WASHINGTON — The congressional committee investigating the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol referred former President Donald Trump for four criminal charges related to an insurrection that he inspired because he couldn’t publicly accept that he’d lost an election.
In the face of it all, that former president already announced he is running again to win back the job.
That’s the state of American politics, with a divided populace and millions purposely not paying attention to the evidence presented by the committee, just two weeks ahead of the two-year anniversary of the riot.
The Jan. 6 committee is out of time. Republicans are set to take control of the House, and the committee is expected to dissolve. So the legal ball will now be in the Justice Department’s court, while the political one rests with the voters.
“Accountability that can only be found in the criminal justice system,” committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. said. “We have every confidence that the work of this committee will help provide a roadmap to justice and that the agencies and institutions responsible for ensuring justice under the law will use the information we’ve provided to aid in their work.”
Here are five takeaways of what we learned from the committee’s last hearing on Monday:
1. Trump — and others — will be referred to the Justice Department for criminal charges.
The big news out of the final hearing was that after a lengthy investigation, the members of the committee were convinced there was enough evidence to charge former President Trump on four things:
- Obstruction of an official proceeding;
- Conspiracy to defraud the United States;
- Conspiracy to make a false statement; and
- Conspiracy to defraud the U.S. by assisting, aiding or comforting those involved in an insurrection
Now, that doesn’t mean Trump will be charged. The committee has no power over what the Justice Department does. The Justice Department has its own investigation of Trump that’s been ongoing and currently run by special counsel Jack Smith.
Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Smith once Trump announced he was running for president again as a way to show independence from the investigation.
“Ours is not a system of justice, where foot soldiers go to jail and the masterminds and ringleaders get a free pass,” said committee member Jamie Raskin, D-Md., announcing the referrals.
2. Members of Congress were referred to the House ethics committee.
The committee also announced that four members of Congress, who never complied with subpoenas, were referred to the House ethics committee.
They are Republican congressmen:
- Kevin McCarthy of California,
- Jim Jordan of Ohio
- Scott Perry of Pennsylvania
- Andy Biggs of Arizona
All are close allies of Trump, and their resistance in the face of the rules has been emblematic of the antagonistic style of U.S. politics that was growing even before Trump came on the scene.
Whether anything happens to them, though, is unclear since Republicans will control the iteration of the ethics committee in the next Congress and McCarthy is in line to be the next speaker.
3. There’s lots of evidence Trump knew the truth, but just didn’t want to be seen as a loser.
All of what occurred Jan. 6 likely happened simply because Trump didn’t have an exit ramp, a way to save face after his 2020 election loss.
That’s been evident to those of us who’ve covered Trump for a while, but it was affirmed by Hope Hicks, a former communications adviser in the Trump White House, someone who was very close to Trump.
Hicks, whom we heard from for the first time Monday in the course of these hearings, said in taped testimony that she told Trump she was becoming concerned that these false claims of fraud were damaging his legacy.
This was Trump’s response:
“He said something along the lines of, ‘You know nobody will care about my legacy if I lose,’ ” Hicks said, ” ‘So that won’t matter, the only thing that matters is winning.’ “
There is plenty of evidence Trump — and his team — knew he lost, that the allegations of fraud were baseless and that he knew what he was doing, according to testimony from multiple former Trump administration officials.
“He was—he had—usually he had pretty clear eyes,” said Bill Stepien, the Trump 2020 campaign manager, according to written testimony released in a report by the committee. “Like, he understood, you know — you know, we told him where we thought the race was, and I think he was pretty realistic with our viewpoint, in agreement with our viewpoint of kind of the forecast and the uphill climb we thought he had.”
Stepien added: “We’d have to, you know, relay the news that, yeah, that tip that someone told you about those votes or that fraud or, you know, nothing came of it. That would be our job as, you know, the truth telling squad and, you know, not — not a fun job to be, you know, much — it’s an easier job to be telling the president about, you know, wild allegations. It’s a harder job to be telling him on the back end that, yeah, that wasn’t true.”
One of Trump’s campaign lawyers, Alex Cannon, in a mid-to-late November phone call with former Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, said, per the report, that he found nothing “sufficient to change the results in any of the key States.”
Meadows responded saying, “So there is no there, there?”
Even Trump counsel Rudy Giuliani admitted during his deposition to the committee: “I do not think the machines stole the election.”
A federal judge noted that Trump was told by email “that the specific numbers of voter fraud were wrong but continued to tout those numbers, both in court and in public.” And he “signed a verification swearing under oath that the incorporated, inaccurate numbers ‘are true and correct’ or ‘believed to be true and correct’ to the best of his knowledge and belief.”
These aren’t people who are aligned with Democrats or were “Never Trump” or “Trump Haters,” as the former president likes to say. In fact, the opposite is true in most of the testimony that’s been aired by the committee.
It’s up to rank-and-file Trump voters whether they can bring themselves to acknowledge the realities without lapsing into baseless conspiracies.
4. Whether the findings will matter politically is unclear.
It’s no secret that the country is divided politically and partisanship, particularly among Republicans, has become entrenched. So despite the primary evidence — with testimony from Republicans who were aligned with Trump — people have been watching selectively.
The committee in its report recognized this:
“Although the Committee’s hearings were viewed live by tens of millions of Americans and widely publicized in nearly every major news source, the Committee also recognizes that other news outlets and commentators have actively discouraged viewers from watching, and that millions of other Americans have not yet seen the actual evidence addressed by this Report.”
So the committee said it’s releasing video summaries with each relevant piece of evidence. And it’s likely why the beginning of the hearing included so many clips of previously seen testimony from past hearings, almost like the recap of a prior season of a series on Netflix.
There is evidence to suggest those who watched were moved. Before the hearings, just 48% of independents in an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll said they thought Trump was to blame a “great deal” or “good amount” for what happened that day. After several hearings, the July survey found that the percentage blaming Trump spiked to 57%.
Republicans were only up marginally — and still fewer than 1-in-5 said Trump was responsible for what happened.
Eighty percent of Democrats and 55% of independents said they were paying “a lot” or “some” attention to the hearings. But 56% of Republicans said they were not.
It’s not hard to draw a straight line between the numbers of those paying attention and the movement — or lack thereof — in the survey.
5. The ball is in DOJ’s — and the public’s — court.
Progressives have been irritated with Attorney General Merrick Garland’s methodical (read: slow) pace of pursuing charges against Trump. But it’s going to be up to the special counsel whether to bring charges or what they are.
They do not have to act on what the Jan. 6 committee recommends, though investigators are paying close attention to the details of its findings. But don’t expect to hear much about the special counsel’s progress, as the DOJ tends to stay pretty quiet, if not wholly silent, on the details of ongoing investigations until they present them in court.
Politically, it’s going to be up to voters to choose. Trump will likely retain support with his base. As we noted, Republicans have been the least likely to be paying close attention to these hearings. In a multi-candidate primary, Trump remains the front-runner for the GOP nomination.
But he’s in legal trouble in multiple states, not just federally, and many of his preferred candidates — and election deniers — lost in swing states. So whether it’s because of the chaos that often surrounds him, the threat he presents to U.S. democracy and faith in its elections, or simply because his brand is not a winner in competitive states where Republicans likely need to win to take over the White House and Congress, Trump is at his most vulnerable point since winning the presidency six years ago.
And the members of this committee — some of whom won’t be returning to Congress because of the wrath, or potential wrath, of Trump’s base — certainly hope voters respond.
“The future of our democracy rests in your hands,” Thompson said. “It’s up to the people to decide who is deserving of the public trust.”