Capitol Riot: Not prosecuting Trump for Jan. 6 would fuel a “much more serious threat,” says Liz Cheney

The Justice Department should not avoid prosecuting Donald Trump in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol when a prosecution is warranted, Rep. Liz Cheney said in an interview with ABC News co-anchor Jonathan Karl.

While it would be unprecedented and “difficult” for the country to press charges against the former president — who could challenge President Joe Biden in 2024 — failure to do so would support a “much more serious constitutional threat,” Cheney said in an interview on Wednesday under the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, which aired on Sunday’s This Week.

“Are you concerned about what that means for the country when a former president faces criminal prosecution? A past president who was a likely candidate; who may actually be running for president against Biden?” asked Karl Cheney.

“I think it’s a much more serious constitutional threat when a president can engage in such activities and the majority of the president’s party looks the other way; or we, as a country, decide that we will not take our constitutional obligations seriously,” Cheney said. “I think that’s a much, much more serious threat.”

“I really believe that we have to make these decisions, as difficult as they are, outside of politics. We really have to look at them from the perspective: what does this mean for the country?” She said.

“Absolutely confident” in Hutchinson’s statement

The Wyoming Republican told Karl she was “absolutely confident” about Cassidy Hutchinson’s surprise testimony last week during a surprise hearing before the House Committee on Jan. 6, of which Cheney is Vice Chairman.

“She’s an incredibly brave young woman,” Cheney said of Hutchinson.

On Tuesday, former aide to Trump’s White House chief of staff Mark Meadows testified that she was told Trump was being verbally aggressive towards Secret Service agents and threw herself on the steering wheel of his vehicle after learning he was after his Rally would not go to the Capitol January 6, 2021.

Hutchinson said Tony Ornato, a Secret Service agent and Trump’s deputy chief of staff, told her so not long after the incident on the same day. Hutchinson’s report drew considerable attention and rejection from Trump.

“What Ms. Hutchinson testified was a conversation she attended with Mr. Ornato and at which Mr. Engel, an agent of the Secret Service, was present, which described in detail what happened in the limousine,” he said Cheney.

“Do you have any evidence other than Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony to corroborate what she said happened in that President’s motorcade?” asked Karl Cheney.

“The committee has significant evidence on a whole range of issues, including the President’s intense anger,” Cheney replied.

“I think you will see more details about the President’s activities and behavior that day over the coming days and weeks,” Cheney added.

In a statement to ABC News, the Secret Service said agents are ready to provide affidavits to the panel. A source close to the Secret Service did not deny to ABC News that Trump was angry at the agents in the car, but said he did not grab the wheel or lunge at Robert Engel, his command’s senior agent.

Hutchinson also claimed that Trump knew his supporters were armed ahead of a march on the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Trump worked Tuesday to dismiss and downplay Hutchinson’s testimony, posting on social media, “I hardly know who this person is…other than hearing very negative things about him (a total fake and ‘leaker’) .”

“She’s bad news!” he added.

Speaking to Karl, Cheney said the House Committee “is not going to stand by and watch her [Hutchinson’s] Character being assassinated by anonymous sources and by men claiming executive privileges. We therefore very much look forward to further testimonies on a wide range of subjects.”

Criminal charges for witness tampering?

Cheney said during last week’s hearing that some witnesses told investigators Trump’s aides tried to influence their testimony before the panel. Hutchinson was among those who received news of the former president’s protection, sources later told ABC News.

“Witness tampering is a crime. Are you making a criminal referral to the DOJ regarding this?” asked Karl.

“We will make a decision on that as a committee,” Cheney replied.

“Do you have any doubts that Trump broke the law and was guilty of criminal offenses?” asked Karl Cheney. (Trump insists he did nothing wrong.) “It’s a decision we will make together as a committee,” Cheney said as he escalated any possible criminal conduct to the Justice Department.

“There is no question that he has engaged in serious crimes and misdemeanors. I think there is no question that it is the gravest betrayal of his oath of office by a president in the history of the nation. It is the most dangerous behavior by a president in the history of the nation,” she said.

“It is possible that there will be a criminal referral?” asked Karl.

“Yes,” Cheney said, adding that the Justice Department “doesn’t have to wait” for the panel to issue a referral and that the committee can issue “more than one criminal referral.”

Damaging Trump is “not the goal” of the hearings

Cheney has become perhaps the most vocal and famous anti-Trump voice in her party, praised by Democrats and derided by many conservatives. She told ABC News last year that she would “do everything I can to make sure ‘Trump’ never goes near the Oval Office again.”

“Have these hearings brought you closer to that goal — to make him toxic and not a viable candidate?” Karl asked in the new interview.

“That’s not the aim of the hearings,” she said.

“It’s critical for the country to ensure he never goes near the Oval Office again,” Cheney continued.

“The goal of the hearings is to make sure the American people understand what happened; to inform legislation and legislative changes that we may need to make,” she said. “I think it’s also like there’s not a single thing I’ve learned from being involved with this investigation that has made me any less concerned.”

“There’s no question that a man as dangerous as Donald Trump can never go anywhere near the Oval Office again,” Cheney said.

With primary coming up, Cheney ‘doesn’t intend to lose’

Cheney was one of 10 House Republicans who voted in 2021 to impeach Trump with inciting a Capitol riot. Four of that group are not running for re-election, and South Carolina Rep. Tom Rice was defeated by a Trump-backed opponent in his May primary.

Cheney will face Trump-backed candidate Harriet Hageman in early August. The former president won a larger share of the vote in Wyoming than any other state in 2020.

“You recently said the country is now in a battle: we must win against the former president who is trying to dissolve our constitutional republic. What does it mean for this fight if you lose the Republican primary in Wyoming?” Karl Cheney asked.

“Well, I don’t intend to lose the Republican primary in Wyoming,” Cheney said.

“How important is it that you win for this bigger fight?” asked Karl.

“I think it’s important because I’m going to be the best representative the people of Wyoming can have,” Cheney said.

“The most important thing is to protect the nation from Donald Trump. And I think that’s more important to us Americans than anything else, and that’s why my work on the committee is so important,” she said.

“It’s so important not just to strip away that past and say, ‘Okay, well, that’s the past,’ but rather it informs whether that kind of poison comes from Trump’s belief that he can put himself above the Constitution and above the law – – whether we defeat this successfully or not. And I think it’s very important that people know the truth. And that there are consequences,” Cheney said.

Cheney believes the GOP “cannot survive” a Trump 2024 bid

Cheney said the Republican Party “can’t survive” if the former president runs for the White House again and wins the 2024 GOP nomination.

“I think he can’t be the party candidate. And I don’t think the party would survive that,” Cheney said. “I believe in the party and I believe in what the party can be and what the party can stand for. And I’m not ready to give that up.”

“Those of us who believe in republican principles and ideals have a responsibility to try and restore the party to what it can be and reject and reject so much poison and venom,” she added.

“I think it’s also important to remember that millions of people, millions of Republicans, have been betrayed by Donald Trump. And that’s really painful for people to recognize and admit,” she said.

“But it is absolutely the case and they have been betrayed by him, by the ‘big lie’ – referring to Trump’s continued unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud – “and by what he continues to do and say to tear our country apart and tearing our party apart, and I think we have to oppose that,” Cheney said.

She said she “hadn’t made a decision” on whether to run for president in 2024.

“I’m obviously very focused on my re-election. I’m very focused on the January 6 committee,” she said, and public hearings are expected to continue later this month. “I’m very focused on my commitments to do the job I have now. And I’ll make a decision about ’24 later.”

“But I’m thinking less about a decision to run for office and more about how, as an American — and as someone who is now in a position of public trust — I can make sure I do everything I can.” Do what’s right, do what I know is right for the country, and protect our Constitution?”

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Dais Johnston

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