Lawyers often warn younger associates never to ask questions of a witness on cross-examination unless they know what the answer will be. The House Oversight Committee recently demonstrated a related point best described through an analogy: if you want to establish that the moon is made of green cheese, don’t subpoena astronomers to testify at your hearing.
To take it one step further, when those witnesses actually share their expertise at your hearings, don’t make yourself look even more foolish by threatening to prosecute them for telling the truth. At the committee’s much-touted first hearing on February 8, it set out to show that two years and four months ago, the FBI, then–private citizen Joe Biden, and Twitter executives conspired to block the New York Post from disseminating its article about the Hunter Biden laptop on the Twitter platform in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Never mind that the First Amendment does not apply to private companies that limit speech or that Twitter quickly reversed its decision within 24 hours and apologized for its mistake.
Although the advance billing of the hearing seemed to promise something on the order of The Greatest Show on Earth, the result was more like the spectacular train wreck at the climax of that movie.
The Government Accountability Project (GAP) had a front row seat at the congressional committee’s proceedings. In my (only slightly biased) view, the most compelling of the truth-telling witnesses was our client, Anika Collier Navaroli. We shared the privilege of representing this witness with the Signals Network. The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) joined the team in helping to prepare the witness for hearings that ended up lasting nearly six hours.
While an executive at Twitter, Anika was responsible for flagging violent behavior and dangerous disinformation. She also testified at the House January 6 committee about her unsuccessful efforts to raise the alarm within the company that then-President Trump was using his tweets to foment violence. On January 5, 2021, Anika led a meeting where one of her colleagues asked Twitter management whether someone was going to have to get shot before the team would be allowed to take down tweets. Another colleague read real time tweets to management to try to convince them of the seriousness of the issue. No action was taken. Anika received the Ridenhour Courage Prize for the warnings she made in advance of the violence unleashed on January 6, 2021, and for testifying about her failed efforts.
Anika’s retelling of that experience at the hearing allowed many Democrats on the House committee to point to her prior testimony and to compare its importance to the committee’s trivial and seemingly retaliatory inquiry into the initial decision by Twitter to prevent the New York Post from posting a link to its article on Hunter Biden’s laptop. It bears repeating that Twitter changed its position on the Post’s article within 24 hours.
It appears that the House committee majority members intended to showcase a conspiracy by Joe Biden, the FBI, and Twitter executives. Their three former Twitter executive witnesses instead testified under oath that there was no communication at all or at any time between those parties about the article or the laptop. In fact, the Biden campaign apparently did not even complain about the article, published in October 2020. No one from the FBI mentioned the article to Twitter during routine meetings the two parties shared about law enforcement matters.
Meanwhile, during questioning, Anika Navaroli revealed that Trump, while he was president, had furiously demanded censorship of a widely published comment made by model Chrissy Teigen. Anika also testified about Trump’s Twitter attack on the “Squad” —four young left-leaning women of color who were elected to Congress in 2018, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. In 2019, Trump tweeted that the Squad should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Until then the Twitter policy was to disallow that type of tweet as racist and demeaning. But within 48 hours, and despite Anika Navaroli’s efforts to remove the offensive tweet as it violated Twitter’s terms of service, Twitter changed its policies and allowed the tweet to remain on its platform. In fact, Twitter decided to allow those types of bigoted tweets in the future. The impact of this uncontested and undisputed testimony turned the hearing into even more of an embarrassment for the committee majority. Instead of showing that Biden and the FBI had colluded to delete messaging and manipulate Twitter policy in their favor, the hearing showcased Trump as the culprit who tried to interfere with “free speech,” manipulate policy in his favor, and engage in violence-spawning rhetoric without being censored.
Congresswomen Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert used their entire questioning time to complain about being denied the use of Twitter to launch and disseminate conspiracy theories and promote bizarre treatments for Covid-19. After six hours of feckless haranguing of witnesses, a few frustrated majority members on the committee began to threaten to prosecute the witnesses for nonexistent crimes. Congressman Gosar of Arizona lost most of his time having to repeat his own questions because none of the four witnesses were able to decipher his queries. He also appeared to have difficulty recalling his own questions each time he was respectfully asked by panelists to repeat them.
Of course, mainstream and progressive media outlets are having a field day with the now-famous tweet by Chrissy Teigen. For example, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell spent the first 20 minutes of his program showcasing the hearing, beginning with the Teigen quote now heard around the world and memorialized in the Congressional Record. MSNBC did bleep out the words she used. And at the end of the day, it will take a miracle for conservative news outlets to splice together enough video to convey a contrary version of what happened for future broadcasts.
Overall, it was an eye-opening few hours. Despite the advance hype, the public didn’t really hear anything new or probative about the laptop of private citizen Hunter Biden. The clownish behavior of the McCarthy-for-Speaker holdouts, who were assigned to the House Oversight Committee as a reward for flipping their support to the speaker after many rounds of voting, compounded the already amateurish atmosphere.
In this first anti-democratic and disinformation-generating House hearing in the 118th Congress, our client actually tried to contribute another critical message that got derailed at the proceeding. GAP counsel David Seide, who served in the hearing as counsel for Anika Navaroli, related her warning in advance of the hearing.
“Anika is a courageous whistleblower who at considerable personal risk has repeatedly sounded alarms about mismanagement at Twitter, which has produced dire consequences,” cautioned Seide. “Her testimony to Congress will make clear the problems are very much still present, that violence is going to happen again, and that doing nothing is not an option. We all need to listen.”
The majority chose a different path in a failed attempt to bolster a conspiracy theory with three witnesses who chose instead to tell the truth. Hats off to all four former Twitter executives who proved yet again that truth is stronger than fiction.
Louis Clark is the longtime executive director and CEO of the Government Accountability Project. This account of the recent House Oversight Committee hearing on Hunter Biden’s laptop is his own and does not reflect GAP’s official perspective.