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With Subpoena, Jan. 6 Committee Plays Off Trump’s Competing Instincts

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

It was a dare. When the House Jan. 6 Committee voted on Thursday to compel Donald Trump’s testimony about his role in the failed attempt to overthrow the 2020 election result, culminating in a mob storming the Capitol, they appealed to his love of the limelight and his instinct to avoid not looking weak. Would the temptation to come back to the center ring of the circus be too much for the showman to turn down?

But Trump has an opposing, well-documented impulse when confronted with legal challenges, and that is to distract and delay as long as he can. If the Democrats lose control of the House in next month’s elections, as many predict they will, the Jan. 6 committee will be shut down by January. That’s a short clock Trump may be tempted to run out with stall tactics and court appeals, as he has many times before.

“Why didn’t the Unselect Committee ask me to testify months ago,” Trump wrote on his social media platform after the unanimous vote on Thursday. “Why did they wait until the very end, the final moments of their last meeting? Because the Committee is a total ‘BUST.’” On Friday, he replied to the committee with a 14-page-long list loaded with false claims, but did not say if he intended to comply with the committee’s subpoena.

In its ninth hearing, the committee presented evidence that even before the election, outside advisors close to Trump knew he planned to declare victory no matter the outcome; then, as the results came in, Trump’s own campaign officials told him he had lost, and Trump acknowledged to close aides he knew it. But, the committee found, Trump continued to publicly trumpet false claims of election fraud, using the authority of the White House as a backdrop, even after being told by the Department of Justice and campaign officials that allegation after allegation fell apart under scrutiny.

After putting together a case that Trump knowingly fed the public lies about election fraud and then encouraged his supporters to march on the Capitol building to overturn the results, Rep. Liz Cheney, Republican from Wyoming, said that the committee wanted to hear from the former President himself.

“We are obligated to seek answers directly from the man who set this all in motion,” Cheney said, when she introduced the motion to subpoena Trump.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, Democrat from Mississippi and the committee’s chair, said that Trump “is the one person at the center of the story of what happened on Jan. 6. So we want to hear from him.”

The center of the story is exactly where Trump likes to be.

“All of this, he probably thinks, plays to his benefit–keeps him in the news,” says Barbara Perry, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and an expert on the presidency.

She predicts Trump won’t take the committee’s bait.

“Presumably he will fight this until I guess he goes all the way to the Supreme Court,” Perry says “Can Congress subpoena a former president? Or he’ll try to use executive privilege as a dodge.”

Multiple Trump allies have refused to cooperate with the committee’s subpoenas, and in some cases have been charged with contempt. Steve Bannon, an adviser to Trump, is currently awaiting sentencing on two charges of contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with the committee’s subpoena, after a jury convicted him in July.

But Trump, as a former President, would pose a different legal challenge. While four former Presidents testified voluntarily to Congress, there is little history of them responding to congressional subpoenas.

If Trump did comply with the congressional subpoena, he could end up testifying in a public hearing, or a videotaped deposition. At that point, Trump would have to decide if he answers questions, and risks being in legal jeopardy for seditious conspiracy, or another violation, or invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Several committee witnesses, including Roger Stone, John Eastman and Jeffrey Clark, pleaded the fifth repeatedly while being questioned by the committee.

Over decades of legal entanglements, Trump has honed a playbook to deny, deflect and delay when faced with legal challenges. These are tactics he’s practiced through 50 years of lawsuits, tax audits, two impeachments, and the most investigations a former President has ever faced.

Trump is defending himself on a number of legal fronts. In addition to being subpoenaed by Congress, Trump is also currently under under scrutiny by New York Attorney General Letitia James who is investigating his business practices; the Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis who is investigating Trump’s alleged pressure campaign on election officials; and Attorney General Merrick Garland who is investigating Trump’s role in Jan. 6 and his taking government documents with him to Mar a Lago after he left the White House.

When it comes to the events leading up to the deadly siege of the Capitol, Trump has a lot to explain. For one thing, he knew the crowd was armed, but wanted them to join him at his speech anyway. The committee showed footage of former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson describing Trump on Jan. 6, moments before taking the stage to speak to the crowd at the Ellipse, telling White House security officials to stop checking the crowd for weapons with magnetometers. “’I don’t care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the effing mags away,’” Hutchinson recalled Trump saying. The Secret Service refused.

On stage, Trump didn’t give up trying to convince the law enforcement officers to let through thousands of his supporters staying outside the screening cordon, many of whom were armed. “I’d love it if they’d be allowed to come up here with us, is that possible?” Trump said. “Just let them come up please.” After the speech, Trump repeatedly tried and failed to get the Secret Service to take him to the Capitol Building, the committee found.

It is gaining more information about such moments that prompted the committee to vote unanimously to issue its subpoena, arguing that hearing directly from the former President about his thinking and motivations was crucial.

“Our nation cannot only punish the foot soldiers who stormed our capitol,” Cheney said. “Those who planned to overturn our election and brought us to the point of violence must also be held accountable.”

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