The man Cassidy Hutchinson described in public testimony before the January 6 committee Tuesday was at once deeply familiar and shockingly alien. The cruelty, the narcissism, the capacity both to indulge in violence and inspire it in his followers — all of that was right there on the package when Donald Trump sold himself to the American public, first as a garish presence in our popular culture and later as a cancer on the body politic. But the magnitude of that derangement, as recounted by the former White House aide, still somehow managed to stun: For four years, we watched Trump throw tantrums and attack anyone who crossed him — but we didn’t get to see him throw plates or hear him rage to his staff about his apparent indifference to the public’s safety, as Hutchinson alleged in her testimony Tuesday. “I don’t fucking care that they have weapons,” Trump allegedly said before addressing supporters on January 6. “They’re not here to hurt me.”
What to do with a man like that? Surely, siccing armed supporters to “fight” the certification of an election would seem to run afoul of the law; Pat Cipollone, the former White House counsel, apparently thought so, and is alleged to have repeatedly warned as much in the lead up to the Capitol attack. The same could be said for the witness tampering that Liz Cheney, the committee’s vice chair, suggested members of Trumpworld were engaging in as they attempted to undermine the panel’s investigation.
Throughout the public hearings, the committee has turned to the testimony of a number of Republicans, including those in Trump’s inner circle, when showcasing the former president’s election lies, his pressure campaigns on Mike Pence and state election officials, and efforts to subvert the Department of Justice. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, the other Republican member on the committee, recently suggested Trump’s actions “rise to a level of criminal involvement,” including perhaps “seditious conspiracy.” Tuesday’s explosive hearing only helped forge a clearer path to holding Trump and his allies accountable — and upped the pressure on prosecutors to follow it.
“This witness provided credible testimony under oath, attributing foreknowledge of the impending violence to the president,” as David Laufman, a former top Justice Department lawyer who now represents some Capitol police officers injured in the January 6 riot, told the Washington Post. While it “remains to be seen” if the Department of Justice would be able to prove Trump was part of a criminal conspiracy, Laufman said, Hutchinson’s testimony “contained credible nuggets of information that would support” such an investigation.
But it’s unclear Attorney General Merrick Garland will pursue charges against Trump. Though the Justice Department has prosecuted hundreds of individuals who participated in the 2021 insurrection — including members of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, far-right groups Hutchinson said were mentioned during White House discussions ahead of the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally — it has yet to indicate whether it will take action against higher-level participants, including GOP lawmakers, Trump officials and advisers, and the former president himself. “Eventually that information comes out in the form of our search warrant affidavits, in our orders, and our pleadings and, eventually, if there are charges,” Garland said earlier this month. “But for our investigations to proceed in an efficient way, we have learned over many, many years that this is the way our investigations should go.”
Garland is in a challenging position — not only because of the high bar the department would have to clear in charging and convicting the former president, but because of the obvious politics of it all. “That’s going to be the tug,” former Senator Doug Jones, an ally of Joe Biden who was under consideration to be attorney general, told Politico. “No one should be above the law,” Jones continued, adding that there was “compelling evidence” of crimes by Trump and his allies. “However, there are so many more dynamics that I think come into play when trying to indict a former president of the United States for activities that took place in office.” Garland has promised to set aside those dynamics, saying he’ll follow the investigation wherever it leads: “We are not avoiding cases that are political or cases that are controversial or sensitive,” he told NPR recently. “What we are avoiding is making decisions on a political basis, on a partisan basis.”
But there has been palpable concern among Democrats that Garland could shy away from such a politically explosive move — especially if Trump announces another White House bid, juxtaposing the January 6 investigation with the 2024 race. “I’m just not seeing the urgency from the attorney general,” Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego told CNN recently. “He’s thinking more about protecting the institution of the Department of Justice. And I appreciate that, but he has to be thinking about protecting the institution of democracy.”
Some of the frustration, both among lawmakers and the general public, likely stems from failures to hold Trump to any real standard of accountability in the past. Trump is, as committee member Jamie Raskin told Vanity Fair ahead of the hearings, a “one man crime wave.” And yet, he’s never had to actually answer for any of it. Not for the shady business and financial practices. Not for the political profiteering. Not for the myriad allegations of personal misconduct. Not for the host of other unethical and potentially illegal activities he’s spent his life engaging in. He’s come close to reckonings, yes, but he always seems to worm his way out of it: Twice impeached, twice acquitted. Rejected by voters, but embraced by an endlessly loyal Republican establishment.
That’s not because Trump is uniquely crafty or made of “Teflon.” It’s because he’s always been allowed to operate above the only real systems we have to enforce such accountability. The January 6 committee has confirmed much of what everyone already knew about the man — and unearthed disturbing new details about his conduct and unfitness. But that information will only matter if something is done with it. “We now know the truth of Trump’s involvement in the insurrection,” House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn wrote after the hearing Tuesday. “To free our country from his tyranny and transgressions, he and his enablers must be held accountable.”