Sequestered in its tucked-away offices on Washington’s Independence Avenue, the committee examining the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, has spent months asking difficult questions of White House officials, presidential advisers, political figures, jurists, law-enforcement personnel and members of violent extremist groups.
In the next several weeks, the nine members of the panel will have to answer important, searing questions themselves.
By eerie coincidence, the new Republican-controlled House of Representatives convenes on Jan. 6, 2023. In its first hours – perhaps in an uncomfortable homage to the two-year anniversary of the rampage through the United States’ most evocative physical symbol of democratic rule – it likely will shut down the committee investigating the Capitol riot.
That means the Jan. 6 committee must complete, and release, its report and recommendations before the panel is extinguished by the newly empowered GOP majority. And while the general direction of the final conclusions are apparent – indeed they were manifest with the first public striking of chair Bennie Thompson’s gavel on June 9 – there are significant matters of content and emphasis that still must be resolved.
The internal debate on those elements – much of it being conducted in a four-person subcommittee quietly created less than two weeks ago and headed by Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland – is occurring in a political atmosphere that has been altered substantially.
The Democratic majority in the House has less than six weeks remaining. The Jan. 6 committee co-chair, Republican Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, was defeated in an August primary and is in her final weeks as a lawmaker. Another committee member, Democratic Representative Elaine Luria, was defeated in a Virginia re-election battle in which her role as an investigator was a top issue.
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump has formally announced a third presidential campaign, even as the principal election deniers he endorsed in the midterms were defeated.
And yet major questions for the Jan. 6 committee persist: Should it recommend legal action against Mr. Trump? Is the focus of the committee’s final product on the former president’s encouragement of the riot and on his forbearance during it?
Moreover, does the broader threat to American democracy posed by conspiracy theorists and members of extreme, violent groups deserve an equal or greater emphasis? Is new legislation required to shore up democratic procedures and to prevent further questioning of election results? How should the committee deal with the Justice Department and with the newly appointed special counsel, Jack Smith?
There’s also a matter that has received little attention but will almost certainly be an area of contention in the new year: How much of the raw material assembled by the committee will be made public? Will transcripts of its interviews be released? Will accounts of internal debate among committee members and staffers be disclosed? Do such accounts even exist?
All of these questions have consequences. How the answers fit into the larger question of Mr. Trump’s future – which also will be shaped by the resolution of issues surrounding the secret documents found at Mar-a-Lago – is perhaps the greatest unknown in American politics today.
“The committee already has shown its significance by laying out the evidence and laying out a case for the Justice Department,” said Stefanie Lindquist, a professor of law and political science at Arizona State University. “The evidence is clear that he was participatory in the insurrection. The problem is proving his intent. That’s a vastly more complex case to make against the president than the documents issue. It’s much easier for a jury to understand that.”
House Republicans may swiftly take up the question of the internal deliberations of the panel in an effort to undermine the authority and credibility of the committee. They have suggested that the committee chose to publicize some elements of their investigation and not to disclose others in an effort to make the case against Mr. Trump as damaging as possible.
The resignation of more than a dozen members of the committee staff in recent weeks only underlines the significance of all these unresolved questions.
And in a committee where so many of the public hearings had the surface appearance of black-and-white questions, the nuances and emphases of the panel’s final actions have enormous consequences.
Some factions within the committee (or, because of resignations, outside the committee) believe that the threats to American democracy go far beyond whether Mr. Trump fomented the riot with his remarks outside the White House on Jan. 6 and his reluctance to call off the mob during the rampage itself. In this perspective, extremist groups such as the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys pose a serious threat to the country’s civic peace, regardless of whether Mr. Trump is returned to the presidency.
But other members of the committee are focused primarily on Mr. Trump and their effort to prevent him from winning in 2024 – a view shared by other Democrats on Capitol Hill.
“The Jan. 6 committee’s work is both an indictment of Donald Trump and a flashing warning sign that it could happen again,” said California Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell, who was an impeachment manager for the second impeachment of the former president.
“Fortunately, the voters rejected Trumpism at midterm ballot boxes. But Donald Trump is seeking to again be on the ballot in 2024. This upcoming election will be a test for democracy.”