Richard II, who considered himself “in heavenly pay.” Julius Caesar, who believed that he was as “constant as the Northern Star.” Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear, who was asked to commit a heinous act and is told, “To be tender-minded/Does not become a Sword.”
Tuesday’s U.S. congressional hearings into the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection – marked by startling revelations about the role militant extremists played in former president Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election and damaging testimony by former White House counsel Pat Cipollone – had several Shakespearean elements.
Measure for measure, these hearings – including Tuesday’s accounts of an “unhinged” Trump White House meeting; strategic co-ordination among Trump insiders, among them onetime presidential confidante Roger Stone and violent groups; and extremist calls for “a red wedding” at the Capitol, a colloquial term for mass slaughter – have laid out a staggering portrayal.
They show a president who was determined to retain power in a political system that prizes grace in the defeated, and who enlisted the assistance of both willing conspirators from the heart of public life and violent marauders at, and beyond, the fringes of respectable society.
But despite the accounts of the mobilization by Mr. Trump of radical groups Oath Keepers and Proud Boys that were aired in the most recent instalment, there remains the haunting notion that the committee may have proceeded, in the phrase uttered by Othello, “not wisely but too well.”
One of the most searing questions has gone unanswered: Has this enterprise, conducted by seven Democratic regulars and two Republican rebels, diminished its impact by making itself vulnerable to charges that it is a partisan exercise that began with a conclusion and proceeded to find evidence to support it?
From the start, principals and commentators alike have compared these hearings with the Watergate scandal and the 1974 inquiry that led to the House Judiciary Committee reporting out three articles of impeachment against former president Richard Nixon. Much of the power of that action came from the presence of 17 Republicans on the panel.
But the current inquiry includes no one remotely corresponding to figures such as Representatives Ed Hutchinson of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the committee; Tom Railsback of Illinois, who credited Mr. Nixon with his election to Congress; or M. Caldwell Butler of Virginia, who had been a friendly guest of the Nixons in the White House family quarters. They, and four other Republicans, voted for at least one of the articles of impeachment against Mr. Nixon.
“The hearings will be viewed in the future as a flawed partisan exercise,” said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College and co-editor of The Trump Effect: Disruption and Its Consequences in U.S. Politics and Government, published earlier this year.
And though Mr. Schier said he believes “they will also be understood to have uncovered disturbing details about President Trump’s behavior on January 6,” the committee’s proceedings lack the credibility conferred by a bipartisan inquiry, even if all the Republicans beyond Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois – both of whom voted to impeach Mr. Trump in 2021 – were to dissent from the rest of the panel.
Kenneth Khachigian, a long-time Nixon aide who moved to San Clemente, Calif., two months after the president’s resignation to assist him with his memoirs, blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for stacking the committee by blocking House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s two selections for the panel – a decision that prompted him to urge his Republican members to boycott the committee.
“Her unwillingness to provide political balance on the committee and offer even a shred of fairness and bipartisanship will diminish its credibility and its place in history,” Mr. Khachigian said.
Even so, the hearings have been what Jon Michaels, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, said were “masterful productions – gems of clarity, economy and illumination.”
That was especially evident in two of the most significant moments Tuesday. Former Oath Keepers spokesperson Jason Van Tatenhove talked of Mr. Trump’s effort to create “an armed revolution.” Mr. Cipollone said that there was no evidence of election fraud and that he and former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows believed Mr. Trump would agree to a graceful exit from the presidency.
“Did I believe he should concede the election at a point of time?” Mr. Cipollone said. “Yes I did.”
The hearing set out Trump insiders’ contemplation of a plan to have Defence Department officials seize voting machines; portrayed an unrestrained Dec. 18, 2020, meeting in which outside advisers fuelled the president’s notion that he could prevail by employing what Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland called “outrageous and unworkable schemes”; displayed how extremists’ views that “Trump just told us all to come armed” and “we need volunteers for the firing squad” contributed to the violence; and showed that, as former Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson said, the president “likes the crazies,” meaning “the people who would be very, very vicious” in defending him.
Shakespeare’s plays tell us there are moments of choice in life and in the lives of nations. This entire episode is about such various moments – the president’s choice to contest the election and then to spur a riot at the Capitol, the Trump circle’s choice to consort with violent extremists, the Democratic leadership’s choice to create a committee that has strong partisan overtones, the country’s choices that beckon in this fall’s congressional elections and in the 2024 presidential election.
“Shakespeare is complicated,” David Scott Kastan, the prominent Yale scholar on the playwright, said in an interview. “The important thing about this moment is that morality is not complicated.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.