Republicans still supporting Donald Trump were a target audience for all eight of the Jan. 6 committee’s recent hearings. But on Thursday night, Rep. Liz Cheney used her closing remarks to appeal to that group directly.
“The case against Donald Trump in these hearings is not made by witnesses who were his political enemies,” said Cheney, a Wyoming Republican and the committee’s vice chair. “It is instead a series of confessions by Donald Trump’s own appointees, his own friends, his own campaign officials, people who worked for him for years, and his own family.”
The hearing on Thursday detailed Trump’s repeated refusal to quell the deadly mob, even when he knew that some of them were armed and that Vice President Mike Pence’s life was in danger. Cheney suggested the former President’s supporters should view his behavior related to that day as disqualifying for future office as many of Trump’s former allies do.
“Can a president who is willing to make the choices Donald Trump made during the violence of January 6th ever be trusted with any position of authority in our great nation again?” she asked.
Thursday’s hearing continued the drumbeat of revelations over six weeks of testimony. Yet none of it so far has shown to markedly dent Trump’s approval ratings among Republican voters, which remains firmly in the mid-80s. And whenever the former President holds a public appearance, he still manages to draw supporters by the thousands.
In other words, he remains the biggest star in his party by a long shot.
And yet, the hearings appear to have inflicted some political damage on Trump. GOP strategists are seeing signs that his grip on the party is easing slightly. While polling data confirms Republican voters still like Trump, it also shows that more of them are now open to backing a different presidential candidate for 2024, even if Trump chooses to throw his hat in the ring for a third time.
“A lot more Republicans today than before the hearings have started to say, ‘No, I think we can find someone who has less baggage—-who will do the same kinds of things that I want,” says Whit Ayers, a Republican pollster and political consultant.
Thursday night’s hearing included new searing moments of Trump’s disinterest in helping end the violence unfolding on Capitol Hill. Video showed how he ad-libbed support for the rioters while recording a video message in the late afternoon of Jan. 6, as his supporters continued to engage in hand-to-hand combat with police at the Capitol. Trump told them to “go home” but also validated their behavior by saying the election was “stolen” and calling the violent mob “very special” and saying “we love you.”.
The committee also showed video outtakes from Jan. 7, when Trump recorded a video message that aides had scripted to tell the public he knew the election had ended. He refused to go that far. “I don’t want to say the election is over,” Trump says to aides in the room, including his daughter, Ivanka Trump. “I just want to say that Congress has certified the results without saying the election’s over, OK?”
Earlier in the hearing, investigators played video footage and radio transmissions showing Pence’s Secret Service detail frantically trying to find a clear path to evacuate him from a room near the Senate Chamber as a violent mob stood off against Capitol Police officers steps away. A national security official who had listened to the radio transmissions that day told the committee that members of Pence’s security detail felt they were in such life threatening danger, that they passed along messages to tell their loved ones if they didn’t survive.
Ayers says that it’s become “an article of faith” among Republicans that only Democrats are watching the hearings. But even if many Republicans are not watching them, they have not been able to avoid learning about the information coming out of them.
“Much of the testimony is so compelling and so shocking that it seeps into the political water,” Ayers says.
A former Trump White House official says the clearest impact on Trump politically can be seen in the Republican Party’s powerful donor base, many of whom have been “rattled” by the barrage of testimony that has cast the White House after the 2020 election as chaotic and Trump as out of control.
The official, who asked not to be named to avoid angering Trump and other members of his inner circle, says a consistent reaction has been, “Wow, it was more effed up than I realized.”
The hearings have also raised questions among some large GOP donors about the polling that suggests Trump would be tough to beat in a Republican primary, and whether it may be masking a broader weariness among his base.
“Does Trump have more of a glass jaw now than people realize?” the former official said.
A different former aide to Trump said that the hearings were unlikely to have changed many minds among Republicans. “I don’t think it moved anybody,” the former aide said. “Donald Trump lived his life for 30 years on the pages of the New York tabloids before he ever ran for office. Everybody knew who he was. We knew the bargain.” But the former aide acknowledged that some Republicans are looking for a candidate who is not Trump. “There’s a segment of people who would be like, ‘If we could get Trump policies without the drama, I would take that,’” says the former aide. But there is concern that no candidate who fits that mold could win an election. Few potential Republican challengers have ever had to go head to head against Trump and face the type of withering political attacks Trump built his career on.
The hearings began on June 9. Surveys released at the beginning of the month and on June 29 from Morning Consult/Politico found Trump’s support in 2024 from Republican voters held steady at 53%. But Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s support over those two surveys grew, from 16% to 22%. The same late-June poll found 51% of GOP voters think Trump should continue to play a “major role” in the Republican Party, down from 60% in mid-May, before the Jan. 6 hearings began.
For some former Trump supporters, the evidence presented by the committee has been impossible to ignore. Jeff Leach, a Republican in the Texas House of Representatives representing part of Collins County in the outskirts of Dallas, was a supporter of Trump throughout his presidency. On Twitter Thursday evening, he revealed he reached a “turning point” when he saw how Trump turned on Pence, who had been a “fiercely loyal” vice president. “That was THE moment for me,” Leach wrote, adding: “we Republicans need someone else running for President in 2024.”
The committee’s work isn’t done. The Jan. 6 committee will spend August “pursuing emerging new information on multiple fronts,” Cheney said. She pointed out that the committee has repeatedly succeeded in court in overcoming immunity and executive privilege claims. New witnesses have come forward, she added, and more information is coming in. “Doors have opened, new subpoenas have been issued and the dam has begun to break,” Cheney said.
Shifting perceptions of Trump’s actions around Jan. 6, and the possibility that he may be prosecuted for it, have colored discussions over whether he should run again, and, if so, when he should announce. As the Republican Party works to leverage Joe Biden’s dismal approval ratings into a takeover of the House and maybe even the Senate, Trump could throw a wrench in those plans by announcing before the mid-terms, as he’s repeatedly hinted he might.
“The Republican’s best case is to make the midterms a referendum on the Biden Administration’s leadership and the Democrats’ leadership,” Ayers says.
“But if Donald Trump announces before the midterms, it allows the Democrats to make it more of a choice, and take some of the focus away from the failures of the Biden administration and the rock bottom job approval ratings for Joe Biden.”
Such a shift “would certainly help the Democrats,” Ayers adds.