After another week of riveting testimony before the House Jan. 6 committee, it is natural to wonder: How many laws were broken, by whom, and will there be prosecutions? Some argue that former president Donald Trump is undoubtedly guilty of serious crimes and must be tried. Others insist that the criminal case against Mr. Trump still is not airtight, and that prosecuting a former president would tear apart the country. What is beyond doubt is that an intensive criminal investigation must proceed.
The committee heard June 28 from Cassidy Hutchinson, who was a top Trump White House aide. Ms. Hutchinson said that Mr. Trump instructed his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, to talk to conservative provocateur Roger Stone the night before the Capitol attack. Mr. Stone was photographed on Jan. 6 with members of the far-right Oath Keepers organization, multiple members of which were allegedly involved in the assault. She said that she heard mention of the Oath Keepers and the fringe Proud Boys group during the run-up to Jan. 6, when Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani was around.
Ms. Hutchinson also testified that Mr. Meadows sought to attend a Jan. 5 “war room” that included Mr. Giuliani, former Trump aide Stephen K. Bannon and other extremists. She said Mr. Meadows relented after she protested that the White House chief of staff should not be involved, but that he said he would dial in to the meetings.
This testimony underscores questions about precisely what Mr. Trump and his senior staff knew about what would unfold the next day.
Ms. Hutchinson testified that, on Jan. 6 itself, Mr. Trump was told that the crowd that he had assembled was armed. He nevertheless urged the mob to march on the Capitol, fight and show strength — and, according to Ms. Hutchinson and by his own admission, Mr. Trump wanted to accompany them.
The public needs more information. That requires the committee to hear from more witnesses, which in turn requires the Justice Department to prosecute those, such as Mr. Meadows, who have defied committee subpoenas. It also means the department should examine seriously concerns that Trump allies are trying to influence Jan. 6 committee witnesses.
And, yes, the department should conduct a criminal investigation of Mr. Trump himself. Attorney General Merrick Garland appears to be treating this prospect with a high degree of care, and appropriately so. A new administration prosecuting a former president of the opposite party would set a perilous precedent; one need only look at the long record of failed democracies abroad, in which new leaders tried those they deposed, to see the danger. Prosecuting Mr. Trump also risks helping him politically.
On the other hand, if Mr. Trump is clearly, unquestionably guilty of committing a serious crime — not just arguably so — the department might have little choice. Central to our system of justice is the principle that no one is above the law.
The Justice Department has investigative powers that the Jan. 6 committee does not, and there are critical questions that remain unanswered. Mr. Garland should have no higher priority than using these powers to investigate all of those involved in one of the darkest days in American history.