First Jan. 6 witness to invoke Fifth Amendment, providing new hurdle for panel’s investigation

The House Select Committee on Jan. 6 faced a new obstacle on Friday: The panel’s first witness is planning to invoke the Fifth Amendment’s right against self-incrimination.

An attorney for Jeffrey Clark, a former Justice Department official during the Trump administration, informed the panel of his client’s intention, which “could complicate the department’s willingness to prosecute him for contempt of Congress” even as officials suggest the former president and others close to him may have committed crimes, The Hill reported Friday afternoon.

Clark’s attorney notified the committee as it was preparing to take action against the former DOJ official for ignoring a subpoena to testify and for mostly refusing to answer questions posed by the panel.

“It’s a remarkable development from a man who became a central player in Trump’s efforts to get DOJ to investigate his baseless claims of 2020 election fraud, including suggesting the department send a letter to Georgia and other states urging them to delay certification of the results,” The Hill added.

(Photo by YURI GRIPAS / POOL / AFP) (Photo by YURI GRIPAS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

One of the panel’s two Republicans, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a noted Trump opponent who voted in January to impeach him a second time, suggested that Clark must be hiding something.

“People sort of talk about the Fifth Amendment without stopping to think about what he is saying if he invokes the Fifth — that he won’t answer a question because he’s worried about criminal prosecution,” she said Thursday.

“And if you think about that in the context of questions we’re asking — which have to do with his discussions with President Trump about the election — and if he feels that he can’t answer those questions about discussions with Donald Trump because he’s worried that he could be facing criminal prosecution, the American people deserve to know that,” Cheney said.

The panel had planned to convene in special session on Saturday to take Clark’s deposition, where members had suggested that the former DOJ official may claim the Fifth and then be at risk of a censure by the committee and referral by the full House for prosecution by an agency where he spent much of his professional career.

But Clark on Friday rescheduled the date on Friday to Dec. 16 due to a medical issue, The Hill added.

In October, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told NBC’s Chuck Todd that a preliminary investigation at the time by the Senate Judiciary Committee had not found any evidence that Trump was “pulling the strings” regarding an alleged scheme to replace the Justice Department’s top official, acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, with Clark.

Trump has been accused of wanting to replace Rosen with Clark after he reportedly crafted a proposal to intervene in Georgia’s certification process while also casting aspersions on the election results in other states.

“What we don’t know is who was really behind this,” Whitehouse told Todd. “The text of the transcript and the body English of the witnesses suggests that they had very little regard for this character Jeffrey Clark, who was nominally going to be the new attorney general. They doubted his qualifications to even have that role.

“So, it’s a possibility, I suppose, that he saw this moment and grabbed it, but it’s an equally real possibility that he was a cog in a larger machine, and we’ve got a lot of work to do to figure out how that machine ran through this period, who was behind it, where the money came from, and what’s been going on,” Whitehouse added.

“And you think it’s somebody other than Donald Trump? I mean — you know, when I hear that, you’re essentially saying you believe there’s somebody else involved, somebody else was pulling the strings. Who could that be besides Donald Trump?” Todd responded.

“We don’t know yet, but, you know, this guy jumped to a dark money enterprise. So, he’s been taken care of, Jeffrey Clark. There was a lot of activity around this with members of Congress. There’s just a lot left to be learned,” the Rhode Island Democrat noted further.

As for the Jan. 6 panel, members have already successfully pursued charges against one former Trump associate, Steve Bannon, after he refused to honor a subpoena to appear. He has been charged by the DOJ for contempt of Congress and now faces up to two years in prison and a $200,000 fine.

Clark’s intent to plead the Fifth throws a wrench in the panel’s plans to move against him, however. In July, he obtained a letter from the DOJ saying, essentially, that he was free to cooperate with the committee. And he got a similar letter from Trump’s team in August.

“This does complicate things,” Rizwan Qureshi, a white-collar and government investigations partner at a D.C. firm and a former assistant U.S. Attorney in the nation’s capital, told The Hill. “And it was already complicated by the fact that he’s a lawyer and was a member of the executive branch.”

Still, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said Thursday, “The Fifth Amendment is not a magic wand that makes his duty to comply with our subpoena go away.

“It must be used in a very closely tailored way, only to refuse to answer questions that might elicit information that would put him in danger of criminal prosecution,” he added.

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Jon Dougherty

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