Voices: The mystery of Liz Cheney’s missing January 6 witness — and what the DOJ should do next

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Donald Trump planned to speak to his supporters from outside the Supreme Court, according to a draft tweet (Getty Images)
Donald Trump planned to speak to his supporters from outside the Supreme Court, according to a draft tweet (Getty Images)

The latest hearing by the House select committee investigating the Capitol riot did not yield as many explosive revelations as the session with Cassidy Hutchinson two weeks ago. Nevertheless, the hearing did show that many far-right activists and commentators viewed Donald Trump’s tweet inviting his supporters to a “big protest” on 6 January – and promising them it “will be wild” – as a call to arms.

Similarly, the hearing demonstrated that even after many of Trump’s advisers had told him he had exhausted his options, a gaggle of the president’s most extreme enablers – including Sidney Powell, Michael Flynn and Rudy Giuliani – met at the White House and attempted to hatch a plot to keep Trump in office. The group even floated a draft executive order that would have instructed the military to seize voting machines.

But toward the end of the hearing, committee vice chairwoman Liz Cheney dropped a tactical nuke on the public when she revealed that Trump had tried to contact an unnamed witness. This person had declined a phone call from the ex-president and informed the committee that he’d rang, whose staff in turn notified the Department of Justice. The allegation is serious and could raise questions of whether Trump engaged in witness-tampering.

With all of this in mind, here are three questions the hearing has left open.

Who did the former president try to contact and why?: The bombshell revelation by Cheney showed that Trump went to extraordinary efforts to stop someone from spilling more details that could be potentially damning, and committee member Jamie Raskin didn’t mince words after the hearing.

“Witness intimidation is a crime,” he told reporters afterward. “We’re not the ones enforcing the law. But if somebody told you they thought that there might be witness intimidation, you would turn it over to the Department of Justice.”

At the same time, the select committee is understandably not spilling any more details about this interaction. Raskin, a constitutional lawyer, said that the panel had known about the interaction for a couple of days, but that he did not know anything more.

This is not the first time that the former president’s inner circle has reportedly tried to influence witnesses testifying before the committee. But the president personally contacting a witness raises the question of what he wanted this person not to say.

How will the Justice Department respond?: The Justice Department and the committee have so far shared a somewhat contentious relationship. Last month, the department criticized the committee for not sharing witness transcripts. In response, committee chair Bennie Thompson made it clear that the committee would not rush its process.

The fact that the committee saw this as an egregious enough violation to send to the department is a sign that it sees Trump’s actions as an attempt to obstruct the panel’s mission – and that the focus is expanding to include potentially ongoing criminal activity.

The Justice Department has been, well, judicious about its approach to January 6. While it has indicted former White House advisers Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro for refusing to comply with the committee’s subpoenas, it chose not to indict former chief of staff Mark Meadows or his deputy Dan Scavino. Yet a former president personally contacting a witness during an investigation is unprecedented, especially when that witness is co-operating with a panel investigating his own conduct.

But the department has a lot to lose. If it takes any action or decides to charge the president, Republicans will accuse it of playing politics. But if it decides not to act or doesn’t even investigate, it risks setting a precedent that commanders-in-chief can act with impunity after they leave office.

What did Kevin McCarthy know?: During the second part of the hearing, it was revealed that on December 21, Congressman Jim Jordan was among a slew of Republican members who visited the White House as Trump was plotting to illegally overturn the election results.

On this point, it’s worth remembering that when the committee members were being selected, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy named Jordan as one of his choices. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to seat both him and his GOP colleague Jim Banks, and McCarthy responded by pulling the rest of his members.

Given that McCarthy was the leader of the House GOP conference at the time of the effort to throw out the election, and given he has a fairly close relationship with Jordan, the question remains whether the minority leader knew he played a prominent role in Trump’s machinations when he nominated him to the committee.

And if McCarthy did know the details, did he nominate Jordan knowing he might make it harder to investigate the true extent of Trump’s effort to steal the election?

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