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There’s one crucial question the Jan 6 committee could not answer – whether any of this matters

The committee has made history but will anyone remember, asks Andrew Buncombe

Monday 19 December 2022 21:45 GMT
Donald Trump announced in November he was making a third presidential bid
Donald Trump announced in November he was making a third presidential bid (Getty Images)

This is the time of year for seasonal spectaculars and dramatic performances.

Be it Hollywood, Broadway, television or a streaming service, the holiday period is when we expect the things that have entertained us all year to come up with something truly special.

The same is true for the congressional committee that has been investigating the January 6 2021 attack on the US Capitol, and the role played by Donald Trump, both in allegedly inciting an insurrection as part of an effort to cling onto power, and then doing nothing to call off his supporters.

And, so after a series of hearings that set out the case against Trump, the 10th and final hearing of the committe saved for us something special.

In a historic first, the committee recommended four criminal charges against a former president be referred to the Department of Justice – inciting an insurrection, conspiracy to defraud the United States, obstruction of an act of Congress, and making false statements.

“If the faith is broken, so is our democracy,” said the committee’s chair, Bennie Thompson, a Democratic congressman from Mississippi.

“Donald Trump broke that faith. He lost the 2020 election and knew it, but he chose to try to stay in office through a multi-part scheme to overturn the results and block the transfer of power.”

His vice chair, Republican Liz Cheney, added: “No man who would behave that way at that moment in time can ever serve in any position of authority in our nation again. He is unfit for any office.”

As it often the way with blockbusters, some of the new details had already slipped out in advance. We knew the committee was planning criminal referrals about Trump – in truth, if they had not done so it would have been a very damp squib.

But we did not know what those charges were, or what specific members of his inner circle would also recommended for referral. As it was, the panel also said five Trump allies — Mark Meadows, his final chief of staff, and the lawyers Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman, Jeffrey Clark and Kenneth Chesebro – should be examined by the DoJ.

There was a something of a last-week-at-school feel about this hearing. After all, on 3 January, assuming Kevin McCarthy can drag together enough names, Republicans are set to take control of the House of Representatives, with him replacing Nancy Pelosi as as speaker. There will be no more hearings for the January 6 committee.

Credit is surely due, therefore, to the politicians and their staff who worked with vigour to complete the report.

Even more recognition is warranted for the witnesses who had the courage to take the stand and swear under oath about what they had seen or heard on a day that marked the high-water mark of Trump’s attempt to cling onto power.

Who will forget the appearance of Meadows’ former top aide Cassidy Hutchinson, revealing how she had been told Trump tried to grasp the steering wheel of his SUV when he was told he could not return to the Capitol as his supporters stormed it.

“As an American, I was disgusted,” she told the committee.

“It was unpatriotic. It was un-American. We were watching the Capitol building get defaced over a lie.”

Jan 6 committee votes to recommend criminal charges against Donald Trump

It is almost two years since those events, and yet the scenes that were played again remain more jolting, not less, despite the passage of time.

For all the attempts of Trump and his supporters to portray the events of January 6 as nothing more than an exercise in participatory democracy, and the labeling of those detained as political prisoners, it seems clearer today than ever that there were many, many people, ranging from the wife of a Supreme Court justice, to the leader of an armed militia, conspiring to stop the transfer of power.

This ought to be studied not as a footnote to history, but the moment the democratic process met its greatest threat, certainly in our lifetimes.

Yet, there are several problems associated with the January 6 committee final hearing, and they both relate to questions whose answers lie far beyond its remit.

The first is, does any of it matter? Yes, it is important to mark these events as a way to hold Trump accountable. Yet, that moment feels long departed. Republicans could have voted to impeach Trump when this was all hot and fresh two years ago, but they chose not to.

Rep Jamie Raskin speaks at the final meeting of the House Select Committee (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Now, Trump is the party’s front-runner in the 2024 presidential election. Will Joe Biden’s Department of Justice really seek to bring criminal charges against a political opponent? As Trump knows, it would be a hugely controversial step.

There is a second interrelated point.

While Liz Cheney wanted to keep the focus of the report on Trump, the evidence her committee gathered showed there were many people in the Republican Party who backed what he was doing. That may be something even Cheney cannot stomach.

As it stands, Trump retains huge support among the Republican base.

Yes, there are other likely contenders in 2024, such as Ron DeSantis, but polls show that despite all the revelations about Trump, despite the myriad investigations and process and accusations leveled at his door, few would be against him securing the GOP nomination.

What does that say about America. Is the country really ready to have that conversation with itself?

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