Trump himself would be referred to the Department of Justice.
Thompson is trying to get re-elected in a state that "has become pretty Republican in recent decades," Haussman said, which may be why he's slow-walking the idea of pursuing criminal charges against the former president.
Cheney, on the other hand, is striking a different tone. Polls suggest she is trailing her challenger in advance of the Republican primary later this summer, but it's an open primary, which means Democrats and Republicans alike can vote, Haussman said.
"In the general election, though, I think it's looking pretty bad for the Democrats."
The committee is scheduled to reconvene again Tuesday, when it will focus on Trump's efforts in the days preceding the riots to convince state legislators to reject the results of the election.
The panel will hear from Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state in Georgia who famously sparred with Trump in a conference call just days before the riots, rebuffing the president's demand to "find 11,780 votes" — one more than the margin of Trump's defeat in the state.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2022.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press