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It’s been a wild August for the former President, an inflection point in a saga that began over a year ago. First, we learned that he had taken a trove of highly classified material from the White House. Then we learned that the National Archives scolded him for doing so and wanted it back. Trump’s team turned over boxes of files in January—but only some of the material in his possession that belonged to the U.S. government. Talks continued, to little avail. A grand jury was seated. Then a judge approved a search warrant to retrieve the leftover material from Trump’s seaside club that the FBI executed on Aug. 8.
It’s a dizzying set of developments that are unfolding like a spy novel. The scandalous details—direct correspondence with the North Korean leader hoarded in a private club, messy record keeping that has classified material intermingled with souvenirs, an ex-President who dug in his heels and refused to discuss that matter—all make for yet another strong narrative against Trump and his defenders.
But there’s a problem here for the Trump haters: this ring of the circus is drawing the spotlight away from the other one, where the House committee looking at the Jan. 6 riots is closing in on its final burst of public activity. In reality, Washington has just one spotlight. Since 2015, that spotlight has often been on Trump, and this summer has been a return to that model. Next month, the Jan. 6 committee is expected to hold its final public hearings. Having the spotlight bounce back and forth between Mar-a-Lago and the Capitol insurrection is a good way for most Americans to lose interest in both storylines. Muddying the two sins isn’t good for the separate narratives, even if the figure acting as carnival barker in both is Trump.
That is, unless it becomes clear that the two acts are one in the same. The National Archives has already provided the Jan. 6 committee with some of its materials, and the records that were being stashed at Mar a Lago may similarly prove helpful.
For now, though, it’s a two-ring act under the big top. The summer hearings were a success, and the public has tuned in. But it’s tougher to spark sustained interest from a mostly redacted Justice Department filing. Sure, there are common themes in both sagas: a petulant President who thinks his powers were absolute, believes he can bully his way through any situation, and possesses an apparent inability to listen to his wise advisers who repeatedly told him no to no avail.
But the Jan. 6 events were visible for the world to see. They played out in real time, with cameras capturing almost every moment of the attack on Congress and electronic conversations documenting the lead-up to that day. State officials have taken the conspiracy theories from that realm and have changed laws and policies at home to make it easier to countermand unfavorable results in future elections. And some of those who attended the Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol are now on the ballots this fall.
Secreted away documents are tougher for the public to get excited about, no matter how sensitive the materials. A paper trail isn’t a mob. The evidence of Trump’s direct involvement may be stronger when it comes to spy papers in the basement, but it lacks the emotional trigger that Jan. 6 still brings. Unless there’s evidence Trump was passing those documents to hostile actors or they contained incriminating information he was desperate to hide, most Americans will shrug it off as yet another example of Trump and his orbit lacking any respect for norms or discipline to actually do their jobs. (Or the bar may even be higher. As President, Trump gave Russia pieces of Israeli intelligence with no real consequence.)
At the Jan. 6 committee’s last public hearing on July 21, members announced there would be more public testimony in September. An initial report is also expected to come out next month, a preview of the committee’s full report later this year. So as Congress gets ready to return to Washington after Labor Day, the limelight stands to be split between the Jan. 6 investigation and the one playing out in Florida courts. Democrats giddy that Trump is facing scrutiny on two fronts would do well to remember that there is a finite appetite for news, and two troughs of bad-for-Trump headlines just splits the public’s serving size—unless it turns out the two stories actually are the same one.
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Write to Philip Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org