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analysis: The January 6 hearings have reached their dramatic conclusion — for now. Here's what they could mean for Donald Trump's future

By North America correspondent Carrington Clarke in Washington DC
Posted , updated 
Donald Trump in a bright blue tie talking to a group of police officers and firemen in dress uniforms
The US Justice Department pledged to hold "all January 6 perpetrators, at any level, accountable under law", but has not made any moves against Donald Trump. (Reuters: Mario Anzuoni)

With its prime-time broadcast slot, new revelations and previously unseen outtakes of Donald Trump's chaotic day on January 6, it was billed as a gripping grand finale.

But the eighth hearing of the US congressional committee investigating the assault on the Capitol had one last plot twist. 

This is only the beginning. 

A flood of new information means that another round of hearings is scheduled for this September.

"The dam has begun to break," said Liz Cheney, the committee vice-chairwoman and Trump's own Republican Inspector Javert.

Amid rumours that he's preparing to announce his next presidential bid the same month, Trump is likely set to return to the centre stage of American politics. 

But one question remains: What, if any, impact have these hearings had on Trump's future? 

The possibility of criminal charges related to the insurrection have long loomed.

But the ex-president may have an audacious, if legally questionable, plan to evade any prosecution.

The January 6 hearings mixed Hollywood dazzle with DC politics

The nine members of congress on the select committee wanted Americans to pay attention. 

Through eight public hearings, they built their case, centring Trump in the middle of a grand conspiracy to illegally hold onto the reins of power in the US. 

A crowded room with a big chandelier and grand white columns, with "January 6th" written on a screen in the centre
With slick production values and an experienced TV producer at the helm, the January 6 committee wanted their hearings to be watched. (ABC News: Cameron Schwarz )

There have been more than 22 hours of testimony, involving a mixture of live witnesses, taped testimony and video presentations. 

The hearings have been interspersed with rousing speeches from committee members explaining what they had discovered through extensive investigative work over more than 12 months. 

Designed to gain maximum exposure, the committee wanted to lay its case out to the biggest possible audience. 

Before the first prime-time public premiere back on June 10, much was made of the fact the committee had employed the services of a former high-flying television producer to bring a glossy sheen to the presentations.

The attention to production values was obvious in the product. 

There were slickly cut videos that utilised new footage showing that beneath the seeming chaos on January 6, there was also organisation by far-right-wing extremist groups. 

The witnesses served different roles in this political drama.

Perhaps the most compelling witness to give testimony was not a star of Trump's inner circle, but a supporting player.

Cassidy Hutchinson sits in front of a microphine and looks ahead
Cassidy Hutchinson, former White House aide, gave explosive testimony to the January 6 committee. (AP:  J. Scott Applewhite)

White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson had a front-row seat to the mayhem leading up to and on January 6.

Her claim of an enraged president pushing his security to allow supporters into the Capitol despite warnings many were armed raised the prospect of criminal charges.

The profanity-laced testimony of former attorney-general Bill Barr and lawyer Eric Herschmann suggested Mr Trump was repeatedly told by those around him that talk of a "stolen election" was "bullshit".

They also used experts to cast their judgement on Trump's behaviour, most notably the extraordinarily slow-talking conservative former judge Michael Luttig.

With the flair and pace of a Shakespearean actor, he ripped apart both his party and his former law clerk John Eastman for his role in the plotting to overturn the election.

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It was clear that the main audience of these hearings were Republican voters.

Almost all the witnesses featured are avowed Republicans. 

Trump might dismiss them as RINOs — Republicans in Name Only. 

But many of those whose testimony was the most damning were people once trusted by Trump or those close to the president.

These aren't Trump's political enemies, or at least they weren't until they testified against him.

In the first public hearing, Liz Cheney warned her Republican colleagues: "There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonour will remain." 

But Donald Trump is still around.

And though he might be diminished in the eyes of many, he remains a looming presence in the Republican party.

To an extent, the hearings paid off as the committee hoped

Before the hearings began, it was fashionable to say in Washington DC that they wouldn't change a single mind.

Democrats would continue to hold Trump responsible for the events on January 6, while many Republicans would still support him.

Men in suits crouching in the US chamber looking frightened
The hearings have investigated how hundreds of people breached the Capitol as members of congress tried to certify the 2020 election results. (AP: Andrew Harnik)

But polling taken before the hearings and after this round wrapped up shows there has been a small but significant shift.

A quick reading initially suggests that Americans are still spilt along party lines.

Half of those polled this week by NPR/Marist say the riot was an insurrection and a threat to democracy — statistically unchanged from December.

And half of respondents say they think Trump should be charged with a crime.

But only 10 per cent of those are Republicans.

While he remains popular in the party and is the front-runner for the presidential nomination in 2024, a few cracks are starting to appear in his support.

Forty per cent of Republicans believe he is partly to blame for January 6, according to a recent Reuters/IPSOS poll.

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That's up seven points in six weeks.

Republican focus groups also suggest the party faithful may be willing to give other candidates a look in the next presidential primary, according to Politico.

Trump's potential 2024 rivals, including Mike Pence, appear to be emboldened by the numbers.

The big question of prosecution 

The hearings have had an impact on Trump's inner circle. 

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon was charged with contempt of Congress after he was subpoenaed to hand over evidence, but didn't comply. 

Bannon was convicted on two counts of contempt of Congress and faces up to two years in prison.

Donald Trump talks to Steve Bannon during a swearing in ceremony at the White House on January 22, 2017.
Former White House advisor Steve Bannon was charged with contempt of congress for defying a subpoena. (Reuters: Carlos Barria)

Former trade adviser Peter Navarro will face his own contempt of congress charges later this year. 

The House committee does not have the power to charge anyone directly, but they can refer matters for criminal prosecution to the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Although the committee has been clear they believe Trump's behaviour demands punishment, there are strategic calculations to make about whether to refer him for prosecution.

Trump and his supporters already view the committee as operating as a witch hunt and will dismiss any referral as politically motivated.

The DOJ doesn't need a referral to bring charges against anyone.

The man who heads the department, Attorney-General Merrick Garland, has said he's been "watching all the hearings".

The DOJ has been carrying out its own investigations into the riot and has already charged hundreds of people over the attack. 

But the decision to charge a former president for such a crime is unprecedented and will be weighed heavily.

Would being president again protect Trump? 

Even before the possibility of charges related to January 6 entered the equation, Donald Trump was facing a raft of legal issues. 

A myriad of civil charges and two criminal charges at the state level loom — one on whether he lied about the value of his assets and another on whether he tried to illegally interfere in the count of votes in Georgia.

But rather than be scared off from another run, Trump may be even more motivated to seek the presidency. 

Donald Trump Ivanka, Melania, Barron, and Don Jr stand together looking solemn
The Trumps reportedly want to be America's first family again in 2024. (Reuters: Brendan McDermid)

The DOJ has a decades-old policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

US media suggests those close to Trump believe this is a factor in his decision-making for 2024.

This policy has never been tested. And plenty of constitutional lawyers argue the founding fathers were clear that no-one — not even the president — is above the law.

There is, however, nothing in the constitution that stops a convicted criminal or an incarcerated prisoner from running for the highest office in the land.

Trump has hinted that no matter what happens next — whether more hearings or even charges are coming — his decision about his political future has been made.

"I've already made that decision, so nothing factors in anymore," he told New York Magazine recently.

"In my own mind, I've already made that decision."

Posted , updated