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News out of Ukraine, where citizens are taking up arms to defend their democracy from an invading Russian army, has distracted Americans, for a time, from the investigation into the attempt to overturn democracy here at home.
But the House January 6 committee appears to be very busy in its pursuit of accountability for the US Capitol riot, even as it may be running short on time.
On Tuesday, The Washington Post and CBS News reported that a gap of more than seven hours exists in the logs of phone calls placed to or from Donald Trump on January 6, 2021, that were turned over to the House committee. CNN had previously reported that records were missing regarding the calls.
This leaves congressional investigators with holes in their understanding so far of what transpired that day, but a member of the House January 6 committee has said the panel will ultimately get the information it is seeking.
“We’re triangulating basically from a lot of different angles, and we are getting a fulsome picture of what happened in the run-up to and on the day of January 6,” Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida told CNN+ on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the federal criminal probe into January 6, which operates separately from the congressional inquiry, has expanded. Multiple sources tell CNN that federal criminal investigators have widened the investigation to gather information about fundraising and organizing for the political rally held in Washington immediately before Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol, as well as the effort to subvert the 2020 Electoral College vote count with alternate slates of fake electors for Trump in swing states he lost.
Here are some of the other recent developments:
Trump, more likely than not, broke the law. A federal judge in California said Monday that it was “more likely than not” that the former President broke the law in trying to disrupt the counting of electoral votes on January 6.
Key emails must be turned over. The judge, David Carter, also ordered John Eastman – the lawyer who masterminded Trump’s apparent strategy to overturn the election – to turn over more than 100 specific emails Eastman had tried to shield.
Carter rejected Eastman’s attorney-client privilege argument and ruled the public must know the content of these emails to prevent another plot. Eastman and Trump’s campaign, the judge wrote, “was a coup in search of a legal theory.”
Interest in Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife, Ginni. The House committee will seek an interview with the activist wife of the conservative Supreme Court justice. Virginia “Ginni” Thomas was in contact with then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows before January 6, feeding him conspiracy theories and pushing to find a way to overturn the election.
She has also admitted to attending a pro-Trump rally on January 6, but denies taking part in the riot. Clarence Thomas was the only dissenting justice when the Supreme Court rejected Trump’s effort to shield White House documents from the committee.
Kushner met with the committee. Trump’s son-in-law and former senior adviser Jared Kushner voluntarily gave testimony on Thursday. Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia, a member of the panel, told CNN that Kushner “volunteered information” during his testimony but she would not go into specifics of what he said. A source familiar with the deposition told CNN the interview lasted more than six hours.
A similar appearance could be in the works for Kushner’s wife and Trump’s daughter Ivanka.
Contempt referrals for Scavino and Navarro. Separately, the committee voted unanimously Monday evening to recommend that two former Trump advisers, onetime deputy chief of staff Dan Scavino and trade adviser Peter Navarro, be referred to the Justice Department on criminal contempt of Congress charges.
The referrals head next to the full House for a vote, where Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has committed to bringing them forward “as soon as the schedule permits.” These votes could lead to prosecution by the Department of Justice, as was the case for Steve Bannon.
No charges yet for Meadows. The House voted in December to refer Meadows for a contempt charge, but the DOJ hasn’t yet followed up. Meadows, by the way, is facing a separate investigation alongside his wife in North Carolina for registering to vote in 2020 at an address where they never lived.
Some frustrated January 6 committee Democrats had a clear message to the Justice Department Monday night: Do your job.
But the biggest news Monday was the California federal court opinion. It’s clear the House committee is working hard to build a complete picture of what led up to the riot that interrupted the counting of electoral votes.
What’s not clear is what sort of additional accountability there may be.
What does all this mean?
CNN’s Katelyn Polantz notes that in the case involving Eastman’s emails, lawyers for the committee have all but invited the Justice Department to consider criminal charges, although there’s no indication that is happening.
Here are some of the thoughts Polantz sent on Monday when I asked her what to make of the latest developments.
What is the committee doing in court?
POLANTZ: They’re still trying to get to the heart of what happened between Donald Trump and his closest allies leading up to the January 6 insurrection, and one way to do that is lay out evidence in a court case like this, where the House was seeking closely guarded records.
This isn’t a criminal case where they need to prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. But they did just convince a judge that Trump does appear to have been planning the felony of obstructing Congress, and using his lawyers to make that crime happen. And so they should get the records.
How big a win is this for the committee?
POLANTZ: It’s win-win-win for the House. They are going to get the zealously protected documents; they get the federal judge’s endorsement that their investigation is worth it; and they’ve packaged so much information and argument together that the Justice Department very well may want to take a look.
This Eastman case so far has been serving up a legal meal for DOJ, even more so than shaming or harnessing congressional political pressure.
What did we learn from Judge Carter’s opinion?
POLANTZ: One of the startling parts of Carter’s opinion is how he, too, concludes there’s a need for investigation and accountability.
This is a well-respected judge – a Clinton appointee and former Marine who received a Purple Heart for bravery in the Vietnam War – going beyond what was necessary for his legal decision, to make this call to action.
“If Dr. Eastman and President Trump’s plan had worked, it would have permanently ended the peaceful transition of power, undermining American democracy and the Constitution. If the country does not commit to investigating and pursuing accountability for those responsible, the Court fears January 6 will repeat itself,” the judge wrote.
This is another branch of government calling for more to be done to respond to January 6.
What comes next?
POLANTZ: The House’s powers are limited; remember, they’ve already impeached Trump and the Senate refused to convict. And their investigation will always have more limitations on the evidence they can gather than what a criminal investigation could pursue.
So Carter doesn’t say outright the DOJ and other courts should be dealing with accountability too, but his subtext is clear.
Deadline: January 2023
It’s important to remember the political reality that Democrats, with their oh-so-slim majority, could very well lose control of the House in November’s midterm elections. If Republicans do win more seats in the election, they would take control and certainly end the committee in January.
While this month has seen a lot of activity, there are many loose ends to track.
Bannon’s trial for contempt of Congress won’t get underway until July.
Meadows has not even been indicted, and the Justice Department may choose not to take up the contempt charge against him. The committee already has his text messages from around the election, so his testimony may be less important.
If the House refers Scavino and Navarro for contempt charges, their trials, if pursued by the Justice Department, could take place later.
What will DOJ do?
The committee’s final report, which is expected to seek to build a compelling narrative, could in turn build public support for the DOJ to pursue charges against Trump or his inner circle even if Democrats lose the House.
And the expansion of the Justice Department’s criminal probe into the political rally and fake electors represents a new stage of the investigation, CNN reports. It comes as Attorney General Merrick Garland faces increasing political pressure to examine possible wrongdoing by people in Trump’s orbit.
Garland told NPR early in March that the government will move slowly and methodically, but pursue all possible criminal cases.
“Particularly federal prosecutors, we begin with the cases that are right in front of us with overt actions, and then we build from there,” he said. “And that is a process that we will continue to build until we hold everyone accountable who committed criminal acts with respect to January 6.”
He said prosecutors will not avoid bringing cases against officials if that’s where the evidence leads them.
“We are not avoiding cases that are political or cases that are controversial or sensitive. What we are avoiding is making decisions on a political basis, on a partisan basis,” he said. They’ll have until 2026 to consider charges.
Despite those assurances from Garland, prosecuting someone like Trump would clearly be a difficult process.
Other avenues for justice
Separate from the federal government and whether Trump tried to upend the election, an inquiry into the former President’s business by the Manhattan DA also appears to have stalled.
Two senior prosecutors in Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office resigned in February after Bragg stopped the process of presenting evidence to a grand jury and told the lawyers he wasn’t prepared to authorize an indictment against Trump.
There is also a county-level investigation in Georgia into whether Trump and White House officials tried to overturn election results there. The case continues quietly, and a grand jury is expected to hear evidence from Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis in May.
The backdrop for all of this is that Trump, having twice beaten impeachment convictions, is looking very much like a 2024 presidential candidate – and one who could win at that.
This story has been updated with additional details.