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After the January 6th Committee

UniqueThis 20 December 4, 2022

This summer, shortly before a jury in Texas ordered Alex Jones, the conspiracy peddler, to pay forty-nine million dollars in damages to the parents of one of the first graders killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there was a legal scuffle over a piece of evidence. Jones’s defense team had accidentally sent the parents’ lawyer, Mark Bankston, a digital copy of the data on Jones’s phone—a lapse that Bankston had revealed in a cross-examination of Jones. Jones’s lawyer F. Andino Reynal belatedly pleaded with Judge Maya Guerra Gamble to keep the materials out of view. Bankston said that this might be a problem. “I’ve been asked by the January 6th committee to turn the documents over,” he told the court, and he was ready to do so. “Well, I don’t know if you get to stop that anyway,” Judge Gamble told Reynal, with a laugh.

Jones was of interest to the committee because of the noisy role he had played in the events leading up to the assault on the Capitol. He had hyped Donald Trump’s tweet urging supporters to be at his “wild” January 6th rally as “the most important call to action on domestic soil since Paul Revere and his ride in 1776”; Jones had attended himself, toting a megaphone. Part of the committee’s work has been to map out the Trumpist ecosystem of right-wing media, extremist groups, Republican officials, Fox News favorites, legal grifters, and even pillow salesmen. Jones was, in fact, questioned by the committee—one of more than a thousand witnesses it interviewed—and said afterward that he’d taken the Fifth Amendment. But he wasn’t the only prominent person telling Trump’s followers that they were victims of a fraud: many of those who did so held, and still hold, elected office.

The conundrum now is whether it was a mistake to think, as Judge Gamble suggested, that the January 6th committee couldn’t be stopped. It will cease to exist by the beginning of the year, as a result of the Republicans’ regaining control of the House. Four of the committee’s nine members will not be returning to Congress, including Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, the Republican vice-chair, and Elaine Luria, a Democrat from Virginia. To put it another way, the question will be whether they and their colleagues have built a strong enough foundation for the committee’s work—a true historical reckoning with the events of January 6th—to move forward without the committee itself.

The idea that the committee could get everything it wanted was, of course, always an illusion. It had to go to court to enforce a number of its subpoenas, and, notably, pursued criminal charges of contempt of Congress against Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser, whose sentence of four months in prison is on hold, pending an appeal. The committee met on Friday about possible additional criminal referrals; in October, it voted to subpoena Trump’s testimony, but he is fighting the summons. And although aides to Vice-President Mike Pence met with the committee, Pence himself—who on January 6th refused to give in to Trump’s demands that he throw out electoral votes—declined to do so. “Congress has no right to my testimony,” he told Margaret Brennan, of CBS News, last month. He added, “The partisan nature of the January 6th committee has been a disappointment to me.” Some members of the mob at the Capitol wanted Pence dead. But even someone who put his life on the line to stop a coup might not be eager to explore how that day came about, and what it says about his party. The committee, for whatever reason, did not subpoena him.

Kevin McCarthy, the leader of the House Republicans, did get a subpoena, and simply defied it, as did several of his colleagues. McCarthy is trying to become Speaker of the House, for which he’ll need the votes of his caucus’s most extreme members. Perhaps in service of that effort, he sent Representative Bennie Thompson, of Mississippi, the committee’s Democratic chair, a letter last week threatening to investigate the investigators. He instructed Thompson to preserve all evidence, “not merely the information that comports with your political agenda,” and hinted at a possibility of the committee’s breaking the law.

For all of that, the committee produced more than twenty hours of televised hearings that offered a sharply focussed look at an effort by Trump to hold on to power unconstitutionally. It also produced significant new insights—for example, regarding the “fake electors” scheme, which a federal judge, in a case involving a committee subpoena, called “a coup in search of a legal theory.” Next term, Congress and many statehouses will be replete with Republican election deniers, but there will nonetheless be fewer than had been expected. Perhaps that is partly to the committee’s credit.

At times, the hearings may have been overproduced—too edited, too tightly scripted, too reliant on clips of video interviews rather than on live testimony from witnesses who might prove unpredictable. There have reportedly been internal disagreements about what the committee’s final report, which will shape its legacy, should emphasize or omit. An additional point of tension has been the committee’s reluctance to share the full transcripts of its interviews with the Department of Justice, despite months of requests—which Attorney General Merrick Garland reiterated last week. Thompson suggested, in response, that there would be transcripts released with the final report, before Christmas.

The D.O.J. wants the transcripts because it is doing its own steady, productive work in making sure that there are prosecutions in response to January 6th. Garland has named a special counsel, Jack Smith, to look into Trump’s involvement in the assault, and also into his retention of classified and sensitive documents at Mar-a-Lago. Last week, five members of the Oath Keepers were convicted of various charges relating to the events at the Capitol, including obstructing an official proceeding and seditious conspiracy. A county prosecutor in Atlanta, who is investigating Trump’s pressuring of Georgia officials to “find” him votes, recently prevailed at the Supreme Court in her efforts to secure the testimony of Senator Lindsey Graham. The Court also let another House committee get six years of Trump’s tax returns. And the list of cases related to Trump’s business dealings is long.

Many of these investigations predated the January 6th committee and could, in the end, be more consequential. The committee will be missed, but it is not irreplaceable, and its demise is not the end of the accounting. There are too many people asking questions. ♦