Washington Whispers: This One’s for You, Merrick Garland
By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
The proverbial chickens might finally be coming home to roost. The first of eight public hearings by the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack was televised on virtually every U.S. network in prime time (with the belligerent exception of Fox News) on Thursday (June 9). Upwards of 20 million people in this nation watched it. And unlike most congressional hearings in recent years, this one promised a series that will present the results of a truly collaborative, bipartisan search for truth. In that way, this first hearing was historic.
I’ll bet House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is kicking himself for decreeing that Republicans should boycott participation on the committee because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to let him place extremists like Wisconsin Rep. Jim Jordan on it. By boycotting, McCarthy lost any opportunity for his party to use its committee membership to obstruct the investigation. And since two fair-minded Republicans—Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger—bucked their party to join the committee, their prominent participation put the lie to any Republican argument that the committee’s work has been a partisan Democratic witch hunt.
McCarthy’s miscalculation is the nation’s gain.
An Overview of the Committee’s Scheduled Hearings
In the first hearing, the committee chairman, Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson (a Democrat) and vice chair Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney (a Republican) presented what amounted to a pitch-perfect opening statement for a criminal prosecution of Donald J. Trump.
Thompson stated that Trump was at the center of the January 6 conspiracy. Cheney, who conducted the larger share of the presentation, forcefully declared that Trump “summoned the mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack.”
But as Cheney described, the conspiracy began long before January 6 and involved numerous, calculated illegal maneuvers to retain power, of which the attack was only one prong. Setting a strong foundation for the series of hearings, Cheney stated: “Over multiple months, Donald Trump oversaw and coordinated a sophisticated seven-part plan to overturn the presidential election and prevent the transfer of presidential power. In our hearings, you will see evidence of each element of this plan.”
Cheney enumerated the countless times Trump was informed by aides and advisors that he had lost the election. This included former Attorney General Bill Barr, shown in his devastating better-late-than-never video testimony, stating: “I repeatedly told the President in no uncertain terms that I did not see evidence of fraud, you know, that would have affected the outcome of the election.” Barr said he told Trump that the fraud allegations were “bullshit.”
This was followed by astounding video testimony of Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, accepting Barr’s assessment that election fraud claim was totally bogus: ‘It affected my perspective,” she acknowledged. ‘I respect Attorney General Barr so I accepted what he said.”
After the videos, Cheney continued: “As you will see in the hearings to come, President Trump believed his supporters at the Capitol, and I quote, ‘were doing what they should be doing.’ This is what he told his staff as they pleaded with him to call off the mob, to instruct his supporters to leave.”
In addition, Cheney said that Trump not only balked at putting out anything to call off the attack but, shockingly--fully aware of the rioters’ chants to “hang Mike Pence”--the former President responded … “maybe our supporters have the right idea” and Mike Pence “deserves’ it.”
Cheney explained that the second hearing will address Trump’s knowing “massive” effort to spread the lie that the election had been stolen from him, which provoked the violence on January 6. Indeed, though Cheney did not mention it in her introductory statement, Trump began spreading and thus seeding the lie of election fraud many months before the November election.
The third hearing will address Trump’s corrupt plans to replace his Attorney General in order to clear the way for Trump to use the Department of Justice (DOJ) to spread his “false stolen election claims.” Cheney quoted Trump, before the January 6 coup attempt, telling his top DOJ officials: “Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.”
When the top Justice Department officials would not go along, Trump tried to elevate a minor DOJ attorney, Jeff Clark, to the role of Acting Attorney General. His reason? Clark was willing to send a letter to multiple states falsely claiming that DOJ had identified fraud concerns, and urging those states to withdraw their official, lawful electoral votes for Biden. It was only when the DOJ’s senior leadership and the White House Counsel threatened to resign that this illegal action was prevented from occurring.
Cheney promised that this third hearing will also address the role of some congressmen who sought Presidential pardons from Trump for their part in attempting to overthrow the 2020 election.
The fourth hearing will address Trump’s efforts to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to count electoral votes on January 6. Pence’s general counsel and other witnesses will explain that Pence and his staff informed Trump “over and over again that what he was pressuring Mike Pence to do was illegal.”
The fifth hearing will present evidence that President Trump corruptly pressured state legislators and election officials to change election results. This will include additional details about Trump’s call to Georgia officials urging them to “find” 11,780 votes that did not exist, as well as his efforts to get states to rescind certified electoral slates, and efforts to instruct various Republican state officials to forge false electoral slates certifying that Trump won states he had actually lost.
The sixth and seventh hearings will address details, with both live and video testimony by White House staff members, of how Trump summoned the violent mob and directed them to march on the U.S. Capitol.
In addition, Cheney underscored the fact that on December 18, 2020, General Michael Flynn, Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani, and others, met at the White House, where they discussed having the military seize voting machines and potentially rerun elections. Little more than an hour after they left the White House, the former President tweeted of January 6: “Be there. Will be Wild.”
After summarizing the mountain of evidence to come, Cheney staunchly pronounced to the members of her party who, despite all this evidence, continue to back Trump: “Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”
In addition to the committee’s riveting introductory statements, two witnesses testified live. Capitol Police Officer Carolyn Edwards was on the front line on January 6. Though severely injured in the melee, she continued, with her fellow officers, to protect the Capitol. Edwards, who is experienced in crowd control, described what the Capitol Police faced in dire terms: “It was carnage. It was chaos. I can’t even describe what I saw,” Edwards said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that as a police officer, as a law enforcement officer, I would find myself in the middle of a battle.
Documentarian Nick Quested had been filming the Proud Boys on January 6 and in the days prior. The Proud Boys were the first to breach the Capitol. Quested’s testimony revealed that the group, 200 to 300 strong, were already marching to the Capitol at 10:30 am—almost two hours before Trump’s noon speech at his rally, located far from the Capitol. Quested said that he found this odd since he thought he was there to cover the Proud Boys’ attendance at the rally.
Confirming the 10:30 am time with Mr. Quested, Chairman Thompson postulated that the Proud Boys may have been scouting the Capitol to find weak points for their attack and were coordinating so as to time their attack with the beginning of the joint session of Congress, at which the Electoral College count was to take place.
Will There Now, Finally, Be Accountability?
Despite all the evidence the committee has accumulated and will presumably lay out in detail in its subsequent hearings, congressional power to act is limited. Congress cannot prosecute anyone. Without prosecution for crimes exposed, there is no accountability. And if no serious price is paid for this failed coup, there will be another.
This is a lesson our leaders should have learned long ago. The failure to prosecute President Richard Nixon for his attempt in the Watergate scandal to steal our democracy emboldened those who followed in his nefarious footsteps to feel that they could, move, inch by inch—and then, when no one stopped them, leap by leap--toward autocracy. Ronald Reagan got away with the Iran-Contra scandal with no repercussions. And under President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney promoted the concept of the unitary executive—which amounts to presidential dictatorship. Bush senior advisor Karl Rove reportedly said, “We create our own reality.” These all were steps on the road to Donald Trump.
After the two-hour hearing, when asked whether Donald Trump should be prosecuted, Dan Goldman, formerly the lead majority counsel in the first impeachment inquiry against Trump, declared on MSNBC that Liz Cheney’s preview of the hearings and witnesses showed that Trump knew exactly what he was doing. Said Goldman, “What Trump should be seeing are handcuffs.”
Neal Katyal, former Acting U.S. Solicitor General in the Obama Administration, said emphatically, that if it was anyone else, there would already have been a criminal investigation and if we don’t prosecute for this, what do we prosecute for?
But Attorney General Merrick Garland—the head of DOJ, the only federal agency with the power to prosecute—has been positively sluggish when it comes to taking any action against those at the top who orchestrated the attempted coup. Actions that the DOJ is currently taking or contemplating against anyone but those physically at the Capitol on January 6—anyone who planned the coup—appear to be buried in a deep, dark hole.
In a speech this year on January 5, delivered to DOJ employees, Garland pledged: "The Justice Department remains committed to holding all January 6th perpetrators, at any level, accountable under law – whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy." He added, "We will follow the facts wherever they lead."
But Garland did not state a commitment to pursue those who criminally tried to overturn the election during the days and months before January 6 and after. As New Jersey Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski told USA Today back in January, “Blaming Jan. 6th just on the rioters is like blaming 9/11 just on the hijackers. The [DOJ] investigation has to also focus on who mobilized and financed and encouraged that act of political violence.”
Garland also stated: "We follow the physical evidence. We follow the digital evidence. We follow the money. But most important, we follow the facts – not an agenda or an assumption. The facts tell us where to go next."
Well, Mr. Garland, the facts the committee is unearthing are screaming where to go next. Although Liz Cheney noted that the DOJ is also currently working with cooperating witnesses, it appears, Mr. Garland, that the House January 6 committee is doing your job for you. What is holding you back from an aggressive investigation and, where crimes have been unearthed, vigorous prosecution?
If it is fear of looking political, you should note that failure to prosecute criminality because of the suspect’s position is itself a political act. Timidity about how it will look is no excuse for failing in your duty. If you fall back on the same lame excuse President Gerald Ford gave for pardoning Nixon before any prosecution could be initiated—that is, so the country can heal—you will, as Ford did, be sweeping the attempted coup under the rug. And your inaction will be responsible for the next coup—the one that probably will be successful.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.