Where Things Stand: DOJ Needs To Step Up

This is your TPM evening briefing.
US President Donald Trump speaks to supporters from The Ellipse near the White House on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. - Thousands of Trump supporters, fueled by his spurious claims of voter fraud, are flooding ... US President Donald Trump speaks to supporters from The Ellipse near the White House on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. - Thousands of Trump supporters, fueled by his spurious claims of voter fraud, are flooding the nation's capital protesting the expected certification of Joe Biden's White House victory by the US Congress. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images) MORE LESS

As the first anniversary of the insurrection approaches, the Jan. 6 committee will probably vote later this evening to refer Mark Meadows for prosecution for contempt of Congress. It’s a proper and necessary step. But it is also singularly unsatisfying and insufficient.

A contempt conviction and a modest jail term for Meadows or Steven Bannon or any other Trumpster determined not to cooperate with Congress doesn’t produce either justice or a warm feeling of schadenfreude. Only a criminal investigation by the Justice Department can bring to bear the resources and stiff punishments that will do justice to the severity of what happened in 2020 and culminated on Jan. 6.

Congress’ own probe may yet still reveal important new information that sharpens our understanding of the conspiracy to subvert the election and its various actors. But it is being stymied by loyalists egged on by Trump whose own political and economic position will only be enhanced by becoming martyrs to the MAGA cause, heroes of their own resistance story. Furthermore, the conspiracy continues, not merely to subvert the 2020 election but elections into the future. With a real, ongoing threat to free and fair democratic elections, a thwarted congressional investigation emboldens those who tried to reverse the 2020 result and who would do so again.

Last week there was a telling exchange in the contempt case against Steve Bannon. U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols declared that it certainly wasn’t the purpose of the contempt case to secure Bannon’s subpoenaed testimony or documents. “This is not a case through which the committee could get information,” Nichols said. In dismissing that as the rationale for the case, Nichols decided that he didn’t need to expedite Bannon’s trial.

Nichols, a Trump appointee, is not necessarily wrong. By the time Congress refers a case for criminal prosecution, the goal has moved from coercion for the information to punishment for noncompliance, according to a 2017 Congressional Research Service report on contempt of Congress:

The criminal sanction is not coercive because the witness generally will not be able to purge himself by testifying or supplying subpoenaed documents after he has been voted in contempt by the committee and the House or Senate. Consequently, once a witness has been voted in contempt, he lacks an incentive for cooperating with the committee.

We have now run up against the limits of using Congress’ investigative power as the sole response to the conspiracy to subvert the 2020 election. That leaves the Justice Department to investigate and, where appropriate, prosecute. But at this point there remains little indication that DOJ is actively pursuing a broader conspiracy case against the instigators of the Jan. 6 attack or against the many actors in the months-long effort to undermine the election and then reverse its results.

Our great national reckoning with a coup, with the first violence-marred transfer of power in our history, has amounted to relatively modest charges and sentences for the rioters at the Capitol. It’s a meager accountability for an attack on democracy that was directed from the White House by the President and which continues as an ongoing threat to democracy now and into the elections in 2022 and 2024.

The Best Of TPM Today

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Jan. 6 Was ‘Deplorable,’ Meadows’ Lawyer Argues—But We Still Won’t Cooperate

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House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) says he supports the idea of stripping far-right Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) of her committee assignments over her Islamophobic attacks — but he wants the job of doing so to be left to Republicans

In his newly released book about his time serving in the Trump administration, Meadows wrote that he was so infuriated when Fox News first called Joe Biden’s electoral win in Arizona on election night that he angrily called them to contest Trump’s projected loss

Yesterday’s Most Read Story

Phil Waldron, the retired U.S. Army colonel who circulated a PowerPoint proposal to overturn the 2020 election result, had met with Meadows “maybe eight to 10 times” and briefed several members of Congress the day before the deadly Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6

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