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Yes, said Bennie Thompson, the Democrat who chairs the January 6 committee: There are going to be criminal referrals to the Department of Justice.
And then, on Tuesday afternoon, the unbelievable happened. The Trump Organization was found guilty on criminal tax fraud charges. Jurors rendered a guilty verdict on all of the 15 charges included in an indictment filed last year against the Trump Corporation and the Trump Payroll Corporation, as well as its long-time chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg.
This might just be the beginning of a much bigger nightmare for Trump. After an investigation into the events of January 6 2021 that has spread over two years and revealed many jolting details about that day of chaos and violence, the committee believe it has evidence of criminality.
The committee, consisting of two Republicans and seven Democrats, wants federal prosecutors to now step in and take a look at the material themselves. Any referrals from the committee would be nonbinding.
“We have made decisions on criminal referrals,” Thompson, a congressman from Mississippi, told reporters on Tuesday. Did he think any witnesses had perjured themselves, he was asked. “That’s part of the discussion,” he said.
Many, particularly Democrats or people who do not like Donald Trump, aged 76 and recently readmitted to Twitter, will have assumed and hoped that among the individuals being referred was the former president. Last month, Trump announced he was making a third bid for the White House and in doing so made himself the de facto Republican frontrunner. It’s been a rocky road from there.
The congressional investigation, formally known as the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack, was created after the insurrection at the US Capitol in early 2021. It was not formally established until the summer of that year, but only because Republicans rejected a fuller, broader probe, and Nancy Pelosi was able to only recruit Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney to be part of the team.
Now Republicans are poised to control the House of Representatives in the new Congress, and with it the right to appoint the chairs of such committee. The January 6 committee is likely to be scrapped. All the more reason for the Thompson and Cheney, who is the vice chair, to make their announcement immediately.
Any neutral observer of the hearings — nine of them this year and one held in 2021 — will have been struck by the witnesses who spoke about what they saw that day. Many feared for their safety. Some telephoned loves ones to say goodbye, in case they did not make it home.
It was difficult not to be moved by the Secret Service officers protecting the vice president, as a crowd chanted, “Hang Mike Pence”. Later we learned that the mob had been little more than 40 feet from where he was sheltering.
And what about 26-year-old Cassidy Hutchinson, who had been chief-of-staff Mark Meadows’ top aide, and who had the courage to say in public what her boss would not – that Trump had tried to return to the Capitol on January 6 after he delivered his incendiary speech, and tried to grab the wheel of his SUV?
It would have taken a cold heart, too, not to be moved by the testimony of Georgia election workers Shaye Moss, and her mother, Ruby Freeman, who were falsely smeared by Rudy Giuliani, then Trump’s top campaign lawyer, who said they had rigged the election in their state. People banged on their door and the pair were forced to go into hiding. “Lord Jesus, where’s the police?” Freeman asked a police dispatcher, after dialling 911.
A neutral observer may also assume that given so much of the January 6 hearings were focused on the actions, or non-actions, of Donald Trump, then any referral to the Justice Department must be be about him.
There are several things to ponder.
Trump is already being investigated by a special prosecutor appointed by the DoJ, to look into both the events of January 6, and his alleged improper storage of classified documents at his home in Florida. (The tax fraud convictions, which concern Trump’s business dealings, are a separate matter and were handled by prosecutors in New York.)
Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to then White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, describes the actions of former US president Donald Trump as she testifies during a House Select Committee hearing to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the US Capitol
(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
It may be that Trump is among those referred by the January 6 committee, but there could be others.
In recent days there have been reports of disagreements within the committee, with Cheney – who famously said of Trump “the president of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack” – seeking to keep the report’s final focus on the former president alone. Democrats, meanwhile, apparently wish to push the conclusions further, and look at the role of law enforcement officers and the role of the Republican Party.
Another thing to consider is that Biden’s DoJ, under Attorney General Merrick Garland, may find it difficult to criminally charge a former president.
That will be especially the case, now that Trump is officially running for office and would surely try to paint any prosecution as an attempt to by his opponent to derail him. At the time of writing, he has not reacted to the New York charges — but one can imagine that he will, and that his reaction will follow the same playbook as he has done in the past.
The former president has already been quick to denounce the special prosector, Jack Smith, as a political appointment. “I have been proven innocent for six years on everything - from fake impeachments to [former special counsel Robert] Mueller who found no collusion, and now I have to do it more,” he told Fox News recently. “It is not acceptable. It is so unfair. It is so political.”
The other thing is that we have been here before, many times. One loses track of the instances when we were told that something Trump had done – the Access Hollywood tapes, his response to the Charlottesville protest, his being twice impeached, him having dinner with a known white supremacist – would be the end of him with his supporters, and the Republican Party in general. In each instance, Trump emerged largely unscathed, or even strengthened, invariably with only the most modest and meaningless censor or criticism from senior Republicans.
The fact that even with everything he has done, Trump still has the support of 40 per cent of the country ought to lead Americans to ask hard questions of themselves.
The truth is this: that no matter who is named in the referrals, and who has been convicted in New York, and whatever progress the DoJ makes tries to make, it is a fair bet that Donald Trump will be Republican nominee for president in 2024. And if that is the case, anything could happen.