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Jan. 6 committee subpoenas former White House counsel Pat Cipollone

The panel has been ramping up the pressure, believing his testimony about former president Donald Trump could be explosive

President Donald Trump, left, speaks with White House counsel Pat Cipollone, national security adviser Robert C. O'Brien and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows outside the Oval Office on Sept. 24, 2020. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection issued a subpoena Wednesday evening to former White House counsel Pat Cipollone after blockbuster testimony from a former aide identified the lawyer as having firsthand knowledge of potential criminal activity in the Trump White House.

The decision followed extensive negotiations between Cipollone and the committee, as well as sharply escalating pressure on him in recent days to come forward and testify. Committee members have come to believe that the former counsel’s testimony could be critical to their investigation, given his proximity to Donald Trump and presence during key moments before, during and after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The subpoena is likely to trigger a lengthy legal battle.

Cipollone sat for an informal interview with the committee on April 13, according to a letter from the panel’s chairman, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), but he has declined to cooperate further.

“In the weeks since, the Select Committee has continued to obtain evidence about which you are uniquely positioned to testify; unfortunately, however, you have declined to cooperate with us further, including by providing on-the-record testimony. We are left with no choice but to issue you this subpoena,” wrote Thompson.

A statement from Thompson and the committee’s vice chairwoman, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), said the committee’s investigation had “revealed evidence that Mr. Cipollone repeatedly raised legal and other concerns about President Trump’s activities on January 6th and in the days that preceded.”

Cipollone did not respond to a request for comment.

The subpoena came a day after a whirlwind hearing featuring former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson. Early Wednesday morning, Cheney tweeted about the committee’s next major target.

“It’s time for Mr. Cipollone to testify on the record,” Cheney tweeted at 5:50 a.m. “Any concerns he has about the institutional interests of his prior office are outweighed by the need for his testimony.”

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said June 29 that Republicans cannot be loyal to both former president Donald Trump and the Constitution. (Video: The Washington Post)

Cassidy Hutchinson gives fodder for Justice Dept to investigate Trump

Cipollone has been mentioned often over the past month as various witnesses who have appeared in the committee’s public hearings have cited his steady presence in off-the-rail meetings and sage, though at times unwelcome, legal advice. But he has remained invisible to the American public, neither agreeing to sit for taped interviews nor appearing as a live witness at a committee hearing.

The committee is hoping that soon changes. Cheney, in particular, has been determined to secure Cipollone’s cooperation — so far without luck.

But the subpoena may provide cover for Cipollone to cooperate with the committee, as Trump and his allies have sought to keep those in the former president’s orbit from providing the committee with potentially damaging information.

Hutchinson in her testimony portrayed Cipollone as one of the last firewalls blocking Trump’s efforts to overturn the elections. She testified that, on the morning of Jan. 6, Cipollone came forward with an urgent request, saying “something to the effect of: ‘Please make sure we don’t go up to the Capitol, Cassidy. Keep in touch with me. We’re going to get charged with every crime imaginable if we make that movement happen.’”

Tuesday’s surprise hearing was designed in part to ramp up pressure on reluctant witnesses such as Cipollone, according to those involved with the investigation, who, like others quoted in this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations. One of those people said there has been a behind-the-scenes strategy to get other witnesses to testify — particularly Cipollone.

“He can probably give the best overview of how [former White House chief of staff Mark] Meadows, [former Trump lawyer Rudy] Giuliani and Trump were told what they were doing might be illegal,” said a person involved with the investigation.

Cheney has repeatedly told others that securing the lawyer’s appearance would be a big win for the committee. But two committee advisers said they feared his appearance will never materialize.

“Cassidy told the world that [Cipollone] has firsthand knowledge and therefore evidence of crimes Donald Trump committed,” a person close to the investigation said, speaking before the subpoena was issued. “The committee should subpoena him, hold him in contempt, and refer him to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution.”

The subpoena of Cipollone comes after extensive negotiations over his possible cooperation, according to people familiar with the matter. While some fear that the committee’s hardball tactics could backfire on investigators, other legal experts say that lawmakers have exhausted all other options and are running out of time to secure crucial evidence.

“They are at a midpoint of the hearings and they don’t have a lot of time left, and so they need to raise the temperature,” said Norm Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and counsel to House Democrats during Trump’s first impeachment. “Based on the committee’s public articulation of strong encouragement for Pat to come forward, they have seemingly tried every measure short of a subpoena and he has refused to cooperate.”

A cigar smoker with deep ties in the Federalist Society, Cipollone has kept a relatively low profile since leaving the White House, eschewing high-profile media interviews and public appearances. Though Cipollone has been a fairly reliable public ally to Trump, he is not close to the former president, according to multiple people in Trump’s orbit.

For all of the loyalists Trump surrounded himself with, Cipollone was closer to an apostate in the West Wing.

The lawyer repeatedly pushed back against some of Trump’s most conspiratorial ideas and told aides he needed to be in some of the meetings with outside advisers during which plans regarding the attempt to overturn the 2020 election results were discussed. Cipollone never agreed with Trump’s claims that the election was stolen, according to people who talked with him at the time. After Jan. 6, he argued against broadly distributed pardons.

“Him and the team were always saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to resign,’” Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser, told investigators of Cipollone’s response to Trump’s potentially illegal activity, according to a taped deposition played in public by the committee. “'We’re not going to be here if this happens, if that happens.' So I kind of took it up to just be whining, to be honest with you.”

Trump often castigated Cipollone, saying in private that he was one of the worst lawyers of all time. He even mocked Cipollone to his face in front of other advisers, saying, “Why do I have the worst lawyer ever?”

Cassidy Hutchinson's testimony was unique. The aftermath hasn't been.

Trump yelled that Cipollone always said no to him, according to a former senior administration official. Some former White House officials, however, have criticized the counsel’s office for not doing more to push back against Trump.

Cipollone has, in recent months, made several moves that signaled he was no longer close with Trump. Most prominently, he attended a book party for former attorney general William P. Barr, mingling with a crowd that included some of the committee’s eventual star witnesses. But he has privately expressed skepticism to allies about testifying, saying he fears it would set a dangerous precedent.

A Trump adviser who keeps in touch with Cipollone said he was skeptical of the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that the House had standing to ask the court to enforce a subpoena of Donald McGahn, another former White House counsel under Trump, for executive branch information.

“There are a lot of things [Cipollone] believes he shouldn’t talk about,” the adviser said. “He still respects the guy more than the way he should, given the way he was treated by [Trump]. He’s not going to go in and start talking about everything. He would be super narrow, and he’s a very careful guy. He really has strong beliefs in the institution and that he should keep privilege.”

A second person said Cipollone is still a devoted Republican and believes that Democrats in the House had repeatedly overreached in their investigations of Trump.

One Trump ally said he didn’t think Cipollone should testify.

“I think that for the institution and the presidency, I’m not so sure that’s a good idea,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). “The 9/11 Commission worked a different way. This is a stacked deck if there was ever one. They bring this lady out, drop what appears to be a bombshell; they haven’t done their due diligence. It just seems so political. If I was him, I wouldn’t go in, but it’s up to him.”

The committee came under increasing scrutiny from Trump allies on Wednesday for highlighting Hutchinson’s claims about Trump lunging at a Secret Service officer and trying to grab the wheel of the presidential SUV. One person familiar with direct knowledge of the committee’s work said the committee did not have direct evidence to corroborate or repudiate Hutchinson’s testimony, and some people involved in the committee’s work said they hoped more evidence would emerge to substantiate her claims.

Another well-known former White House counsel, who did ultimately testify to Congress about his role in the coverup of the Watergate scandal, said he believes Cipollone has a moral imperative to cooperate with the committee.

“He has taken an oath to protect and defend the Constitution on three occasions, twice when he was admitted to the bar with licenses he still holds, and once when he took the job of White House counsel, and I think oaths are serious matters,” said John Dean, Richard M. Nixon’s former counsel. “Here’s a man with 10 children. And I would think he’d want them to remember him as somebody who defended democracy for them.”

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