Here’s how bad Donald Trump’s day was on Thursday.
The House January 6 committee voted to subpoena him after laying bare his depraved efforts to overthrow the 2020 election and his dereliction of duty as his mob invaded the US Capitol.
But that wasn’t the worst of it for the former President.
The committee’s dramatic, though probably futile, effort to get Trump to testify was a mic drop moment to cap its last hearing before the midterm elections and came with a warning that Trump owes the nation an explanation for a day of infamy in January 2021.
The hearing featured never-before-seen footage of congressional leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, huddled in a secure location during the insurrection grappling with the implications of the pro-Trump mob’s attack on the Capitol. It also featured almost pitiful accounts of the ex-President’s desperate attempts to avoid publicly admitting he was a loser in 2020 and made a case that his full comprehension of his defeat made his subsequent actions even more heinous.
Trump only reinforced that sense in a grievance-laced, 14-page response to the committee on Friday morning in which he complained about inadequate media coverage of his crowd sizes and rehashed old 2020 election falsehoods but notably did not say whether he would comply with the subpoena.
But the developments that could hurt Trump the most happened off stage. They reflect the extraordinary legal thicket surrounding the ex-President, who has not been charged with a crime, and the distance still left to run for efforts to account for his riotous exit from power and a presidency that constantly tested the rule of law.
While Trump has frequently defied gathering investigative storms, and ever since launching his presidential campaign in 2015 has repeatedly confounded predictions of his imminent demise, there’s a sense that he’s sliding into an ever-deeper legal hole.
Supreme Court dashes Trump’s hopes in Mar-a-Lago case
As the House select committee hearing went on, the Supreme Court sent word from across the road that it’s got no interest in getting sucked into Trump’s bid to derail a Justice Department probe into classified material he kept at Mar-a-Lago.
The court turned down his emergency request to intervene, which could have delayed the case, without explaining why. No dissents were noted, including from conservative justices Trump elevated to the bench and whom he often seems to believe owe him a debt of loyalty.
For all the political drama that surrounds the continuing revelations over one of the darkest days in modern American history on January 6, it’s the showdown over classified documents that appears to represent the ex-President’s most clear cut and immediate threat of true criminal exposure.
While television stations beamed blanket coverage of the committee hearing, more news broke that hinted at further grave legal problems the ex-President could face from another Justice Department investigation – also into January 6. Unlike the House’s version, the DOJ’s criminal probe has the power to draw up indictments.
Marc Short, a former chief of staff for then-Vice President Mike Pence, was spotted leaving a courthouse in Washington, DC. Short had been compelled to testify to the grand jury for the second time, according to a person familiar with the matter, CNN’s Pamela Brown reported. Another Trump adviser, former national security aide Kash Patel, was also seen walking into an area where the grand jury meets. Patel would not tell reporters what he was doing.
New peril for Trump over classified documents
It’s often the case that Trump’s legal threats do not come one by one but instead pile up at the same time.
CNN’s Brown had reported late on Wednesday that a Trump employee had told the FBI about being directed by the ex-President to move boxes out of a basement storage room at his Florida club after Trump’s legal team received a subpoena for any classified documents. The FBI also has surveillance footage showing a staffer moving the boxes.
On the face of it, this development is troubling since it could suggest a pattern of deception that plays into a possible obstruction of justice charge. On the initial search warrant before the FBI showed up at Trump’s home in August, the bureau told a judge there could be “evidence of obstruction” at the resort.
Still, David Schoen, who was Trump’s defense lawyer in his second impeachment, told CNN’s “New Day” that though the details of what happened at Mar-a-Lago raised troubling questions, they did not necessarily amount to a case of obstructing justice.
But he added: “If President Trump or someone acting on behalf knew … that they didn’t have the right to have these documents in their possession, the documents belonged to the government or the American people, et cetera, and knowingly disobeyed the subpoena, knowingly hid the documents or kept the documents from being found, then that could theoretically constitute obstruction.”
Trump’s day of deepening legal anxiety had started off with a jolt.
On Thursday morning, New York Attorney General Letitia James asked a state court to block the Trump Organization from moving assets and continuing to perpetrate what she has alleged in a civil lawsuit is a decades-long fraud.
“There is every reason to believe that the Defendants will continue to engage in similar fraudulent conduct right up to trial unless checked by order of this Court,” James wrote in an application for a preliminary injunction linked to her $250 million suit against Trump, his three eldest children and his firm.
Trump has branded the James probe as a stunt and denied wrongdoing. The Justice Department hasn’t charged the former President, nor anyone else in its investigation over the Capitol insurrection. The House select committee cannot bring criminal charges, although it is discussing whether to send criminal referrals to the Justice Department. Trump has also blasted the DOJ’s investigation into classified documents unearthed during the FBI search of his residence at Mar-a-Lago as a witch hunt and political persecution.
Those aren’t even the only probes connected to Trump. There is also the matter of yet another investigation in Georgia over attempts by the former President and his allies to overturn the election in a crucial 2020 swing state.
Trump fires back
As always, Trump came out fighting on Thursday, one of those days when the seriousness of a crisis he is facing can often be gauged by the vehemence of the rhetoric he uses to respond.
First Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich mocked the unanimous 9-0 vote in the select committee to subpoena the former President for documents and testimony.
“Pres Trump will not be intimidate(d) by their meritless rhetoric or un-American actions. Trump-endorsed candidates will sweep the Midterms, and America First leadership & solutions will be restored,” Budowich wrote on Twitter.
Then the former President weighed in on his Truth Social network with another post that failed to answer the accusations against him, but that was clearly designed to stir a political reaction from his supporters.
“Why didn’t the Unselect Committee ask me to testify months ago? Why did they wait until the very end, the final moments of their last meeting? Because the Committee is a total ‘BUST,’” Trump wrote.
The former President has a point in asking why the panel waited so long to call him. But his obstruction of the investigation and attempts to prevent former aides from testifying means he is on thin ice in criticizing its conduct. And it is not unusual for investigators to build a case before approaching the most prominent potential target of a probe.
Given the ex-President’s history of obstructing efforts to examine his tumultuous presidency, it would be a surprise if he does not fight the subpoena, although there might be part of him that would relish a primetime spot in a live hearing.
Committee Chair Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, warned that the former President had an obligation to explain himself.
“The need for this committee to hear from Donald Trump goes beyond our fact-finding. This is a question about accountability to the American people. He must be accountable. He is required to answer for his actions,” Thompson said.
The subpoena could also give the bipartisan committee some cover from pro-Trump Republicans who claim that it is a politicized attempt to impugn Trump that has not allowed cross-examination of witnesses. If it wished to enforce a subpoena, the committee would have to seek a contempt of Congress referral to the Justice Department from the full House. It took such a step with Trump’s political guru, Steve Bannon, who was found guilty on two counts of contempt of Congress and soon faces a sentencing hearing.
But any effort to follow a similar path if Trump refuses to testify could take months and involve protracted legal battles. It’s unclear whether the Justice Department would consider this a good investment, especially given the advanced state of its own January 6 probe. And there’s a good chance the committee will be swept into history anyway, with Republicans favored to take over the House majority following the midterm elections.
Given the slim chance of Trump complying with a congressional subpoena then, many observers will see the dramatic vote to target the ex-President as yet another theatrical flourish in a set of slickly produced hearings that often resembled a television courtroom drama.
But the committee’s Republican vice chair, Rep. Liz Cheney, said the investigation was no longer just about what happened on January 6, but about the future.
“With every effort to excuse or justify the conduct of the former President, we chip away at the foundation of our Republic,” said the Wyoming lawmaker, who won’t be returning to Congress after losing her primary this summer to a Trump-backed challenger.
“Indefensible conduct is defended, inexcusable conduct is excused. Without accountability, it all becomes normal, and it will recur.”