The Jan. 6 Committee Returns With One Viewer in Mind: Merrick Garland

5 minute read

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

As the Jan. 6 committee gavels into session on Thursday, the coda of what has been a series of tightly scripted and efficient hearings, there is a sense of urgency among members and staffers to cram every last piece of evidence into the afternoon session. For everyone who has devoted much of the last year working on this project, it is an unavoidable reality: this is probably their last opportunity to sway opinions, especially those inside the Department of Justice.

So far, the Jan. 6 panel has produced a mountain of damning evidence about how then-President Donald Trump and his orbit spent the twilight of their days in power plotting ways to hold onto it, even after losing to Joe Biden. This includes a coordinated effort to masse supporters—many of them armed—near the White House and direct them to march to the Capitol, where lawmakers were undertaking the routine task of certifying the results of the election. That effort culminated in the first sacking of the Capitol since 1814, scores of injured Capitol Police officers, several dead, and hundreds charged. As TIME’s Vera Bergengruen and W.J. Hennigan noted, it was the most-documented crime in history.

And yet…

Washington still hasn’t reached a consensus on what to do with the animating force behind the weeks of planning, day of chaos, and fallout of outright denialism. Trump is still defending his actions that day. He is defiant in refusing to take any responsibility. And members of the Republican Party he reshaped have fallen in line in downplaying the significance of a very real threat to American democracy.

The public hearings have, frankly, made no difference in the public’s opinion of what transpired last January. Polling has remained constant, with both sides dug in. A full 35% of the total population thinks what happened that day was a legitimate protest, according to Quinnipiac’s numbers. A predictable 66% of Republicans oppose charges against Trump for his role in the pandemonium, while an expected 73% of Democrats want to see him in court.

But there were always two intended audiences for the committee’s hearings: the American public, and the small contingent inside the Department of Justice that is weighing the extent of Trump’s criminal liability. The hearings have been as much about rooting out the causes of the attempted insurrection and the failures to stop it as they have been about building a case to hand to DOJ prosecutors. The evidence assembled is pretty persuasive, even to skeptics of Congress’ ability to produce anything of substance that can appear bipartisan. Early court filings have laid out the criminal threat facing Trump, but ultimately the decision on whether to prosecute will land on the desk of Attorney General Merrick Garland and other top DOJ officials.

Publicly, everyone involved insists that the law—and not politics—will dictate what comes next. But this is Washington. There is nothing apolitical about potential prosecutions of political figures, be they an ex-president or first son.

The members of the Jan. 6 committee are keenly aware of the history they are potentially making here and the end of their mandate, which is fast approaching. The prosecution of a former—and potentially future—president has no precedent in the United States. The last president facing such a tricky moment, Bill Clinton, agreed in the wake of his impeachment to surrender his law license for five years and pay a $25,000 fine to end the independent counsel’s investigation without an indictment. Before that, President Gerald Ford pardoned his predecessor, Richard Nixon, and ended the Watergate threat to the ex-president.

But these are far more partisan times. The notion of simply moving on doesn’t seem plausible, especially not in a town where so many—in both parties—are reluctant to see Trump return to the national stage with power. It’s one thing to lie about an affair and another to try to turn a mob into a destroyer of democracy. Lawmakers were sent into hiding, the Capitol still hasn’t fully returned to its old self, a quiet exodus of staffers has called it quits on the Hill, and officials still aren’t sure they’ve fully protected the system from its next orchestrated threat. It seems inevitable that some action is required. The question, especially for DOJ, is at what cost?

Meanwhile, lawmakers on Thursday will continue their meticulous work of building the case that the price is worth it. For them, this is the first line of their obituaries. The two Republicans who defied their party and agreed to participate have paid the price of their immediate political futures; both Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger won’t be returning to Congress next year. For the Democrats on the panel, this may be their best chance at stopping Trump’s climb back to the White House. And for lawmakers of both parties, this may be their last chance to prove that someone who uses their political power to direct a mob to take up weapons to try and set aside the results of an election cannot be permitted to move on from that deadly day facing zero consequences.

Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Philip Elliott at