Will former US President Donald Trump face criminal charges?
The congressional committee investigating the January 6 riot at the United States Capitol held eight hearings with explosive testimony. But all that might not be enough for prosecutors to charge the former president.
It was a montage close to a series of blockbuster hearings: excerpts of former US President Donald Trump recording a video on January 7, 2021, where he refuses to utter the words “the election is over”.
Trump’s recording was meant to be a balm for the country just a day after a mob stormed the Capitol and plunged the country into crisis. Instead, he refused to back down from the very lie that had driven many mob members to violence: that the 2020 election was rigged.
Thursday’s final public hearing before the summer recess by the congressional committee investigating the riot focused on Trump’s refusal to tell the crowd of his supporters who ransacked the Capitol on January 6. to go home. His refusal came despite numerous pleas from his advisers and family, leading Republicans and even Fox News personalities.
It was a key part of the narrative that committee members set out to tell from the very first hearing: that Trump and his closest aides knew the election had not been stolen; that they actively tried to overturn the election results; and that Trump instigated and encouraged the violent January 6 riot.
Committee members say the chain of custody leads all the way back to Trump, and they’ve gathered evidence to prove their case: from former attorney general Bill Barr’s unequivocal rejection of the former attorney general’s allegations of voter fraud -president to revelations that Trump’s team attempted to send fake voter lists to key battleground states; that the team intended to install allies in the Department of Justice; that Trump knew his Jan. 6 crowd of supporters was armed and dangerous; that he remained silent for 187 minutes as the riot unfolded and members of Congress and the Vice President fled the Capitol.
Are audiences important?
But are the striking details, bombshell testimony and never-before-seen footage worth anything? A congressional committee can investigate but has no legal authority to press charges. That rests in the hands of the Justice Department and the current Attorney General, Merrick Garland.
So far, the Justice Department has arrested and charged nearly 900 rioters who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6. Prosecuting members of the White House, Trump’s inner circle, and even the former president himself will be a much more difficult task.
Catherine J Ross, a law professor at George Washington University Law School and author of “A Right to Lie?: Presidents, Other Liars, and the First Amendment,” told DW the Justice Department may investigate charges including congressional proceeding (attempting to prevent certification of election results), seditious conspiracy (conspiracy to overthrow or wage war on the U.S. government), and conspiracy to defraud the United States (obstructing a lawful function government using deception or dishonesty).
“In the period between the Electoral College vote and Jan. 6, Trump took an awful lot of actions to try to overturn the election results and illegally stay in power. said it was illegal or you couldn’t do that, so it doesn’t matter what his motive was,” said Ross, who believes the body of evidence presented is strong enough to support criminal charges.
“It’s like saying I robbed a bank, but it didn’t matter because I really needed the money and thought I should have some,” she added.
The case against Trump
While it may be clearer for prosecutors to prove Trump’s intent, observers note that it will be much harder to link his actions to the riot. And bringing a former president to justice is an unprecedented step, making it all the more difficult for the Doj to assess whether a successful legal action against Trump is even viable.
“They have to have evidence that will stand up to cross-examination and that will prove the criminal charges in our system. In the United States, beyond a reasonable doubt, because the criminal standard is really very high,” said William C Banks , professor emeritus. at Syracuse University College of Law. “It’s not a preponderance of the evidence; it’s not more likely than not. It’s beyond a reasonable doubt. We give the defendant every advantage of our system.”
The political environment will prove to be another challenge. While the ratings have consistently drawn huge numbers of viewers — 17.7 million for Thursday’s prime-time event — the majority of Republicans have dropped out. Key Republican lawmakers have dismissed the validity of the hearings, calling them a witch hunt and “political theater.” The former president himself delivered angry berates and tirades on his social media network, Truth Social.
In such a hot environment, seeking criminal charges against a former president — especially as he prepares to run for office again in 2024 — could be a particularly precarious undertaking for Attorney General Merrick Garland.
“There is a question that (Garland) has to face. If he were to choose to indict former President Trump or someone close to him, will he be seen as biased, as politically motivated in his decision to seek the indictment of the former president? The President of the United States?” Banks said.
All of these factors will weigh heavily on the Justice Department and Garland. But the Committee of January 6 is not done. Originally, he had planned to conclude six hearings in June. But Republican Vice President Liz Cheney told Thursday’s hearing that the “dam has begun to break”, with new witnesses, testimonies and evidence coming to light during the hearings.
If the committee can gather other important evidence and convince key witnesses to come forward, the Justice Department, which is conducting its own investigation but closely monitoring the hearings, could choose to press ahead.
It is hoped that high-ranking members of Trump’s former inner circle who previously refused to testify might reconsider – just as former White House lawyer Pat Cipollone chose to participate in the hearings after damning testimony in which his name appeared several times.
The next round of hearings is now scheduled for September, just two months before the important midterm elections.
Sumi Somaskanda, journalist, Duetsche Welle. Sketch: TBS
Sumi Somaskanda, journalist, Duetsche Welle. Sketch: TBS