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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

House Jan. 6 panel faces key decisions as it wraps up work

A screen displays a photo of former President Donald Trump during the third hearing of the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, at the Capitol in Washington, June 16, 2022.

By Luke Broadwater and Katie Benner

A day before resuming its televised hearings and with only months remaining before it closes up shop, the House Jan. 6 committee was wrangling over how best to complete its work, with key decisions yet to be made on issues that could help shape its legacy.

The panel, whose public hearings this summer exposed substantial new details about former President Donald Trump’s efforts to reverse the outcome of the 2020 election, must still decide whether to issue subpoenas to Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence.

It has yet to settle on whether to enforce subpoenas issued to Republican members of Congress who have refused to cooperate with the inquiry, or what legislative recommendations to make. It must still grapple with when to turn its files over to the Justice Department, how to finish what it hopes will be a comprehensive written report and whether to make criminal referrals. It cannot even agree on whether today’s hearing will be its last.

The panel has not disclosed the topics it intends to cover in the 1 p.m. hearing, its first since July. But it is still working to break new ground with its investigation.

It recently had a breakthrough when Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, agreed to a voluntary interview about her role in seeking to keep Trump in office. That interview is expected to take place within weeks.

The committee also issued a subpoena to Robin Vos, the Republican House speaker in Wisconsin whom Trump tried to pressure as recently as July to overturn the 2020 election, suggesting that the panel tracked Trump’s activities long after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and his departure from office two weeks later. (Vos has sued to try to block the committee’s subpoena.)

“Our hearings have demonstrated the essential culpability of Donald Trump, and we will complete that story,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the committee.

But the committee has debated whether and how to highlight certain information related to the Jan. 6 attack. For instance, some members and staff have wanted to hold a hearing to highlight the panel’s extensive work investigating the law enforcement failures related to the assault, but others have argued that doing so would take attention off Trump.

And it has struggled in recent weeks with staff departures and is facing public criticism from a former aide, Denver Riggleman, who says it has not been aggressive enough in pursuing connections between the White House and the rioters.

The final stages of its planned 18 months of work are playing out against a shifting political climate. Polls suggest that Democrats could lose control of the House in November’s midterm elections. Trump is showing every intention of seeking the presidency again, and the committee’s Republican vice chair, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who lost her primary in August, appears to be positioning herself as the party’s anti-Trump White House candidate for 2024, with the panel’s conclusions as part of her platform.

Cheney seemed to contradict other committee members on Saturday by describing this week’s hearing as unlikely to be the last. Other members, including the committee’s chair, have said it would likely be their final presentation.

With that backdrop, Wednesday’s hearing could be seen as the first step in the closing stages of the committee’s work.

“What they have to do is strategic,” said Norman L. Eisen, who was special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee from 2019 to 2020, including for the first impeachment and trial of Trump. “The first part of the end game is to close the deal with the American people.”

The panel set high expectations for itself by revolutionizing what a congressional hearing could look like. Preparing for the hearing today has consumed the committee’s focus in recent weeks.

“They’ve pretty uniformly met and exceeded expectations,” Eisen said. “And when you’ve done that eight times, that suggests that you know what you’re doing. I suspect part of the reason that they took a lengthy hiatus — and by all reports worked very hard over the summer — was to be able to come back in September with a bang.”

To some degree, the committee is now competing for attention with other investigations into Trump and his allies. The New York attorney general has filed a sweeping fraud suit against Trump and his family. Prosecutors in Georgia are conducting grand jury interviews about efforts to overturn Trump’s loss there. And the Justice Department is now conducting criminal inquiries into both the events that led to the Jan. 6 attack and Trump’s handling of classified documents he took with him upon leaving the White House.

Today’s hearing is expected to feature new video of the Jan. 6 attack and also new clips of some of the committee’s hundreds of interviews with witnesses.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said the panel would focus some of its energy on ongoing threats to democracy, such as 2020 election deniers gaining power over election systems.

“We have found additional information,” Lofgren said. “We worked throughout the summer.”

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the chair of the committee, said the panel recently received a trove of documents from the Secret Service in response to a subpoena it issued after the news that agents’ text messages from Jan. 5 and Jan. 6, 2021, had been lost.

A spokesperson for the agency said the Secret Service provided a “significant level of detail from emails, radio transmissions, Microsoft Teams chat messages and exhibits that address aspects of planning, operations and communications surrounding January 6th.” But the spokesperson said the documents did not include any additional text messages, such as those sought by the committee that were erased during an upgrade of phones.

Members of the committee had originally seen their investigation, and the possibility of a criminal referral, as a way of putting pressure on the Justice Department to pursue a criminal case. But with federal prosecutors now investigating elements of Trump’s efforts to retain power despite losing at the ballot box, the House committee is considering a new suggestion for the information it uncovered about Trump and his allies raising money by promoting baseless assertions about election fraud: making a referral to the Federal Election Commission, a largely toothless body that can weigh abuses of campaign finance laws.

“FEC would be a good possibility,” Thompson said. “Obviously we looked seriously at some of the fundraising that went on around Jan. 6.”

Members have also been discussing what legislative recommendations they should make. Last week, to close off the possibility of another president trying to have a vice president block the certification by Congress of the Electoral College results, Cheney and Lofgren introduced an overhaul of the Electoral Count Act, which quickly passed the House. (A somewhat different version is awaiting action in the Senate.)

Members are also discussing reforms to the Insurrection Act, legislation related to the 14th and 25th amendments and regulation of militia groups. Members also are likely to recommend improvements to Capitol security.

Not all the panel’s recommendations have found agreement. Raskin, for instance, has pushed for recommending the Electoral College be eliminated, but that idea has been met with resistance from Cheney and others and is unlikely to be included in the final recommendations.

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