Democracy rattled: Two years later, the Jan. 6 panel votes a criminal referral for Trump

Written by on December 20, 2022

Unprecedented, again.

Donald Trump, the most disruptive president in modern times, was at the center Monday of yet another development without parallel in American history. A congressional committee voted Monday to recommend that the Justice Department pursue criminal prosecution of the former commander in chief for insurrection and other charges.

The somber vote, by seven Democrats and two Republicans, was unanimous.

The panel had convened its final public hearing in a soaring meeting room in the Cannon House Office Building, across the street from the domed Capitol. In a small bit of irony, the space just weeks ago was named the Speaker Nancy Pelosi Caucus Room, in honor of the exiting Democratic leader who had been the face of the opposition to Trump and oversaw his impeachment, twice. 

Almost two years after rioters stormed the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election – some threatening to assassinate then-Vice President Mike Pence and Pelosi, if only they could catch them – the select House panel concluded that Trump bore responsibility for gathering the mob and igniting an assault that rattled democracy.

At his home in Mar-a-Lago, Trump blasted the committee, denouncing its investigation as a partisan “witch hunt” and denying any wrongdoing.  

“Republicans and Patriots all over the land must stand strong and united against the Thugs and Scoundrels of the Unselect Committee,” he said on the Truth Social platform Sunday. “It will be a dark period in American history, but with darkness comes light!!!”

At the White House, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters: “The president has been very clear. Our democracy continues and remains under threat, and we all have a part to protect it.”

A million documents, a thousand interviews

In some ways, nothing was settled with Monday’s vote.

The referral doesn’t compel the Justice Department to pursue charges. That is up to Attorney General Merrick Garland and the special counsel he has named, Jack Smith, to investigate both the insurrection and the presence of sensitive government documents at Trump’s Florida estate.

The Jan. 6 committee also doesn’t have the clear bipartisan credibility of the independent commission appointed to investigate the 9/11 terror attacks two decades ago, nor was its initial 166-page report as riveting or persuasive. Senate Republicans had filibustered Pelosi’s proposal to establish a similar commission, and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy refused to participate in the House panel after Pelosi rejected his effort to appoint two election deniers among its members.

Rioters loyal to President Donald Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

Instead, Pelosi herself named the Republicans, Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, both of whom are leaving Congress next month.

But in other ways, the Jan. 6 panel ranks among the most exhaustive and effective congressional investigations in a generation and more.

During its 18-month inquiry, the committee collected more than 1 million documents, conducted more than a thousand interviews, issued more than 100 subpoenas and held 10 public hearings. They explored not only the attack on the Capitol but also Trump’s efforts in the weeks leading up to it as the president tried to overturn the vote that had defeated him and elected Democrat Joe Biden.

Monday’s hearing was held on the same date that Trump had posted a crucial tweet two years ago. “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” he wrote on Dec. 19, 2020. “Be there, will be wild!” Members of the far-right Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, defending themselves in trials for their roles in the assault, have cited that tweet as a call to action.

The committee’s final session covered little new ground. Instead, it spotlighted the road map for prosecution drawn by the most compelling testimony behind their conclusions: that Trump knew he had lost the election but continued to pressure Pence, the Justice Department, state officials and others to prevent Biden from taking power. And that when the violence erupted, he did nothing for 187 minutes to quell it.

The panel approved criminal referrals against Trump on charges of inciting an insurrection, obstruction of Congress, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and conspiracy to make a false statement.

“Faith in our system is the foundation of American democracy,” chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said in the hearing’s opening remarks. “Donald Trump broke that faith. He lost the 2020 election and knew it, but he chose to try to stay in office through a multi-part scheme.

“This can never happen again.”

Not every question was answered, including concern about the performance of intelligence and law enforcement agencies. It doesn’t firmly resolve disputed testimony that Trump had lunged for the steering wheel of his presidential limousine when his lead Secret Service agent told him he couldn’t go to the Capitol himself that day.

There’s little time left for this panel, poised to disband in two weeks, to settle them. McCarthy has said that when Republicans take control of the new Congress in January, they will launch their own investigation, one that might discredit the panel’s work.

The peaceful transfer of power in peril 

We have never been here before.

Never before have U.S. citizens assaulted the Capitol; the last time the building was besieged was by British troops during the War of 1812. Never before has the peaceful transfer of power to a new president been so seriously challenged. Never before has a former president faced such a serious threat of criminal prosecution.

One more bit of history: Never before has anyone under such peril for his actions in office been a credible candidate for the presidential nomination of a major political party. Trump last month has announced his 2024 bid and, while his political standing has shown signs of weakening, he continues to command the support of millions of people. backers.

So the final judgment on precisely what happened on Jan. 6, and who was responsible, and what should happen next, just might end up back with the voters. 

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., Chairman of the Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol, and Vice Chairwoman Rep. Liz Cheney. R-Wyo., participate in the last public Committee hearing, in the Canon House Office Building on Capitol Hill on Dec. 19, 2022.

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