Not prosecuting Trump for Jan. 6 would fuel a 'much graver threat,' Liz Cheney says

A criminal case could be "difficult" but necessary, Cheney said on "This Week."

ByBenjamin Siegel and Mariam Khan via ABC logo
Sunday, July 3, 2022
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The Justice Department should not avoid prosecuting Donald Trump in relation to the Jan. 6 Capitol attack if a prosecution is warranted, Rep. Liz Cheney said in an interview with ABC News' "This Week" co-anchor Jonathan Karl.

The Justice Department should not avoid prosecuting Donald Trump in relation to the Jan. 6 Capitol attack if a prosecution is warranted, Rep. Liz Cheney said in an interview with ABC News' "This Week" co-anchor Jonathan Karl.

While bringing charges against the former president -- who may challenge President Joe Biden in 2024 -- would be unprecedented and "difficult" for the country, not doing so would support a "much graver constitutional threat," Cheney said Wednesday in an interview at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library that aired Sunday on "This Week."

"Are you worried about what that means for the country, to see a former president prosecuted? A former president who was a likely candidate; who may in fact be running for president against Biden?" Karl asked Cheney.

"I think it's a much graver constitutional threat if a president can engage in these kinds of activities, and the majority of the president's party looks away; or we as a country decide we're not actually going to take our constitutional obligations seriously," Cheney said. "I think that's a much, a much more serious threat."

"I really believe we have to make these decisions, as difficult as it is, apart from politics. We really have to think about these from the perspective of: What does it mean for the country?" she said.

'Absolutely confident' in Hutchinson's testimony

The Wyoming Republican told Karl she was "absolutely confident" in Cassidy Hutchinson's startling testimony last week during a surprise hearing by the House's Jan. 6 committee, which Cheney vice-chairs.

"She's an incredibly brave young woman," Cheney said of Hutchinson.

On Tuesday, the former aide to Trump's White House chief of staff Mark Meadows testified that she was told Trump was verbally aggressive with Secret Service agents and lunged for the steering wheel of his vehicle after learning he was not going to the Capitol after his rally on Jan. 6, 2021.

Hutchinson said Tony Ornato, a Secret Service agent and Trump deputy chief of staff, told her as much not long after the incident that same day. Hutchinson's account has drawn significant attention and push-back from Trump.

"What Ms. Hutchinson testified to was a conversation that she was part of with Mr. Ornato and which Mr. Engel, a Secret Service agent was present, where they detailed what happened in the limousine," Cheney said.

"Do you have any evidence other than Cassidy Hutchinson's testimony to corroborate what she said happened in that presidential motorcade?" Karl asked Cheney.

"The committee has significant evidence about a whole range of issues, including the president's intense anger," Cheney responded.

"I think you will continue to see in the coming days and weeks additional detail about the president's activities and behavior on that day," Cheney added.

In a statement to ABC News, the Secret Service said agents were prepared to give sworn testimony to the panel. A source close to the Secret Service did not dispute to ABC News that Trump was angry with agents in the car but said he did not reach for the wheel or lunge at Robert Engel, the lead agent on his detail.

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

Trump on Tuesday worked to dismiss and downplay Hutchinson's testimony, posting on social media that "I hardly know who this person ... is, other than I heard very negative things about her (a total phony and 'leaker')."

"She is bad news!" he added.

Speaking with Karl, Cheney said the House committee "is not going to stand by and watch her [Hutchinson's] character be assassinated by anonymous sources and by men who are claiming executive privilege. And so we look forward very much to additional testimony under oath on a whole range of issues."

Criminal referral over witness tampering?

Cheney said during last week's hearing that some witnesses had told investigators Trump aides attempted to influence their testimony before the panel. Hutchinson was among those to receive messages about protecting the former president, sources later told ABC News.

"Witness tampering is a crime. Are you making a criminal referral to DOJ on this?" Karl asked.

"We'll make a decision as a committee about that," Cheney replied.

"Do you have any doubt that Trump broke the law and that he is guilty of criminal violations?" Karl asked Cheney. (Trump insists he did nothing wrong.)"It's a decision that we'll make together as a committee," Cheney said of referring any potential criminal conduct to the Justice Department.

"There's no question that he engaged in high crimes and misdemeanors. I think there's no question that it's the most serious betrayal of his oath of office of any president in the history of the nation. It's the most dangerous behavior of any president in the history of the nation," she said.

"It's possible there will be a criminal referral?" Karl asked.

"Yes," Cheney said, adding that the Justice Department "doesn't have to wait" for the panel to make a referral and that the committee could issue "more than one criminal referral."

Damaging Trump 'not the goal' of hearings

Cheney has emerged as perhaps her party's most vocal and most famous anti-Trump voice, drawing praise from Democrats and derision from many conservatives. Last year, she told ABC News that she would "do everything that I can to make sure" Trump "never gets anywhere close to the Oval Office again."

"Have these hearings gotten you closer to that goal -- making him toxic and not a viable candidate?" Karl asked in the new interview.

"That's not the goal of the hearings," she said.

"It's crucial for the country to make sure that he's never anywhere near the Oval Office again," Cheney continued.

"The goal of the hearings is to make sure that the American people understand what happened; to help inform legislation, legislative changes that we might need to make," she said. "I think it's also the case that there's not a single thing that I have learned, as we have been involved in this investigation, that has made me less concerned."

"There's no question: A man as dangerous as Donald Trump can absolutely never be anywhere near the Oval Office ever again," Cheney said.

With looming primary, Cheney doesn't 'intend to lose'

Cheney was one of 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump in 2021 for inciting the Capitol riot. Of that group, four are not running for reelection and Rep. Tom Rice of South Carolina was defeated in his May primary by a Trump-endorsed opponent.

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

"You said recently the country is now in a battle: We must win against the former president trying to unravel our constitutional republic. What will it mean for that battle if you lose the Republican primary in Wyoming?" Karl asked Cheney.

"Well, I don't intend to lose the Republican primary in Wyoming," Cheney said.

"How important is it that you win, for that larger battle?" Karl asked.

"I think it's important, because I will be the best representative that people of Wyoming can have," Cheney said.

"The single most important thing is protecting the nation from Donald Trump. And I think that that matters to us as Americans more than anything else, and that's why my work on the committee is so important," she said.

"It's so important to not just brush this past and say, 'Okay, well, that's in the past,' but it informs whether this sort of toxin of Trump's belief that he can put himself above the Constitution and put himself above the law -- whether or not we successfully defeat that. And I think it's very important that people know the truth. And that there are consequences," Cheney said.

Cheney thinks GOP 'can't 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 GOP nomination for 2024.

"I think that he can't be the party nominee. 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 to lead the party back to what it can be, and to reject, and to reject so much of the toxin and the vitriol," she added.

"I think it's important also to remember that millions of people, millions of Republicans have been betrayed by Donald Trump. And that is a really painful thing for people to recognize and to admit," she said.

"But it's absolutely the case and they've been betrayed by him, by the 'big lie" -- referring to Trump's continued baseless claims of election fraud -- "and by what he continues to do and say to tear apart our country and tear apart our party, and I think we have to reject that," Cheney said.

She said she has not "made a decision" about running for president in 2024.

"I'm obviously very focused on my reelection. I'm very focused on the Jan. 6 committee," she said, with public hearings expected to resume later this month. "I'm very focused on my obligations to do the job that I have now. And I'll make a decision about '24 down the road."

"But I think about it less in terms of a decision about running for office and more in terms of as an American -- and as somebody who's in a position of public trust now -- how do I make sure that I'm doing everything I can to do the right thing, to do what I know is right for the country, and to protect our Constitution?"