In two weeks, with great sorrow, our nation will mark the second anniversary of the culmination of an unprecedented self-coup attempt by a sitting president: the January 6 Capitol riot, which resulted in five deaths.
The callous barbarism we witnessed that day was nothing less than a brazen assault on the fountainhead of American self-governance, the Constitution. No amount of Tucker Carlson’s documentaries or Revolver News clickbait can change that inconvenient fact. Conservatives who dismiss what happened as nothing more than a false flag operation designed to initiate a “patriot purge” are doing themselves a grave disservice.
Since July of last year, the January 6 Committee has been charged with investigating the events of the fateful day and what precipitated it. Thankfully, the members of the committee had largely conducted themselves with the sobriety that such a solemn task requires because, even more than the rioters, the politicians who knew better must be held accountable.
Of course, things haven’t been perfect. The committee was more partisan than it had to be — and Democrats did try to use the panel’s findings to score political points. But that was because the House Republicans refused to appoint serious members, declined to support an independent bipartisan commission and tried to sabotage the panel at every turn. In the face of this adversity, the Committee still managed to review millions of documents, conduct thousands of interviews and compose a 154-page executive summary of its findings.
Yesterday, as the panel’s work came to a close in the face of a hostile incoming House Republican majority, it unanimously voted to refer former president Donald Trump and some of his cronies, like delirious lawyer John Eastman, to the Justice Department for prosecution. The Committee based its referrals on evidence demonstrating that Trump incited the violence at the Capitol, obstructed the presidential electoral certification process, conspired to defraud the United States when he commissioned Jeffrey Clark as acting attorney general to send a letter to state officials incorrectly stating the DoJ had a sufficient reason to convene and pick new electors and committed federal process crimes. While this moment is undoubtedly historic, the political and legal implications of the referral are next to nothing.
Journalists at MSNBC and the Bulwark might be chomping at the bit for the Committee to show its teeth, but it doesn’t have any. Congress has no authority to execute laws or control over what the Justice Department does, so its criminal referrals have only symbolic value and no legal significance.
Attorney General Merrick Garland has already appointed an independent special counsel, Jack Smith, to oversee the preexisting DiJ criminal investigations probing Trump’s role in inciting the January 6 melée and his mishandling of classified documents, the subject of this past summer’s FBI search of Mar-a-Lago. Smith has a history of indicting presidents, but what he decides to do with his ongoing investigation is a matter of his own discretion.
The political ramifications of the committee’s referrals are also trivial. Very few Americans are actually paying attention to Trump’s seemingly endless melodramas. Most are simply moving on — those who haven’t are probably lost in the mires of legalese. As for the partisans among us, Republicans are less likely than Democrats to seek the prosecution of those who rioted at the Capitol.
None of this will change that dynamic. This will only contribute to the prolonged Republican divorce with The Donald, who has been blamed for costing conservatives three straight elections.
Trump is confronting a bevy of legal and political challenges confounding his quest to become the first president since Grover Cleveland to serve nonconsecutive terms, but this criminal referral isn’t one of them. Saying otherwise is engaging in just an exercise in January 6 jingoism.