The House of Representatives began hearings on January 1. 6 rebellion in the face of grimly low expectations.
Didn’t we already know what happened? After two impeachments and countless revelations, was there anything new to learn about Donald Trump’s bad rule?
The conventional wisdom turned out to be wrong.
The hearings were informative, often exciting, sometimes dramatic. Former Trump aides have been scathing about their boss’ claims that the 2020 election was stolen. (“Bullshit,” in the brief judgment of former Attorney General William Barr.)
Lesser-known figures have described what it was like to be the object of the former president’s wrath, such as Ruby Freeman, a Georgia poll worker whom Trump falsely denounced by name as a “professional voter fraudster”.
“Do you know what it’s like to have the President of the United States targeting you?” the 62-year-old store owner testified with tears in his eyes. “I don’t feel safe anywhere.”
What made the hearings an unexpected success was not Hollywood production values, as some have suggested. They are not all smooth.
The hearings were a success because they were extraordinarily well organized and, in the opinion of Congress, completely free of pathos.
Each session focused on one chapter of Trump’s vast conspiracy: his false allegations of fraud, his pressure on government officials to change the election results, his bullying of then-Vice President Mike Pence, culminating in the riots he instigated on January 1st. 6.
The basic facts were familiar, but many of the details are new, especially the first-hand testimony of Republican officials.
This was not what the House Committee had in mind—at least consciously.
“I don’t think we took it as another impeachment,” the congressman said. I was told by Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), a member of the panel who was involved in two previous investigations. “But it can have such an impact.”
The word “impeachment” originally meant “to discredit,” Schiff noted.
“I hope that what the public has seen in these hearings will discredit and disqualify Mr. Trump from ever holding office again,” he said.
In this sense, they served as a kind of metaphorical impeachment.
The hearings also served another purpose: they showed the public a roadmap of the criminal charges that could be brought against Trump if Attie. Gene. Merrick Garland decides to bring him to justice.
The committee and its leaders have already named at least three potential criminal offences: inciting to riot Jan. 6, obstruction of federal proceedings (by attempting to block the count of electoral votes), and conspiracy to deceive United States (for example, by organizing fictitious lists of “alternative voters”).
“President Trump had no factual basis for what he was doing and was told it was illegal,” the congressman said. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming), vice chair of the committee, said at the opening of the hearing.
Some Democrats have complained that Garland is not moving fast enough to bring the former president to justice. They should be careful what they wish for; Trump’s indictment ahead of November’s congressional election could boost Republican voter turnout.
In any case, there is plenty of evidence that Justice Department investigators are already pulling all of these threads.
On June 6, a federal grand jury indicted five leaders of the right-wing Proud Boys militia for sedition.
In April, the Justice Department received subpoenas against Rudolph V. Giuliani and John Eastman lawyers who advised Trump on his schemes.
Last week, his investigators served subpoenas to pro-Trump activists who had set up fake lists of “alternative voters.”
And they raided the Virginia home of Jeffrey Clark, a former Justice Department official who insisted the Department back up Trump’s allegations of voter fraud.
Prosecutors don’t seem to need a roadmap from Congress, but the House hearings have provided one – at least a rough version – for all of us.
“The biggest contribution of these hearings was to clarify the personal culpability of Donald Trump,” said Donald B. Ayer, who served as No. 1. 2 A Justice Department official under President George W. Bush told me.
“We already knew the general scheme of the case. But now we know that Trump was the driving force… We don’t know the whole case yet, but thanks to these hearings, it has become much stronger.”
Legal scholars are already debating issues related to possible prosecution: Can prosecutors persuade a jury to convict a former president? Do the side effects of prosecution outweigh the benefits?
Last week, Jack Goldsmith, who served in the Department of Justice under President George W. Bush, warned that the former president’s prosecution “would be a catastrophic event from which the nation would not soon recover.”
Ayer disagrees. “The need for containment is really huge,” he said. “We already know that Trump and his supporters are plotting to do it again.”
It should be noted that both Ayer and Goldsmith are Republicans who have long been critical of Trump.
These are thorny questions that Garland will need to weigh. The hearings in the House of Representatives made it clear that if he decides not to prosecute, it is not for lack of evidence.