The House select committee and the Justice Department are now coming for all the ex-President’s men and women.
The expanding scope of the probes into former President Donald Trump’s bid to thwart the transfer of power to President Joe Biden’s administration heralds growing peril for Trump and his deepest, inner circle.
There are growing signs that investigators are seeking, and securing, testimony into exactly what Trump said, did and tried to do in the fraught days inside the West Wing ahead of the January 6, 2021, insurrection.
The former President and likely 2024 White House candidate is now facing a two-front challenge from big-time Washington investigations.
The House select committee investigating the US Capitol attack has been up and running for months, and it held televised hearings all summer that presented chilling new details about Trump’s actions after he lost the election to Biden. The full extent of a Justice Department investigation has only become clear this week – and is crucial since it could potentially lead to criminal charges against key players in the drama.
Both probes are accelerating and are gathering testimony from senior officials around Trump, with the former President’s Cabinet of special interest.
Former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, ex-Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, former Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller and former Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen have already spoken to the House select committee. The panel has been in talks with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for a deposition. Sources told CNN the committee is negotiating terms for a potential interview with former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe.
And some of the moments of the recent televised hearings that damaged Trump the most came from taped testimony from ex-Attorney General William Barr – though he left the Cabinet before the January 6 conflagration. On Thursday, the committee met with former acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who was also out of the West Wing at the bitter end of the Trump administration serving as Northern Ireland envoy, though he was in contact with senior officials.
Justice Department readies for legal battle
The Justice Department has also been busy. It emerged this week that Marc Short and Greg Jacob, former senior staffers to former Vice President Mike Pence, went before the federal grand jury in Washington. And CNN’s Katelyn Polantz and Evan Perez reported exclusively on Thursday that the Justice Department is girding for a legal battle to force testimony from senior former officials on issues that Trump has claimed may be subject to executive privilege. A move this aggressive suggests litigation – with the potential to go all the way to the Supreme Court, which could prolong the investigation and potentially pitch it right into the middle of the 2024 presidential campaign that Trump is poised to join.
But it’s also a sign of intent inside the Justice Department investigation following weeks of publicly expressed frustration, including from House select committee members, that it was dragging its feet on a criminal investigation.
“This tells me that the DOJ is bracing for battle,” CNN legal analyst Elie Honig said on “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer” on Thursday. CNN’s Perez reported that the two former Pence aides were able to provide significant information to the grand jury. And Carrie Cordero, a former senior Justice Department official who is now a CNN analyst, said the Justice Department’s nascent legal gambit to combat Trump’s executive privilege claims suggested that Jacob and Short had more to say “but did not.”
“It is an investigative step and it indicates the Justice Department is really thinking through ahead of time how it would do this,” Cordero said.
It’s impossible to get full visibility from inside either investigation, especially the more recently detailed Justice Department version. But the focus on former Cabinet members and senior former White House staffers is an obvious sign investigators are homing in on Trump’s actions, moods and conversations following the 2020 election and in the run-up to the insurrection. There is so far no clear indication that the ex-President is a direct target of the January 6 criminal investigation, which appears to be at an earlier stage than the House select committee’s probe, which is painting a devastating picture of his actions.
But Cabinet officials and other aides around Trump were in meetings or close to the President during the fraught post-election days. They saw and heard events that could be incriminating or informational for investigators seeking to assess the former President’s culpability in attempts to thwart the peaceful transfer of power to a new administration.
They may also help to establish Trump’s state of mind – an important factor in establishing intent to commit wrongdoing and a key part of any potential criminal case. Investigators may be interested, for example, in getting clarity on the level of direction Trump gave in the scheme to create fake electors as he sought to thwart the congressional certification of Biden’s victory.
The kind of information that Cabinet members could offer was teased out during one of the House hearings. Scalia said in taped testimony that he wrote a memo to Trump to request a Cabinet meeting after the insurrection. In the document, Scalia, then the labor secretary, made clear that it was time for Trump to stop publicly questioning the election results since, as he said, after the mob attack on the Capitol, “No one can deny this is harmful.”
Talk of the 25th Amendment
During her blockbuster appearance before the committee last month, Cassidy Hutchinson, the former aide to ex-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, testified that one reason Trump delivered a speech on the day after the insurrection was that there was “large concern” in the White House that Pence and the Cabinet could invoke the 25th Amendment in order to remove him from power. In practice, given the complex procedures such a step would require and the fact that the administration was almost over, that didn’t happen.
Pence declined to initiate the process. And Short told CNN on Thursday that “this was really just a political ploy by Nancy Pelosi and Democrats in Congress to try to put pressure to exert this and it was never going anywhere in our White House.”
But the fact that there was even apparent talk of the 25th Amendment, which gives the vice president and a majority of top officers of executive departments the power to inform Congress that the President can no longer discharge his duties, will be of interest to both investigations. And it’s becoming more clear by the week that one goal of the House panel is to build a case to Americans that Trump is unfit to get near the power of the presidency ever again. Alarming details of wild or lawless behavior by the then-President could bolster that case, which has been voiced by both committee Chair Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican.
“When you are putting together a case, you want to prove the target’s state of mind,” former federal prosecutor Jennifer Rodgers told “CNN Newsroom” on Thursday.
“The 25th Amendment stuff is not so interesting as far as the machinations behind who might be for it, who might be against. But in terms of what they are saying to one another … what they saw President Trump do and heard him say in the days leading up to January 6,” Rodgers said.
“These are people with really close access to the President. These are his own Cabinet members who he chose and put there.”
A balancing act for some ex-Cabinet members
The prospect of testifying before either investigation has been an unpalatable one for some former key figures of Trump’s orbit who have not repudiated him publicly. But taped testimony of ex-officials under oath has produced some key revelations that might not otherwise have come out, such as that of former White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who painted a fraught picture of the chaos inside the White House in the run-up to the insurrection.
It is one thing for former officials like Mulvaney, who have criticized the ex-President publicly and may not run for office again, to testify. But others face a balancing act. Pompeo, for example, clearly has future presidential aspirations and would be loath to alienate Trump’s vital political base after years being publicly loyal to the former President.
Asked Thursday on Fox whether he would testify to the House committee, the former secretary of state and Kansas congressman was torn between his obligation to appear and a desire to indicate to conservative voters that he believed the committee is a political forum.
“As I always did when I was in service to America, I am happy to cooperate with things that are fair, and transparent, and deliver good outcomes to the American people,” he said. “I want to make sure the American people get the full story of the things that happened in the Trump administration.”
Pompeo’s comment left open the possibility that he could give testimony while still arguing to Trump supporters that he had defended the ex-President. It’s a delicate dance that many others of Trump’s former Cabinet officials may soon also find themselves doing.