Democrats who investigated Trump expect to face retaliation if Trump wins

Some members of Congress who led the investigation into former President Donald Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot acknowledge they’ve talked to their families about their safety — and the risk of their arrest — if Trump wins a second term in November.  

In a series of interviews with CBS News, House Democrats who helped lead the House Jan. 6 select committee and some of the police witnesses who testified before it predicted they’d be targeted for retribution by a future Trump administration.

Trump raised the prospect of future arrests of some of the Jan. 6 committee participants in a social media post on March 18. Referring to the panel’s vice chair, former Rep. Liz Cheney, Trump wrote, “She should go to Jail along with the rest of the Unselect Committee!”

“My wife and I have had conversations about what life would look like if the worst happened,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who was one of seven Democrats on the Jan. 6 select committee. Speaking to CBS News near the House chamber between votes last week, Schiff said, “You can’t avoid the conversations about ‘What if?’ And I have to think about my own personal safety.”

Rep. Pete Aguilar, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus and was a member of the Jan. 6 committee, told reporters last week that he takes Trump’s threat of jailing seriously. But Aguilar, noting the proximity of the Washington, D.C., jail to the U.S. Capitol, smiled and wryly noted, “My family has told me that they’re going to come to D.C. either way — and they’ll visit me, no matter where I am.”

“One of the things that I observed during our Jan. 6 committee work was that when Trump says something, he intends to do it,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, another California Democrat who helped lead the panel.   

“I take that lesson to heart,” she told CBS News. “When he says various things, I think that’s what he means he’ll do.” 

She acknowledged she has been harassed by some Trump supporters. 

“He’s going to weaponize the Department of Justice…and use it to go after people like myself,” former Washington, D.C., police officer Michael Fanone told CBS News. Fanone testified at a 2021 public hearing of the committee and has been an outspoken Trump critic, accusing him of employing authoritarian rhetoric.   

“He’s telling us exactly what he plans on doing,” Fanone said.

Harry Dunn, a former U.S. Capitol Police officer who also testified before the select committee, told CBS News, “Trump means what he says. Anybody who has testified against him, or spoken out in a public capacity, should be worried.” Dunn, who is seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for a U.S. House seat in Maryland, said the threat of arrest “is a little scary to think about, but you have to continue to do the right thing.”

The Trump campaign did not respond directly to questions about whether Trump intends to pursue arrests of the Jan. 6 committee members.  

“Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Liz Cheney, and the Corrupt Democrats on the sham January 6th Committee have lied to the American public for years, denied key witnesses from testifying to the truth, and covered up evidence that proved President Trump, nor any of his supporters, ever engaged in an alleged ‘insurrection.’ Their entire narrative is a lie and Americas know that Joe Biden is the true threat to democracy,” a Trump spokeswoman said in a statement to CBS News.

Trump’s March 18 social media post prompted criticism from scholars who study the rhetoric and practices of authoritarian regimes.  

“This sort of post is not what you want to see out of your political leaders in a healthy democracy,” said Erica Frantz, a political science professor at Michigan State University. Frantz, who specializes in authoritarian politics, told CBS News that calls by political leaders “to jail their political opponents are red flags in terms of potential slides to authoritarianism.”  

Frantz said when political figures talk about jailing some critics, it can have a chilling effect on others. 

“It’s intended to invoke fear among them and deter them from speaking out against Trump,” she said. “The more that critics are silenced, the more leaders with authoritarian ambitions are able to get away with their power grab.”

The select committee executed a high-profile investigation of Trump that included a series of nationally televised public hearings. The committee spoke with hundreds of witnesses, including Trump’s top White House aides, as it reviewed his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The committee voted to refer criminal charges to the Justice Department for Trump and accused him of threatening the future of democracy and inciting the violent Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

The committee was disbanded in late 2022, after Republicans won control of the House. Two of its members lost their campaigns for reelection, including Cheney. Two others retired from the House. 

Some committee members have reported being targeted by threats and harassment by Trump supporters.  
One senior U.S. House aide said a presidential candidate’s threats to jail legislators for public speech and legislative work also run afoul of the Speech and Debate Clause, which protect the independence of Congress.

In remarks to reporters last week, Aguilar said Trump’s ongoing rhetoric raises the risk of continued harassment, threats and danger to public officials. Aguilar said, “Trump wants to act like those dictators he hosts at Mar-a-Lago. That’s difficult rhetoric, and it’s not anything that any of us, any of the members under this Dome take lightly.”

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