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Jan. 6 committee sounds a warning for democracy

A video presentation shows former president Donald Trump taping a video following the insurrection as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol holds a hearing at the Capitol in Washington, on July 21.J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The primary focus of the Jan. 6 committee has been to make a legal and political case against former president Trump.

But as it wrapped up its set of hearings last week, the committee members had a less-noticed, if just as important message to Americans: Democracy is as vulnerable today as it was nearly two years ago.

“The forces that Donald Trump ignited that day have not gone away,” Representative Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, said. “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.”

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It was a telling admission from a committee that is increasingly positioning itself as fighting not just Trump but Trumpism — and is well aware that it is voters and prosecutors, not its members, who will determine whether its work has consequences going forward.

The next few months will test whether the committee’s findings will inspire Congress to reform itself to stave off power grabs in the future and will show how prosecutors — from the Justice Department all the way down to the district attorney in Fulton County, Ga. — intend to respond to its call to action. But perhaps even more importantly, its members suggested, they will reveal whether the frightening portrait the panel painted of Trump has damaged his political prospects or those of his acolytes running for office in November.

“Every American must consider this,” said Representative Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican and the vice chairwoman of the committee. “Can a president who was willing to make the choices Donald Trump made during the violence of Jan. 6 ever be trusted with a position of authority in our great nation again?”

There are some signs the committee has made Trump’s path back to the White House more difficult. A poll shows nearly 60 percent of Americans are paying attention to the hearings, and Trump himself has expressed frustration that Kevin McCarthy, House minority leader, elected not to appoint any Republicans to the panel after two of his five picks were rejected, allowing its members to present their case without obstruction.

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Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist who convenes focus groups of voters who have supported Trump, said that before the panel, about half of the voters she spoke with wanted the former president to run again in 2024, as he has strongly suggested he will. Since the hearings, she’s had some focus groups where zero people have wanted him to run.

“I think it is striking, actually, the diminished enthusiasm for him running again,” she said.

Those focus groups have coincided with recent primary state polls that show Trump — who has been the undisputed head of the GOP since 2016 — losing ground, running tied with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in New Hampshire and Michigan. A New York Times poll found that more than half of Republican voters favored someone other than Trump to be the GOP nominee in 2024.

“The committee is contributing to a sense that they really don’t want to go there again,” said Liz Mair, a Republican political strategist who previously worked for Republicans including Carly Fiorina of California and Rick Perry of Texas. “And it’s time for somebody who doesn’t have all of this baggage.”

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Still, experts in democracy warn that even if the hearings ultimately damage Trump — as well as provide the nation with a vital historical record of the insurrection — it is not clear how much they will do to slow the march of the like-minded candidates whom he has inspired.

“Trumpist candidates and candidates who are not supportive of our democratic system remain very strong contenders,” said Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who studies troubled democracies. “That’s in part because there’s a base of misinformation. It’s also in part because Liz Cheney in particular chose to frame the aperture very tightly around Trump. And so the future repercussions of what occurred on that day [haven’t] been investigated as deeply.”

Around the country, election-denying Republicans have won the allegiance of GOP voters. Pennsylvania state Senator Doug Mastriano, who pushed to overturn the state’s 2020 election results and joined the march to the Capitol on Jan. 6, is now the Republican nominee for governor and would have the power to appoint the Pennsylvania secretary of state if he wins.

In Arizona, the former television anchor Kari Lake, who has said she would not have certified the 2020 election, is a front-runner to be the GOP’s gubernatorial nominee. Even in Maryland, a largely Democratic state, Republicans elected Dan Cox, an election-denying state legislator who once called on Trump to seize voting machines, to be their nominee to replace the term-limited GOP moderate, Governor Larry Hogan.

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If voters punish these candidates in November, that would do more to discourage power grabs in the future than any congressional hearing.

“The midterms will be America’s assessment and judgment of the work of the January 6 committee,” said Michael Steele, the former chair of the Republican National Committee, although he said the committee faces steep headwinds, given gas prices and inflation.

Just looking at the dais, there are other signs of just how difficult it will be to defeat both Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box. Kinzinger, one of two Republicans on the panel, is retiring. Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, a Republican who offered searing testimony about how he rebuffed Trump’s personal request to replace the state’s Democratic electors with a slate that supported the former president, has been censured by his state party for cooperating with the panel.

Cheney, a GOP stalwart and the daughter of the former vice president Dick Cheney, is trailing a Trump-backed rival by more than 20 percentage points in the polls. And two of the former Trump aides whose words the committee has used to make its case — former campaign manager Bill Stepien, who told Trump not to declare victory on election night, and former campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh, who sent a frustrated text message about Trump’s failure to mention the police officer who died the day after the attack — are advising Cheney’s Trump-backed rival.

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With the political consequences still unclear, committee members suggested strongly that legal repercussions are vital to deter future anti-democratic actions.

It remains to be seen whether anyone in Trump’s inner circle — or the former president himself — will face criminal charges in connection with the attempted election subversion, though Trump’s adviser Steve Bannon was found guilty of contempt of Congress Friday for ignoring the committee’s subpoena power. Charging an ex-president is a risky and deeply polarizing step for federal prosecutors, who tend to be highly cautious around cases that can be seen as political.

“What the committee has presented has been so egregious, and [it’s] so clear that this was a planned effort to overthrow and to disregard the votes of millions of Americans,” said Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Nobody should be above the law.”

On Thursday, Kinzinger said the committee will eventually recommend reforms to help prevent another January 6 but he stressed that laws lose their force without officials willing to uphold them. A bipartisan group of senators last week unveiled two bills they said could prevent candidates from trying to overturn future elections, but it is not clear that members of the panel support them.

Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor who in 2020 convened a group of political operatives and academics to game out the possibilities of a contested election, said she remains concerned about the strength of US democracy, given recent developments.

There has been an exodus of election workers and local officials; state legislatures have proposed a flurry of bills restricting voting rights and giving partisan lawmakers more control over elections; and the Supreme Court has taken up a case that could potentially grant state legislatures more power to influence elections.

“I think we’re in pretty big trouble,” Brooks said. “I don’t think it’s inevitable, but I actually would rate it as more likely than not that very bad things happen in 2024.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her @jessbidgood.