The Trump White House is facing increased scrutiny on Capitol Hill as a powerful committee chairman wants to interview then-President Donald Trump’s former chief of staff to determine the extent of the pressure the Justice Department faced to try to overturn Joe Biden’s victory.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the chairman on the Senate Judiciary Committee, indicated that he wants to investigate allegations that former chief of staff Mark Meadows and other White House officials may have aided Trump’s pressure campaign. Durbin told CNN the committee is also interested in understanding whether there were others in the White House pushing back against Trump’s efforts behind the scenes.
The discussions within the White House — and the efforts by the former President and his allies to subvert the electoral results — are going to be the dominant focus of the panel’s work as it probes the outgoing administration’s desperate attempt to cling to power in the aftermath of the 2020 election and the run-up to the January 6 Capitol attack.
Durbin confirmed on Tuesday that he wants to speak with Meadows.
“I’d like to have the opportunity,” Durbin told CNN of Meadows.
According to internal documents obtained by the committee, Meadows sent five emails in late December and early January to then-acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, asking him to look into election fraud claims in Georgia and New Mexico and other debunked theories that Trump had won the election.
Whether Meadows agrees to talk remains to be seen. Meadows declined to comment, and Republicans would need to sign off on a subpoena if he declined to come in voluntarily.
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the committee, would not say Tuesday if he’d back a subpoena for Meadows.
“I won’t answer that until I have a chance to consider and talk to my lawyers about it.”
Grassley added: “He can call whoever he wants to,” referring to Durbin. “This is driven by the Democrats, and we can’t do anything about it. They’re going to call whoever they want to but we’re going to be there asking.”
During an extraordinary period in late December and early January, several sources familiar with internal White House discussions told CNN there was a clear split among top advisers over how to deal with false claims of election fraud that were being pushed by Trump.
The internal divide was particularly apparent, according to one source and documents obtained by congressional committees, in the way Meadows pushed the theories while former White House counsel Pat Cipollone opposed such efforts.
Rosen testified for nearly seven hours Saturday
“A guy who was the deputy attorney general to Bill Barr found a line he would not cross,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, said of Rosen after his nearly seven hours of testimony on Saturday.
Whitehouse was referring to Rosen’s resistance to “send out a letter to a variety of swing states, encouraging them to basically buy the big lie and take state action and to do that on DOJ letterhead.”
When those documents came to light, Durbin said in a statement that the “new evidence underscores the depths of the White House’s efforts to co-opt the department and influence the electoral vote certification. This is a five-alarm fire for our democracy.”
He added: “I will demand all evidence of Trump’s efforts to weaponize DOJ in his election subversion scheme. Our democracy cannot bend to the deception of Donald Trump’s Big Lie.”
Documents obtained by the House Oversight Committee also showed Meadows sent emails to Rosen asking him to investigate allegations of voter fraud in those states, including those related to an unfounded conspiracy theory, known as “Italygate,” which claims people in Italy had used military technology and satellites to remotely switch votes for Trump to Biden on US voting machines.
One of the emails appeared to indicate that Rosen had declined to set up a meeting between the FBI and a man who was promoting the Italy conspiracy theory in online videos.
On Tuesday, Durbin made clear that recent testimony from Rosen and former acting deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue has stoked committee’s interest in hearing from Meadows, as well as others inside the White House who may have aided Trump’s pressure campaign against DOJ officials at the time.
Durbin said Sunday that Rosen revealed in testimony this weekend “frightening” information about what had occurred at the Justice Department during the last days of the Trump administration.
“He told us a lot, seven hours of testimony. And I might quickly add: This was done on a bipartisan basis — Democratic staff and Republican legal staff asking questions during this period of time,” Durbin told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.”
Durbin said Rosen “was being asked by the White House, the leadership in the White House, to meet with certain people who had these wild, bizarre theories of why that election wasn’t valid, and he refused to do it.”
“There were forces within the White House who were also pushing back against the president’s wild views. But, having said that, it was a very tense period in history. We’re going to get to the bottom of it,” Durbin added.
Former US attorney BJay Pak will be the next witness interviewed by the Senate Committee, Durbin said Monday. He is expected to testify this week.
Pak, a former US attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, made news when he suddenly resigned in January in the aftermath of an audio recording with Trump pressuring Georgia’ Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to find enough votes to change the electoral results.
Meadows also took part in that call with Raffensperger.
Critical time around New Year’s Day
The House Oversight Committee obtained documents mentioning Donoghue that highlight a critical nine-day period in the week leading up to and after New Year’s Day, during which DOJ leadership faced immense pressure to validate several of Trump’s election fraud theories.
At that time, Cipollone was viewed as an ally of the DOJ officials who were pushing back against Trump and others in the White House, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Cipollone argued to Trump at a pivotal January 3 meeting that environmental lawyer Jeffrey Clark, who believed votes were secretly switched, should not be running DOJ
CNN has reached out to Cipollone for comment.
Cipollone also was against a Trump lawyer proposal to have the DOJ sign onto a brief supporting a case at the Supreme Court on election fraud, the source said. Justice officials successfully stopped Trump from potentially installing Clark as attorney general, and from getting involved in the Supreme Court case, which failed.
Meadows, however, was not in the January 3 meeting, according to the source.
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