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Jan. 6 committee broaches witness tampering and Trump

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and former president Donald Trump have expanded in recent months on what they said during their Jan. 6 call. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

A few weeks ago, Jan. 6 committee member Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) floated a specific crime she suggested President Donald Trump might have committed that day: “corruptly” obstructing or attempting to obstruct an “official proceeding” — that is, Congress’s counting of electoral votes.

On Wednesday, the committee’s chairman pointed to another area of inquiry with both potential criminal implications and an interesting backstory: witness tampering.

In the panel’s letter asking for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) to voluntarily cooperation with the committee, Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) notes that McCarthy’s review of Trump’s role in the events of Jan. 6 shifted over time, eventually becoming much more favorable to the former president.

Soon after Jan. 6, McCarthy blamed Trump for his tardy response to the attack on the Capitol and even suggested a historic censure of Trump. It was also disclosed during Trump’s impeachment that McCarthy had spoken with Trump during the riot, at which point Trump told him, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” according to Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.).

A few months later, though, McCarthy was talking as if Trump’s response once the riot began was sufficient.

“I was the first person to contact him when the riots” were going on, McCarthy said. “He didn’t see it. [How] he ended the call was saying — telling me, he’ll put something out to make sure to stop this. And that’s what he did; he put a video out later.”

The letter suggestively notes this happened after McCarthy made the decision to visit the former president, whom he had blamed for the Capitol riot, at Mar-a-Lago on Jan. 28. And then it just comes out and asks McCarthy whether Trump’s team had any bearing on his reversal.

“Your public statements regarding January 6th have changed markedly since you met with Trump,” Thompson wrote. “At that meeting, or at any other time, did President Trump or his representatives discuss or suggest what you should say publicly, during the impeachment trial (if called as a witness), or in any later investigation about your conversations with him on January 6th?”

This is surely speculative; there’s no specific reason to believe that there was such coordination. But New York University law professor Ryan Goodman flagged an interesting and relevant exchange from the very same interview in which McCarthy shifted blame away from Trump, in April.

In that interview on “Fox News Sunday,” then-host Chris Wallace asked McCarthy point-blank about whether there was any coordination with Trump on a defense of his Jan. 6 actions.

McCarthy denied it, repeatedly:

WALLACE: I want to ask you a specific question about this, because there have been and are continuing to be investigations of what happened on January 6th. We'll talk about the commission in a minute.
Has the president ever reached out to you, since that report came out, to discuss what you and he talked about in the January 6th phone call? And did you say to him, ‘I can’t because we’re under oath?’
WALLACE: That never happened?
MCCARTHY: Never happened.
WALLACE: And you would --
MCCARTHY: Never even close.

McCarthy added that he had “never even heard that rumor before until today.”

That represents a pretty ironclad denial of what the committee is now asking about — at least as pertains to whether Trump specifically sought to coordinate a message or influence what McCarthy might say about their talks on Jan. 6.

But Wallace prodded further. Interestingly, he asked McCarthy specifically about whether such a thing would constitute witness tampering if it had occurred, and McCarthy said it would:

WALLACE: And if it did happen, you would agree that would be witness tampering?
MCCARTHY: Yes. But it never happened. Never even came close. Never had any conversation like that.

Wallace then again brought up the issue in an interview with Cheney a few weeks later, playing the clip of McCarthy. He asked about witness tampering as an area of interest, and Cheney seemed to confirm it was

“What do you think that accomplishes?” Wallace asked about probing the matter. He added: “Do you think that raises issues of his — President Trump’s responsibility for the riot, whether or not he’s trying to tamper with Kevin McCarthy as a witness?”

Cheney responded, “Certainly,” and then she meandered, not focusing on the tampering idea.

Even back then, Goodman suggested the questions might mean Wallace knew or thought this might be something important. It’s also entirely possible Wallace merely suspected the topic might have come up given the short time period between Jan. 6 and McCarthy’s Mar-a-Lago trip.

Trump also has a history of doing things that certainly at least walk up to the line of witness tampering, including a tweet attacking former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch even as she testified at his earlier impeachment, and attacks on Michael Cohen invoking Cohen’s family after the former personal attorney for Trump flipped on him. Yovanovitch called Trump’s tweet “very intimidating” in her testimony, while Cohen postponed his own testimony, citing Trump’s “threats.”

It’s also worth noting that McCarthy is hardly the only Republican to adjust his Jan. 6 commentary in a more Trump-friendly direction. While he’s certainly a case-in-point when it comes to Republicans trying to change the subject and the narrative, plenty of Republicans who faulted Trump initially soon dropped the subject. Perhaps, like the others, McCarthy simply decided Trump was there to stay and that it was time to adjust accordingly.

Either way, it’s a notable suggestion from the Jan. 6 committee, and one that like Cheney’s comments last month suggests a specific investigative target — a target that, if actually substantiated, would involve the potential for a criminal referral to the Justice Department.