House Jan. 6 panel set the bar high: showing crime

In the final moments of what will most likely be the final hearing of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol attack, its vice chair, Rep. Liz Cheney, returned to a theme that has gone through the work of the committee: crime.

Without naming names or providing details, Ms Cheney, a Republican from Wyoming, said the committee now had “enough information to consider criminal referrals for multiple individuals” to the Justice Department for prosecution.

It’s unclear whether the committee will follow through and take the largely symbolic step of issuing a criminal remand to former President Donald J. Trump or anyone who worked with him to nullify the election and cheer the crowd on. his supporters who entered the Capitol looking to block or delay certification of his defeat.

But throughout its investigation and hearings, the committee operated with a prosecutorial style, using the possibility of criminality as a club in extraordinary ways. It penetrated Mr. Trump’s inner circle, surfaced considerable new evidence and presented a detailed narrative that could be helpful to the Justice Department in deciding whether to bring charges.

The panel is expected to issue a subpoena as early as Tuesday to compel Mr. Trump to testify before concluding its investigation and releasing a final report.

The effects of the committee on related criminal investigations are obvious. Federal prosecutors and authorities conducting a local investigation in Georgia found themselves interviewing some of the same witnesses already questioned by the committee and issuing subpoenas for some of the same evidence already obtained by Congress.

But by suggesting its goal is to bring about criminal charges, the committee is setting a standard for success that is beyond its power to achieve — and one that could risk overshadowing the work it has done to document Mr. Trump’s efforts to stay in power. and gather his followers to help him.

“People often come up to me at the grocery store and they’re like, ‘Are you going to hold him accountable?’ It’s not Congress,” said Representative Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat and committee member, in a recent interview. “However, the Justice Department can take the facts we’ve described in our investigation and utilize.”

For all the emphasis Ms Cheney has placed on producing criminal referrals, the committee has not been fully cooperative with the Justice Department, the department’s slow requests for transcripts of interviews it conducted.

The task of determining whether someone has broken the law is never mentioned in the resolution that led to the creation of the committee in June 2021. Its main mission, according to a resolution of the House, is to present an account that makes authority of what happened, identifying failures by law enforcement and other causes of violence, and providing recommendations to ensure it never happens again.

But the committee has transformed itself into an auxiliary front-loader of the Justice Department, developing new evidence, proposing theories about laws Mr. Trump and his aides may have broken and educating the public about them in hearings. nationally televised shows that unfolded like an episodic running drama.

Committee staffers — many of whom are former prosecutors — have used a strategy of highlighting a range of potential crimes or leads for investigators to pursue at each of the panel’s public hearings.

A hearing focused on how donors had been defrauded into being targeted for donations to help tackle specious election fraud allegations.

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Other hearings focused on whether Mr. Trump and his aides committed the crimes of defrauding the American people or obstructing an official process of Congress. At another, members raised questions about whether Mr. Trump or his aides had committed witness tampering.

“The purpose of this committee is to make sure we’re telling the whole truth, to empower government officials to make changes to the system, to improve our safeguards, to empower the American people to make better decisions on who it elects, and also to encourage the DOJ to do their job,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy, Democrat of Florida, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program.

The committee’s work has already resulted in two contempt of Congress lawsuits for failing to comply with subpoenas issued by the panel. The Justice Department sued two former aides to Mr. Trump – Stephen K. Bannon and Peter Navarro – for contempt.

A jury convicted Mr. Bannon, who was pardoned by Mr. Trump for an unrelated crime and is now due to be sentenced on Friday. The Justice Department recommended Monday that he serve six months on the two misdemeanor contempt charges and pay a $200,000 fine.

Mr Navarro is due to stand trial for contempt next month.

“Congress has always been a focus of Justice Department investigations, but this has been done expressly, blatantly, and without mincing words or hiding its motives, on a scale greater than I can imagine. I’ve ever seen,” said Stanley Brand, a Democrat. who was once the best lawyer in the House.

Mr. Brand was highly critical of the committee and now represents Mr. Navarro.

In training its staff, the committee took a different approach from previous congressional investigations, hiring several former federal prosecutors and assigning a former U.S. attorney to oversee its day-to-day work.

Some of the first public signs that the committee would take a different approach came last December when Ms. Cheney said the issue of Mr. Trump’s criminality was what the panel was investigating. She then proceeded to read directly from the federal penal code for a law she thought he might have violated.

“Did Donald Trump, by action or inaction, corruptly seek to obstruct or obstruct the due process of Congress to count electoral votes?” said Mrs. Cheney.

In March, during a fight in civil court with John Eastman, the conservative lawyer who helped advise Mr. Trump on how to void the election, the committee filed what amounted to a writ of de facto charge against Mr. Trump and Mr. Eastman. Although the document had no criminal weight, the committee claimed that the two men had engaged in criminal acts prior to the January 6 attack.

“The select committee also has a good faith basis for concluding that the president and his campaign members engaged in a criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States,” the filing said.

The federal judge handling the case largely agreed, saying it was “more likely than not” that Mr. Trump and Mr. Eastman broke the law.

Armed with the court’s decision, Ms. Cheney took the initiative to continue to publicly raise questions about whether Mr. Trump had broken the law. But it’s the committee’s approach to its round of hearings that began in late spring that stands in stark contrast to the Justice Department’s slow, methodical approach under Attorney General Merrick B. Garland.

Speaking like prosecutors, the committee members treated the American public in the hearings as if they were a jury in a criminal trial as they methodically built a case that showed Mr. Trump knew that he had lost the 2020 election, repeatedly lied to the public about it. , gathered a crowd of his supporters who then stormed the Capitol and did nothing for hours to stop them.

When a former West Wing aide, Cassidy Hutchinson, provided electrifying testimony in late June, she made a series of damaging revelations that were news to the Justice Department and caught the attention of senior officials. Growing public questions about the potential criminality of Mr. Trump and his allies raised questions about whether Mr. Garland was prepared to confront them.

As these questions skyrocketed this summer, reports surfaced that federal prosecutors were indeed investigating them. Building on the plan laid out by the committee, prosecutors in the months that followed subpoenaed many of the same witnesses who had testified before the committee.

But the threshold for indicting a former president or his top advisers is higher than for presenting a case at a congressional hearing with no one to plead Mr. Trump’s defense. Legal experts have a range of opinions on whether there is enough evidence to press charges and whether Mr Garland, who has the final say, would make such a move, knowing how it could further divide the country, especially whether Mr. Trump is the Republican Party’s nominee for president in 2024.