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January 6 committee prepares for a busy August

By Annie Grayer and Zachary Cohen, CNN

The House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack will enter a crucial fact-finding phase in August as it pursues new leads and revisits previously reluctant witnesses to prepare for more hearings in September.

After a series of eight jam-packed hearings, the committee feels it has so much more information to share that it will balance hearing prep with the writing of its final report, which is also slated to be released this fall ahead of the November midterm elections.

August is expected to be a busy month, but almost all of that work will happen behind the scenes. The committee is still gathering evidence and has reengaged in negotiations with some witnesses who had previously resisted sitting for a deposition, sources told CNN. The committee could also call back witnesses it has interviewed previously, to corroborate new details, sources added.

“In the course of these hearings, we have received new evidence, and new witnesses have bravely stepped forward,” GOP Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who serves as committee vice chair, said during Thursday’s hearing. “Efforts to litigate and overcome immunity and executive privilege claims have been successful, and those continue. Doors have opened, new subpoenas have been issued, and the dam has begun to break.”

She added, “We have considerably more to do. We have far more evidence to share with the American people, and more to gather.”

Cheney told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” on Sunday, for example, that the committee could “contemplate a subpoena” for Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, a conservative activist and wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, if she does not voluntarily meet with the committee over her role in advocating to overturn the 2020 election results.

Committee will dig into mysteries around US Secret Service

Committee members feel they have just scratched the surface in terms of uncovering what’s behind potentially missing text messages from Secret Service personnel from January 5 and 6, 2021, shortly after the messages were requested by oversight officials investigating the agency’s response to the US Capitol attack.

The panel has subpoenaed records from the agency, and has received thousands of pages of documents, including radio traffic of then-Vice President Mike Pence’s detail communicating about how to move him to a secure location on January 6, which was used in Thursday night’s hearing. But as of last week, the committee had only received one text message. In August, members want more documents and another briefing from the Department of Homeland Security inspector general.

“It remains a big mystery to me,” Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a member on the panel, told CNN last week.

Separately, tensions have escalated between the committee and three Secret Service agents who were said to have been involved in a heated exchange with then-President Donald Trump when he was told he could not go to the Capitol after his rally on January 6.

Trump’s former deputy White House chief of staff, Tony Ornato, who currently works for the Secret Service, Trump’s former Secret Service lead agent Robert Engel, and the driver of Trump’s motorcade on January 6 have all retained private counsel to engage with the committee, Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California said.

“Some of the officers who said they’d be coming and talking under oath, they have not come in and they’ve recently retained private counsel, which is unusual, but they have a right to do that,” Lofgren, a member of the panel, told CNN Thursday. “So, we’ll see.”

All three individuals had engaged with the committee previously, but sources say the committee is pursuing how to interview Engel and the driver in August.

Ornato, meanwhile, is considered a different story, in part because he was serving in a political position within the Trump White House on January 6, and members are wary of his willingness to be forthcoming because of his perceived loyalty to the former President, two sources told CNN.

Asked Friday if Ornato was cooperating with the panel, Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois bluntly told CNN: “No.”

Former Trump White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified in June that Ornato told her that Trump was so enraged at his Secret Service detail for blocking him from going to the Capitol on the day of the attack that he “reached up towards the front of the vehicle to grab at the steering wheel” and “then used his free hand to lunge towards” Engel.

Ornato’s role in attempting to facilitate Trump’s trip to the Capitol and potential communications with Secret Service agents during that time remain of interest to the committee.

The writing of the report and the question of a criminal referral

At the same time, sources tell CNN the committee has already started writing its report, but there is still much debate over what direction it should go.

A key question the committee will have to answer is whether the report should include a criminal referral of Trump.

Most members on the panel feel that the hearings have clearly laid out that Trump committed a crime for his role leading up to and on January 6, but believe it is up to the Department of Justice to pursue further. Cheney told Tapper on Sunday that the committee hasn’t made a decision about a criminal referral of Trump.

“I sure as hell hope they have a criminal investigation at this point into Donald Trump,” Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria, another member of the panel, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, while noting she had no direct knowledge about the matter.

Kinzinger told CNN last week the committee has proven that Trump committed a crime, but “it’s up to Justice now to make a decision.”

Decisions to make on hold-out witnesses

Even though there appears to be a growing number of previously reluctant witnesses now willing to engage with the committee, there is still a considerable number of individuals refusing to cooperate.

One of the biggest question marks is Ginni Thomas, whom committee members said Sunday is engaging with the panel through her attorney but could face a subpoena if she declines to appear voluntarily.

“The committee is engaged with her counsel. We certainly hope that she will agree to come in voluntarily, but the committee is fully prepared to contemplate a subpoena if she does not. I hope it doesn’t get to that. I hope she will come in voluntarily,” Cheney told Tapper on Sunday. “So, it’s very important for us to speak with her and as I said, I hope she will agree to do so voluntarily, but I’m sure we will contemplate a subpoena if she won’t.”

The five House Republicans the committee subpoenaed, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, have refused to cooperate with the committee, and the panel has yet to do anything to push these members further.

Raskin signaled little appetite to refer House Republicans who have defied subpoenas to DOJ on contempt charges, telling CNN last week it could lead to “wild goose chases.”

Many members are approaching August with open minds, letting the investigation play out before determining what the hearings in September will focus on.

“You’re getting way ahead of us,” Raskin said. “There’s certainly a number of significant leads to fill in details that have come in and we’re going to pursue those. We’re going to figure out this whole mystery with Secret Service texts.”

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