Trump may have legal exposure on January 6, but the polls will determine his fate

In December, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) strongly implied that the Jan. 6 committee was seeking a criminal referral to the Justice Department when she used language directly from the U.S. code to question Trump’s activities. “Did Donald Trump,” she asked, “by action or inaction, corruptly seek to obstruct or obstruct the official procedure of Congress in counting electoral votes?”

What was suggested by Cheney in December became explicit in the committee’s latest legal document. The filing was part of an effort to gain access to emails and other documents from John Eastman, a lawyer advising Trump who led an effort to persuade Vice President Mike Pence to disrupt the Electoral College vote count. by Congress as part of an overall plan to overturn the election. In the filing, lawyers for the committee say there is evidence that “establishes a good faith belief that Mr. Trump and others may have committed criminal and/or fraudulent acts.”

In a statement accompanying the release of the filing, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), the House committee chairman, and Cheney, the committee’s deputy chairman, said, “The facts we have gathered strongly suggest that Dr Eastman’s emails may show he helped Donald Trump advance a corrupt scheme to obstruct the counting of electoral college ballots and a conspiracy to prevent the transfer of power.

The filing refers to the obstruction or attempted obstruction of official process – the counting of electoral votes by Congress – and an effort to defraud the United States, presumably through repeated false allegations of improprieties widespread in state vote counts that ultimately led to the attack on the Capitol.

The filing includes a number of attachments — portions of committee depositions with former Justice Department officials, Pence advisers and others, as well as a lengthy email thread between Eastman and Greg Jacob. , an attorney and aide to Pence, on the day of the attack. These attachments, which take readers into Oval Office discussions between Trump and various advisers, leave no doubt that the President has been told repeatedly, starting in the days following the election, that ‘there was no valid evidence of widespread fraud he had lost the election. .

Despite this, Trump persisted in his claims that the election was stolen, in his harassment of state election officials, in his harassment of Pence for doing what Pence said he was not constitutionally allowed to do. to do as chairman of the joint session of Congress, and calling loyalists to Washington for a rally that then saw thousands of people attack the Capitol amid the counting of electoral votes.

The committee still has a lot of work to do, with ongoing depositions, public hearings scheduled for later this year and, eventually, a full report of its findings. He does not have the authority to accuse Trump of obstruction or fraud. At most, he can highlight his findings through public testimony and ultimately take the matter to the Justice Department and hope that those responsible will take the following steps and pursue legal action against the former president.

The legal route to hold Trump accountable, however, remains unclear.

At a minimum, last week’s committee filing adds to the pressure on Attorney General Merrick Garland to pursue such charges. A formal referral to the committee later this year would bring to the fore the question of whether the Justice Department is willing to do what many of Trump’s opponents have been calling for since the Jan. 6 attack.

Garland has been circumspect about the ongoing work at Justice. On the eve of the first anniversary of the attacks, he gave a speech in which he said: “The Department of Justice remains committed to holding all perpetrators of January 6, at all levels, accountable before the law – whether present that day or otherwise. criminally responsible for undermining our democracy. We will follow the facts wherever they lead us.

Garland’s language was legal boilerplate — standard wording of an ongoing investigation — and yet tempting to those who argued that failing to hold Trump accountable for what happened on Jan. 6 would be a dereliction of duty.

On Thursday, Assistant Attorney General Lisa Monaco appeared on PBS’s NewsHour. She was asked about the House committee’s statement that they developed evidence that indicates a good faith basis to charge Trump. She repeated what Garland said two months ago.

“We will follow the facts into the law in what is the largest and most complex investigation into the events of January 6 that the department has ever undertaken, and we will do so no matter where the facts take us, whatever the level,” she said.

When The NewHour’s Geoff Bennett asked her about complaints that Garland was not acting quickly enough, given all the available evidence of alleged criminal actions by the president and those around him, she said, “He [Garland] was quite clear at the time and quite convincing that we would follow these facts wherever they lead, no matter at what level and from what direction. And make no mistake about it. »

Still, what members of the House Jan. 6 committee, or people keen to see Trump charged with a crime, might consider clear criminal violations may not be enough to persuade Garland to make the risky move to indict. the former president.

The ramifications of such a decision are enormous, from the crucial questions of whether the evidence is so strong that the government could be certain of obtaining a conviction to the political considerations responsible for ensuring that this administration accuses the director general of the prior administration of a crime.

Former Attorney General William P. Barr told NBC’s Lester Holt in an interview promoting his new book that while he believes Trump was “responsible in the broadest sense” for what happened in Capitol on Jan. 6, “I haven’t seen anything that he was legally responsible for it in terms of incitement. The full interview will air Sunday at 9 p.m.

Garland is known as a cautious attorney general, to the dismay of those who believe the evidence against the former president is irrefutable. But he’s also known as someone who pursues cases with relentless focus, as he did as a Justice Department official after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Regardless of the justice system, the public will likely have the final say. The first indications of sentiment toward the former president will come in November’s midterm elections, when the power of his endorsements will be tested both in Republican primaries and then against a general election audience. There are already signs that his influence is waning. But the real test will come in 2024, if he chooses to run for president again, when an electorate that has one elected and another rejected him will have one more opportunity to decide his suitability.

As the world has united against Russian President Vladimir Putin in reaction to his invasion of Ukraine, jitters reign abroad over Trump’s possible return to power in 2024. These are long-standing concerns. date who have taken heightened concerns in light of the role of the United States in rallying other countries behind harsh sanctions and military assistance to the Ukrainian government and the reality that it could be a long struggle to keep Russia isolated, regardless of the outcome of the fighting in Ukraine.

To date, Trump’s opponents have failed to use legal avenues to deny him power. He was impeached twice by the House and twice acquitted by the Senate on largely partisan votes. Other investigations, some ongoing for years, have yet to bear fruit. The January 6 committee findings will be viewed by nearly half the country as purely political. The work of the Department of Justice involves considerable risk.

It is first and foremost a political struggle, which has been going on for a long time with Trump as the focal point, a battle that will ultimately be decided at the ballot box.


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