WASHINGTON - The US House of Representatives committee probing the Jan 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol by Donald Trump supporters voted unanimously on Thursday to subpoena the former president, a move that could lead to criminal charges if he does not comply.
The House select committee’s seven Democratic and two Republican members voted 9-0 in favour of issuing a subpoena for Trump to provide documents and testimony under oath in connection with the storming of the Capitol.
“He must be accountable. He is required to answer for his actions. He is required to answer for those police officers who put their lives and bodies on the line to defend our democracy.
"He is required to answer to those millions of Americans whose votes he wanted to throw out as part of his scheme to remain in power,” the panel’s Democratic chairman, Representative Bennie Thompson, said.
The vote came after the committee spent more than two hours making its case – via statements from members, documents, and recorded testimony – that Trump planned to deny his 2020 election defeat in advance, failed to call off the thousands of supporters who stormed the Capitol, and followed through with his false claims that the election was stolen even as close advisers told him he had lost.
Federal law says that failure to comply with a congressional subpoena for testimony or documents is a misdemeanour, punishable by one to 12 months imprisonment.
If the select committee’s subpoena is ignored, the full House must vote on whether to make a referral to the Department of Justice, which has the authority to decide whether to bring charges.
The subpoena is expected within days, and would typically give Trump a date by which he should comply. It was not clear when the full House – which is out of Washington until mid-November – could vote on whether to make a criminal referral.
Trump responded to the vote with angry comments on his social media service Truth Social.
“Why did they wait until the very end, the final moments of their last meeting? Because the Committee is a total ‘BUST’ that has only served to further divide our Country which, by the way, is doing very badly – A laughing stock all over the World?” he wrote.
One former Trump adviser, Steve Bannon, is due to be sentenced next week after a jury found him guilty of contempt of Congress charges for not complying with a subpoena from the committee.
But the Justice Department declined to charge another, Mark Meadows, who the House had also suggested should be prosecuted.
Federal prosecutors are also investigating the former president’s removal of classified documents from the White House at the end of his term, and have warned that they believe they have not yet recovered all the documents taken.
The House select committee has been investigating the attack on the Capitol, which left more than 140 police officers injured and led to several deaths, for more than a year, interviewing over 1,000 witnesses.
Thompson said he recognised that subpoenaing a former president was a serious action, but argued that the stakes were high for the future of US democracy.
Thursday’s meeting followed eight hearings earlier this year and one in July 2021.
There were no live witnesses on Thursday, but the panel aired videotaped testimony from earlier interviews to build a case that Trump’s efforts to overturn his November 2020 presidential election defeat constituted illegal conduct, far beyond normal politics.
The committee presented evidence from Secret Service agents and intelligence officials who said before Jan 6 that they expected violence at the pro-Trump rally and believed there were caches of weapons around Washington.
“Their plan is to literally kill people. Please please take this tip seriously and investigate further,” a Dec 26 Secret Service email said.
Thursday’s vote could be the committee’s last public action before the Nov 8 midterm elections that will determine whether President Joe Biden’s fellow Democrats or Trump’s Republicans control Congress.
The committee is also due to release a report on its findings within the coming weeks.
Representative Liz Cheney, the panel’s Republican vice-chairwoman, said the panel might ultimately decide to make a series of criminal referrals to the Department of Justice.
The hearings held this year may have convinced some Republicans that Trump bears some responsibility for the attack.
A two-day Reuters/Ipsos poll concluded on Wednesday showed two in five Republicans view Trump as at least partly responsible for the attack.
Previous hearings focused on Trump’s inaction before and during the storming of the Capitol, the former president’s pressure on Vice President Mike Pence to deny Biden’s victory, militias whose members participated in the attack, and Trump’s interactions with close advisers questioning his false allegations of massive voter fraud.
The one-time reality television star has denied wrongdoing and hinted he will seek the White House again in 2024. He regularly holds rallies where he continues to claim falsely that he lost the election because of widespread fraud.
More than 880 people have been arrested in connection with the violence, with more than 400 guilty pleas so far. REUTERS