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What we learned from the Jan 6. committee hearing on extremism


For more on the latest revelations out of the January 6 committee hearing, we go to Kimberly Wehle. She's a visiting law professor at American University and the author of "How To Read The Constitution And Why." Kim, thanks for being back on the show.

KIMBERLY WEHLE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: You wrote in Politico that the Justice Department must indict former President Trump as a matter of accountability. Does the Constitution and legal precedent allow for that?

WEHLE: Well, there is no legal precedent, but it certainly allows for it in that we have a United States Code, federal criminal laws that are set forth, and Donald Trump is now a private citizen. So long as the five-year general - federal statute of limitations has not passed for DOJ actions, he's as vulnerable to criminal action as any other American. The internal DOJ memo saying you can't prosecute sitting presidents doesn't protect him. So it really comes down, A, to - of course, to evidence and facts, but, B, really to political will.

And I believe that one of the goals of this January 6 committee is to educate the American people, to potentially warm them up to the concept that something needs to be done to reestablish guardrails around the White House or, as I say in the piece, we are basically greenlighting widespread crime sprees in the Oval Office with unlimited sort of criminal justice and national security and, you know, law enforcement powers, military powers. Because all of the other parts of the Constitution, primarily the impeachment clause, that are meant to sort of - as a - you know, a stopgap or a slow-down sign for presidents have just kind of gone out the window.

MARTIN: Explain what the attorney general, Merrick Garland, has to weigh. I mean, is there an inherent risk in prosecuting a U.S. president, even one who's left?

WEHLE: Well, you know, there's definitely this idea of, OK, there could be payback in the next administration, and we're just creating a situation where presidents are bullied by justice departments of opposing personal - opposing political parties. But you know what, Rachel? You know, I think we're so far beyond those kind of old-school considerations because what we saw yesterday was kind of a preview of what Jamie Raskin has said will happen again. That is a violent mob potentially joining forces with people in power - in this moment, in the GOP - seeking a violent, bloody coup. That is the future. You know, Donald Trump said it in his inaugural address.

He promised American carnage, and he delivered. And if it happens again, my guess is it's going to be successful. And every American has to decide - right? - like, does this matter? You know, Abraham Lincoln warned - a hundred and sixty years, January 1861 - about the concern that others might, quote, "seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism." And he said, quote, "we must study and understand the points of danger." And, you know, it gives me chills thinking about Lincoln sort of looking at these hearings and saying, you know, my fellow Americans, this is our moment. This is the moment to come back and save this beautiful republic.

MARTIN: So it's my understanding that in order to prove a charge like seditious conspiracy, which would be a possibility, that the committee has to really demonstrate that there's a direct link between the former president and these far-right extremist groups, like the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, who rioted at the Capitol. Do you think the committee was successful in drawing that connection?

WEHLE: Well, you mentioned seditious conspiracy. That is a meeting of the minds. And sedition is the notion of overthrowing the government. You know, we did see yesterday evidence from people who were in charge of managing the stage and the rally, that there was an expectation of violence in the White House - and inside GOP members of Congress and a December 21 meeting - and that there was expectations that Donald Trump would, at some point, tell people to march to the Capitol, that that wasn't the plan for many of the people that showed up.

Do we have, you know, enough to prove beyond a reasonable doubt? It's impossible to know. And I think, again, it's important to distinguish between what Congress is doing and what the Justice Department would be doing. There are different standards. But, you know, there's also questions of inciting an insurrection or obstruction of official proceeding or witness tampering. It's - the Justice Department doesn't have to get to the level of seditious conspiracy, adding Donald Trump to the charges he's already brought - they've already brought against others in order to justify some indictment.

MARTIN: And meanwhile, the lie lives on, right? I mean, even as the committee tries to publicly dispel Trump's election lies, we see the rise in the numbers of state officials who don't believe the 2020 election was legitimate, including the new secretary of state in Florida.

WEHLE: Right. I mean, The Washington Post said there are 400 people on the ballot, this or the next election, that believe in the big lie. And these people are in the bowels of these - the administration of elections. This isn't just governors. People listening to this need to vote in November and get those folks out of government, or we really are, to quote Justice Douglas, "seeing the twilight of American democracy." It's not hyperbole.

MARTIN: University of Baltimore law professor Kimberly Wehle. Thank you.

WEHLE: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.