The January 6 committee has referred Donald Trump to the justice department to face criminal charges, accusing the former president of fomenting an insurrection and conspiring against the government over his attempt to subvert the outcome of the 2020 election, and the bloody attack on the US Capitol.
The committee’s referrals approved by its members on Monday are the first time in American history that Congress has recommended charges against a former president. They come after 18 months of investigation by the bipartisan House of Representatives panel tasked with understanding Trump’s plot to stop Joe Biden from taking office.
“The committee believes that more than sufficient evidence exists for a criminal referral of former President Trump for assisting or aiding and comforting those at the Capitol who engaged in a violent attack on the United States,” Congressman Jamie Raskin said as the lawmakers held their final public meeting.
“The committee has developed significant evidence that President Trump intended to disrupt the peaceful transition of power under our constitution. The president has an affirmative and primary constitutional duty to act to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. Nothing could be a greater betrayal of this duty than to assist in insurrection against the constitutional order.”
The committee accused Trump of breaching four federal criminal statutes, including those relating to obstruction of an official proceeding of Congress, assisting an insurrection and conspiring to defraud the United States. It also said Trump may have committed seditious conspiracy – the same charge which a jury found two members of the rightwing Oath Keepers militia group guilty of last month.
In his opening remarks, the committee’s Democratic chair, Bennie Thompson, said Trump broke voters’ trust by mounting a campaign to stay in office, despite overwhelming evidence that he had lost.
“To cast a vote in the United States is an act of faith and hope. When we drop that ballot in the ballot box, we expect the people named on the ballot are going to uphold that end of the deal,” he said. “Donald Trump broke that faith. He lost the 2020 election and knew it. But he chose to try to stay in office through a multiparty scheme to overturn the results and blocked the transfer of power.”
A major architect of that scheme was John Eastman, a lawyer for the president who the committee said laid much of the groundwork for the strategy to overturn Biden’s election win. According to their evidence, Eastman helped Trump pressure Vice-President Mike Pence to disrupt the certification of electoral votes, even though the lawyer knew doing so would be illegal. The lawmaker referred Eastman on conspiracy charges, as well as for his alleged attempt to disrupt an official proceeding.
The lawmakers also referred four Republican House representatives to the chamber’s ethics committee. The group includes Kevin McCarthy, the GOP leader who is expected to run for speaker of the House when the party takes control of the chamber next year, as well as Jim Jordan, a staunch ally of the former president.
His spokesman Russell Dye called the referral “just another partisan and political stunt”. Also referred were Andy Biggs, a congressman said to have strategized with the president on his plot to stay in office, and Scott Perry, who had his phone seized by the FBI earlier this year.
Finally, the committee urged the justice department to investigate efforts to obstruct its investigation, including by “certain counsel … who may have advised clients to provide false or misleading testimony to the Committee”.
Following the hearing, Thompson told CNN, “If the evidence is as we presented it, I’m convinced the justice department will charge former President Trump.”
The referrals are largely a recommendation, but will arrive at a justice department already busy investigating the former president for crimes he may have committed during and after his time in office.
The attorney general, Merrick Garland, last month appointed veteran prosecutor Jack Smith to determine whether to charge Trump over the insurrection and his efforts to disrupt the peaceful transition of power. Smith is also handling the inquiry into whether Trump unlawfully retained government secrets after leaving the White House in January 2021. His decisions in those cases will have huge ramifications for the future of the former president, who has announced he will run for the White House again in 2024.
On Wednesday, the panel is expected to release a lengthy report into the attack that left five people dead and spawned nearly 1,000 criminal cases. That may be the final word from the committee, which many Americans hoped would follow in the mold of the bipartisan group that investigated the 9/11 attacks, but quickly ran up against opposition from Trump and his allies.
Created by an almost party-line vote in the Democratic-led House, the nine-member panel has two Republican lawmakers, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, both of whom were censured by their party for participating and won’t return to Congress next year.
While Kinzinger opted not to run again, Cheney lost her primary to a Trump-backed candidate. In her final remarks as the panel’s vice-chair, Cheney recounted how Trump failed to act for hours as a mob of his supporters assaulted the Capitol.
“No man who would behave that way, at that moment in time, can ever serve in any position of authority in our nation again,” Cheney said. “He is unfit for any office.”
Their nine public hearings held this year featured in-person testimony from witnesses and recorded interviews that shed light on how the attack happened, presented in a carefully stage-managed format that eschewed much of the tedium or bickering typical of congressional committee work.
Though it was their final public meeting, the lawmakers found time to air new evidence gleaned from their interview with Hope Hicks, a former senior adviser to Trump. She recounted how, ahead of the rally he had planned for January 6, she and a White House lawyer agreed that Trump should urge attendees to be peaceful, but he refused.
As Trump pressed on with his claims of election fraud despite having no evidence to back them up, Hicks recounted how she told the then president she was worried about his legacy.
“He said something along the lines of, you know, nobody will care about my legacy if I lose. So that won’t matter. The only thing that matters is, is winning,” Hicks said.
Not all who served under Trump or by his side cooperated. To those who flat-out refused, the lawmakers resorted to issuing subpoenas, and some Trump allies are now facing jail time for refusing to comply.
Several people who spoke to the committee were not completely forthcoming, the lawmakers wrote in the introduction to their report released at the conclusion of Monday’s meeting. This group includes Trump’s press secretary at the time of the attack, Kayleigh McEnany, and his daughter Ivanka Trump. It also includes Anthony Ornato, a former Secret Service official who took up a position in Trump’s White House and was thought to have witnessed some of the most critical incidents before and during the insurrection.
In its second-to-last hearing held in October, the committee publicly voted to subpoena documents and testimony from Trump. The former president went to court to stop the summons, and time appears to be on his side. The committee’s mandate runs out at the end of the year, and in 2023, the Republican House majority is almost certain not to continue its work.
• This article was amended on 20 December 2022. In an earlier version, a picture caption referred to the police officer Brian Sicknick as having been “killed” in the January 6 Capitol attack.