Exposing The Secrets Of The January 6th Attack : The NPR Politics Podcast How did the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol come together? Who was involved in planning it? What did President Trump know and why did he take so long to respond? How much danger were lawmakers in? And, finally, who will be held accountable?

In this hourlong special, the NPR Politics team breaks down the key insights from the public hearings.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales, national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, national political correspondent Mara Liasson, and senior political editor and correspondent Ron Elving.

Support the show and unlock sponsor-free listening with a subscription to The NPR Politics Podcast Plus. Learn more at plus.npr.org/politics

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Exposing The Secrets Of The January 6th Attack

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(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, and we are doing something different today. As the House select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection concludes its public hearings for the summer, we examine its work and what it revealed. I'm Tamara Keith, and this is an NPR POLITICS PODCAST special. We'll explore the role then-President Trump played in what happened...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIZ CHENEY: President Trump summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack.

KEITH: ...How Trump's inner circle pressured the Department of Justice to overturn election results.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUDY GIULIANI: Somebody should be put in charge of the Justice Department who isn't frightened of what's going to be done to their reputation.

KEITH: The House select committee looking into the January 6 insurrection held eight hearings this summer. Over the next hour, we'll distill the testimony and evidence they presented and examine what might come next for former President Trump, his allies and for American democracy. Before these hearings began, many people thought they knew what happened on January 6. After all, we covered it all live on the radio as it happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: There are hundreds and hundreds of people streaming up the Capitol, also from Pennsylvania Ave., onto the grounds. Earlier, they knocked down a small fence to come onto the ground. This was a restricted area, but no longer.

KEITH: But the hearings have exposed more detail about what happened that day...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: We love Trump. We love Trump. We love Trump. We love Trump.

DONALD TRUMP: Mike Pence, I hope you're going to stand up for the good of our Constitution and for the good of our country. And if you're not, I'm going to be very disappointed in you, I will tell you right now.

KEITH: ...And in the weeks leading up to the riot.

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TRUMP: We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

KEITH: That's election night, 2020. It was as shocking as it was absurd. He hadn't won. The race was still too close to call, but it wasn't looking good for Trump. Fox News had already called Arizona, typically red Arizona, for Joe Biden. Rather than acknowledge the possibility he had lost, Donald Trump declared victory at the White House. He had been laying the groundwork to do this for months, really years, with unfounded claims of fraud. The committee played audio of Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who, before the election even happened, predicted Trump would allege it was stolen no matter what.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE BANNON: What Trump's going to do is just declare victory or he's gonna declare victory. But that doesn't mean he's a winner (laughter). He's just gonna say he's a winner.

(CROSSTALK)

BANNON: Also, if Trump is losing by 10 or 11 o'clock at night, it's going to be even crazier.

(CROSSTALK)

BANNON: No, 'cause he's gonna sit there and said they stole it.

KEITH: Never mind what Trump was saying, ballots continued to be counted into the weekend, and the Saturday after Election Day, it was over.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Joseph R. Biden of Delaware is now president-elect of the United States with the apparent award of The Associated Press...

KEITH: Donald Trump, along with his allies and supporters, became fixated on stopping Biden from assuming office. It was a desperate scramble to alter reality, even as states certified their results. And when the conventional legal challenges failed, Trump, and those working to keep him in office, went to extreme measures. It all culminated on January 6, 2021, the date Congress was to certify Joe Biden's victory. Trump held a rally near the White House, doubling down on the lie that the election had been stolen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Now it is up to Congress to confront this egregious assault on our democracy. And after this, we're going to walk down - and I'll be there with you. We're going to walk down - we're going to walk down, any one you want, but I think right here. We're going to walk down to the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

TRUMP: And we're going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women, and we're probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them.

KEITH: That rally was meant to pressure lawmakers and then-Vice President Mike Pence to halt the process of the normal transition of power.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHENEY: What the president wanted the vice president to do was not just wrong, it was illegal and unconstitutional.

KEITH: That's Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney, vice chair of the select committee and one of its only two Republicans. Through these hearings, key details have been filled in. We've learned a lot about what was happening outside of the public eye, what Trump knew and said and what he did. I want to bring in NPR's Claudia Grisales, who covers Congress. Hey, Claudia.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Hi, Tam.

KEITH: And NPR's Carrie Johnson, who covers the Justice Department.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey there, Tam.

KEITH: So, Carrie, illegal and unconstitutional, in the words of Liz Cheney - what was the idea here? What did Donald Trump want the vice president to do on January 6?

JOHNSON: Donald Trump wanted Vice President Mike Pence to overthrow the election results, basically mirroring an argument we've heard from Trump legal adviser John Eastman that a federal judge has said more likely than not amounted to a violation of criminal law, of obstruction of Congress. He wanted Mike Pence to cast doubt on certain electors in certain states, throw out those electors and make it easier to substitute phony slates of electors for those legitimate votes.

KEITH: Claudia, when President Trump told his supporters to go to the Capitol, including people who were armed, they did. Who was in that crowd?

GRISALES: They included regular people. They included right-wing extremists. This includes members of the Proud Boys, of the Oath Keepers, people we saw armed with bear spray and using flagpoles as weapons. And as we've learned now through these hearings, some in that crowd were armed with AR-15 rifles, Glock pistols, and we've also learned brass knuckles, knives, other sorts of weapons were in that crowd carried by these rally-goers who later became rioters. Some were organized. Some were not. And one of the things we learned in testimony from Cassidy Hutchinson - this is the former aide to Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows - is that those in the crowd that were armed, that then-President Trump knew, but he said, let them through. They're not here to hurt me.

KEITH: Another big revelation from these hearings is that the president really did want to march to the Capitol with these rally-goers. We heard from one White House security official whose voice was disguised about why they didn't want to let the president do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SECURITY OFFICIAL: One, I think the actual physical feasibility of doing it, and then also, we all knew what that implicated and what that meant, that this was no longer a rally, that this was going to move to something else if he physically walked through the Capitol. I don't know if you want to use the word insurrection, coup, whatever. We all knew that this would move from a normal, democratic, you know, public event into something else.

KEITH: And as rioters descended on the Capitol to disrupt the proceedings, looking for members of Congress, looking for the vice president, there were real worries among those present that they could lose their lives.

JOHNSON: One of the revelations we heard was actual audio from Mike Pence's security detail, raising concerns about members of the public, rioters coming in the path. There was smoke of unknown origin, and we heard that some of those security detail members feared for their own lives and were calling out to their family members to possibly say goodbye.

KEITH: We also learned in the last set of hearings that Trump didn't want to act to stop it, that he spent the day watching the attack on TV and calling lawmakers to pressure them to halt certification even as the riot was unfolding.

JOHNSON: Trump White House counsel Pat Cipollone testified to the committee that a long list of people inside the White House, including Cipollone, were desperately trying to get the president to tell these rioters to back down. The one person in the White House who was not on that list was the president himself, Donald Trump. Instead, Trump sent a tweet about Mike Pence while Pence was actively in danger, hiding in the U.S. Capitol. Trump also called senators to try to further this election scheme, and we know as well that he called Rudy Giuliani, or had at least two phone calls with Rudy Giuliani, his lawyer.

KEITH: Yeah. And, Claudia, he was calling members of Congress. We know that, and we know that in more detail now.

GRISALES: Exactly. We know between these hours, this 187 minutes as members of this panel have dubbed it, that then-President Trump was largely out of sight. He was not photographed, and there's gaps in logs in terms of exactly who he called, which senators did he get in touch with. And so, yes, it wasn't until he sent out a tweet around 4:17 p.m. that we heard from him again in terms of addressing this crowd.

KEITH: And 4:17, it's notable that that was after federal law enforcement had begun arriving at the Capitol, after - you know, after backup was on the way. And that is when Trump tweeted this video finally telling the rioters to go home, but also expressing love for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We have to have peace, so go home. We love you. You're very special.

KEITH: People in the White House had been begging him to do something.

JOHNSON: Begging him to do something, but Eric Herschmann, another White House official at the time, basically said getting Trump to do much of anything that day was emotionally draining for the White House staff, and they could hardly get him to do anything. They themselves were drained while members of Congress and the vice president were still in danger in the Capitol. Trump didn't call the Pentagon. Trump didn't call the Justice Department. He didn't call the FBI. Instead, it seemed he had conversations with Rudy Giuliani and various senators.

GRISALES: Right. At one point, we heard GOP leader Kevin McCarthy called in to son-in-law Jared Kushner. He was scared, is the way Jared Kushner described him, desperate for help as they were under attack.

KEITH: Yes. There was begging and pleading from all corners - from Fox News personalities, from his own children. I mean, the list is basically everyone.

JOHNSON: Inundated. Yes.

KEITH: So once that tweet was finally sent, people did start going home, including former cabinet company worker Stephen Ayres, who testified that he went to the Capitol because Trump told him to go and left when Trump put out that video saying to go home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEPHEN AYRES: As soon as that come out, everybody started talking about it. And it seemed like it started to disperse, you know, some of the crowd. Obviously, you know, once we got back to the hotel room, we seen that it was still going on, but it definitely dispersed a lot of the crowd.

JAMIE RASKIN: And did you leave at that point?

AYRES: Yeah, we did. Yeah. We left.

KEITH: But Trump wasn't done. He later tweeted, quote, "these are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously and viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly and unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love and peace. Remember this day forever," exclamation point. Whatever Trump and his supporters thought marching on the Capitol would accomplish, it failed. The Electoral College ballots had been protected. Democracy had survived - barely. And in the early morning hours of January 7, Congress finished its work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE PENCE: The whole number of electors appointed to vote for president of the United States is 538. Within that whole number, a majority is 270. The votes for president of the United States are as follows. Joseph Biden Jr. of the state of Delaware has received 306 votes. Donald J. Trump of the state of Florida has received 232 votes. The announcement of the state of the vote by the president of the Senate shall be deemed a sufficient declaration of the persons elected president and vice president of the United States.

KEITH: All right. Let's take a quick break. And when we get back, the stew of conspiracy theories and bizarre legal tactics that led up to January 6.

And we're back. Let's talk more about what we've learned from the House select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection. From Election Day forward, there was a mad scramble by former President Trump and an ever-shrinking circle of advisors and lawyers to overturn the results of a free and fair election that he lost. NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales is still with us, as is NPR's Carrie Johnson, who covers the Justice Department. And let's bring in NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

KEITH: So I want to step back for just a second. Over the past two months, there have been eight hearings, hours of testimony from the House select committee on January 6, but this has been unlike any congressional hearing I think any of us have covered before.

LIASSON: Yeah, it's really been different. It's had an incredibly carefully produced presentation, with videos, with a real narrative. This was a committee that was absolutely determined to communicate the narrative of what happened on January 6 and Trump's responsibility on that day to the American people. And I think that they succeeded in telling a story about Trump's involvement in January 6 and the insurrection at the Capitol. It remains to be seen what the political effects will be, but there's no doubt that they've told a clear and compelling narrative. What the political effect of that will be remains to be seen.

KEITH: And we will get to that later, but I also want to just address something, which is that these hearings have been quite one-sided, and that's because the Republican leader in the House, Kevin McCarthy, named members to the committee who had been actively involved in trying to overturn the election results. So the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, rejected them. And then, rather than name different Republicans, McCarthy withdrew his party from the committee entirely, right, Claudia?

GRISALES: Right, exactly. He wanted to include two members in that list - Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jim Banks of Indiana - on that committee. And House Speaker Pelosi said, nope, I'm not going to accept these folks. You're going to have to pick two others. McCarthy said, well, then, we're boycotting the whole thing. And that left Pelosi with this very decisive moment to name her own Republicans to the committee. And so she named Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who had been ousted from her No. 3 leadership post with Republicans in the House, and Adam Kinzinger from Illinois. And when we look at how this committee has played out now, they have been some of the toughest voices in these hearings. And obviously, Cheney has played a very big role in its leadership.

KEITH: Over the course of the hearings, the committee spent a lot of time establishing a basic but key fact, which is that Trump lost the election, and he knew it because everyone from junior press assistants to the White House counsel to the Attorney General, Bill Barr, told him so - and repeatedly. Carrie?

JOHNSON: Yeah, the Bill Barr testimony in particular is something the committee has gone back to repeatedly, in part because Bill Barr is not a shrinking violet, as Liz Cheney said, and Bill Barr is a rock-ribbed Republican. He's about as conservative as they come. He said repeatedly that he looked into all of these allegations of fraud that Trump and his allies were making after the election, and he called most of those allegations a word I can't use on the radio - it's a barnyard epithet and not good.

KEITH: Bold pucky.

JOHNSON: There you go, yes. And he - Barr said, moreover, that where there might have been very minor cases of fraud - nothing that would have affected the outcome of the federal election. Now, as a legal matter, there could be an argument that Trump would make that he still continued to believe this fanciful, baseless theory about election fraud, but you can't say he wasn't told again and again by Republicans in his own administration.

KEITH: Right. And Trump really never did accept that he had lost the election. He never moved on. And instead, he and this motley crew of lawyers and advisers jumped from one conspiracy theory to the next. And, you know, it can be really hard to follow the thread on these theories themselves, you know, about allegedly hacked voting machines and foreign intelligence operations and just really wild stuff, but they are all unfounded. And yet, as the committee presented in detail, that did not stop Trump and his allies from applying pressure to people up and down the government - from county election workers and volunteers, to the acting U.S. attorney general, to the vice president of the United States - to somehow try to change the outcome.

GRISALES: And I think this point was illustrated early on in the hearings when we heard from Bill Stepien, the former Trump campaign manager, who talked about team normal versus team crazy. And this was team crazy fueling these ideas of conspiracy theories that fueled this effort to try and overturn the election's results.

KEITH: You know, one thing that stands out from all of this - and we're going to hear a lot more of these voices as we go - but almost everyone testifying was a Republican. Almost everyone testifying, Carrie, was a supporter at one time of Donald Trump.

JOHNSON: Yeah, not just Republicans, people who worked closely with the former president in the White House and outside on his campaigns, writing to each other in text messages, saying to this committee in videotaped and audiotape depositions that they believed in small ways and large ways that Trump was responsible for what happened - for the violence that occurred at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

KEITH: So, team, help me run through some of the various efforts in these months between Election Day and Jan. 6 that Trump and his allies took. So let's start. First, there were legal challenges, like, at least at the beginning, pretty traditional legal challenges that you might expect after an election.

JOHNSON: Well, somewhat.

KEITH: I mean, maybe the first couple.

JOHNSON: Well, what's notable here is that I think people close to former President Trump and Trump himself filed something like 62 lawsuits. They lost nearly every one, virtually every one, including the lawsuits that were heard by Trump appointees to the federal bench. At one point, when members of what witnesses have been calling team crazy reached the White House counsel's office and were asserting that the Justice Department should file more lawsuits and all these other people should file more lawsuits and directly go to the Supreme Court and all this other stuff, former White House official Eric Herschmann said, are you trying to tell me that judges were biased in every single case here against us, even the judges that we appointed? I - the matter speaks for itself.

KEITH: And then there was also this effort to prevent states, including Georgia, from certifying the election results. And there was this call that the president made to the secretary of state in Georgia, Brad Raffensperger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: So, look, all I want to do is this - I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have because we won the state.

KEITH: But he didn't win the state. And Claudia, we also heard from state officials in Pennsylvania and Arizona and very memorably election workers in Georgia whose lives had been upended by conspiracy theories.

GRISALES: Right. We heard from Shaye Moss. This is the Fulton County election worker who was working at the time. Trump called her out by name multiple times in public. She and her mother had to go into hiding because of the threats they faced, and she gave this very heartbreaking testimony before the committee in one of these public hearings. And this is as a result of these threats that she and her mother faced from Trump and his allies. And then we also heard from Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers - this is a Republican - about the pressure and threats he and his family faced from Trump and his allies, with protesters showing up to his neighborhood, blasting music, approaching a neighbor with a weapon at one point. But he said he told Trump he would not break his oath, and he described what he saw as the Constitution is being divinely inspired.

KEITH: And then, Carrie, I want to turn to another tentacle of this, which is the pressure that was applied to the Justice Department to investigate, to find fraud that didn't exist, to maybe seize voting machines or at the very least raise enough suspicions to let someone else seize voting machines.

JOHNSON: Yeah, there was remarkable testimony by the No.-2-at-the-time official at the Justice Department at the end of the Trump era, where he said President Trump said to him, you know what, just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen on my side. That was absolutely remarkable testimony. We also heard from the former acting attorney general, Jeff Rosen. Jeff Rosen says President Trump badgered him nearly every day since he took office in late December up until the insurrection, except for Christmas and New Year. Sometimes, there were late night demands to appear at the White House to bat down new conspiracy theories from President Trump and his advisers. And Jeff Rosen testified memorably that the president wanted to install one of Rosen's own underlings, somebody Rosen and others considered to be unqualified, a man named Jeffrey Clark, who was an environmental lawyer, to actually lead the Justice Department because the president thought that Jeff Clark would do what Rosen, Richard Donoghue and other DOJ officials would not. We now know, of course, Jeff Clark has been the subject of a search warrant from federal agents, and he's under criminal investigation.

KEITH: Let's jump back in time just for a second here. By Dec. 11, all 50 states had certified the results of the election, and that was then going to be headed to Congress to finalize. But Trump's team wasn't done. On Dec. 18, there was this fateful meeting that we learned about in the hearings. It was an hours-long, very contentious meeting at the White House where Trump was trying to find a way to get around his loss.

LIASSON: Right. And the way that he decided to try was to come up with these false slates of electors. Electors are actual people who represent the majority vote in each state, and the governor and the legislature approves them based on the will of the voters in that state. Well, he decided that in some of these battleground states that his supporters would just name themselves electors, and they created these false slates of electors. They actually registered them, in some cases, with the National Archives. The idea was that if you had these false slates of electors - in other words, they would be alternative slates to the slates that have already been sent to Congress - if you had that, you would, in effect, force Congress to vote to choose between the legitimate slates and these false pro-Trump ones. That is the one - one of the very few situations that would force Congress to actually choose who won the election.

KEITH: And if Congress were to choose, Republicans would...

LIASSON: Presumably, Republicans would have chosen the false pro-Trump slates of electors. It never got to that, but that was the end-game as Trump conceived of it.

KEITH: But for this plan to work, Vice President Mike Pence would have had to have been on board. And he wasn't, but the pressure on him was intense. Greg Jacob, a lawyer for the then-vice president, explained in testimony before the committee that what Trump wanted would have been unconstitutional, that Pence just couldn't do it.

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GREG JACOB: No vice president in 230 years of history had ever claimed to have that kind of authority, hadn't claimed authority to reject electoral votes, had not claimed authority to return electoral votes back to the states. In the entire history of the United States, not once had a joint session ever returned electoral votes back to the states to be counted.

JOHNSON: Yeah. In fact, Pence and his legal advisers reached out to some experts, people like retired federal judge Michael Luttig, another icon of the conservative movement. Luttig told Pence, advised Pence and his lawyers there was no way they could do this, in fact, that the vice president's role is supposed to be ceremonial or ministerial. Pence did not have the power to do this, and he produced a legal memo to back Pence up on that issue.

KEITH: And had Pence done it, Luttig said it would have been a full-blown constitutional crisis.

JOHNSON: No doubt about it. Luttig has been out there warning about the danger and the persistent, continuing danger to these kinds of ideas.

KEITH: So, Claudia, there was sort of a Plan B or C or D or F, I'm not sure what - where it was. But after that late-night meeting, that knockdown, drag-out fight on December 18 between, you know, team crazy and team normal, as some White House officials described it, in the early morning hours of December 19, President Trump tweeted, and I'm quoting here, "statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6. Be there, will be wild," exclamation point. And that is a key date in the whole process. And, Claudia, the House committee has honed in on this tweet as part of their case against Donald Trump.

GRISALES: Right. Some would argue that tweet is what sealed the fate for the attack on the Capitol on January 6. This is an important day. It is set by law as the date Congress would gather, count the votes of the Electoral College, and it is supposed to be purely ceremonial. But Trump wanted it to be something more. As we've heard, he targeted the Electoral Count Act and saw a weakness there to try and force then-Vice President Mike Pence to try and overturn the results, step out of this constitutional role that he was assigned through this and instead try and stop this certification.

JOHNSON: You know, the committee very, very assertively presented evidence that groups, right-wing groups, militias, people involved in the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys and other movements we've been hearing so much about since January 6, they interpreted that tweet as a call to arms, and they used conservative social media and other sites to start planning for that day, planning what became a violent and deadly day at the U.S. Capitol.

KEITH: Mara, I want to bring you back in here. At the time that all of this was happening, it could have seemed like a series of political stunts or, you know, just utterly absurd efforts to do something that would - just on its face was impossible and made no sense in our constitutional system. And yet, it seems as though these hearings are pulling it together in a way to say, no, these weren't just stunts. This was an actual effort to do something.

LIASSON: It was definitely an effort. It looked incompetent and bumbling at times, but the Trump team, the team crazy, whatever you want to call them, were pulling on every thread they could to see if they could unravel the election. What they've done - now, the committee talked about this in their earlier hearings, and we're going to see if they put this kind of narrative in their final report. The committee says this kind of effort to undermine American democracy, to make it easy for one party to, in essence, rig an election or fix it even after the fact, is ongoing. And what you've seen, not just in these hearings, but also in all of these new laws that are being passed in states that have Republican majority state legislatures to make it harder to vote, to make it easier for the legislature to subvert the vote after the fact, to make it easier for Republicans to put their own partisans in charge of counting the vote and certifying the vote. So these challenges to free and fair elections in the United States are not over at all. As a matter of fact, I think they're just going to get more sophisticated and probably more competent and effective as we move forward.

KEITH: In a way, the former president opened the door to something that had been almost unthinkable in American politics, which was losing and then refusing to admit that you lost.

All right. We're going to take another quick break. Claudia, thank you for your reporting.

GRISALES: Great to be with you. Thanks.

KEITH: Carrie and Mara, stay with us for a moment. When we come back, what do these hearings mean for the political ambitions of former President Trump, the state of American democracy, and could there be more criminal prosecutions?

And we're back, still recapping the House Select Committee's investigation into the January 6 insurrection. And I want to bring in NPR senior political editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Tam.

KEITH: Good to have you here. And Carrie Johnson and Mara Liasson are still here with us. Let us start with a huge question for all of you here and one I still have after all of these hearings. So they laid out a multipronged effort by Trump and his allies to reverse the results of the 2020 election. But did the committee explain to the American people how he actually planned to succeed at staying in power?

LIASSON: Yeah. I think the committee explained how he planned to do it. It seemed kind of like a crazy, half-baked plan, but he wanted to put pressure on Congress, whether it was through Vice President Pence or just the sheer power of the mob up there, that they would not certify the Electoral College results that declared Joe Biden the winner of the election, that they wouldn't certify that. In some cases, he wanted the electoral count to go back to the states, to prolong it, to just kind of play for time so he could dig up something. He hadn't dug up any evidence of fraud up until now. But that's what he thought he could do.

KEITH: And he still hasn't.

LIASSON: He still hasn't. And as a matter of fact, even recently, he's been asking states to do recounts, even now.

KEITH: It's 2022.

LIASSON: Yep. It's 2022.

KEITH: Ron?

ELVING: And back when we were still in January of 2021, we know that there were states around the country that had been closely divided - Pennsylvania, Georgia, others - where there were slates of what they were calling alternative electors, one could also call them fraud electors, who were putting themselves forward and saying, hey, we'll go to the state Capitol and vote on the Electoral College. We'll offer ourselves as an opportunity for the state legislature in our state to decertify the results that have already been registered and do this all over again. So there was a connection there that never got made, but which obviously Trump and some of whatever we want to call them, team crazy, were contemplating.

KEITH: I want to ask another endgame question here. Vice chair of the committee, the committee's top Republican, Liz Cheney, said something that I think offers a clue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHENEY: Can a president who is willing to make the choices Donald Trump made during the violence of January 6 ever be trusted with any position of authority in our great nation again?

KEITH: But is that it?

LIASSON: Well, that certainly is Liz Cheney's top goal. She believes that if Trump is somehow disqualified from running again, that American democracy will be a lot safer. There are people who think that Trumpism without Trump is just as big a danger going forward. But there's no doubt that Liz Cheney set out to expose Donald Trump as being unfit. And I think that the January 6 hearings have dented Trump's image. I think he was an 800-pound gorilla when the hearings started. Now he's a 700-pound gorilla. He's still a pretty big gorilla. He commands a lot of support in the Republican Party. But you can see more and more Republicans being willing to speak out against him. Not every candidate that he endorsed in primary races has won. So I think she's succeeded. The question is, is that goal enough?

KEITH: Carrie, you cover the Justice Department. This would seem to offer another angle on this. A lot of these hearings seem to be laying the groundwork for criminal investigations. The chair of the committee, Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson, seemed to suggest that it was necessary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BENNIE THOMPSON: If there's no accountability for January 6, for every part of this scheme, I fear that we will not overcome the ongoing threat to our democracy.

KEITH: But what does accountability look like, Carrie?

JOHNSON: Well, we've got more than 850 people being prosecuted for the events of January 6 already. A large number of them were at the Capitol that day, broke into the Capitol, ransacked the building, beat up Capitol Police and D.C. police officers. But we do have some evidence that the Justice Department is working up from the ground level. There are two very important sets of criminal charges that deal with seditious conspiracy, a conspiracy to overthrow the government by use of force. And leaders of two right-wing groups, the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, are facing those seditious conspiracy charges. DOJ has gotten guilty pleas from some of those insiders. The cases are supposed to go to trial later this year and early next year.

KEITH: But, Carrie, those are the highest-level people who have faced consequences. Most of these people are regular guys, like that cabinet factory worker that we heard from earlier. And yet there seemed to have been no consequences thus far, legal consequences, for former President Trump or Rudy Giuliani or some of his closest allies who were involved in this effort. Do you think that it will get there? I'm sure you're asking. You're looking for signs.

JOHNSON: You know, we do have some signs. The attorney general, Merrick Garland, doesn't like to do a lot of public speaking. Earlier this year, he gave us and NPR - me - an exclusive interview where he basically said people are working 24/7 on this, this is the most urgent investigation in the history of the Justice Department, and that they are not going to shy away from cases that might have political implications or political overtones. That hasn't stopped the criticism. That hasn't stopped the pressure. Garland is under enormous pressure, even from some people in the White House and their public statements, and certainly from Democratic and Republican members of this committee - so much pressure, Tam, that Garland was asked about it at a press conference, and he responded with some frustration.

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MERRICK GARLAND: This is the most wide-ranging investigation and the most important investigation that the Justice Department has ever entered into. And we have done so because this represents - this effort to upend a legitimate election, transferring power from one administration to another, cuts at the fundamental of American democracy. We have to get this right.

JOHNSON: We have to get this right, he said. And he knows better than anybody that if you are actually going to investigate in a criminal way a former president of the United States and try to bring charges against that kind of person, you may not lose. It's just a fact the Justice Department is considering. That said, there are signs. There are signs the DOJ is moving up the ladder. We do have federal grand jury subpoenas to some of these fake electors in the states. We know that organizers and planners of the political rally that immediately preceded the assault on the Capitol have been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury. At least one, Ali Alexander, has testified for several hours before a grand jury here. And we do know that some close Trump allies, people like Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, lawyers who advanced some of these theories for Trump, have been under investigation for semi-related matters. We haven't seen any public charges. There's no public accusations of wrongdoing in terms of indictments or criminal complaints. But those DOJ investigations are simmering beneath the surface. The question is, where are they going to lead, and how quickly are they going to be resolved?

KEITH: Is this a thing where on the top of the water, it just looks like a duck, and underneath they're paddling like crazy? Or we just don't know?

JOHNSON: They're paddling like crazy. But, Tam, lawyers who have worked inside the Justice Department, people who have built these massive cases, maybe not at this level, but pretty big levels, say they are perplexed as to why we have not heard anybody from the Trump White House testifying before a federal grand jury on some of these matters. They are perplexed about why we have seen no public signs. The Justice Department says they're working. We're going to keep watching and asking questions and bird-dogging this issue.

KEITH: Ron Elving, how consequential have these hearings been?

ELVING: These hearings have been more consequential than expected. And you know how important expectations are in Washington. It's almost more important to exceed expectations than to do well, and they have clearly done so. The latest polling, including NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, show that more than half the country is paying some attention at least to the January 6 panel. And these prosecutorial presentations that they've made have been highly effective. Everyone seems to agree about that. Relatively few Americans expected to see Trump indicted before these hearings began, and 6 in 10 still don't, according to our poll. But half the country now says he should be. And that may be the key takeaway from all of this. The pressure, the, if you will, preparing the landing strip for Merrick Garland to make his decision cannot be discounted.

KEITH: A lot of people have compared these hearings to the Watergate hearings. And it may be too early to make an actual comparison, but I'd like you to try anyway.

ELVING: One of the things about Watergate that was impressive was the way Howard Baker, who was the ranking Republican on that special committee in the summer of 1973, the way he stepped up. Howard Baker really sacrificed his own career as an aspiring Republican nominee for president back in that era in order to do what he saw as the right thing and identifying what Richard Nixon had done that was an impeachable offense. We wondered if there would be anyone who could play that role in these hearings, and Liz Cheney clearly has. She's going to lose, in all likelihood, in her primary next month in Wyoming. That'll be the end of her congressional career, at least for now. But she has made the same sort of sacrifice and I think had an extraordinary effect in terms of making these hearings effective and making them bipartisan and ultimately making them consequential.

KEITH: Yeah. And I guess we should say that Liz Cheney faces a primary challenge from a pro-Trump Republican who has many Trump allies working for her and in her corner. And Liz Cheney is suffering in the polls. The other Republican on that committee, Adam Kinzinger, is retiring, and he's young. People who voted to impeach Trump over this have either retired or are being retired by primary challenges. So standing up to the former president, who still carries a lot of weight in his party, Mara, continues to be perilous for Republicans.

LIASSON: There's no doubt that Donald Trump remains the dominant figure in the Republican Party. He was before these hearings. He remains that way after the hearings. But I would argue that his reputation has been diminished. But there's no doubt that Liz Cheney's goal, which was to unmask him as somebody who was unfit for office because he didn't want to abide by democratic rules and norms, tried to overthrow the government and refused a peaceful transfer of power, that he was unfit. And I think that - I don't know how many voters she's convinced of that, but there's no doubt that Donald Trump's star has dimmed. You can just see it in the number of Republicans who are willing to say they don't want him to run again, who are willing to criticize him a little bit more loudly in public, and I think that that's significant.

KEITH: Yeah. I mean, there's been relatively little coordinated public defense of Trump as this arguably very one-sided hearing has gone forward. In part, that's because Republicans want to just say - Republicans who are allied with Trump just want to say, oh, this is boring. This is a nonstarter. Don't worry. Ignore this, everybody. But I guess I'm wondering, like, do we know whether it's breaking through?

LIASSON: Well, we know it's breaking through in the poll data that Ron just cited. But what's really interesting about the Republican response to this - yes, they decided to boycott the committee, but there's been no counternarrative. Only Donald Trump, in his tweets, has been insisting that this is a fake committee - he really won the election. But where is the chorus of Republicans saying that what Donald Trump did that day was just fine? You're just not hearing a counternarrative from the Republican Party. You are hearing that the committee is one-sided; there's no chance for cross-examination. But you're not hearing anyone say that the narrative the committee is producing is wrong and there's another narrative where Donald Trump did everything right. You're just not hearing that.

KEITH: And yet we are still seeing people today, this year, now - more than a year and a half into President Biden's term - who say the 2020 election was stolen. There are people running on that platform in the midterms for congressional races, for secretary of state, for governors. There are actual insurrectionists who will be on the ballot in November. And as committee member Republican Adam Kinzinger of Illinois argued, this is not over.

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ADAM KINZINGER: The forces Donald Trump ignited that day have not gone away. The militant, intolerant ideologies, the militias, the alienation and the disaffection, the weird fantasies and disinformation - they're all still out there ready to go. That's the elephant in the room.

KEITH: Carrie, the guardrails held.

JOHNSON: They held, but barely, Tam. If President Trump had different people in power at the Justice Department, people who would have bent to his will, I'm not at all clear that we would be talking about this situation in this way today. And in fact, to the extent that lessons have been learned by people close to President Trump, there's already a lot of reporting that he's thinking about more loyal people for these jobs in the Justice Department, the intelligence community and elsewhere in the government if he runs again and, in fact, wins. The other principle that's on my mind right now is one we've kind of taken for granted - one that no person is above the law. And we've seen the Justice Department not prosecute someone who's a sitting president because they're a sitting president. That's basically what happened in the Robert Mueller investigation into the Russia matters during the Trump administration. Now the question is, Trump has not faced, at least not yet, any consequences for the Mueller probe. He was impeached twice, including once over the events of January 6, and it didn't go anywhere. The open question now is, if there is a criminal case to be made - if - against the former president, will this Justice Department have the mettle to do it and have the resources to do it?

KEITH: So, Ron, to end here, what is the ultimate impact of January 6 in the way U.S. democracy functions? Has the U.S. learned lessons? Are America's institutions resilient enough to withstand this kind of pressure in the future?

ELVING: There is a positive story to take away from this, and it has far more to do with these hearings and some of the other reactions we've been talking about - the agreement of senators which may actually change the law to reform the Electoral Count Act, this ancient, doddering compromise from the 19th century that was still around to create this opportunity for Trump to do this on January 6, 2021.

KEITH: Because there was ambiguity in that law, you're saying that there is now an effort afoot, a bipartisan effort, to get rid of the ambiguity?

ELVING: That's right. We have something from Senator Collins and Senator Manchin that looks like it might be able to get to 60 votes in the Senate. And if so, that is a particular mess that has plagued the dynamics, if you will, the mechanics of presidential elections for 150 years. We could get rid of that. That would be a very big plus. But that's not ultimately the most important thing. The most important thing is to restore confidence in the American public that their votes are being accurately counted, that no one can steal an election in a state, let alone in the whole country. And that faith was lost because it was undermined by essentially one man and all the people that he motivated to help him. That needs to be corrected so the wound that was inflicted on January 6 can be healed. And insofar as we see that going forward, that is a positive story out of all of this.

KEITH: We're going to leave it there for now. Many thanks to you three - Ron Elving, Mara Liasson and Carrie Johnson - and to Claudia Grisales for joining us earlier. And there will be more on this front come September. The committee announced they're taking August to interview more people, gather more evidence, and more hearings are to come.

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CHENEY: Doors have opened, new subpoenas have been issued and the dam has begun to break.

KEITH: In the meantime, you can get more political insight and information each day on the radio. Head to stations.npr.org or just ask your smart speaker to play NPR. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Our editors are Eric McDaniel, Krishnadev Calamur and Arnie Seipel. Our producers are Casey Morrell, Elena Moore and Lexie Schapitl. Maya Rosenberg is our intern, and our engineer is J. Czys. Thanks to Brandon Carter. I'm Tamara Keith, and thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

ELVING: See you in September.

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