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January 6 Recap: An Aggressive (!) Move by the Justice Department

The request for House select committee transcripts could mean something really big is happening at DOJ.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland
Kevin LaMarque/Getty Images
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland

Here’s what happened this week

A persistent question hanging over the entire January 6 committee investigation relates to the Department of Justice: “What exactly is Attorney General Merrick Garland doing?” frustrated Democrats have asked with increased urgency. “When will DOJ step in? Will Garland prosecute Donald Trump?” The New York Times partially lifted the veil on that answer this past week with a report detailing how the Justice Department has asked the January 6 committee for interview transcripts of the conversations it has conducted out of public view. 

Intriguingly, the Times report details how “on April 20, Kenneth A. Polite Jr., the assistant attorney general for the criminal division, and Matthew M. Graves, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, wrote to Timothy J. Heaphy, the lead investigator for the House panel, advising him that some committee interviews ‘may contain information relevant to a criminal investigation we are conducting.’”

For months now it’s been clear that there is significant overlap between the committee’s investigation and the Justice Department’s own probe into potential wrongdoing by Trump and his associates. This news only further confirms that and shows that the Justice Department’s investigation is touching on some of the same places that the January 6 committee’s probe is scrutinizing. And to quote Politico’s Betsy Woodruff Swan, “This is a big deal, and it’s also consistent with what we’ve known, which is there’s a ton of overlap between what the select committee is interested in and what DOJ is interested in.” 

This is the kind of movement anyone who’s been following the investigation has been waiting for. The January 6 committee, after all, can only issue a criminal referral to the Justice Department; it can’t actually prosecute anyone. The committee is reportedly considering making one such referral about “Trump and his associates” to Main Justice. But again, there’s been brewing frustration in some quarters that the Justice Department is dragging its feet. Garland has addressed what he could about the Justice Department’s probe, vowing that he will follow the law wherever it leads and so on; but there is still a sense in some circles that the DOJ could be more overt or aggressive. To date, Garland has not indicated whether his team is considering prosecuting Donald Trump.  

The DOJ’s request is also not the end of that discussion. Aides to January 6 committee Chairman Bennie Thompson are still in discussion over which transcripts it will turn over, according to The New York Times. A separate report from the Los Angeles Times—published the same day as the New York Times article—said Thompson felt it is premature to hand over transcripts to the Justice Department. In comments to reporters on Tuesday, Thompson signaled opposition to just handing over any and all transcripts. The select committee has passed information it’s collected to other government agencies at the federal, local, and state levels. But Thompson differentiated how it has done that from just passing along all of its raw transcripts.  

“They made a request, and we told them that as a committee, the product was ours, and we’re not giving anyone access to the work product,” Thompson said. The Mississippi Democrat added, “Big difference … we can’t give them unilateral access.”

What is clear, though, is that as expansive as the select committee’s inquiry has become as well as the Justice Department’s own respective investigation, those findings seem to be leading to a similar place. 

However extensive the committee’s work has been, the transcripts it does have do not include two key individuals: Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence. Thompson has already said Trump is unlikely to be called as a witness. That hasn’t stopped the committee from telling congressional chiefs of staff that the upcoming June hearings will include more bombshells about its findings. As has been previously noted, those hearings are key to the committee’s larger goal of showing the American public how serious its findings are. Judging from the panel’s preview and the Justice Department’s interest in transcripts, those findings are indeed deadly serious. 

Trump and Pence might not be witnesses, but former Attorney General William Barr could be. Axios’s Jonathan Swan scooped on Thursday that Barr is in talks with the committee to appear for a formal interview. Barr resigned in December 2020, after refusing to submit to Trump’s urging to get the Justice Department to declare the election had been stolen. The two did not part on the best of terms—Barr told Trump that his theories about the election were “bullshit” and has been outspoken about his break with the president on this issue. He would likely cooperate with the committee, Swan reported. This could be particularly damaging to Trump and could perhaps embolden the Justice Department to take further action, as Barr likely has a wealth of knowledge from his time as attorney general.

Whom to watch?

The actions of the attorney general and the Justice Department are sure to be closely watched in the coming weeks. And while Trump may not be at the top of the committee’s witness list, he will likely have plenty to say when public hearings begin.

There’s already plenty of Trump news to peruse: As primary season heats up, Trump is already making his presence more known by lending his support to candidates, with mixed results. He is now making false claims about the Republican primary for the Pennsylvania Senate seat, in which his preferred candidate, Mehmet Oz, is neck-and-neck with David McCormick—a rehashing of his greatest hits in opposition to mail-in ballots in the 2020 election in the state.

Meanwhile, Mike Pence, another unlikely witness before the committee, is ramping up his public appearances. Is this a preview of a 2024 matchup between Trump and Pence, the two biggest players in the drama of the January 6 insurrection?

Further reading:

·       The Washington Post’s Jacqueline Alemany and Josh Dawsey delve into differences of opinion within the committee on how to proceed.

·       Kyle Cheney and Nicholas Wu of Politico look into how the panel convinced members of Trump’s inner circle to talk.

·       Doug Mastriano is now the Republican gubernatorial nominee in Pennsylvania. Rosalind Helderman, Isaac Arnsdorf, and Josh Dawsey of the Post preview how having a 2020 election denier—under investigation by the select committee—could throw the 2024 election into chaos.

·       The Daily Beast’s Sam Brodey chronicles GOP Representative Markwayne Mullin’s crusade to “expunge” Trump’s second impeachment vote from the House record.

·       A group of attorneys is seeking to disbar Senator Ted Cruz for his role in spreading false claims about the election and participating in efforts to overturn its results, The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman reports. 

·       The committee is seeking to talk with Congressman Barry Loudermilk. On Thursday, the panel released its letter asking for a voluntary interview with the Georgia congressman concerning a tour he led “through parts of the Capitol complex on January 5, 2021.” Note, this is not a subpoena, but the committee has begun subpoenaing lawmakers. 

Best quote of the week on January 6

“We’re not sure that the evidence that we receive can be any more validated with his presence.… I think the concern is whether or not he would add any more value with his testimony.”—Representative Bennie Thompson, chair of the select committee, explaining to reporters why Trump might not be called as a witness.