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The Jan. 6 committee has done its job, but its impact depends on others

The Jan. 6 committee presented voted this week to subpoena former President Trump. The fate of the subpoena will likely be decided soon by the courts. The impact of the committee's work will likely take longer to gauge.
Drew Angerer
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The Jan. 6 committee presented voted this week to subpoena former President Trump. The fate of the subpoena will likely be decided soon by the courts. The impact of the committee's work will likely take longer to gauge.

When a dramatic development punctuates a long-running narrative, people ask: Is this it?

Is it the turning point or the tipping point, the moment we will remember?

This week, the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol took a shot at providing such a moment in the saga of former President Donald Trump.

As they wrapped their latest and possibly last public session, the nine committee members voted unanimously to subpoena the former president's documents and testimony relevant to Jan. 6.

Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., described Trump as "the central figure" in the entire episode, then proceeded to present more than two of hours of evidence to that effect.

"Trump knew, from unassailable sources, that his election fraud claims were false," added the panel's vice-chair, Liz Cheney, R-Wyo. "There is no defense that Donald Trump was duped or irrational. No president can defy the rule of law and act this way in a constitutional republic, period."

Videotaped witnesses and emails then detailed how Trump and some of his innermost circle planned well in advance to resist leaving office if he lost his re-election bid in November 2020. Trump's claims of victory on Election Night ("Frankly, we did win this election") were not just premature, they said, but premeditated. They were part of a script sketched out well before that night and referenced in private communications within his inner circle.

But will this be the finger that pops the bubble of belief in Trump and his baseless claims of fraud?

There's no guarantee

Experience tells us the ultimate measure of any congressional investigation is not in its final report or even the impact of public hearings along the way. The ultimate measure does not come from the actions of any investigator or witness, or from any member of Congress or elected officeholder. It comes from appointees in the executive and judicial branches of government.

No matter how much news and attention a congressional panel may generate, the ultimate effect depends on whether they alter the arc of a presidency or otherwise change the course of national history.

It will be up to Attorney General Merrick Garland to decide whether Trump faces charges for his role in the riot and his broader effort to remain in office despite losing the national popular vote and the constitutional vote of the Electoral College.

Garland must also decide whether to bring charges against the former president for removing troves of official records including highly classified documents from the White House when he left office. Trump continues to insist the records belong to him and demand they be returned by the FBI, which seized them with a search warrant at his Mar a Lago estate in Florida.

What next for Trump?

As for the Jan. 6 subpoena, we can now expect weeks and perhaps months of maneuvering, as Trump and the committee compete for control of the story line. Few experts in either camp expect Trump to testify, though he may well posture himself as willing to do if allowed to make it a personal forum.

Most legal experts who commented on this prospect this week said Trump's lawyers would never advise him to speak before the committee. All the committee's witnesses have been under oath. That would expose the former president to charges of perjury or lying to Congress if he repeated his usual statements and denials about the election and related topics.

In the end, it is far more likely Trump will follow the course taken by his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, who refused own his subpoena from the Jan. 6 panel citing "executive privilege." The Department of Justice has so far declined to prosecute Meadows. It could take another view of Trump's defiance of Congress, and indeed it has with respect to Steve Bannon, a Trump adviser and strategist in 2016-17 and at times since. Bannon was not, however, a member of the Trump administration in 2020.

In media interviews, Trump himself has teased a willingness to testify. But he has indicated he would want to do so in person on live TV in prime time, with an opportunity to turn the questioning on the committee. On his Truth Social account after the hearing he asked why the committee had not called him sooner, perhaps when it began its hearings.

Trump also called the committee's work "a total BUST" and blamed the riot on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (referring to her as "Crazy Nancy"). Trump has previously claimed that he had authorized thousands of National Guard troops and been rejected by Democratic leaders in Congress. But there is no record of such authorization and those leaders would not have the authority to reject them if there were, according to Politifact.

The following day, Trump's attorneys released a 14-page barrage of denials and attacks on the committee at week's end without indicating whether Trump would respect the subpoena. It also included assertions the election itself was stolen, once again without evidence.

A sense of déjà vu

We have been here before.

When Democrats captured the majority in the House in 2018, they pledged an examination of the connections between Trump and Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election in the U.S. An investigation of the 2016 campaign had begun earlier with the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, whose report was partially released in March 2019.

Mueller found there had been extensive Russian interference, largely in social media. And while there had been contacts between those efforts and Trump's campaign (such as the sharing of polling information by a Trump campaign official), Mueller did not find evidence of a criminal conspiracy. At the same time, Mueller refused to exonerate Trump from charges of obstructing the investigation. Instead, he cited a Justice Department memo that said a president could not be indicted while in office.

Some Democrats wanted to start impeachment proceedings based on what Mueller had found. Pelosi resisted that but supported impeachment hearings later that year when Trump delayed delivery of military aid to Ukraine and asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the business ties of Hunter Biden, son of Joe Biden (who was then out of government but seeking the 2020 nomination for president). The House proceeded to impeach Trump on those charges, but he was not convicted in the Senate.

A second impeachment of Trump was carried out on a far more abbreviated timetable after the events of Jan. 6, 2021. But the House vote, in which 10 Republicans joined all the Democrats in voting to impeach Trump for his actions before and during the riot, once again failed to move the necessary two-thirds of the Senate (though there were more Republican votes to convict than there had been the previous year).

Trump seemed to have earned the tabloid label of "Teflon Don," a reference to earlier instances in which he had emerged from bankruptcies and apparent scandals unscathed.

A long history

Congressional hearings into an apparent scandal have run their course and convinced much of the public that something must be done to hold certain parties accountable.

The most famous case was Watergate, half a century ago. A Senate committee appointed for the purpose held hearings throughout the summer of 1973 investigating the role of President Richard Nixon in covering up a burglary at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office complex in Washington.

The Senate's televised hearings lasted into the fall and brought to light a remarkable array of misdeeds in the 1972 Nixon re-election campaign (when he won 49 states), casting a pall of suspicion over Nixon himself. The president's approval rating in the Gallup Poll tumbled from a peak well above 60 percent in early 1973 to well below 40 in the fall.

But Nixon might well have remained in office had the hearings not exposed the existence of tape recordings made in the White House. Those tapes became to evidence for a case pursued by a special prosecutor using the resources of Nixon's own Justice Department. His subpoenas were supported by federal judges handling the burglary and related matters, all the way up to the Supreme Court. When the tapes came out, Nixon was forced to resign.

Congress also held joint House-Senate hearings 14 years later that failed to do significant damage to President Ronald Reagan. His administration had been secretly selling arms to Iran in order to free Americans held hostage in that country. The proceeds of these sales were then secretly used to circumvent a congressional ban on military aid to anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua.

But the Congress did not unearth substantial evidence of Reagan's personal involvement. A special prosecutor was appointed and several dozen officials of the Reagan administration were eventually indicted, including the secretary of defense. Eleven convictions resulted, some of which were vacated on appeal. The few remaining were pardoned in the final days of the term of Reagan's successor, President George H.W. Bush, who had been vice president during what was called "the Iran-Contra affair."

There were also hearings into Wall Street misdeeds that had led to the "mortgage meltdown" financial panic in 2008, as there had been into public and private misfeasance in the savings and loan industry in the 1980s. But while these brought attention to serious abuses and prompted legislation to try to address them, they have been largely forgotten since – largely because they did not send major figures to prison.

National media were also deeply interested in the workings and report of the special commission appointed to investigate after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The commission found evidence that warnings were received within the government about terrorists operating inside the U.S. and even planning to use airplanes as weapons. But while this led to embarrassment in some instances there were no prosecutions, and President George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 after the commission released its report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.