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January 6: What the criminal references against Donald Trump mean

Washington D.C. – For nearly two years, Democrats in the United States have described Donald Trump and far-right Republicans as “insurgents.” Now, the congressional panel investigating the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol has formally recommended insurrection charges against the former US president.

The Democratic-led committee revealed the criminal references Monday when outlining its case against Trump, accusing him of being behind the riots by fanning false claims of voter fraud and “summoning” his supporters to Washington, DC before they stormed the legislature.

The panel voted unanimously to recommend four criminal charges against Trump, who is running for president in 2024, to the US legal system.

The recommendations are not legally binding, and it will be up to the Justice Department to indict the former president, but the references mark the final conclusion of the committee’s months-long investigation into the events of January 6. No former US president has ever been indicted on criminal charges.

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A mob of Trump supporters stormed and ransacked the Capitol that day in an effort to stop President Joe Biden from certifying victory after Trump and his allies baselessly claimed the 2020 election was “stolen.”

‘Significant’ evidence

Hundreds of accused rioters face criminal charges for entering the Capitol, and many have pleaded guilty. On Monday, Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin outlined the panel’s recommendations, stressing the need to prosecute the “masterminds” behind the attack, not just the individuals involved.

“Ours is not a justice system, where foot soldiers go to jail and masterminds and ringleaders get a free pass,” he said.

January 6 panel
Jamie Raskin announces criminal references against former US President Donald Trump during the panel’s final public meeting, December 19. [Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]

Subodh Chandra, a civil rights attorney and former federal prosecutor, said the Justice Department will make its own determination when it comes to bringing charges.

“The [committee’s] The report carries weight insofar as it summarizes the nature of the evidence discovered and highlights its importance,” Chandra told Al Jazeera. “But the committee’s views will not necessarily influence the Justice Department, which will exercise its own independent judgment.”

He added that he does not expect prosecutors to give Trump any special treatment because he is running for president.

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“The Department of Justice has an obligation to treat private citizen Trump as it would the rest of us,” Chandra said. “He deserves all the rights that the rest of us have, but no more, no special treatment.”

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Trump has denied all wrongdoing and has continued to baselessly insist that widespread voter fraud was behind his 2020 defeat.

“These people don’t understand that when they persecute me, people who love freedom gather around me. It makes me stronger. What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” the former president said in a statement in response to the panel’s recommendations. While some of Trump’s staunchest supporters have come to his defense, others in the Republican Party have remained silent on the matter.

recommended charges

The committee suggested these criminal references against Trump:

  • Obstruction of an official proceeding
  • Conspiracy to defraud the United States
  • Conspiracy to make a false statement to the federal government
  • Inciting, assisting or aiding insurrection

Below, Al Jazeera breaks down the potential criminal charges and what they mean.

Obstruction of an official proceeding is a familiar charge for the Department of Justice when it comes to January 6. Hundreds of alleged participants in the attack have been indicted on this specific charge.

Raskin said the law makes it unlawful “for any person to corrupt, obstruct, influence, or impede any official process of the United States government.”

The January 6 riot was aimed at disrupting a joint session of Congress certifying Biden’s victory in the 2020 vote.

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In its previous public hearings, the committee pushed to link Trump to the January 6 violence, highlighting his call for a protest in Washington weeks before the riots. “Big protest in DC on January 6th. Being there, it will be wild! the former president had written on Twitter on December 19, 2020.

Several witnesses also confirmed that Trump had wanted to join the protesters at the Capitol on January 6, but was prevented from doing so by Secret Service agents for security reasons.

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Conspiracy to defraud the United States it is a crime based on a broad law that makes it illegal not only to deceive the US for material gain, but also to obstruct government functions through dishonest means.

“The general purpose of this part of the statute is to protect government functions from frustration and distortion through deceptive practices,” the Justice Department says in its Criminal Appeals Manual.

On Monday, Raskin said the committee is recommending the charge against Trump along with John Eastman, a lawyer involved in the effort to overturn the 2020 election, and others.

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Conspiracy to make a false statement to the federal government is a charge based on violation of a law that makes it a crime to “knowingly and willfully” make “materially false, fictitious or fraudulent statements or representations” to US government agencies.

As far as Trump is concerned, Raskin explained Monday that the allegation stems from Trump’s efforts to promote “fake electorate” lists of states won by Biden to reverse the results of the 2020 vote.

The committee had previously said that Trump and his allies drew up alternate swing-state voter lists for then-Vice President Mike Pence to use to stop the transfer of power in his ceremonial role of certifying the vote.

Pence refused to go along with that plan.

“The evidence clearly suggests that President Trump conspired with others to submit false voter lists to Congress and the National Archives,” Raskin said Monday.

“We believe that this evidence that we present in our report is more than sufficient for a criminal referral of former President Donald J Trump and others in connection with this crime.”

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Inciting, assisting or aiding insurrection is the most serious reference the committee is making against Trump.

Insurrection simply means rebellion against the government.

“Whoever incites, arouses, aids, or becomes involved in, or renders aid or comfort to, any rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States or its laws, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than ten years, or both; and he shall be incapable of holding any office in the United States,” the law says.

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On Monday, Raskin said the panel has amassed “more than enough evidence” that Trump aided and comforted the January 6 protesters and aimed to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power.

He added that the insurrection is “a serious federal crime, anchored in the Constitution itself, which repeatedly opposes insurrections and domestic violence.”

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‘Trace of incrimination’

Chandra, the attorney, said that based on the evidence presented by the committee, the remission on the insurrection charge is appropriate.

“Donald Trump fomented the insurrection against the United States government and against the peaceful transition of power under our Constitution,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The evidence is pretty damning. And our government is a government of laws, and not of individual people. If you broke the law, you should be held accountable like everyone else.”

A criminal case against Trump would be unprecedented. No other former US president has faced criminal charges. Furthermore, none of the rioters indicted on January 6 have been charged with insurrection, although members of the far-right group Proud Boys are on trial on sedition charges.

Chandra stressed that complex investigations take time to carry out properly, which, she said, can be frustrating for the public.

“However, at the end of the day, the evidence can be narrowed down to show what Donald Trump knew, when he knew it, what he did, what he said,” Chandra added. “And because he’s unable to shut his mouth, he’s left a stinking trail of incrimination behind him.”

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