Here at home, a flurry of new details in recent days about the ex-President’s behavior justifies continued investigations into the worst attack on American democracy in decades. Those revelations also explain why pro-Trump Republicans were so keen to prevent the House select committee investigating January 6, 2021, from ever getting off the ground. And they inject a new political dimension into Trump’s attempted comeback as he casts the 2022 midterm elections as a referendum on the lie that he won in 2020 and seeks to build a return to the White House on the same falsehoods that have drawn in millions of his supporters.
Trump ‘more likely than not’ attempted to obstruct Congress
Carter can’t initiate a case against Trump. But his words didn’t just raise a blaring historical marker over a President committing a potential crime in office — and one that put the entire US democratic system at risk. His comment re-focused attention on the debate within the House committee over whether to make what would be a historic criminal referral of Trump to the Justice Department. Such a move would present Attorney General Merrick Garland with the earthshaking decision of whether to prosecute an ex-President who is maneuvering with a $100 million war chest in a potential bid to reclaim his job in 2024.
There could be few hotter political potatoes for an attorney general already facing political pressure to deal with Trump aides who are obstructing the committee.
Failing to pursue Trump in such circumstances would send a signal of impunity for presidents who seek to destroy American democratic institutions, even as Trump’s supporters who ransacked the US Capitol begin to be convicted and face prison terms for apparently acting on their political hero’s wishes.
But moving against Trump would ensure that the dark history of the 2020 election continues to dominate American politics for years to come because it would offer the ex-President new material for his claims that he’s persecuted by the political establishment. Tapping into that theme on Monday, Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich slammed Carter’s ruling as “just another example of how the left is weaponizing every branch of government against President Trump.”
But the panel hit back.
“The Court’s opinion also includes a warning: that a failure to pursue accountability could set the stage for a repeat of January 6th,” Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, said in a statement on Monday.
“America must not allow what happened on that day to be minimized and cannot accept as normal these threats to our democracy,” they said, clearly trying to emphasize the enduring relevance of the Capitol riot as the political clock races on.
Supreme Court dragged into the mire
“We want to hear from everybody who has something to say,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat who serves on the committee, told CNN on Monday. “And she obviously interacted frequently with the president’s chief of staff and was actively involved with the effort to overturn the election. So, speaking as one member, I think it’s important that we hear from her.”
The Eastman angle
Carter delivered a fresh victory for the January 6 committee, which signaled on Monday it’s moving ahead in its investigation.
In ordering the handover of 101 emails held by Eastman from around January 6, 2021, the judge revealed new details about the documents the House panel can receive — including one that appears to be aiding Trump and Eastman’s alleged conspiracy to obstruct Congress: a draft memo written for another Trump attorney, Rudy Giuliani, recommending that Vice President Mike Pence reject some states’ electors during the January 6 congressional meeting.
Eastman was instrumental in crafting the plan for Pence to refuse to certify the election results in Congress based on false claims, disproven in court, that there had been massive fraud against Trump. Eastman “intends to comply with the court’s order,” his attorney Charles Burnham said.
Assuming the full House supports the referral, it will again be up to Garland to decide whether to move toward prosecutions. While the Justice Department did open a case against former Trump political guru Steve Bannon, who goes to trial in the summer, it has yet to weigh in on a similar contempt case against Meadows, who may have a far stronger executive privilege ground for refusing to testify.
Garland’s challenge shows that while the committee can make big symbolic moves, its capacity to force testimony may be limited ahead of its expected public hearings later this spring.
Some Democrats on the committee called on the Justice Department to do more to hold those Trump aides who refuse to testify to account through prosecution.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California warned: “This committee is doing its job. The Department of Justice needs to do theirs.”
Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia called on the department to act swiftly, and showed real frustration with Garland. “I will echo what my colleagues have already said, but more bluntly, Attorney General Garland, do your job — so that we can do ours.”
Such frustrations raise the question of the committee’s broader impact. Millions of Americans who support the ex-President have already shown themselves willing to buy into denials of what happened on January 6, which have been advanced by Trump’s GOP acolytes.
But even though the committee, which has interviewed hundreds of witnesses and appears to have a stark story to tell, cannot itself bring Trump to justice, it can influence public opinion with its final report and public hearings.
If it succeeds in capturing the attention of the American people, it will implicitly ask voters whether they have the stomach for more years of lies from an ex-President who clearly lost an election that he insists he won.
Katelyn Polantz, Annie grayer, Whitney Wild and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.