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In dramatic fashion — a voice vote was called so the “yea” vote of each of its nine members was recorded — the January 6th Committee on Thursday subpoenaed former President Donald Trump to testify before the panel of House members.
It made for good political theater, but it is unlikely to do much — especially in the short term — to enhance the public’s understanding of the events of Jan. 6, 2021 and what led up to them.
For months, the committee, which Trump has disparaged from the beginning as a partisan witch hunt, has built the case that the former president knew he lost the 2020 election but refused to concede this fact, instead building a false case that the election was stolen from him, a claim he continues to make even now. A claim that led his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 to stop and delay the certification of the election results.
Recent committee hearings, including Thursday’s, focused on Trump’s refusal, for hours, to call off the rioters. Video shown by the committee on Thursday showed congressional leaders, Republicans and Democrats, huddling together to get updates about conditions in the capitol and asking for help in dispersing the rioters. They also had conversations with Vice President Mike Pence, who in his role as President of the Senate, was set to preside over Congress’ certification of the 2020 presidential election results. Trump had erroneously claimed that Pence could reject the results and pressured him to do so.
The video portrays these congressional leaders, especially House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as taking charge as the capitol was under siege while Trump was holed in at the White House after speaking at a rally and encouraging his supporters to go to the capitol to take back an election he said was stolen.
Evidence gathered by the committee, which includes two Republicans, has shown Trump as incapable of accepting his election defeat and setting off a series of events, including the violent protests on Jan. 6, that only he could stop.
“We are obligated to seek answers directly from the man who set this all in motion,” Wyoming Republican and committee Vice Chair Rep. Liz Cheney said. “And every American is entitled to those answers, so we can act now to protect our republic.”
Now, as they near the end of their work, the committee has issued a perhaps futile attempt to seek those answers from Trump. Despite questions of timing and Trump’s willingness to cooperate, their rationale, as explained by committee chairman Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, is persuasive.
“The committee needs to do everything in our power to tell the most complete story possible and to provide recommendations to help ensure nothing like Jan. 6 ever happens again,” he said before the vote to subpoena Trump.
“We need to be fair and thorough and gain a full context for the evidence we’ve obtained,” Thompson added. “But, 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 action. He is required to answer for those police officers who put their lives and their bodies on the line to defend our democracy. He is required to answer to those millions of Americans whose votes he wanted to throw out as part of his scheme to remain in power … So, it is our obligation to seek Donald Trump’s testimony,” Thompson said.
Trump reacted to the subpoena with a lengthy letter repeating many of his unfounded fraud claims. In the letter, which is not an official response to the subpoena, he did not commit to testifying before the committee. However, he has said he is considering testifying before the committee – if he can do it live.
That would certainly make for must-watch political theater, even if it might not shed a lot of light on the committee’s specific questions. But any avenue for the committee to receive Trump’s testimony would be better than no engagement from the former president.
If, instead, Trump chooses to fight the subpoena, which he has done with other requests for testimony from himself and his former staff, a legal battle could take years to resolve.
For now, keep in mind that it is easy to say almost anything on social media and at political rallies. But, it is much harder to make unsubstantiated claims under oath.
As Rep. Thompson emphasized, the panel, which conducted more than 1,000 interviews and reviewed thousands of documents, needs to hear from Trump himself to paint the fullest possible picture of the events of Jan. 6. The sooner, the better.