Jan. 6 panel talking with Justice Department about false Trump electors, chair says
The Justice Department’s ongoing effort to obtain evidence collected by the Jan. 6 select committee has revolved primarily around the investigation of false pro-Trump presidential electors, chair Bennie Thompson said Wednesday.
“The only issue we’ve engaged them on is the list of fraudulent electors,” Thompson (D-Miss.) told reporters.
He added that DOJ is particularly interested in the transcripts of the interviews the committee has conducted with some of the false electors themselves.
It’s the first time a member of the committee has publicly indicated the focus of their talks with the Justice Department. Thompson’s comments suggest the department is continuing to advance its examination of the false-elector scheme, a key element of former President Donald Trump’s effort to subvert the 2020 election and seize a second term he didn’t win. And it shows the panel’s advancing engagement with the Justice Department as prosecutors pursue their own parallel criminal probe of Trump-linked efforts to overturn the election.
The Justice Department first issued a blanket request in April for the select committee’s transcripts of its interviews with over 1,000 witnesses, but the committee rejected it. The department subsequently agreed to postpone a landmark criminal trial of leaders of the Proud Boys, citing the uncertainty around the committee’s transcripts and the publicity caused by the panel’s public hearings. Thompson told reporters that he anticipates releasing all of their information publicly in the fall.
A DOJ official noted that its public filings asked the committee for copies of all transcripts of witness interviews. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., which is handling the bulk of the Jan. 6 investigation, declined to comment.
Trump, working with a group of conservative attorneys advancing fringe constitutional theories, pressed Republican-controlled state legislatures to override the will of their voters and appoint false electors, which would then come before Congress on Jan. 6, 2021. No state legislatures agreed, but Trump’s campaign and allies worked directly with pro-Trump activists to move the plan forward anyway, having them sign certificates claiming to be the true electors from their states and sending them to Congress. Trump leaned on then-Vice President Mike Pence — tasked with presiding over Congress during the certification of votes on Jan. 6 — to cite the “dueling” slates and refuse to count President Joe Biden’s true electoral votes.
Asked whether the Justice Department had also expressed specific interest in witness transcripts connected to the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, Thompson said the preliminary discussions are still ongoing and are focused on establishing a process for evidence sharing, including potentially allowing department officials to review evidence in person.
“We’re a legislative committee. We’re not an arm of the Department of Justice,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a member of the select panel. “But we certainly don’t want to be an impediment to them.”
Thompson also noted that the select committee still has not received any documents from Trump ally Steve Bannon, who indicated over the weekend that he would testify to the panel after declining to do so for more than nine months. Thompson said the panel would likely not engage with Bannon until he provided the wide-ranging records they had requested.
An attorney for Bannon, Robert Costello, said he was still awaiting a direct reply from the select committee to his Saturday letter disclosing Bannon’s abrupt willingness to testify. That relied on a letter from Trump purporting to waive executive privilege on testimony by Bannon, who was not working in the White House during Trump’s attempts to overturn the election.
“Unless you are the official spokesperson for Bennie Thompson and the Select Committee, I have heard no response from the Select Committee and the last line of my letter said: ‘let me know how you wish to proceed,'” Costello said in an email.
The select committee has contended that executive privilege was never properly asserted over Bannon’s testimony.
Bannon is slated to face a jury next week on contempt of Congress charges for defying a Jan. 6 select committee subpoena in October. He made a renewed motion on Wednesday to delay his trial, citing the publicity caused by the Jan. 6 panel’s public hearings. Though U.S. District Court Judge Carl Nichols rejected Bannon’s initial motion for delay — saying he would consider pretrial publicity only after jury selection on Monday — Bannon’s latest motion cited the select committee’s Tuesday hearing.
Members of the panel played “a highly inflammatory video clip from Mr. Bannon’s podcast,” Bannon’s attorneys contended in the filing.
Speaking to reporters, Thompson also elaborated on a “conversation” the committee had with the Justice Department about an unidentified witness for the panel, who vice chair Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) revealed had received a phone call from Trump sometime within the last three weeks. The witness declined to answer the call and alerted a lawyer, who informed the select committee of Trump’s outreach. Cheney said the panel had passed along the information to the Justice Department.
Describing committee members’ contact with the Department of Justice on Trump’s purported outreach to a witness, Thompson said they were having a “conversation,” adding there hasn’t been a “formal referral.”
“I think, out of an abundance of caution, any attempt to talk to a witness that our committee would be engaged with would be a concern,” he said.
Panel members have closely held the identity of the witness even as they have repeatedly raised the prospect of witness tampering by the former president. Cheney declined to name the witness Tuesday night, and a Cheney spokesperson declined to comment.
Thompson has indicated the unnamed witness is unlikely to be called to testify publicly.
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