The USA, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) The final installment of the summer television hit in the US known as the January 6th Committee Hearings was viewed by millions of Americans on July 21st. The finale focused on what President Donald Trump was doing during the 187 minutes while the Capitol was being stormed by violent rioters who believed, or claimed to believe, the lie that the election had been stolen.
It turns out that during those three hours and change, President Trump was in the White House, tweeting, ignoring pleas to do something about the violence, continuing to try to find ways to overturn the election and, in general, to use the same phrase that we heard in the hearings, adding “fuel on the fire.” Of course, we knew all this before the hearings began, but the public hearing fleshed out that story and provided details for viewers.
Over the course of its existence, the Committee has made an extremely compelling case that Donald Trump incited and encouraged the riot, failed to do his presidential duties, and actively spread a lie about the election. And again, anybody who was paying attention in January of 2021 already knows that. The question this raises for many is whether or not Attorney General Merrick Garland will indict Donald Trump for these crimes. My sense is that Garland is too cautious and overly worried about how the consequences of indicting Trump, and therefore will not indict him.
It is possible that I have underestimated Garland, but regardless of what he does, the work of the Committee itself may have less of an impact than many hope. If there are no high-profile indictments, then the entire purpose of the Committee may be questioned. More importantly, the absence of any high-profile indictments will mark a crisis of the rule of law in the US.
After all, if the President and his closest advisors can face almost no consequences for inciting a riot, seeking to overturn a democratic election, and placing the lives of numerous people in danger, then the US is a country where the laws only apply to some people, but not the most powerful.
The other problem for the Committee is that if Trump is indicted, Trump and his supporters will simply view this as the inevitable result of a committee that focused entirely on Trump. There is a bit of gas-lighting going on here because the reason the focus on Trump was so intense was because Trump was so guilty and played such a destructive role in the events of January 6th. Nonetheless, the indictment would do nothing to move Trump’s core supporters away from him. Indicting Trump would be consistent with the focus on the former president throughout the hearings, but would implicitly suggest that the rest of the GOP was less responsible for the storming of the Capitol and the violence related to that.
From the beginning of the hearings, the Committee seemed to make a strategic decision to focus narrowly on Trump rather than the role of virtually the entire GOP leadership in spreading the big lie about the election, encouraging the demonstrators, and failing to speak out against the violent and undemocratic elements within society that Trump was nurturing.
Keeping the scope this narrow was a mistake not only because of the complicity of so much of the GOP in the events of January 6th, but also because preventing future efforts to undermine our democracy requires a broader analysis of those events. Indicting only Donald Trump and perhaps some of his closest aides could exacerbate this problem, as the message will be that Trump is being held accountable and the problem has been solved.
The Committee itself is not entirely at fault here. Any reasonably honest attempt to investigate would January 6th would lay a lot of blame on the feet of Donald Trump. It is also true that while many others were complicit, Trump was the president and that is where, particularly in cases like these, to paraphrase Harry Truman, the buck must stop.
As terrible as the events of January 6th were, seeing them as something that needs to be investigated outside of the context of the larger political crisis facing the US is an approach that is too Pollyannish, albeit somewhat understandably so. Accordingly, indicting Trump and a handful of the people closest to him who helped Trump incite the riots, which is extremely unlikely to happen anyway, would reflect an unwillingness or inability on the part of the January 6th committee to wrestle with the larger impact and origins of the violence at the Capitol that day.
Critiques of the January 6th Committee must be tempered by recognizing the difficult nature of their work. They are investigating an insurrection that has not yet run its course. The insurrectionists are still the dominant voice in the Republican Party. Donald Trump may be more crass, buffoonish, and explicit than smarter and more polished Republican politicians, but the GOP’s failure to speak out against him makes them insurrectionists as well. There are many takeaways from the public hearings, but one of them, of which the Committee members themselves must be aware, is that this insurrection is still ongoing.