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In a surprise move, Jan. 6 panel subpoenas Trump for testimony

"The need for this committee to hear from Donald Trump goes beyond our factfinding," Bennie Thompson said. "This is a question about accountability."

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Early on in today’s Jan. 6 committee hearing, Chairman Bennie Thompson made an unexpected comment, almost in passing. Unlike previous hearings of the bipartisan panel, the Mississippi Democrat noted today’s proceedings were convened “as a formal committee business meeting,” which meant members could “potentially hold a committee vote on further investigative action.”

It was a big hint that today’s hearing was going to include something new. As NBC News reported, that’s precisely what happened:

The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol voted unanimously Thursday to subpoena former President Donald Trump. Members of the panel, which held what was expected to be its final hearing before the midterm elections Thursday, had previously said that they were still considering seeking an interview with Trump or former Vice President Mike Pence.

It was Rep. Liz Cheney, the panel’s Republican vice chair, who introduced the resolution to subpoena Trump. It was approved unanimously.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was reportedly given a heads-up in advance, alerting her to the fact that this was likely to happen.

If recent history is any guide, we’ll likely soon hear a lot of talk from Trump and his cohorts about this being an unprecedented step. It’s not. Other presidents — sitting and former — have been subpoenaed, and they’ve even provided congressional testimony.

As regular readers may recall, in 1974, for example, Gerald Ford was the sitting American president, but that didn’t stop him from appearing on Capitol Hill and testifying publicly before a congressional committee.

During his first term as president, Abraham Lincoln also offered House committee testimony, as did several former presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Harry Truman.

There’s nothing in the American tradition that would necessarily prevent Trump from complying with the subpoena and answering investigators’ questions.

To be sure, the Republican is likely to resist this subpoena. What’s more, time is probably on his side: The congressional summons will expire at the end of the current Congress, which ends in roughly 80 days, and if Americans elect a Republican majority in the House, that will end the matter.

But tactical considerations aside, today’s hearing left no doubt that Trump’s sworn testimony would make a difference. 

“[T]he need for this committee to hear from Donald Trump goes beyond our factfinding,” Thompson explained this afternoon. “This is a question about accountability to the American people. He must be accountable. He is required to answer for his actions. He is required to answer to those police officers who put their lives and bodies on the line to defend our democracy. He is required to answer to the millions of Americans whose votes he wanted to throw out as part of his scheme to remain in power.

“And whatever is underway to ensure his accountability under the law, this committee will demand a full accounting to the American people of the events of January 6th. So it is our obligation to seek Donald Trump’s testimony.”

Cheney added, “[O]ur duty today is to our country, and our children, and our Constitution. We are obligated to seek answers directly from the man who set this all in motion. And we are entitled to the answers today, so we can act now to protect our republic.”