From its first public hearing on June 9, 2022, the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capital has offered hours of riveting testimony detailing America’s first nonpeaceful transfer of presidential power.
The committee, which is expected to be dissolved when the GOP-led House convenes in January 2023, may not be remembered for its production of voluminous evidence and slick television video clips. Instead, the committee may be remembered more for what it could not do – criminally indict former President Donald Trump for his leadership role in the effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election that he lost to Joe Biden.
That task is left to the U.S. Department of Justice, which is also conducting an investigation of Trump. But the committee’s work had a broader goal. The hearings are expected to have a historic impact that may take years to be seen and felt, writes Claire Leavitt, a Smith College assistant professor of government.
“What viewers saw is perhaps even more significant – it was history being written in real time,” wrote Leavitt, a scholar of government oversight.
As the hearings unfolded, The Conversation published several articles looking at the details that emerged about organizers of, and participants in, the assault, the history of congressional oversight and whether a U.S. president can be held criminally accountable for his or her actions – and inactions.
1. Behind-the-scenes committee stars
As a scholar of government and the separation of powers, Jennifer Selin observes that among the real stars of the committee’s work are the talented – and largely unrecognized – teams of staffers who worked to obtain the evidence presented in the hearings.
“While the rioters on Jan. 6 shouted through the halls of Congress about taking back the power of the people, their insurrection failed,” Selin wrote. “Instead, the men and women helping the Jan. 6 committee understand what went on that day are quietly, insistently, reminding Americans of the bedrock values of their republic.”
2. What prosecuting a leader means
As scholars of liberal democracy and elections, Victor Menaldo and James D. Long examine the ranks of leaders from other countries who were once thought to be untouchable but who ultimately faced justice.
Based on the hearings, there is now far more evidence than what was presented during Trump’s second impeachment trial of potential crimes during the waning days of his tenure.
The evidence not only points to Trump’s failure to perform his constitutional duties on Jan. 6, 2021, but also includes some potential meat-and-potatoes offenses like intimidation of government officials with the threat of force and obstruction of Congress.
What would happen if Trump were indicted? Menaldo and Long write that their examination of other countries that prosecuted leaders leads to the conclusion that “Strong democracies are usually competent enough – and the judicial system independent enough – to go after politicians who misbehave, including top leaders.”
3. Trump’s complex connection to Capitol rioters
Amy Cooter is a senior lecturer in sociology at Vanderbilt University. From 2008 through 2012, she embedded with militia groups, mostly in Michigan. Her research on these groups makes it easier to understand the Jan. 6 riot and the relationship it had to Trump.
“Militias always see themselves as prepared for action,” Cooter writes. “Usually, this means they’re prepared to defend themselves and their communities in the event of a natural disaster, or some kind of invasion.”
But as the hearings revealed, some of these groups appeared to have been planning more than just a defensive stance on Jan. 6.
4.Why Trump can’t be prosecuted for ‘dereliction of duty’
During the prime-time hearing on July 21, 2022, of the House committee, the two panel members leading the hearing used the phrase “dereliction of duty” to describe the conduct of then-President Trump.
As a former prosecutor in New York City and a professor of law at West Point, Tim Bakken believes that most people find solace in casting the most disparaging label possible upon an adversary.
But federal criminal law does not contain a dereliction of duty statute.
In Bakken’s view, a more precise way to consider the legality of Trump’s conduct on Jan. 6 is to determine whether he wanted the rioters to commit a criminal act and if he engaged in some speech or behavior that urged them to do so or assisted them in some way.
“In that sense,” Bakken wrote, “the House Committee might find that the President was derelict. But that finding would be a label of moral or social disapproval, not a description of a criminal offense.”
5. Full impact of Jan. 6 committee’s findings might not be felt for years
As a scholar of oversight, Leavitt spent a year in 2019 working on the Democratic majority staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
In her view, the committee’s work will have a historic impact in part because it took an approach that emphasized facts in presenting its case to the American people.
Those facts included extensive testimony from officials whose Republican bona fides are unimpeachable, such as former Attorney General William Barr, former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
Leavitt’s final assessment is that understanding the full impact of the investigation and the committee’s exhaustive report requires patience – probably decades’ worth.
Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives.