The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attack has held what is expected to be its final public hearing, driving home a conclusion that once would have been unthinkable, but now is inescapable: The president of the United States was directly responsible for an assault on the nation’s government.
Donald Trump dodged accountability for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol when Senate Republicans acquitted him the following month in his second impeachment trial. Prosecuting the former president raises complex questions of law — and about whether doing so would ultimately set back the causes of democracy and justice more than advance them. That is a tough decision facing Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department.
But ordinary Americans can and should hold Mr. Trump and his enablers accountable. Many voters might feel as though Jan. 6 is ancient history and that inflation and crime are more pressing concerns. But with more than half of this year’s Republican nominees for the House, Senate and key statewide offices denying or questioning the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, this midterm contest, in which control of the House and Senate is at stake, is also about democracy itself. What’s more, the current Congress still has work to do. The vulnerabilities in the electoral system that Mr. Trump attempted to exploit must be closed — starting with a rewrite of the Electoral Count Act.
With the fresh evidence presented Thursday by the committee in its closing hearing and the mass of material it has put forward since its first public session in June, there remains little doubt about who dispatched the Jan. 6 mob to the Capitol — and who could have been the only person with the power to stop it. As committee member Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) put it, Mr. Trump was “intimately involved. He was the central player” in a violent plot to upend the result of the 2020 election.
Mr. Trump’s operatives, such as Roger Stone and Stephen K. Bannon, hatched plans before the election to declare victory preemptively — which the president did on election night, even as vote-counting continued. After he lost the 2020 vote, Mr. Trump knew his claims about election fraud were “bull---t,” former attorney general William P. Barr told the Jan. 6 panel.
Mr. Barr was just one in a cavalcade of former Trump officials who testified that they had told Mr. Trump that he had lost. Many of the Republicans who were principled enough to resist Mr. Trump’s corrupt campaign to overturn the election paid dearly. State leaders testified that they were harassed constantly for refusing to help. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) said that family members became a target; someone even broke into his daughter-in-law’s home.
As Jan. 6 approached, Mr. Trump advanced the theory that Vice President Mike Pence could unilaterally dismiss states’ electoral votes when Congress met to count them. Greg Jacob, who was Mr. Pence’s general counsel, testified that Mr. Trump heard from top advisers that the vice president did not have this authority. Yet Mr. Trump persisted, leading the Jan. 6 mob to chant, “Hang Mike Pence.”
Emails the committee obtained from the Secret Service showed that federal agents knew that extremists were planning to breach the U.S. Capitol and disrupt the certification of electoral votes that would make Joe Biden president. One informant emailed the Secret Service: “Their plan is to literally kill people. Please please take this tip seriously and investigate further.” A question that deserves further investigation is why the authorities did not do more to act on the information they had in hand.
Mr. Trump knew the crowd he had summoned to D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021, was armed, according to testimony from former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson. He riled up the mob, telling it to “fight like hell.” Moreover, the participants in the deadly riot were clear about whose bidding they were doing. “Trump asked us to come,” one rioter said in a committee video.
After returning to the White House, senior advisers asked Mr. Trump to step in. It fell to Mr. Pence and endangered lawmakers to beg federal agencies for help; some of the most compelling evidence in the final hearing was video footage, shot in a secure location, that showed a coolheaded Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) working the phones to get law enforcement and the military to the scene while the Capitol was under siege.
Hours after the violence began, Mr. Trump released a video halfheartedly calling on the mob to stand down. Nearly two years on, the former president has revealed how he really felt. He has discussed pardoning those arrested for their Jan. 6 crimes. He even bragged on Saturday that the Jan. 6 mob was “the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen,” to cheers from his audience.
Yet the Republican Party remains in thrall to the former president. Mr. Trump’s favored candidates won GOP primaries in state after state this year. Some prominent GOP lawmakers have even tried to play down Jan. 6, comparing the rioters to tourists and insisting that they were not really armed.
Indeed, before the committee even started investigating, it was clear that Jan. 6 was not the unifying 9/11-style moment it should have been. Empaneling a bipartisan group to investigate an assault on the nation’s seat of government should have been easy, harking back to the revelatory Watergate committee hearings that toppled President Richard M. Nixon. Instead, Republican leaders balked at conducting a serious investigation.
Democrats created the committee on their own, and they included two patriotic Republicans willing to conduct an unsparing probe, Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.). The two found themselves outcasts in their party as a result. Ms. Cheney was defeated in a GOP primary; Mr. Kinzinger chose to retire.
Democrats, meanwhile, did an admirable job of assuring the committee’s work could not be judged as partisan propaganda. Over months of testimony, the panel conducted a sober review that put critical new details into the public record, and the evidence came almost entirely from Republicans, including many officials and advisers close to Mr. Trump.
The lesson these lawmakers all leave behind is to do more in the spirit of the Jan. 6 committee, aligning Democrats and willing Republicans around a single interest: defending democracy. A group of Senate Republicans is working with Democrats to rewrite the electoral count procedures, a pressing task if the nation is to avoid another Jan. 6. They should also disburse money to hire and train poll workers and invest in election security. Democrats should set ideology on other issues aside and reach out to Republicans disaffected by Trumpism on questions affecting the integrity of the electoral system. And they should stop the dangerous and cynical game of abetting extremist GOP primary candidates who they assume might be easier to beat in general elections.
An unnervingly large proportion of GOP voters might believe in the “big lie.” But most Americans do not inhabit their alternate reality. As the midterm elections approach, these voters would do well to keep the most fundamental principles top of mind. And they should continue to keep them a priority in 2024, when Mr. Trump might be on the ballot again.
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