Nearly a year after his failed coup attempt, Donald Trump’s habit of putting his own political gain over truth is playing out again as the ex-commander-in-chief and his associates seek to delay and defy the House select committee probing the January 6 insurrection.
Trump’s campaign of obstruction, which has now reached the Supreme Court, raises questions about whether the panel, already facing a racing clock ahead of next year’s midterms, will fulfill its goal of a historic accounting of his efforts to overturn the election. Trump’s inner circle is locked into a strategy of preventing a comprehensive reckoning over one of the most notorious days ever in the United States and seeking to whitewash history as he readies an apparent new run for the White House.
The panel’s attempt to reach deep into Trump world and behind the scenes in the West Wing on January 6 kicked into higher gear in the days before Christmas, offering new insight into its areas of focus. Trump responded by stepping up his own strategy of defying the truth. It is now clear committee members are trying to build a detailed picture of exactly what Trump said, did and thought in the days leading up to the insurrection and in the hours when it raged on Capitol Hill after he incited the mob with fresh election fraud lies.
For the first time, the panel publicly called for testimony from lawmakers closely bound up in Trump’s effort to discredit the 2020 election and cling to power. It asked Rep. Scott Perry to talk about his effort to install Jeffrey Clark, an official who wanted the Justice Department to pursue Trump’s lies about electoral fraud as attorney general. The Pennsylvania Republican declined, arguing the panel was illegally constituted – even though it was created by a vote in the full House. The committee also asked another Trump crony, Rep. Jim Jordan, to discuss what it says are his multiple communications with the ex-President on January 6. The Ohio Republican has yet to respond, but his loyalty to Trump and fierce attacks on the committee suggest he’s unlikely to be a cooperative witness.
Committee members could soon face the decision of whether to subpoena Perry and Jordan, a move that would be certain to further worsen incendiary relations between Democrats and Republicans in the House. The Democratic-led body has already sent criminal referrals to the Justice Department dealing with two witnesses who refused to submit to subpoenas – Trump political guru Steve Bannon, who has already been indicted, and former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.
There are also new insights emerging from court documents involving Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich, which show that the committee is expanding its investigation into the financing of pro-Trump rallies leading up to the riot – including the one in Washington, DC, on January 6 at which the then-President told his supporters to “fight like Hell” and which evolved into the insurrection.
Trump associates who don’t want to testify are relying on his expansive claims of executive privilege, which many legal scholars view as dubious, to avoid saying what they know about the Capitol insurrection. Two days before Christmas, Trump, who has a long history in and out of office of using the legal system to avoid and delay accountability, went to the Supreme Court, appealing to the conservative-majority he helped construct to block the release of White House documents to the committee. Trump asked the nation’s top bench to conduct a full review of the case to stop the release of speech notes, activity logs and schedules and to put a lower court ruling allowing them to be handed over on hold.
The committee quickly responded, seeking to head off an attempt by the former President to jam it in a long legal battle, asking the court to say by the middle of next month whether it is taking the case. Trump’s legal team argues that it is vital for future presidents to be confident that their deliberations with advisers will be kept confidential even when they have left office. But President Joe Biden, with whom questions of asserting executive privilege now rest, has argued that it is vital for the nation to achieve an understanding of what went on during the Capitol riot and has refused Trump’s claims. The idea that the twice-impeached former President is acting in defense of the office that he often compromised with abuses of power and used to pursue personal goals is hard to read with a straight face. But it threatens to unleash a constitutional wrangle that could frustrate the committee’s attempts to clarify Trump’s intentions and actions on January 6.
The committee may be on borrowed time
The committee does not have the luxury of time. It is already clear that Republicans, who have a good chance of taking back the House in November’s midterm elections, will shut down the panel as soon as they have power.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has anchored his bid to become speaker on Trump’s patronage after briefly suggesting the then-President bore responsibility for the riot of his supporters at the Capitol. Among his services to Trump was help in thwarting plans for an independent 9/11-style commission to probe the worst attack on US democracy in modern history. McCarthy also leads a party that has ostracized the Republican members of the select committee, Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois – two staunch conservatives who have been willing to tell the truth about what happened.
Kinzinger is not running for reelection while Cheney is facing a Trump-backed primary challenger. Another Republican who voted to impeach Trump over the insurrection, Rep. Fred Upton, has also drawn a primary challenger endorsed by the ex-President who has given credence to election fraud lies.
“I watched people go down the Mall, and I saw them come back,” the Michigan congressman told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” Sunday, describing his experience on January 6. “And I heard the noises and obviously was watching what happened. But it was real and shocking and … it was a scary day.”
Upton’s unwillingness to buy into Trump’s personality cult, which requires fact-defying obeisance to fantasies of a stolen election, could cost him his political career. If so, he will join the growing list of Republicans drummed out of power by the former President in an operation that ensures a possible future House GOP majority will be in his thrall and is likely to be a weaponized force for Trumpism as the 2024 presidential election looms.
From the outside, it is difficult to tell how deeply the House select committee has managed to penetrate what was happening in Trump’s West Wing on January 6. While several prominent associates of the ex-President are refusing to testify, the committee has conducted several hundred interviews with people inside and outside the former administration. Not everyone has the political commitment or the financial resources to enter a legal battle by defying a subpoena. And details from the lawsuit that emerged on Christmas Eve showed that Budowich had supplied the committee with more than 1,700 pages of documents and provided about four hours of testimony. He sued on Friday night to stop the committee from obtaining records from a bank. The previously undisclosed records request is another indication the committee has made substantial behind-the-scenes progress and could at least partially derail Trump’s cover-up despite his best efforts.
The still-emerging horror of the insurrection
It is a measure of the horror of January 6 – now nearly a year on – that new details of the frantic, dangerous hours on Capitol Hill and the heroism of police officers insulted by the GOP’s attempt to deny history, are still emerging.
The Justice Department last week released vivid video of a three-hour battle in which rioters brandished weapons and officers were severely beaten in a tunnel on Capitol Hill. The video, taken from a Capitol security camera, was released after CNN and other news outlets sued for access. It showed pro-Trump rioters jabbing police with flag poles, using pepper spray and crushing an officer in a door. Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone was pulled out of the police line and into the crowd by a rioter who had his arm around his neck. The video shows Fanone eventually falling down and disappearing into the mass of rioters, where he said he was tased in the neck, beaten with a flagpole and heard rioters screaming “kill him with his own gun.” Fanone said he suffered a heart attack and fell unconscious during the attack.
Yet Trump, who issued a series of delusional statements last week and promises a press conference on the anniversary of the January 6 riot, maintains “the insurrection took place on November 3rd, it was the completely unarmed protest of the rigged election that took place on January 6.”
The power of that lie, and the ex-President’s apparent determination to win back power on the strength of it in 2024, shows why the House select committee’s effort to expose the truth is so important.