Four former aides to Donald Trump subpoenaed by a committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot could face a consequence that Trump officials who defied congressional requests never worried about during his presidency: serving time in federal prison.
Stephen Bannon, Dan Scavino, Kash Patel and Mark Meadows were all given an Oct. 7 deadline to turn over documents to the House select committee probing the assault their former boss instigated.
None of the four responded to HuffPost’s queries. A man who answered Patel’s phone hung up after he learned who was calling.
Select committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) told reporters last week that he was prepared to refer criminal contempt charges to the Department of Justice ― punishable by as much as a year in prison ― for those who refuse to comply.
“We’ll do criminal referrals and let that process work out,” he said.
Trump, who tried to overthrow American democracy after losing the 2020 election by 7 million votes, on Wednesday attacked the select committee in a statement, and essentially condoned the violent attack that led to the deaths of five police officers and injured another 140.
“The real insurrection happened on November 3rd, the Presidential Election, not on January 6th ― which was a day of protesting the Fake Election results,” Trump wrote.
Previously, he had claimed he would block the subpoenas on the grounds of “executive privilege.” It is unclear whether Trump understands that, as a former president, he no longer has the standing to assert that privilege, and that the current president must do it for him ― something that Joe Biden’s White House has said it is inclined not to do in the case of the Jan. 6 investigation.
Current aides to Trump did not respond to HuffPost’s queries about his actions regarding the four subpoenas.
All four subpoenaed aides were deeply involved with Trump’s efforts to reverse his Nov. 3 election loss. Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, helped Trump try to coerce Georgia officials into falsely reversing Biden’s narrow victory in that state. Patel was handpicked by Trump as his acting defense secretary’s chief of staff in the administration’s final weeks. Scavino, Trump’s social media aide, was with Trump the afternoon of the deadly Capitol attack. And Bannon played a key role in attracting Trump’s followers to Washington, D.C., that day, and persuading Trump to push his vice president to rule the election results in some states fraudulent and to declare Trump the winner ― a power Mike Pence did not have.
White House staff and Trump administration officials were able to defy Congress’ demands for documents and testimony with relative impunity during his four years in office, with Trump loyalists Jeff Sessions and William Barr running the Department of Justice. Now, with the department under Biden appointee Merrick Garland, prosecutors are much more likely to push ahead with enforcement actions.
“Each of these men should be ready and willing to protect their country against violent insurrection, but as a reminder: noncompliance with Congress invites criminal sanctions,” committee member Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) wrote in a statement posted to Twitter on Tuesday.
Such sanctions, though, are not likely to come quickly. Even legal experts who support aggressively prosecuting Trump and his aides for their assault on democracy predicted that the mere threat of jail will not move those who could face even worse consequences if the full truth comes out.
“It might not get all of them to comply. It depends on how much they have to risk by each path open to them,” said Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard.
J. Michael Luttig, a former federal appellate court judge who advised Pence that he did not have the authority to simply declare Trump the winner, said congressional subpoenas have also become politically polarized over the years. “There is no longer an especial opprobrium that comes with congressional contempt, particularly for political figures,” he said.
Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor, agreed that the threat of prison at some future point might not be enough to force some witnesses. “Not sure if it will work. But it must be pursued,” he said, adding that he believes that both the Justice Department and the federal courts will be amenable to moving legal action along. “Hopefully the courts will not let the witnesses and defendants weaponize the delay.”
The committee last week issued a second round of subpoenas to 11 former Trump aides and allies, focusing on those who organized the pre-insurrection rally Trump invited his followers to attend, at which he instructed them to march on the Capitol to intimidate Pence and Congress into doing what he wanted. Those documents are due on Oct. 13.
All 15 subpoenaed witnesses are also commanded to appear for depositions in the coming weeks.
Trump became the first president in 232 years of U.S. elections to refuse to turn over power peacefully to his successor.
He spent weeks attacking the legitimacy of the Nov. 3 election he lost, starting his lies in the predawn hours of Nov. 4 that he had really won in a “landslide” and that his victory was being “stolen” from him. Those falsehoods continued through a long string of failed lawsuits challenging the results in a handful of states.
Trump and some of his advisers even discussed using the United States military by invoking the Insurrection Act or declaring martial law to retain power, including by seizing voting machines and ordering “re-votes” in states narrowly won by Biden.
But military leaders had earlier made it clear they would not involve themselves in the political process ― so after the Electoral College finally voted on Dec. 14, making Biden’s win official, Trump turned to a last-ditch scheme to pressure his own vice president into canceling the ballots of millions of voters in several states and declaring Trump the winner during the pro forma congressional certification of the election results on Jan. 6.
Trump asked his followers to come to Washington that day, and when tens of thousands of people showed up, Trump urged them to march on the Capitol to intimidate Pence into doing what he wanted.
The mob of supporters attempted to do just that by storming the building. They even chanted “Hang Mike Pence” after Pence refused to comply with Trump’s demands.
A police officer died after being assaulted during the insurrection, and four others took their own lives in the days and weeks that followed. One of the rioters was fatally shot as she climbed through a broken window into an anteroom containing still-evacuating House members, and three others in the crowd died during the melee.
While the House impeached Trump for inciting the attack, all but seven Senate Republicans, led by Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, chose not to vote to convict him ― thereby letting Trump continue his political career even as he faces several investigations into his post-election actions.
Trump and his allies are now engaged in a campaign to paint the rioter who was shot, Ashli Babbitt, as a martyr, and to portray the hundreds of people who have been arrested as victims of political persecution. Trump himself continues to suggest he will run for the 2024 GOP nomination, and is using his Save America committee’s money to continue spreading the same falsehoods that culminated in the Jan. 6 violence.