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The House Jan. 6 Panel Has Set a High Bar: Showing Criminality

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In the ultimate moments of what is going to almost certainly be the last hearing for the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, its vice chairwoman, Representative Liz Cheney, returned to a theme that has run through the committee’s work: criminality.

Without naming names or providing any specifics, Ms. Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, asserted that the committee now has “sufficient information to contemplate criminal referrals for multiple individuals” to the Justice Department for prosecution.

It isn’t clear whether the committee will follow through and take the largely symbolic step of issuing a criminal referral for former President Donald J. Trump or anyone who worked with him to overturn the election and encourage the mob of his supporters who entered the Capitol searching for to dam or delay certification of his defeat.

But throughout its investigation and hearings, the committee has operated with a prosecutorial style, using the potential of criminality like a cudgel in extraordinary ways. It has penetrated Mr. Trump’s inner circle, surfaced considerable recent evidence and laid out an in depth narrative that may very well be useful to the Justice Department in deciding whether to bring charges.

The panel is predicted to issue a subpoena as soon as Tuesday searching for to compel Mr. Trump to testify before it wraps up its investigation and issues a final report.

The committee’s effects on related criminal investigations are clear to see. Federal prosecutors and authorities conducting a neighborhood investigation in Georgia have found themselves interviewing among the same witnesses already interviewed by the committee and issuing subpoenas for among the same evidence already obtained by Congress.

But in suggesting that its goal is to spur criminal charges, the committee is setting a normal for fulfillment that’s beyond its power to perform — and one that might risk overshadowing the work it has done in documenting Mr. Trump’s efforts to stay in power and marshal his supporters to assist him.

“People continuously walk as much as me within the food market and so they’re like, ‘Are you going to carry him accountable?’ That’s not Congress,” Representative Elaine Luria, Democrat of Virginia and a member of the committee, said in a recent interview. “Nevertheless, the Department of Justice can take the facts that we’ve outlined in our investigation and use them.”

For all the main focus that Ms. Cheney has placed on producing criminal referrals, the committee has not been entirely cooperative with the Justice Department, slow-walking requests from the department for transcripts of the interviews it has conducted.

The duty of determining whether anyone broke the law isn’t mentioned within the resolution that led to the creation of the committee in June 2021. Its chief mission, in response to a House resolution, is coming up with an authoritative account of what occurred, identifying failures by law enforcement and other causes of the violence, and providing recommendations to make sure it never happens again.

However the committee has turned itself into an adjunct front loader to the Justice Department, developing recent evidence, coming up with theories for laws that Mr. Trump and his aides might need broken and educating the general public about them at nationally televised hearings that unfolded like an episodic running drama.

Committee staff members — lots of whom are former prosecutors — employed a method of highlighting a spread of potential crimes or lanes for investigators to pursue at each of the panel’s public hearings.

One hearing focused on how donors had been defrauded by being targeted for donations to assist fight specious election fraud claims.

How Times reporters cover politics. We depend on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they aren’t allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

Other hearings focused on whether Mr. Trump and his aides committed the crimes of defrauding the American people or obstructing an official proceeding of Congress. At one other, members raised the query of whether Mr. Trump or his aides committed witness tampering.

“The aim of this committee is to be certain that we tell the total truth, allow government officials to make changes to the system, to enhance our guardrails, allow the American people to make higher decisions about who they elect, and in addition to encourage D.O.J. to do their job,” Representative Stephanie Murphy, Democrat of Florida, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

The committee’s work has already yielded two contempt of Congress prosecutions for failure to comply with subpoenas issued by the panel. The Justice Department has prosecuted two former aides to Mr. Trump — Stephen K. Bannon and Peter Navarro — on contempt charges.

A jury convicted Mr. Bannon, who was pardoned by Mr. Trump in an unrelated crime and is now scheduled to be sentenced on Friday. The Justice Department beneficial on Monday that he serve six months for the 2 misdemeanor contempt charges and pay a $200,000 superb.

Mr. Navarro is scheduled to go on trial on the contempt charges next month.

“Congress has at all times been a stalking horse for the Justice Department’s investigations, but this was done expressly, blatantly and without mincing words and without hiding their motives, in a magnitude greater than what I’ve ever seen,” said Stanley Brand, a Democrat who once served as the highest lawyer within the House.

Mr. Brand has strongly criticized the committee and now represents Mr. Navarro.

In forming its staff, the committee took a special approach than previous congressional investigations, hiring several former federal prosecutors and putting a former United States attorney accountable for overseeing its day-to-day work.

A few of the first public signs that the committee could be taking a special approach emerged last December when Ms. Cheney said the query of Mr. Trump’s criminality was one which the panel was investigating. She then began reading directly from the federal criminal code a law she believed he could have broken.

“Did Donald Trump, through motion or inaction, corruptly seek to obstruct or impede Congress’s official proceeding to count electoral votes?” Ms. Cheney said.

In March, in a civil court fight with John Eastman, the conservative lawyer who helped advise Mr. Trump on how one can overturn the election, the committee filed what amounted to a de facto indictment against Mr. Trump and Mr. Eastman. Although the document held no criminal weight, the committee asserted that each men had engaged in criminal conduct within the lead-up to the Jan. 6 attack.

“The select committee also has a good-faith basis for concluding that the president and members of his campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy to defraud the US,” the filing said.

The federal judge overseeing the case largely agreed, saying that it was “more likely than not” that Mr. Trump and Mr. Eastman had broken the law.

Armed with the court’s ruling, Ms. Cheney took the lead in continuing to boost questions publicly about whether Mr. Trump broke the law. Nevertheless it was the committee’s approach to its string of hearings that began within the late spring that provided a stark contrast to the Justice Department’s slow, methodical approach under Attorney General Merrick B. Garland.

Speaking like prosecutors, members of the committee treated the American public on the hearings prefer it was a jury at a criminal trial as they methodically built a case that showed Mr. Trump knew he had lost the 2020 election, lied repeatedly to the general public about it, amassed a crowd of his supporters who then stormed them Capitol and did nothing for hours to stop them.

When a former West Wing aide, Cassidy Hutchinson, provided electrifying testimony in late June, she made a series of damaging disclosures that were recent to the Justice Department and grabbed senior officials’ attention. The mounting public questions on the potential criminality of Mr. Trump and his allies raised questions on whether Mr. Garland was willing to take them on.

As those questions crescendoed in the summertime, reports emerged that federal prosecutors were indeed investigating them. Counting on the blueprint laid out by the committee, prosecutors within the months that followed subpoenaed most of the same witnesses who had testified before the committee.

But the brink for charging a former president or his top advisers is higher than for setting out a case at a congressional hearing with nobody available to argue in Mr. Trump’s defense. Legal experts have a spread of opinions about whether there may be sufficient evidence to bring a case and whether Mr. Garland, who has the last word say, would make such a move, knowing the way it could further divide the country, particularly if Mr. Trump is the Republican Party’s nominee for president in 2024.

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