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Jan. 6 committee votes on criminal referrals against Trump

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The House January 6 panel has officially referred former President Donald Trump for criminal charges related to the attack on the Capitol and Trump's efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss. The Democratic-led panel today outlined a series of charges it is sending to the Department of Justice. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, is the panel's chair, and he said this about Trump.

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BENNIE THOMPSON: He lost the 2020 election and knew it. But he chose to try to stay in office through a multipart scheme to overturn the results and block the transfer of power. In the end, he summoned a mob to Washington and, knowingly they were armed and angry, pointed them to the Capitol and told them to fight like hell.

SUMMERS: Let's discuss this news with NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson and congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh. Hello to both of you.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: OK. So let's start by walking through what happened today. The panel discussed its findings, much of which we had already heard. And Congressman Jamie Raskin of Maryland ultimately named the referrals. Here's part of what he said.

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JAMIE RASKIN: Ours is not a system of justice where foot soldiers go to jail and the masterminds and ringleaders get a free pass.

SUMMERS: So, Carrie, what were the charges outlined against former President Trump today?

JOHNSON: There were four charges that were mentioned at this public hearing. The first is obstruction of an official proceeding. The second is conspiracy to defraud the United States. The third is conspiracy to make a false statement. And the fourth is to incite, assist or aid and comfort an insurrection.

SUMMERS: Let's unpack this a little bit. Carrie, what stands out to you about that?

JOHNSON: Insurrection is rarely used and is a very serious political and legal matter. Congressman Jamie Raskin called it a, quote, "grave federal offense" and said nothing could be a greater betrayal of a president's duty. The last prosecution I found for insurrection was in the Civil War era.

One of the other charges that stands out is the conspiracy to make a false statement. That relates to the scheme to substitute slates of fake electors in 2020. We know the Justice Department has been very active on that front, sending out lots of subpoenas. The committee has had documents from law professor John Eastman that may incriminate both him and Donald Trump.

SUMMERS: What about for you, Deirdre? I know we've been wondering about these criminal referrals for some time now.

WALSH: We have. And there was a lot of internal debate inside the January 6 committee about how many individuals they would refer. Throughout these public hearings, though, members of the committee have really been hammering home the theme that then-President Trump was really the central player behind the effort to overturn the 2020 election results. Vice Chair Liz Cheney today said the evidence they outlined shows Trump should be disqualified.

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LIZ CHENEY: No man who would behave that way at that moment in time can ever serve in any position of authority in our nation again. He is unfit for any office.

WALSH: But we should note these criminal referrals by the January 6 committee are largely symbolic. The committee can't prosecute it. But several members have been saying in the days leading up to today's final hearing that there are a lot of individuals who were at the Capitol on January 6 who have been sentenced to jail time for trespassing, assaulting police officers, destroying property. But they say the masterminds of the scheme needed to be held accountable.

SUMMERS: So, Carrie, to you on the investigative side, what happens next now?

JOHNSON: You know, we have multiple grand juries in federal court in Washington, D.C., that are marching forward. Much of this work is done in secrecy, so we don't know exactly what DOJ is doing and when. There has been a flurry of subpoenas on the slates of fake electors and to state officials who were harassed by Trump and Rudy Giuliani, his lawyer, and to state officials who seemed to cooperate with Donald Trump. Justice has already compelled some key figures to talk in the grand jury, like Trump's White House counsel. And the new special counsel, Jack Smith, has been busy working. He says the pace of investigations will not slow or flag under his watch.

SUMMERS: And we also learned about some referrals to the House Ethics Committee against a number of lawmakers. Deirdre, what can you tell us about that?

WALSH: Right. There were five House Republicans who were subpoenaed by the January 6 committee. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and Ohio Republican Jim Jordan were among those. They both talked to Trump on January 6 and have publicly talked about their conversations with him. Pennsylvania Republican Scott Perry, Arizona Republican Andy Biggs were in touch with some of the outside attorneys and justice officials who were in discussions about this plot not to certify the 2020 election. Those four House Republicans were referred to the House Ethics Committee today for sanctions for not complying with the committee's subpoenas.

But really, in reality, the session of Congress is about to wrap up at the end of the year. And the House Ethics Committee is not likely to take any action against these four House Republicans. The panel is evenly divided by four House Republicans, four House Democrats. And Republicans, even if they had time, would not likely vote to proceed with any real investigation.

SUMMERS: So, Carrie, in addition to the four referred charges that you laid out earlier in our conversation, the panel raised the idea of seditious conspiracy in its report. What did it say?

JOHNSON: This didn't come up at the televised hearing, but in the written summary, the committee mentioned the seditious conspiracy statute, and that involves trying to overthrow the government by using force. The committee said DOJ has more tools than Congress, like subpoena power and the use of the grand jury to compel people's testimony. And the Justice Department may have enough evidence to prosecute former President Trump for seditious conspiracy.

You know, just last month, a jury here in D.C. convicted Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and his deputy, Kelly Meggs, of seditious conspiracy. Members of the far-right group The Proud Boys also face that charge. Juana, even if the Justice Department does not wind up charging Donald Trump with seditious conspiracy, the whole idea that the word sedition is in the same sentence as a man who occupied the Oval Office says something pretty serious about where we are right now.

SUMMERS: So, Deirdre, how have Republicans responded?

WALSH: I mean, most Republicans have been dismissing the January 6 committee as partisan. I heard from Jim Jordan, spokesman on the ethics referral. He called it, quote, "a partisan and political stunt." For his part, former President Trump has been on social media today focused on border issues. He's already been casting doubt on the Justice Department's probe. All along, Trump has criticized this House committee. He called it the unselect committee. He's called it a witch hunt. So it's sort of more of the same in terms of Republican response today.

SUMMERS: And, Deirdre, before I let you go, you were there for the hearing. This is a hearing from a panel that's almost done, that's set to expire next Congress. Four of the committee members are not returning next Congress. What was it like today?

WALSH: It was actually pretty subdued in the hearing compared to earlier public hearings. I mean, they were sort of wrapping up all of the evidence they've been putting together over the last 18 months. As you said, they don't really have much time left before the panel expires at the end of the year. Raskin said he thought they did a comprehensive job. I think one lasting impact is this committee really changed the format for congressional hearings. It was very effective at creating a narrative...

SUMMERS: OK.

WALSH: ...Something you usually don't see at congressional hearings.

SUMMERS: NPR's Deirdre Walsh and Carrie Johnson. Thanks to both of you.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

WALSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.