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Why the Jan. 6 committee’s new subpoena for Trump matters

The Jan. 6 panel’s subpoena matters because it sheds light on what exactly the committee wants from Trump, while crystallizing the accusations against him.


The biggest surprise at last week’s Jan. 6 committee hearing came at the very end: Rep. Liz Cheney, the panel’s Republican vice chair, introduced a resolution to subpoena Donald Trump. It was approved unanimously.

But as a procedural matter, there’s an important difference between agreeing to subpoena a former president and actually doing the work of preparing the legal directive. The committee vote was the first step, and as NBC News reported, the second step came today.

The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot subpoenaed former President Donald Trump on Friday for testimony and documents on his actions surrounding the bloodshed they say he instigated at the U.S. Capitol. The subpoena calls for Trump to testify on Nov. 14 — after the midterm elections.

At first blush, this may not seem especially significant. In fact, it may seem like paperwork: The bipartisan group of lawmakers effectively told the former president last week that they expected his cooperation with the investigation, so today’s announcement simply formalizes the demands, right?

Yes, but there’s more to it than that. The subpoena matters because it sheds light on what exactly the committee wants from the Republican, while crystalizing the accusations against him.

“As demonstrated in our hearings, we have assembled overwhelming evidence, including from dozens of your former appointees and staff, that you personally orchestrated and oversaw a multi-part effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election and to obstruct the peaceful transition of power,” the committee’s leaders told Trump in the first paragraph of a letter accompanying the subpoena.

The roughly three-page letter proceeded to remind the former president of his “multi-part effort,” which included, “purposely and maliciously disseminating false allegations of fraud,” “attempting to corrupt the Department of Justice,” “illegally pressuring state officials and legislators,” “orchestrating and overseeing” the fake-electors scheme,” “corruptly pressuring your own Vice President,” “pressuring Members of Congress to object to valid slates of electors from several states,”       “filing false information, under oath, in federal court,” and summoning and deploying his followers “knowing they were angry and some were armed.”

The correspondence added, “In short, you were at the center of the first and only effort by any U.S. President to overturn an election and obstruct the peaceful transition of power, ultimately culminating in a bloody attack on our own Capitol and on the Congress itself.”

And then came the list of information the congressional investigators expect to receive. From the NBC News report:

The committee told Trump it wants to ask him about conversations he had with former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Arizona GOP chair Kelli Ward, longtime confidante Roger Stone, attorney John Eastman and former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark — all of whom invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when they were interviewed by panel. It also demands that Trump turn over a number of documents by Nov. 4 — including any communications he had regarding extremist groups, such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, that were involved in the riot.

Among the other notable figures referenced in the subpoena, the select committee also wants to know about the Republican’s communications with former Secret Service agent Anthony Ornato and attorney Sidney Powell.

The next question, of course, is what exactly Trump intends to do in response to the subpoena.

The day after the committee vote last week, the former president released a deeply odd, 14-page letter to the House select committee, filled with discredited nonsense. At no point in the document, however, did he indicate whether he’d cooperate with the investigation.

In theory, Trump shouldn’t have much of a choice. A congressional subpoena isn’t a request, so much as it’s a legal order.

In practice, however, he’s more likely to begin a lengthy court fight that would take months to fully resolve. What’s more, Trump and his lawyers may very well simply try to run out the clock: As we discussed last week, the pending summons will expire at the end of the current Congress, which will wrap up in roughly 74 days, and if Americans elect a Republican majority in the House, that will end the matter.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, this might make him look like something of a coward. The former president has had plenty to say about Jan. 6 and the investigation — in conservative media, at rallies, and online — but given a chance to answer questions under oath, Trump’s too afraid to respond to a legal subpoena? A profile in courage it is not.

Of course, as his lawyers have probably explained to him, it’s better to look like a coward than to show up and deliver incriminating testimony in the midst of multiple investigations.

There is, however, one related angle to keep an eye on: The New York Times reported that Trump has told his aides that he actually wants to testify, “so long as he gets to do so live.”

Whether the select panel would tolerate such a spectacle is unclear, though it seems unlikely. Watch this space.