Whether or not Donald Trump ends up facing criminal charges, the House committee probing the US Capitol insurrection has scored a critical win over the ex-President by thwarting his effort to cover up the true horror of that day of infamy.
The committee takes center stage in Washington again this week with its Tuesday televised hearing amid indications it will seek to make a direct connection between Trump and the far-right extremists who helped rioters smash their way into the halls of Congress on January 6, 2021.
This comes after the committee landed telling blows last week by securing testimony behind closed doors from ex-White House counsel Pat Cipollone and as Trump lifted his questionable executive privilege claim covering former aide Steve Bannon.
Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a member of the panel, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” on Sunday that excerpts of videotaped testimony from Cipollone – who was at or near Trump’s side in the West Wing and, according to other witnesses, pushed back on his lawless instincts – would feature as the committee plans at least one hearing this week.
“He was able to provide information on basically all of the critical issues that we’re looking at, and including the President’s, what I would call, dereliction of duty on the day of January 6,” Lofgren said referring to Friday’s testimony. A source familiar with Cipollone’s interview told CNN’s Pamela Brown that that the former White House counsel, testifying under a subpoena, did invoke executive privilege on some questions – to shield certain information or conversations with the then-President from Congress under the separation of powers doctrine.
Lofgren also said that the committee would likely hear from Bannon, who is set to face trial later this month over his refusal to submit to a subpoena on the grounds that he was covered by executive privilege. This claim is seen as spurious by many legal observers since Bannon had long departed his role as a White House adviser by the time of the 2020 election.
Bannon is now willing to testify, ideally in a public hearing, according to a letter obtained by CNN. Such a platform could allow him to mount the kind of high-profile, inflammatory defense of Trump that the ex-President adores but that has been lacking from the committee’s televised hearings. Lofgren indicated on CNN that such a forum was unlikely.
Trump has sought to block and discredit the committee at every turn. His supporters in Congress squelched a drive for an independent commission and key aides, as well as Bannon, have refused to honor subpoenas. But that has not stopped the panel from creating a picture of behavior by the ex-President that is even more disturbing than video and public evidence that was previously available.
As it enters the probable endgame of its investigation, the committee is gathering momentum and whipping up a serious debate over a question with staggering implications: should an ex-President of the United States be charged for alleged crimes against the Constitution that occurred when he was in office?
Through witnesses who were around Trump, hauls of text messages, interviews with key players and even family members of the ex-President, the committee has built a damning case about his insurrectionist behavior.
- Trump was told multiple times by campaign aides, lawyers and White House officials that he lost to Joe Biden in November 2020. But he persisted with fantastical claims of voter fraud that have deeply damaged US democracy.
- He imposed extreme pressure on local Republican leaders in key states like Arizona and Georgia to overthrow Biden’s election victories and his attacks severely impacted the lives of election workers in the Peach State.
- The ex-President tried to bully top officials in the Justice Department into simply saying that the election was stolen to boost his efforts to overthrow the results in battleground states, witnesses testified. He only backed off at the threat of mass resignations.
- Trump knew that some of the protesters at his January 6 rally were armed but goaded them to march up to Capitol Hill to disrupt the certification of Biden’s election win anyway, according to testimony from a key witness, Cassidy Hutchinson, who worked for ex-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.
- As protesters called for then-Vice President Mike Pence to be hanged, Trump told staff that Pence deserved it after he failed to implement Trump’s scheme to overturn the election results, Hutchinson said in another piece of bombshell testimony.
- With every hearing and every key witness who talks to the committee, the case against Trump grows stronger. The ex-President’s attempt to conceal key details about his dereliction of duty has failed.
- The committee’s evidence, its use of videotaped testimony from key witnesses and the live appearance of some others have created a head-spinning narrative of an assault on the US political system that is still hard to countenance.
- The impact of the testimony is strengthening debate over whether the committee, which has no power to launch criminal charges, should nevertheless recommend a Justice Department investigation into Trump.
- The question is whether any case would be strong enough to justify a risky prosecution of an ex-President. It’s important to remember that the hearings are similar to a prosecutor laying out a case. But none of the witnesses has been cross-examined, holes in their testimony have not been teased out and the panel is presumably only knitting together evidence and testimony that best fits its case.
- The committee exists in a political context as well as an investigative one. It’s always been unlikely that a probe that includes Democrats and two Republicans who have rejected Trump – Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois – would reshape GOP opinion about the ex-President. Most polling shows attitudes toward the committee split on partisan lines. But the evidence piled up by the panel could still have a role in Republican politics. It poses an implicit question to GOP primary voters about whether they really want to make the 2024 election into a rerun of Trump’s lies about 2020. And if general election voters choose Trump in 2024, no one can say they weren’t warned about his threat to American democracy.
- Ultimately, it will be up to Attorney General Merrick Garland and senior Justice Department officials to decide whether evidence collected by the committee rises to the level of criminal liability. This would be one of the most acute political questions faced by an attorney general in recent years.
- That’s because a prosecution of Trump would not only ignite a fearsome political firestorm. It could create a precedent that could lead to abuse in years to come. An unscrupulous future administration could, for example, turn the might of the Justice Department against political opponents who lose power. This in itself would pose a huge risk to the integrity of American democracy.
- Trump is itching to launch a 2024 presidential campaign, even before the midterm elections, CNN has reported. The aim may not just be to block out potential GOP rivals and to capitalize on Biden’s poor approval numbers. A new campaign would make it easier for Trump to brand any formal investigation against him as politically motivated.
Ty Cobb, a former Trump White House lawyer, told CNN on Thursday that the results of the hearings so far show that Trump deserved to be blamed for his role on January 6, 2021, that the committee had uncovered “serious facts” that concerned him greatly and that charges could be a possibility.
“It depends on the crime,” Cobb told CNN’s Erin Burnett.
“There is anything from seditious conspiracy to attempting to influence a witness,” Cobb said. But he cautioned: “I think the Justice Department has a weighty decision to make about prosecuting former presidents. While that is routine, it seems, in South America, the United States has not seen that. And it will be a significant policy decision.”
Larry Hogan, the term-limited Republican governor of Maryland who is often mentioned as a long-shot alternative to Trump in the 2024 primary, was asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday whether the country could handle the indictment of a former President.
“I’m not sure they can,” Hogan said. “But I think no man is above the law, so if that’s where the facts lead, that’s what has to happen,” Hogan said.
The committee can for now do nothing more than flesh out its case. And this week it will seek to prove that the ex-President was derelict in his duty to defend the democratic system, while he attacked it.
Kinzinger told ABC News’ “This Week” on Sunday that another upcoming hearing would be “very important.”
“Pay attention, because I think it goes to the heart of what is the oath of a leader,” the Illinois Republican said. “You can’t selectively pick what parts of the Constitution you defend or what branches of government, and you certainly can’t be gleeful during that.”