‘He’s Still Talking!’ At GOP Hearing, RFK Jr.’s Conspiracies Take Center Stage

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At a congressional hearing meant to discuss censorship on Thursday, it took barely half an hour for the word to lose all meaning.

“Do not censor the witness,” Rep. Jim Jordan, the Ohio Republican who chairs the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, angrily interjected when a Democratic member of the panel tried to clarify a point.

“I’m not censoring him,” Delegate Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands shot back. “He’s still talking!”

Robert Kennedy Jr., the long-shot Democratic presidential candidate invited by House Republicans to testify about alleged censorship of his anti-vaccine activism, was indeed still talking. But by that point, the hearing had already devolved into a messy, meandering scene that epitomized the work of a much-hyped committee that has failed to live up to its billing, infuriating Democrats and disappointing many Republicans.

Created in January with a stated purpose of investigating how the federal government had been “weaponized” to target conservatives, Jordan’s panel was a key part of the House GOP majority’s agenda. Republicans cast it as “the new Church Committee,” comparing it to the 1970s bipartisan oversight investigation into covert abuses by the U.S. intelligence community—one of the most important any Congress has conducted. The Weaponization committee, GOP leaders signaled, would be just as weighty.

Read More: Why Republicans Are Comparing a New House Investigative Panel to the Church Committee.

It has not been anything close to that. In five hearings, Republicans have largely failed to delve into concrete abuses by federal agencies. Instead, they’ve brought in witnesses who have provided little information and have been criticized for spreading conspiracy theories. The proceedings have been peppered with frequent interruptions, sporadic shouting, and references to George Orwell and The Lord of the Rings. (“The Eye of Sauron has turned inward, and it is operating with a white-hot intensity that seeks to destroy everything in its path,” Rep. Harriet Hageman, a Wyoming Republican, somberly noted in May, in reference to the FBI.)

The result has been a series of starkly partisan, occasionally surreal hearings that have generated lots of tense exchanges but very little in the way of new evidence. Thursday’s hearing was a case in point. It was billed as an examination of a lawsuit filed by the Republican attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri to block Biden administration officials from contacting social media companies to moderate online posts, and “Big Tech’s collusion with out-of-control government agencies to silence speech.” But from the jump, it unraveled into attempts to support or refute Kennedy’s conspiratorial views on vaccination, discussions about Hunter Biden’s laptop, and a near-shouting match over whether COVID-19 was “ethnically engineered.”

Kennedy testified alongside an editor for the right-wing website Breitbart News, a Republican lawyer, and the Democratic leader of a civil rights group. He seemed to revel in the spotlight of the televised hearing on Capitol Hill—while still claiming he was being silenced. “I am being censored here… through smears, through misinterpretations, through lies, through association,” he said, referencing the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s. “Those same weapons are now being deployed to silence me,” he said, rattling off the series of grievances he’s built his campaign on.

Read More: Inside the Very Online Campaign of RFK Jr.

Kennedy, who spent the past 15 years building the largest anti-vaccine organization in the country, asserted he had “never been anti-vaccine.” He recounted how YouTube had deplatformed him and claimed that “nobody has ever pointed to a single piece of misinformation I published.” Incensed at the recent accusations of anti-Semitism after he was filmed suggesting COVID-19 was engineered to spare Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people, he insisted: “I’ve fought more ferociously for Israel than anybody.”

This is how it has gone for a committee that has often seemed captive to the controversy of the moment on right-wing social media. At one hearing in March, the committee focused on the so-called “Twitter Files,” internal communications from the social-media company that Republicans cite as evidence of the company’s suppression of conservative views. At another, in May, Republicans accused the FBI of retaliating against “truth tellers” in the agency for their conservative views, alleging they had revoked their security clearances.

Democrats have accused their Republican colleagues of using the hearing as “a vehicle to legitimize the events of Jan. 6” and the committee as a “clearing house for testing conspiracy theories for Donald Trump to use in his 2024 presidential campaign.” The public appears to be skeptical of the committee’s mission as well: a Washington Post-ABC News poll in February found that 36% of Americans saw the committee as a “legitimate investigation” while 56% said it was “just an attempt to score political points.”

Read More: Democrats Debate How to Handle GOP Panel Set to Investigate the Investigators.

Even many Republican commentators have been critical of the committee’s often unfocused questioning and lackluster witnesses. “Why are you not hauling these big tech executives and putting them in a chair? Why aren’t you hauling in the FBI Director or the CIA director?” Mike Davis, the president of the conservative judicial advocacy group Article III Project, said on Steve Bannon’s livestream after the first hearings in February. “This is just baffling to me. The bottom line is this needs to be professionalized [and] they need to bring in a dedicated staff who know what they’re doing.”

Several conservatives have also expressed their disappointment on Fox News. “Make me feel better, guys, tell me this is going somewhere,” host Jesse Watters said in March. “Can I throw someone in prison? Can someone go to jail? Can someone get fined?”

Thursday’s panel may have been the most bizarre. It featured the strange spectacle of Democrats pummeling a candidate from their own party—at least in name—and debunking his conspiracies while Republicans held him up as an example of censorship of conservative viewpoints. “You are here for cynical reasons, to be used politically by that side of the aisle to embarrass the current president, and you’re an enabler in that effort today,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, told Kennedy.

His colleagues pressed Kennedy to answer for prior controversial statements, including one in which he invoked Anne Frank to suggest that unvaccinated Americans had less freedom than Jews during the Holocaust. “We are not investigating the actual weaponization of the federal government,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat, calling the focus of the hearings a “misuse of congressional oversight.”

By the end of the three-hour hearing, it seemed like the winner may have been Kennedy himself, who eagerly billed himself as a “prime witness” in several emails encouraging supporters to tune in. After the hearing, his campaign sent out a fundraising email touting his “historic Congressional testimony.”

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Write to Vera Bergengruen at vera.bergengruen@time.com