Donald Trump
Donald TrumpReuters

Will Donald Trump face criminal charges?

Until now, the Department of Justice has arrested and pressed charges against nearly 900 rioters who attacked the Capitol on January 6.

By SUMI SOMASKANDA

It was a fitting close to a blockbuster series of hearings: outtakes from 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 intended to be a salve for the country just one day after a mob stormed the Capitol and plunged the country into crisis. Instead, he refused to back down from the very falsehood that had spurred many in the mob to violence: that the 2020 election was rigged.

Thursday’s final public hearing before the summer break by the congressional committee investigating the riot focused on Trump’s refusal to tell the mob of his supporters ransacking the Capitol on January 6 to go home. His refusal came despite numerous entreaties from his advisers and family, leading Republicans and even Fox News personalities. It was a key piece of the narrative that the committee members had set out to show from the very first hearing: that Trump and his closest aides knew the election wasn’t stolen; that they actively tried to subvert the election result; and that Trump incited and encouraged the violent riot on January 6.

Committee members say the chain of responsibility leads all the way to Trump, and they wove together pieces of evidence to prove their case: from former Attorney General Bill Barr’s unequivocal rejection of the ex-president’s election fraud claims to revelations that Trump’s team tried to put forward slates of fake electors in key battleground states; that the team intended to install allies at the Department of Justice; that Trump knew the crowd of his supporters on January 6 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.

But will the vivid details, the bombshell testimony and the previously unseen footage amount to anything? A congressional committee can investigate but carries no legal authority to press charges. That lies in the hands of the Department of Justice and the current attorney general, Merrick Garland.

Until now, the Department of Justice has arrested and pressed charges against nearly 900 rioters who attacked the Capitol on January 6. Prosecuting members of the White House, Trump’s inner circle and even the former president himself will be a far more difficult task.

Catherine J. Ross, a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School and author of the book “A Right to Lie?: Presidents, Other Liars, and the First Amendment,” told DW the Department of Justice could probe charges including obstruction of a congressional proceeding (trying to stop the certification of the election result), seditious conspiracy (conspiring to overthrow or wage war against the US government) and conspiracy to defraud the United States (obstructing a lawful function of the government using deceit or dishonesty).

If the committee can gather further significant evidence and convince key witnesses to come forward, the Department of Justice, which is carrying out its own investigation but watching the hearings closely, could choose to prosecute.

There are hopes that high-ranking members of Trump’s former inner circle who have previously refused to testify might reconsider — just as former White House Counsel Pat Cipollone chose to participate in the hearings after damning testimony in which his name cropped up several times. The next batch of hearings is now scheduled for September, just two months before momentous midterm elections.

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