Gotta keep ’em separated: Why the Jan. 6 panel is keeping distance from DOJ’s Trump probes

Gotta keep ’em separated: Why the Jan. 6 panel is keeping distance from DOJ’s Trump probes

As federal prosecutors ramp up their public moves against former President Donald Trump’s inner circle, the Jan. 6 select committee is keeping its own investigation on a parallel track and the Justice Department’s work at arm’s length.

The House panel’s nine lawmakers are taking pains to emphasize that their mandate is different from DOJ’s. But they’re watching with interest as DOJ investigators channel streams of new evidence with an arsenal of powerful investigative tools unavailable to the select committee.

Recent moves by DOJ have raised questions about whether the select committee would simply hand over its mountain of materials to prosecutors to aid their investigation. But the panel’s lawmakers and aides insist they have no immediate plans to do so for three main reasons: avoiding any disruption to the upcoming Oath Keepers trial; neutralizing accusations from Trump allies that they’re conducting a law enforcement investigation in disguise; and protecting their work.

The Mar-a-Lago search piqued interest on and off the Hill about whether DOJ’s two clearest investigative threads — Trump’s improper storage of government documents and his attempts to overturn the election — could ultimately join. And select panel lawmakers are curious if any of the documents seized from Trump’s estate relate to their probe.

“The explosion of interest in what happened at Mar-a-Lago took everybody on our committee by surprise. We didn’t know anything about it,” said select panel member Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.). “If there are documents there that are relevant to Jan. 6, obviously we’d be interested.”

And DOJ has recently illustrated the stark contrast between their powers and the more limited ones of the committee — not just via the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, but through the recent torrent of subpoenas and search warrants targeting dozens of Trump’s highest-profile allies connected to the Jan. 6 grand jury investigation.

DOJ has seized the phones of several Trump allies who wouldn’t fully cooperate with the panel, including John Eastman, the attorney who helped design Trump’s last-ditch bid to subvert the election; Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), who spearheaded efforts to replace department leadership with officials who would bend to Trump’s demands; and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who has bankrolled and promoted a wide range of discredited efforts to reverse the election results.

Eastman, Perry and Lindell had all managed to dodge the select committee’s efforts to obtain their phone records and requests for their testimony.

Additionally, DOJ in June raided the home of Jeffrey Clark, a former DOJ official whom Trump nearly installed atop the department to help execute his plan to remain in power. Clark had previously pleaded the Fifth to lawmakers rather than describe his involvement.

“We’ve had some defiance. We’ve taken efforts to enforce,” said panel member Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). “That’s different from [when] you’re the prosecutor, and you plunk witnesses in front of the grand jury.”

The actions by DOJ have renewed questions about when the select committee plans to share its evidence to potentially assist prosecutors’ efforts. The panel’s 1,000-plus witness transcripts are likely to remain out of prosecutors’ hands until at least late October or early November, and committee members have emphasized they’ll probably make the full batch of transcripts public before the panel expires at the end of the year.

In the meantime, panel lawmakers insist they’re not coordinating with DOJ and are maintaining their separate avenues.

“I’m excited about their movement. I have no personal knowledge beyond what’s publicly reported,” select panel chair Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) told reporters on Tuesday of DOJ’s latest burst of activity.

“We’re not in competition with the Justice Department,” he added Wednesday.

Select committee members and aides say the primary reason for withholding documents from DOJ in the immediate term is the potential to disrupt the upcoming seditious conspiracy trial of the Oath Keepers, the far-right group that allegedly helped incite the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta has so far ruled to keep the Sept. 26 trial on schedule but has indicated he’d consider a delay if the committee’s evidence lands in prosecutors’ laps before then.

“We don’t want to interfere with anything that’s ongoing,” Thompson said. “We have information. We’ve just not engaged Justice at this point.”

The panel is also sensitive to arguments from Trump supporters that it’s acting as a law enforcement arm in disguise rather than to inform legislative judgments. The committee has repeatedly emphasized that its goals are about policy, not prosecutions — to prevent a future threat to the transition of presidential power.

Former Trump White House aide Peter Navarro — who is facing contempt of Congress prosecution for defying a select committee subpoena — is among witnesses who accused the committee of secretly working with the Justice Department. But in a ruling this week, Mehta, who is also presiding over his case, ruled that Navarro had failed to establish “the Committee’s collusion with the Department.”

On top of that, the committee is withholding documents as a protective matter — they’ve exercised complete control over the public release of their evidence and are loath to put it in the hands of any other entity. Though Thompson has at times described plans to work with the Justice Department to share limited numbers of transcripts, it’s unclear whether any of them have actually been delivered.

Despite the select committee’s reticence, prosecutors appear to have already gathered evidence in many of the same investigative areas anyway. They have subpoenaed and interviewed top aides to former Vice President Mike Pence, who fended off Trump and Eastman’s efforts to have him overturn the election results on Jan. 6. They have also obtained testimony from Trump’s White House counsel Pat Cipollone and his deputy Pat Philbin, as well as another former Trump White House attorney, Eric Herschmann.

Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows who provided vivid public testimony to the committee in June about goings-on in the Trump administration, has similarly cooperated with DOJ since then.

DOJ’s latest actions appear poised to stitch together disparate elements of the Jan. 6 investigation, including Trump’s efforts to disrupt the transfer of power, the organization of a pro-Trump Jan. 6 rally, the right-wing extremists who helped instigate the breach of the Capitol and the network of Trump advisers who pushed him to seize voting machines.

Until earlier this year, prosecutors had publicly appeared to be primarily investigating the violence that erupted at the Capitol on Jan. 6. More than 850 members of the mob have been charged — including dozens affiliated with the far-right Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, whose leaders are facing seditious conspiracy charges.

Along the way, DOJ often revealed glimpses of the groups’ intersections with figures in Trump’s orbit. For example, several members of the Oath Keepers were associates of longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone.

But it wasn’t until DOJ’s latest actions that Jan. 6 panel lawmakers seemed satisfied that the department is properly investigating the former president.

“Members spoke earlier in the year about wanting to see the Department of Justice do more,” said panel member Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.). “They have, and so we should be respectful of that and acknowledge that and let them do what they need to do.”

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Author: By Kyle Cheney and Nicholas Wu