ANALYSIS — If there is no direct link between Donald Trump and violence-prone groups from the far right who led the Capitol riot, what is a federal prosecutor to think?
It is one thing for the House select committee investigating the riot and the weeks leading up to it to claim that then-President Trump fired off a tweet in the early hours of Dec. 19, 2020, that caused far-right groups to alter plans so they would be in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.
But it is another to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the sitting commander in chief was in direct communication with those prone-to-violence groups and personally signed off on their plans to breach the Capitol.
The select committee has yet to do so.
For his part, the former president issued a Wednesday statement that did not deny anything laid out in the panel’s July 12 hearing. But it did include this swipe at the panel: “All they want to do is ‘get Trump,’ and they are willing to destroy our Nation to do it.” The statement began with the kind of economy-focused message many GOP strategists want Trump to sound heading into November’s midterm elections. But he couldn’t help himself with a swipe at the panel, again showing his lack of political discipline.
There has been much focus since the panel’s Tuesday hearing on texts from inside Trump World in the days before the Capitol attack suggesting his calls during a rally in Washington that morning for his loyal — and angry — supporters to march to the Capitol was premeditated.
Some aides had previously told the committee he ad-libbed now-infamous lines to march on the Capitol during the “Save the Steal” rally that morning at the Ellipse.
“POTUS is going to have us march there/the Capitol,” Kylie Jane Kremer, who organized the “Save the Steal” rally, wrote in a Jan. 4 text that the committee released Tuesday. Kremer wrote that Trump was expected “to just call for it ‘unexpectedly.’” She did not disclose who on Trump’s West Wing staff or team of outside advisers disclosed that alleged plan.
Some legal experts called that proof that Trump planned to send what he knew would be a charged-up crowd to the Capitol as Congress was counting the states’ Electoral College results.
“I think they have laid out a clear case of former President Trump’s involvement,” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., told CQ Senate on Wednesday. Asked about an allegation by the select committee’s vice chair, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., that Trump may have engaged in witness tampering, Cardin smiled under his mask and replied: “Nothing the former president does shocks me anymore. It was a little surprising, I guess.”
Once again, the committee did not connect any dots directly to Trump. That’s why one former federal prosecutor still does not see enough evidence that might lead Justice Department officials to hit the former president with charges of leading a conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election.
“Speaking as a prosecutor faced with the evidence presented to date,” the former prosecutor told CQ Roll Call in an email, “I don’t think there is sufficient evidence to charge him with seditious conspiracy.”
Military commanders worry about playing whack-a-mole, meaning strikes that lurch from target to target without a coherent strategy. The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot and weeks leading up to it has attempted to play a different game: connect the dots.
But what about the panel’s attempt to connect far-right groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers directly to Trump?
The committee on Tuesday displayed messages posted on Twitter and far-right social media sites after Trump tweeted on Dec. 19 that Jan. 6 in the District would be “wild.” Some users wrote that he had just called them “to arms,” and others suggested hiding in Capitol complex tunnels with weapons and pepper spray.
Others threatened law enforcement. “Cops don’t have ‘standing’ if they are laying on the ground in a pool of their own blood,” one wrote. Another posted: “I’m ready to die for my beliefs. Are you ready to die, police?”
“Is the 6th D-Day? Is that why Trump wants everyone there?” one commenter asked.
Yet another: “Trump just told us all to come armed. F***ing A, this is happening.”
Online chatter after Trump’s Dec. 19 tweet turned “openly homicidal,” panel member Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said in a chilling assessment.
But, importantly, another select committee public hearing has come and gone without the panel showing that Trump communicated orders or explicitly expressed an openness to the kind of violence that played out at the Capitol. Panel members have implied that Trump knew what some of his outside advisers and far-right groups were discussing.
If the many dots presented during seven public hearings connect to Trump, the committee, for some reason, has yet to show us.
Cheney contended that Trump knew exactly what he was doing, despite since calling the riot merely a “beautiful” protest that got out of hand.
“The strategy is to blame people his advisers called ‘the crazies’ for what Donald Trump did. This, of course, is nonsense. President Trump is a 76-year-old man. He is not an impressionable child. Just like everyone else in our country, he is responsible for his own actions and his own choices,” Cheney said.
“As our investigation has shown, Donald Trump had access to more detailed and specific information showing that the election was not actually stolen than almost any other American, and he was told this over and over again,” she added. “No rational or sane man in his position could disregard that information and reach the opposite conclusion.”
Legal experts have expressed doubt that would be enough to convince federal prosecutors to charge Trump. Based on the evidence so far, Trump frequently is cast at least one degree removed from where the conversations are being had and directions given.
Heidi Heitkamp, a former Democratic senator from North Dakota who also was her state’s attorney general, told ABC News she does not see enough evidence for a criminal charge against Trump.
“These events, we’re covering them a lot like a trial. But they really are a political event. The narrative is a political narrative,” she said Tuesday. “Everything, as a former prosecutor myself, everything that I’ve heard, I think it would be a very tough indictment to get.”
One thing about the committee’s intention is clear: It is trying to essentially politically disqualify the 45th president from running again in 2024. To do so, its members must convince just enough Republican voters he is too dangerous for a second term.
The dots still have to connect.
’Inclination to amnesia‘
A New York Times-Siena College poll released this week suggests that half of Republicans surveyed are willing to consider another nominee in two years. Forty-nine percent said they want the former president to be the GOP’s pick, with 25 percent favoring Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
But when asked about Trump’s Jan. 6-related actions, 75 percent of Republican voters said he was “just exercising his right to contest the election.”
Lacking the ability to bring criminal charges and seemingly divided about sending criminal referrals to DOJ, the committee’s next best option, as it warns about the “Make America Great Again” faction’s threats to future election, would be to cut off the head of the snake. Meaning: Make Trump politically toxic.
P. Michael McKinley, a career foreign service officer who was ambassador to Afghanistan and three South American countries, warned this week that the stakes are too high to give Trump a pass.
“Washington, D.C., is a town with short memories, or no memories. Most of the time it does not seem to matter in the sweep of history,” he wrote for the Just Security blog. “This time, American democracy, its institutions, and its people will pay unless its collective inclination to amnesia about historical events can be reversed, and meaningful accountability returns to the political firmament.”
The committee’s members repeatedly say during public hearings and interviews they have evidence to support or corroborate many of their claims. Increasingly, any day now seems a fine time to release that data.
But, paradoxically, they also say eyebrow-raising things like panel member Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., did when pressed Sunday by CNN’s Jake Tapper: “We never call in witnesses to corroborate other witnesses or to give their reaction to other witnesses.”
Lofgren’s comment certainly creates doubt about whether the committee has the right approach to truly, in his words, “get Trump” in the court of public opinion.
Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-only CQ Senate newsletter.