As US Capitol riot public hearings begin, who will be held accountable?
- Two weeks of blockbuster televised hearings into the January 6, 2021 assault on the US Capitol to start Thursday
- Some US lawmakers hope to show the American public how democracy came to the brink of disaster
A year and a half after thousands of Donald Trump diehards overran the US Capitol, prosecutors have scored relatively few felony convictions and face growing pressure to go after targets including the organisers and the former president himself.
The Justice Department’s massive investigation – into the riot and deeper efforts to overturn Joe Biden’s election – has scored about 50 felony guilty pleas out of more than 800 defendants charged since the mob breached the neoclassical building in January 2021, in the most serious attack on American democracy in the modern era.
As the congressional committee looking into the insurrection prepares to hold its first public hearings this week, the only charges brought against Trump aides have been for failing to respond to the panel’s demands for information.
Of those charged for the events of January 6, at least 235 have pleaded guilty to misdemeanour offences such as illegal parading. About 70 – still fewer than 10 per cent of the total – have been sentenced to time behind bars for assaulting law enforcement officers and other crimes.
Even at that, the Justice Department has had to bring in reinforcements from all over the country to help handle the caseload. It has detailed assistant US attorneys nationwide and sought support from all 56 field offices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as it sifts through reams of surveillance footage, social media posts and testimony.
In its budget request for 2023, the department is seeking US$34 million to hire 131 more lawyers to work on the case.
“It is the most complex and wide-ranging that I’ve seen in the department’s history,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said of the investigation. “It’s a top priority of the department to follow the facts wherever they go, including to hold accountable perpetrators at any level.”
The probe has made headway. It has led to arrests in almost all 50 states. The guilty pleas include three members of the far-right Oath Keepers, who are cooperating with the inquiry.
And just Monday, amid criticism of the investigation’s pace, prosecutors added charges of seditious conspiracy to its case against members of the Proud Boys, three days before the congressional committee launches its hearings.
The Justice Department is now at a critical point in the case. Although it is traditionally independent of the White House, the attorney general is a presidential appointee, and Biden’s Democratic Party could use a boost from high-profile convictions in the case – and would be damaged by a flop.
It all adds up to a major test of the department and of Attorney General Merrick Garland in particular, who has pledged to defend the rule of law while trying to keep Justice insulated from politics.
Garland said at a news conference last month that the department deliberately refrains from talking publicly about ongoing cases and investigations.
“If we let all possible witnesses know exactly where we are, at exactly what moment, it makes it very difficult for us to do our job of ensuring that the laws are not violated and that those who are accountable are brought to justice,” he said.
For the two weeks of blockbuster televised hearings slated to start Thursday, the seven Democrats and two Republicans who make up the House of Representatives committee probing the insurrection will set out exactly what happened on January 6, 2021 and who they believe aided the ringleaders.
Four people died the day of the attack, one fatally shot by police and the others of natural causes. Four police officers later took their own lives and more than 100 were injured.
Thursday’s hearing is set to feature testimony from US Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards, the first to be injured by rioters, and filmmaker Nick Quested, who recorded the first moments of violence.
The committee will also hold a prime-time hearing at 8pm on June 23, bookending 10am hearings on June 13, 15, 16 and 21.
A final hearing in September is expected to reveal the committee’s finished report, outlining its findings and recommendations to prevent such attacks in the future.
J. Michael Luttig, a former federal judge who advised Trump’s vice-president Mike Pence, is expected to testify.
Other witnesses could include Marc Short, a chief of staff to Pence, Justice Department official Richard Donoghue and Jeffrey Rosen, Trump’s last attorney general.
All four were party to much of the relevant discussion between Trump’s election defeat and the insurrection two months later, investigators say.
The committee has been lukewarm about the idea of forcing Trump to testify, asserting that his appearance would likely add little to its understanding of the facts.
Supporters see the committee’s work as vital in ensuring one of the darkest episodes in the history of US democracy is never repeated.
Yet Democrats worry the hearings could be seen as another “partisan” attack on Trump, imperilling bipartisan efforts at reform and obscuring the broader story of a slow-moving coup attempt aided by a violent insurrection.
“The top issues for most US voters have nothing to do with the January 6 insurrection, unfortunately,” Democratic analyst Mike Hernandez said as his party faces tricky midterm elections later this year.
“Inflation, gas prices, school shootings, school safety and reproductive rights are all issues that more Americans care about.”
Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse and Reuters