It’s extraordinary how a lie about voter fraud coined by a President so desperate to cling onto power that he would stop at nothing, even an insurrection, has caused so much chaos and fallout. So whether the House committee ends up prodding the Justice Department into investigating Trump and his acolytes for possible criminal offenses or not, its work is not just about what happened 17 months ago. It is critical in laying a foundation of truth under future US elections, which are already under attack from the ex-President’s loyalists in places like Texas.
As it approaches the end of its investigation, the committee appears to have established the following truths in the three televised hearings so far this month.
- The attack on the Capitol was real and vicious, however Trump and his supporters downplay it. Moreover, many of the rioters believed that they were acting directly on the then-President’s wishes and responded to his statements.
- Trump was repeatedly told by top White House officials and campaign aides that he had lost the election and that there was no widespread fraud. But every time one conspiracy was debunked, he latched on to a new, more extreme one.
- Trump relentlessly bullied then-Vice President Mike Pence to sign up to the legal fantasy that he had the power simply to reject the election result and hand his boss a second term as he presided over Congress’ certification of the vote. Trump was told the scheme was illegal but pushed Pence to implement it anyway. (Pence did not.)
- On Tuesday, the committee is expected to expose a new front in Trump’s attempt to steal the election, focusing on his efforts to overturn Biden’s election victories in the key swing states of Georgia and Arizona.
While the committee’s mission has been to examine what happened in the lead up to January 6, 2021, and on that fateful day, there is clearly a political undercurrent to its work. Even if conservative media is largely ignoring the hearings and Trump supporters dismiss it, the committee is seeking to chip away at the ex-President’s political credibility and to create an impression that the real fraud here is not the 2020 election results but him.
Still, while the first prime-time televised hearing earlier this month drew around 20 million viewers, there are few signs that the hearings are a massive cultural event on the scale, for instance, of the Senate Watergate hearings half a century ago, which transfixed the nation and helped lead to the fall of President Richard Nixon. And any political fallout from the hearings could also be muted by more immediate challenges facing Americans like record gasoline prices, soaring inflation and continuing complications of the pandemic.
Trump was repeatedly told his schemes were not justified or legal
The hearings so far have made a compelling presentation on the stunning, unprecedented behavior of a President who lost reelection, fairly and squarely, and pushed plans he was repeatedly told were illegal. The power of the committee’s evidence, which makes a 12-page rebuttal issued by Trump look threadbare, raises a huge question: how should Trump be found accountable?
The House investigation has no power to draw up criminal indictments but its work has significantly increased the pressure on Attorney General Merrick Garland, who would ultimately have to decide whether to launch what would be a massively controversial prosecution against a former President and a potential 2024 candidate for the White House.
Additionally, prosecutors in any criminal case against Trump would have to prove intent to a jury — namely that the former President knew what he was doing was a crime and that he went ahead anyway. This is why the panel has highlighted testimony from witnesses who repeatedly told Trump he lost the election and that his scheme to have the election thrown to him in Congress was not legal. The committee is implicitly making the point that it would be impossible for Trump to not know he was crossing a legal line. But proving intent can be complicated and could be one reason why Garland may not ultimately end up deciding to prosecute Trump, especially given the huge political impact of any failed attempt to call him to account.
There were even signs last week of divisions within the committee on the question of accountability. Sources told CNN that members of the panel agree that Trump committed a crime when he plotted to undo the peaceful transfer of power in 2021. But they are divided on how to act on that belief. Committee Chair Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, told reporters that it was not the committee’s job to make criminal referrals. But Wyoming GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, the vice chair, said that there had been no decision on that matter.
Another member of the panel, Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, said over the weekend that accountability can come in two ways — through criminal action or in a broader political sense. “That’s the real project,” Raskin said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “Telling the truth to the people so we can make decisions about how to fortify democratic institutions going forward.”
This goal illustrates how the investigation is not just retrospective about what happened in the past. It is also seeking to expose the whole Trump election confidence trick to undermine efforts by his supporters to tarnish future elections. It’s a huge task. Even as the hearings have been taking place, the threat has been rising. The radicalization of the Texas Republican Party is just the most recent case. And it plays into a sense that the danger posed by Trump is far from over, which led retired Judge J. Michael Luttig, a revered conservative, to issue a chilling warning last week.
“A stake was driven through the heart of American democracy on January 6, 2021, and our democracy today is on a knife edge,” Luttig told the committee.
“Almost two years after that fateful day … Donald Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy.”