The Jan. 6 committee makes their final plea: Prosecuting Trump will be hard, but morally necessary

The committee clearly worries about politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene fomenting the next insurrection

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published December 19, 2022 4:29PM (EST)

US Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and US Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA) participate in the final US House Select Committee hearing to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the US Capitol, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on December 19, 2022. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
US Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and US Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA) participate in the final US House Select Committee hearing to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the US Capitol, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on December 19, 2022. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

"There is one factor I believe is most important in preventing another January 6: Accountability," committee chair Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said during the final public meeting of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. "Accountability that can only be found in the criminal justice system." 

Monday's hearing may feel a bit muted to those who have been carefully following the coverage and knew that criminal referrals of Donald Trump were coming. Still, it's important to zoom out a bit and remember what a big deal this is. Never before in history has Congress asked the Department of Justice to prosecute a former president. But then again, never before in history has there been made public so much evidence that a president incited an insurrection in hopes of seizing the White House illegally.  

The committee meeting was conducted much like a prosecutor's closing statements, with members again walking viewers through the timeline of Trump's attempted coup and highlighting some of the most damning evidence previously presented. Here are the four proposed charges: Obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to make a false statement and, crucially, inciting or assisting an insurrection.

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"President Trump was directly responsible for summoning what became a violent mob to Washington, DC, urging them to march to the Capitol, and then further provoking the already violent and lawless crowd with his 2:24p.m. tweet about the Vice President," the report summary released by the committee Monday reads.

For those who have watched all of the hearings, today could feel a bit like a retread, but it was an important exercise. The committee was sending a signal to the Department of Justice: The amount of evidence to prosecute Trump is overwhelming and prosecuting is a moral necessity. As they laid out in their presentation, they believe that unless something is done to stop Trump, he will try again — and next time the violence could be worse.

There is no doubt that prosecuting Trump will be hard. Attorney General Merrick Garland has for months been reluctant to deal with Trump's insurrection-related crimes. It's widely believed his main reason is fear that securing a conviction could be difficult. Republican voters on a jury might behave as Senate Republicans did during the impeachment and ignore the evidence and vote to acquit Trump anyway. Trump was careful to keep his distance from the actual Capitol rioters, letting surrogates do most of the actual organizing, and communicating his wishes through implication instead of direct orders. This mafioso style of communication is one that expert criminals have used for decades because it often works to evade legal consequences. 

Monday's hearing, however, was a reminder that it might be easier to convict Trump than initially assumed. Garland has appointed a special prosecutor, Jack Smith, to look into charging Trump for his January 6-related crimes. Smith appears to be moving quickly already. The stunning amount of evidence amassed by the January 6 committee — including more than 1,000 interviews and a million documents — will make his job much easier. The committee plans to release not just a summary of their findings, but the bulk of this evidence. If that evidence weren't incredibly strong, it's unlikely they would make these referrals. 

It's not enough to hope the political system will fix this on its own. Yes, the 2022 midterms were a rebuke to Trump and his fascist movement, with election deniers losing key races that Trump really needed in order to pull off his main strategy for stealing the White House in 2024. However, when fascists lose their path toward seizing power through faux-legalistic rationales, they often shift toward violence.

That's exactly how January 6 went down, as the committee made clear in their hearings over the summer. On December 18, Trump and his supporters had a confrontation with White House lawyers. When the latter made it clear there were no remaining legal avenues to overturn the election, Trump pivoted immediately to calling on a mob, sending out his infamous tweet calling the MAGA loyalists to the Capitol for a "wild" event on January 6. 

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Since the midterms, we've seen the same pattern. Instead of accepting their losses gracefully, there's been a perceptible shift once again toward open Trumpist longing for bloodshed. Earlier this month, the New York Young Republican Club's annual gala — where GOP movers and shakers turn out to rub shoulders — devolved fairly quickly into ugliness. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia bragged, "If Steve Bannon and I had organized [January 6], we would have won. Not to mention, it would've been armed."

Similarly, the group's president Gavin Wax insisted, "We want total war," saying it's important to fight the left "in the streets."

Just last weekend, the Republican loser in the Arizona governor's race held out insurrectionist sentiment as a point of pride. "I know that right now we can identify as anything we want to identify, but I want you to know that I identify as a proud election-denying deplorable!" Such rhetoric is inherently violent — the underlying assumption is that neither the law nor the will of the people should stand between Republicans and power. 

The swiftness of the pivot to violence is not surprising. Brute force is not just a tool in the fascist mentality, but an end in itself. The country was reminded of this in September, after the release of a video of close Trump associate Roger Stone, from the days before the 2020 election. "F**k the voting, let's get right to the violence," Stone can be heard ranting. Stone later said he was "only kidding." Indeed, a standard Republican deflection is to claim such rhetoric is simply hyperbole or jokes. As long as Trump remains unprosecuted for inciting the Capitol riot, this shaky argument has some public justification. The committee's point was clear: Trump and other Republicans will continue to use such language, so long as they are confident that the DOJ is afraid to hold elected or high-level officials accountable. 

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It's worth remembering that Oath Keepers used the "just jokes" defense of their pre-January 6 conspirings. Despite myriad warnings from legal experts that such excuses make it hard to prosecute seditious conspiracy, at the end of the day, the jury didn't buy it. Certainly, it's hard to argue "just joking" when people armed with flagpoles and bear spray are beating cops and breaking windows. 

Trump himself has indicated pride in how January 6 unfolded and has suggested he would issue pardons for convicted insurrectionists if reelected. Mark Meadows' aide, Cassidy Hutchinson, testified that Trump was "furious" that rally-goers had to pass through magnetometers and that he said "something to the effect of, 'I don't f-ing care that they have weapons. They're not here to hurt me.'" After Trump was dissuaded from going to the Capitol with his supporters, he reportedly reveled in the riot on TV from the safety of the White House and refused multiple requests to call the mob off.

"Ours is not a system of justice where foot soldiers go to jail and the masterminds and ringleaders get a free pass," Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said during Monday's hearing. At this point in time, that's still an aspirational statement. Trump and his top-level lieutenants remain unindicted. The January 6 committee's actions are unprecedented, but their concerns are crystal clear: If the Justice Department doesn't step up to hold Trump accountable, American democracy will remain in serious trouble. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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