WASHINGTON (AP) — At the last hearing on Jan. 6, he already stood out for his notable momentsRep. Liz Cheney saved the most surprising for last.
In her closing remarks, the co-chair of the House investigation committee said the panel had learned that former President Donald Trump had recently tried to contact a witness whom “you have not yet seen in these audiences.”
The witness apparently recognized the caller ID and did not answer the phone, instead contacting an attorney, who later told the committee. The committee, in turn, referred the matter to the Justice Department.
Although much uncertainty remains about the call, including its purpose and intended recipient, the way it was described Tuesday raised the possibility that Trump or someone close to him hoped to shape witness testimony in ongoing congressional hearings. until January 6. 2021, assault on the United States Capitol.
While the committee has largely focused on compiling a historical record of the attack and Trump’s role in it, Cheney’s claims about the former president’s phone call added another layer to the investigation.
And it wasn’t the first time the committee had raised the possibility of witness tampering. Among its revelations on that subject, the panel last month revealed that a witness had been contacted by someone he did not identify, reminding the person that he was perceived as “loyal” and would “do the right thing” in his statement the next day. . .
The Justice Department declined to comment on Cheney’s disclosure, and it was unclear whether prosecutors who are tracking the hearings would be able to follow up on communication with witnesses.
Still, such contact is problematic given how easy it is for prosecutors to interpret as nefarious intent, and it may be illegal in cases where someone instructs a witness in any official proceeding to lie, be uncooperative, or otherwise impede. an investigation.
“From a legal perspective, I advise my client, ‘don’t make a call, don’t tell someone to make a call, don’t do anything where it looks like you’re trying to influence a witness,’” said Michael Weinstein, a former US attorney. Department of Justice and criminal defense attorney in New Jersey.
Witness tampering prosecutions are relatively rare and, when pursued, are hardly easy, Weinstein said, as prosecutors and defense attorneys often disagree on the meaning and intent of particular language to a witness.
The federal statute even says that defendants accused of witness tampering can present as an affirmative defense that their sole intent was to encourage or induce a witness to communicate the truth.
“It’s a very difficult case because unless someone is explicit, that is, ‘Don’t testify. If you testify, I’m going to kill you,’ there are a lot of nuances,” Weinstein said.
instances summoned by the committee on January 6 would seem to imply nuance. In one, a witness said they were told that “as long as I’m still a team player, they know I’m on the right team. I’m doing the right thing. I’m protecting who I need to protect.” you know, I’ll still be in good shape at Trump World.”
The witness was reminded that Trump reads the transcripts.
Another message described by the committee involved a witness who was contacted by a person who intended to convey a message from someone “who wants to let you know that he is thinking of you. He knows that you are loyal and that you will do whatever it takes.” . the right thing when you go to make your deposition.
The committee did not identify any of the people, but some media reports identified the person who received the message as Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows.
The primary statute governing witness tampering applies to federal proceedings, whether congressional, executive, or judicial. A separate statute makes it a crime to willfully obstruct a congressional proceeding.
Prosecutors generally must establish that an official proceeding, such as a congressional hearing, was taking place, that there was an intent to influence a witness’s testimony, and that the intent was designed to conceal the truth.
That witnesses have described being contacted, or that Trump is said to have a vested interest in testimony or cooperation that could be detrimental to him, is perhaps not surprising. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation documented instances in which Trump or his associates contacted people they feared might harm them.
Trump’s longtime confidant, Roger Stone, was indicted and later convicted on witness tampering charges that accused him of urging a witness in a congressional investigation to do a “Frank Petangeli,” a reference to a character in “The Godfather.” : Part II” Lying to Lawmakers Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort also faced charges that he tried to influence witness testimony.
Mueller’s report cites an account by Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, that Trump called him a few days after the FBI issued search warrants against Cohen and told the attorney to “hang in there” and “stay strong.” . Trump’s friends told Cohen that the president loved and supported him.
At the time, Trump’s business, the Trump Organization, was paying Cohen’s legal fees, but Cohen has said that it stopped after he began cooperating with the Mueller investigation.
The Jan. 6 committee is also exploring Trump payments and fees that have gone to people who have been asked to appear before the panel.
Trump’s sprawling fundraising operation paid at least $4.8 million in “legal expenses” to more than 30 different companies between February 2021 and May of this year, campaign finance disclosures show.
That includes a $50,000 payment to a law firm in which one of Steve Bannon’s attorneys is a partner. Bannon faces trial next week on charges of defying the committee’s 1/6 subpoena. His attorney, M. Evan Corcoran, did not return an email seeking comment.
Separately, the committee noted that Trump’s political action committee made a $1 million charitable contribution to a foundation, the Institute of Conservative Association, where Meadows is a senior partner. That contribution was made in July 2021, months before Meadows stopped his cooperation with the committee. An attorney for Meadows declined to comment Wednesday.
The money was mentioned last month by a committee investigator who alleged that the large sums Trump collected from supporters to promote the lie that the election was stolen went to his PAC.
But proving that the payment to Meadows’ foundation was inappropriate or intended to influence her testimony would be a significant challenge, said Steven Lubet, a Northwestern University law professor.
“You would have to prove that it is a corrupt motive and you would have to prove that the intent is to hinder, delay, prevent or influence testimony,” Lubet said. “And transferring the money doesn’t set any of those requirements, so there would have to be some additional proof that those things have happened.”
Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Brian Slodysko in Washington contributed to this report.