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As Jan. 6 panel pauses, the U.S. faces a fourth fall of Trump (with a fifth in view)

Then-President Donald Trump is seen on the screen above the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection on Thursday in outtakes from his Jan. 7, 2021, video in which he refused to say he had lost the election.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
Then-President Donald Trump is seen on the screen above the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection on Thursday in outtakes from his Jan. 7, 2021, video in which he refused to say he had lost the election.

Even before Liz Cheney made her announcement this week, another autumn of Donald Trump dominating the political scene seemed inevitable.

But now, it's official.

Cheney, the vice chair of the House Select Committee Investigating the January 6 Attack on the Capitol, made a great deal of news in the panel's public hearing Thursday night — not least by revealing the hearings would resume after the August recess.

"See you all in September," the Wyoming Republican said.

Truth is, even if the committee had wrapped this week, the former president would still be looming over the fall landscape like a rising harvest moon.

The House committee has had much to do with that, serving up the cream of its evidence in eight hearings that might have been episodes in a streaming TV series. The season-ender Thursday night was a three-hour special and arguably its most dramatic to date.

Mixing live testimony and riveting videotape, the panel took us back to the 187 minutes of Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump, then still president, refused to do anything to halt the invasion.

Even as the protesters became rioters, breaching the closed Capitol and shouting "Hang Mike Pence," and even as Pence's Secret Service detail feared for their lives, Trump sat in a dining room off the Oval Office. He watched the mayhem while phoning senators he thought might still help him overturn the results of the election he had lost.

We also saw the president struggling to tape a video the next day, complaining: "I don't want to say the election's over."

Returning soon to a screen near you

So the panel's Season Two will drop in a matter of weeks. But even if the hearings were over and done, the consequences would only be beginning.

There would still need to be a final report and a decision on making a criminal referral. That would leave the question of indicting the former president in the hands of the Justice Department and Attorney General Merrick Garland (who might also indict based on Justice's own investigation).

The latest polling indicates more than half the country is paying at least some attention to the January 6 panel's prosecutorial presentations. And while relatively few Americans expected to see Trump indicted before the hearings began (and 6 in 10 still don't), half the country now says he should be. That's the key takeaway from the latest NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll this week.

If Trump is indicted, the process of his arraignment, pleading, pretrial motions and trial will be as big a news story as a presidential election. And it may drag on nearly as long, or seem to.

If he is not indicted, Trump will declare himself exonerated and treat the entire episode as a triumph. Wags have suggested he might even propose making Jan. 6th a holiday. But short of that, he could call what happened "legitimate political discourse" – the phrase actually used this spring by the Trump-dominated Republican National Committee.

Trump claimed exoneration when he was twice impeached by the House but not convicted by two-thirds of the Senate. That was also his reaction to the report from independent counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe in 2019.

Mueller had been assigned by the Justice Department in 2017 to look into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. He found plenty, but said the evidence of direct involvement by Trump's campaign was not sufficient to indict.

As for other crimes, such as obstruction of justice, Mueller cited a Justice Department opinion that the president could not be indicted while in office.

Trump promptly labeled the troubling Mueller report a "total exoneration" because it found no "collusion" – a term Mueller had never used. It is not hard to imagine Trump doing something similar if none of the current Jan. 6 probes results in his being indicted for a crime.

Certain to dominate

But even without the legal drama, there are other reasons Trump will be as prevalent as pumpkins this fall – in fact, thousands of reasons.

Trump himself will not be on the ballot, but all 435 seats in the House and 35 seats in the Senate will be. There will also be scores of statewide offices and thousands of state legislative seats to be determined around the country. Trump has been active in the primaries in dozens of states, endorsing some Republicans and not others, hailing some as heroes and ripping others as RINOs.

With his signature high volume and profile, Trump will largely define the autumn ambience. Trump and Trumpism will connect all these separate contests, much as they have in the last three election cycles (2016, 2018 and 2020) and as they could do again in 2024. That would be the fifth federal cycle in a row to be certifiably Trumpified.

Trump has said he has made his decision regarding another presidential campaign and is now deciding when to announce it. But it is possible the atmosphere around the panel's first eight hearings could alter the former president's timetable. If he were to announce early, before the midterms, would that change the calculus for Garland?

Earlier this week, the attorney general referred to a legal memo associated with his predecessor, William Barr, regarding the "political sensitivities" of investigating candidates at certain times. But later in the week, Garland made a clear statement that "no one is above the law."

Either way, Trump's real or potential criminal exposure is not the focus GOP strategists would prefer for the 2022 midterms, which by all that's normal should be about the current president. That would be President Joe Biden, currently suffering from a case of COVID, historically low approval ratings and historically high gas prices.

It is a longstanding presumption that midterm elections are referenda on the president and the party holding the White House. That is partly because the "out" party has less to defend and everything to attack. But there have been exceptions.

In 2002, President George W. Bush managed to turn the midterms into a test of Democrats' willingness to green light his "war on terror," including what became a war in Iraq (and a new Department of Homeland Security where staff would not have their usual employee rights).

In 1998, President Bill Clinton made the midterms a test of public sentiment on his own pending impeachment. House Republicans who counted on a big win that November got a modest setback instead.

Right now, Trump is threatening to change the subject from Biden's travails to his own grievances about 2020.

By one accounting, more than 120 Republicans who have actively promoted Trump's fictions about the 2020 election have already won their primaries for offices that would give them a say in conducting the elections in 2024 and thereafter.

They include Dan Cox, a hardcore conservative state legislator who won the gubernatorial primary in Maryland last week. Cox is a 2020 election denier endorsed by Trump. He defeated a woman who ran with the blessing of the state's current Republican governor, Larry Hogan, a longtime Trump antagonist who has talked of running for president himself.

Another prominent example is State Sen. Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, who won that state's GOP nomination for governor. Mastriano was prominent on an "alternative slate" of Trump electors who tried to be counted in the Electoral College. He has made his role in that episode a part of his campaign.

Keeping the pot boiling

Meanwhile, Trump has continued to harass election officials around the country about the 2020 results.

This past week, he called the Republican speaker of the Assembly in Wisconsin to demand the legislature there "decertify" the 2020 election. Trump had heard the Wisconsin State Supreme Court had outlawed some of the drop-off boxes for absentee ballots in this fall's coming election and assumed, or asserted, that meant all the drop-box votes from 2020 would be thrown out.

Trump will have plenty of help keeping the pot boiling this fall. There will be more hearings, and Cheney promised there will be still more revelations because "doors have opened, new subpoenas have been issued and the dam has begun to break."

Moreover, the stream of literature that continues to highlight the worst aspects of Trump's effect on the American body politic shows little sign of abating. Next up is Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, whose book due in August will argue the last 25 years of Republican Party politics set the stage for Trump and Jan. 6.

Waiting on deck are some other heavy hitters who have been assessing the Trump phenomenon. They include the formidable team of Peter Baker (New York Times) and Susan Glasser (The New Yorker), whose book is due in September, and the Times' Maggie Haberman, the reporter perhaps best known for her long-running contact with Trump through his career.

What more can these books tell us? We will await their appearance. But beyond adding to the pile of Trump tomes, they will be expected to add to the pyre that will be burning through the fall.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.