House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has asserted he’d “have no problem talking to anybody” about his conversations with then-President Donald Trump on January 6. That proposition may soon be put to the test.
McCarthy is just one of several Republicans who could get caught in the crosshairs as the Democratic-led investigation into the Capitol riot unfolds over the coming months, teeing up the possibility of partisan showdowns and raising questions about a conflict-of-interest if any potential witnesses are tapped for one of the five GOP spots on the select committee.
Yet, Republicans too have their own emerging plan once McCarthy names his picks: They want to focus on the steps that Speaker Nancy Pelosi took – or didn’t take – to secure the Capitol that day, according to GOP sources familiar with the early discussions.
The panel of lawmakers probing the deadly attack, eight of whom were tapped by Pelosi this week, is on a mission to dig up answers about the January 6 siege and will begin with testimony from US Capitol Police officers about their experiences that day. Democrats on the committee say they plan to pursue why there were a string of law enforcement and intelligence failures – in addition to the root causes of the insurrection.
And that means Republican lawmakers who sought to overturn the election results on January 6 and were in frequent communication with the former President and his team – and potentially even Trump himself – could be hearing from the Democratic-led panel in the weeks ahead.
“I think we need to have access to all the available information,” Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Democratic chairman of the select committee, told CNN when asked if he would call in GOP lawmakers. “And part of what we plan to do is hire some of the best people, who can help us get access to that kind of information. So, if we need to get it by request or by subpoena, I’m not reluctant to do either.”
Besides Trump and McCarthy, Democrats may also want to hear from Republicans like Rep. Jim Jordan, a staunch Trump ally who was in regular discussions with then-President in the run-up to January 6; Rep. Greg Pence of Indiana, who huddled with his brother, then-Vice President Mike Pence, in a safe room while rioters breached the building; Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, who gave a fiery speech at the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6; and Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville, who was contacted by Trump as the riot unfolded and after Pence had been taken to a secure location.
Democrats have also questioned whether freshman Rep. Lauren Boebert, Republican of Colorado, coordinated with any of the rioters based on some of her tweets from that day – a charge she has vehemently denied. Her office said it’s too early to speculate about whether she’d cooperate with investigators, given the panel hasn’t even organized yet.
But Democrats have their own political risks to consider. With Republicans promising to paint Democrats as partisan at every turn, investigators may be reluctant to appear overzealous in hauling in GOP lawmakers as witnesses or take any other steps that could be perceived as attempts to bludgeon members of the opposite party. McCarthy himself came under fire in 2015 for suggesting that a select committee on Benghazi hurt Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, in the polls.
Republicans warn that calling in GOP lawmakers could spark a tit-for-tat that would lead to calls for Pelosi’s testimony.
“The minute you start calling members from the other party, you’re going to escalate it into exactly what my colleagues are concerned about,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong, a Republican of North Dakota.
There’s also a high likelihood that Republicans, especially some of the party’s hardliners, may simply refuse to cooperate with efforts to unearth new details about Trump’s conduct and attitude on January 6 – a hallmark of the Trump era.
Yet at the same time, Democrats contend they want to pursue the leads that emerge from the investigation, and it may be difficult, if not impossible, to ignore the connection between Trump and members of the GOP. They could also seek testimony behind closed doors in some cases, which could help reduce the appearance of a public spectacle if they are grilling fellow lawmakers or staff – or simply ask for written testimony.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a moderate Democrat in a swing Florida district who serves on the committee, told CNN on Friday that investigators need to have a “full picture of what happened” when asked if they should pursue testimony from members of Congress. And she pushed back at Republicans calling such a pursuit of GOP testimony a political endeavor, arguing that her counterparts have tried to derail a bipartisan investigation from the start.
“I can’t change the way they are going to behave, but my commitment is to work on this in an apolitical way, much the way that I worked on counterterrorism issues when I was at the Department of Defense,” Murphy said.
Asked if they should hear from Trump himself, Murphy added: “I think we are going to follow the facts wherever, and to whomever, they lead.”
And Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Pelosi’s lone Republican pick for the panel, has previously speculated that McCarthy could be subpoenaed in any investigation. She continued to leave the door open to that possibility on Thursday.
“I think that the committee will decide the parameters of the investigation,” Cheney told reporters, when asked if McCarthy or Trump should testify. “And what I know is that it’ll be thorough. It will be professional. It will be serious, and not – not partisan. I think this is something where we all have to come together to defend the democracy.”
GOP strategy begins to take shape
The big question remaining is whom McCarthy will select – and whether any of his five choices worked with the White House to try to overturn the electoral results when Congress met to certify President Joe Biden’s win on January 6.
Pelosi this week made clear she could veto any GOP pick under the rules establishing the committee – and would not say if she would block a Republican who voted to overturn the electoral results. Such a move, however, could give even more oxygen to the GOP-led attacks that Democrats are operating on a partisan basis.
“We’ll see who they nominate,” Pelosi said.
Jordan – a conservative firebrand whom McCarthy has tapped for previous high-profile assignments, including one during Trump’s first impeachment – is seen as an obvious choice for the select committee. But he could also be a valuable witness for Democrats trying to learn more about Trump’s actions.
Whether Democrats try to call Jordan remains to be seen. The select panel, which only got off the ground this week, is still staffing up, while the House and Senate are scheduled to be out of session during the week of July 4.
But Republicans will almost certainly try to throw sand in the gears of the investigation, pulling from a playbook they perfected during years of congressional probes into Trump. That includes blowing off requests for testimony or documents, with Republicans likely to dismiss such demands as politically motivated – something that would have been harder to do with an independent commission.
Democrats, however, could instead target Republicans who are seen as more likely to cooperate, such as Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler. The Washington state lawmaker, who voted to impeach Trump, has already given a public account of what McCarthy told her about his phone call with Trump on January 6.
“When McCarthy finally reached the President on January 6 and asked him to publicly and forcefully call off the riot, the President initially repeated the falsehood that it was antifa that had breached the Capitol,” Herrera Beutler said in a statement that became a focus of Trump’s Senate impeachment trial in February. “McCarthy refuted that and told the President that these were Trump supporters. That’s when, according to McCarthy, the President said: ‘Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.’ ”
A big focus for the Republicans will be on Pelosi herself, according to GOP sources. They will try to make the case she should have done more to secure the Capitol – and attempt to shift the blame away from Trump and onto the speaker. Whether they succeed in making the case – or muddying the waters – remains to be seen.
“You know your strategy is desperate when even Ron Johnson has given up on it,” said Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesman, referring to the Wisconsin GOP senator’s past criticism of the speaker.
But Armstrong, the McCarthy ally and North Dakota Republican, made clear that trying to pursue GOP testimony could lead to a slippery slope.
“You also make it a lot more difficult if you (call a Republican) and then deny it if we want to speak to the speaker as well,” he added.
Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.