Everyone, by now, is at least aware of the fact that a House select committee is investigating the January 6 riot at the US Capitol. That committee – through its public hearings – has drawn scads of attention.
Less high profile is the ongoing Justice Department investigation into the insurrection at the US Capitol. That investigation has already led to more than 800 arrests of those who participated in the riot but, of late, has also turned up the heat on major players in Trumpworld – like attorney John Eastman and former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark.
To help understand better what the DOJ is up to, I reached out to Katelyn Polantz, who covers crime and justice for CNN. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: Let’s start simple: When did the federal investigation around January 6 start, and what do we know about it?
Polantz: Simple answer for a simple question: It started the afternoon of January 6, 2021.
That’s when the evident crime took place: hundreds of Trump supporters ransacking the Capitol. That very quickly captured the full attention of the Department of Justice. We saw the first federal arrests – including of the QAnon Shaman Jacob Chansley – within days of the attack, and more than 800 people have been charged for the riot, including Proud Boys and Oath Keepers facing seditious conspiracy charges.
At the one-year mark, Attorney General Merrick Garland made clear the DOJ would press on with its investigation, looking at money, communications, following wherever the evidence would lead. That’s around the time when we started to learn about people not on the grounds of the Capitol but in political circles becoming part of this investigation – a clear expansion of the grand jury activity looking at rally organization and the Trump fake electors in battleground states.
We’re still seeing that investigative activity in its earlier stages, with no apparent charges resulting from it yet. But the DOJ is getting more aggressive by the week. Last week alone there were dozens of new subpoenas received, plus the searches of John Eastman and Jeffrey Clark. We don’t know where this leads yet, but the amount of information being gathered reaches far into the communications of Trump’s world already.
Cillizza: How, if at all, is this investigation working in coordination with the House 1/6 committee? Does one influence the other or not?
Polantz: Nothing happens in a vacuum in Washington. The House select committee is doing an unusually good job of working swiftly and probing deeply on its own, especially in how much it’s been able to collect through witness interview (more than 1,000), National Archives records and from Eastman’s emails. That pile of evidence will eventually work itself out to the public domain.
The Justice Department, too, has been working through mind-boggling mountains of evidence, especially preparing for trials.
The House has focused on the top of the pyramid –Trump himself – while the DOJ traditionally investigates from the bottom up, starting with the rioters themselves. We’re starting to see those interests intersect, with DOJ wanting access to transcripts of witnesses who’ve spoken to the House and not being able to access them as readily as investigators wish. The House says they’ll eventually release all of their materials. But the wall between Congress’ work and DOJ right now has become a point of tension.
Cillizza: The debate on the 1/6 committee is whether to recommend criminal charges in its final report. Does that decision have any bearing on this federal investigation?
Polantz: Probably not. Much ink has been spilled over whether the committee members will or won’t make a referral. Some members of Congress have a rich history of trying to tell DOJ whom it should investigate, with little result. Now, like then, the Justice Department does not need Congress to sniff out violations of law for them; they’ve got noses of their own (and more robust search and subpoena-power!).
Take for instance: The DOJ’s search of Clark happened the day before his former colleagues gave scorching testimony to the House committee about his actions at the end of the Trump administration. Still, Garland has made clear his department is watching these House select committee hearings. If something catches investigators’ attention that is revealed on Capitol Hill, it’s entirely possible federal criminal investigators will be moving faster than a final report or referral could be drafted.
Cillizza: The FBI has subpoenaed, among other people, the chairman of the Georgia Republican Party. Is the probe looking at all of the swing states? Or do we not know?
Polantz: We do know the fake electors investigation has canvassed information from the seven states where Trump electors gathered, yes. But remember: The subpoenas that we know of in this investigation aren’t just seeking details about bit players from state-level politics. They’re asking for communications those people had with some of the upper echelon of the Trump campaign as well –everyone from Rudy Giuliani to Eastman to Boris Epshteyn.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The danger to Donald Trump from this investigation is _______________.” Now explain.
Polantz: “Who may be willing to share what they witnessed.”
Perhaps Trump has no danger whatsoever and never crossed the line of the law. This can’t be known until the facts are gathered.
The facts are coming forth, on live TV, already. Cassidy Hutchinson has eclipsed other witnesses as the star of the House probe. But don’t forget every House public hearing has brought forward surprisingly candid testimony from a variety of Trump administration officials – like former Attorney General Bill Barr, Eric Herschmann, a lawyer who worked in the Trump White House, Richard Donoghue, former acting deputy attorney general, and Greg Jacob, who served as counsel to Mike Pence when he was vice president – often about how deeply they disagreed with the President and warned him or others close to him of the wrongness of their beliefs on the 2020 election.
Trump wasn’t able to hold a firewall together in the Robert Mueller investigation, and key people like White House counsel Don McGahn became witnesses against him in the obstruction probe. But some of his advisers chose to withstand trial – and will go to their grave – without revealing the full truth of what happened inside the Trump campaign when Russia hacked the Democrats. January 6 is different, I’ve heard from even a former defense lawyer for Trump. At least in the past week, transparency is gaining momentum.