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Trump strategizes with Hill allies to go on offense against January 6 criminal probe

<i>Andrew Harnik/AP</i><br/>Donald Trump has reached out to his top allies on Capitol Hill to strategize how they can help defend him against potential criminal charges over his effort to overturn the 2020 election.
Andrew Harnik/AP
Donald Trump has reached out to his top allies on Capitol Hill to strategize how they can help defend him against potential criminal charges over his effort to overturn the 2020 election.

By Melanie Zanona, Annie Grayer and Alayna Treene, CNN

(CNN) — Donald Trump has reached out to his top allies on Capitol Hill to strategize how they can help defend him against potential criminal charges over his effort to overturn the 2020 election – the latest example of Republicans racing behind the scenes to use their power and platforms to shield the former president without knowing details yet about the criminal investigation.

Trump spoke Tuesday with both House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, who leads the House GOP’s messaging efforts, according to multiple sources familiar with the conversation.

One source described the call with Stefanik as “a long conversation,” and said the two went over her plans to go on offense through her role on the House subcommittee on alleged weaponization of the federal government, as well as her overall efforts to rally support from the House GOP conference around the former president and attack special counsel Jack Smith.

McCarthy initially called Trump after learning of the letter, two sources familiar with the call told CNN.

Trump advisers, meanwhile, helped arrange his conversation with Stefanik, the sources said.

Trump’s Hill outreach comes on the heels of him announcing on Tuesday he had received a letter from Smith on Sunday indicating he is a criminal target, a sign he may be soon charged by the special counsel. Republicans, particularly in the House, were quick to downplay Trump’s role in the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and vowed to use every tool at their disposal to fight back against any potential charges – a familiar playbook for the GOP, which launched a multi-pronged attack on Smith after Trump was indicted in the classified documents case, and rallied behind Trump in the wake of the Manhattan district attorney indictment.

One of the ideas now being batted around by Republicans is threatening to go after Smith’s budget. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, one of Trump’s staunchest allies on Capitol Hill, announced Tuesday he plans to soon introduce legislation to defund the special counsel. Firebrand GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia has previously called for similar action.

“In the coming hours, the coming days, I will be introducing legislation under my name in the House of Representatives as a freestanding bill to defund the Jack Smith investigation,” Gaetz said on his podcast, saying he wanted to specifically focus on alleged election interference and supposed lack of transparency.

Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, another prominent Trump supporter and member of the hardline House Freedom Caucus, also echoed support for the idea, calling Smith “out of control.”

“What we’re looking at while we’re dealing with appropriations is some of the dollars that are going to the relevant agencies, because if the Department of Justice is going to have a two-tier system about how they choose to investigate and prosecute, and maybe they don’t need that much money,” he said.

House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan has also called on Congress to stop funding Department of Justice investigations into elected officials, political candidates and their families until a new policy for how they are managed is developed.

While such proposals are dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate, the bill could gain traction in the House, where top Republicans are under pressure to use their majority – and particularly, the upcoming appropriations process – to run defense for Trump, laying the groundwork for a potentially messy funding fight this fall.

Democrats say Republicans are taking extraordinary steps to intervene in an ongoing criminal investigation, and are making accusations about the Justice Department unfairly targeting Trump even before they’ve seen Smith’s evidence in the January 6 investigation.

But Republicans are undeterred: Jordan told CNN on Tuesday he plans to speak with his counsel and other members about what steps his committee can take in light of the Trump target letter.

Jordan has already asked Smith to hand over information about the scope of his probes. There’s also been talk about trying to get Smith to testify before Congress, though Jordan has not yet formally asked him to appear.

In the coming days, Republicans are also expected to turn their messaging focus to their own investigations, which have targeted President Joe Biden, his family and some of his Cabinet officials.

On Wednesday the House Oversight Committee is expected to publicly hear from two IRS whistleblowers whose closed-door testimony alleging that the Hunter Biden criminal probe was mishandled has ignited a firestorm among House Republicans and led to calls to impeach Attorney General Merrick Garland.

And to probe further, key GOP committee chairs have requested interviews with US Attorney David Weiss, who is overseeing the Hunter Biden criminal probe, and a number of other individuals involved in the investigation as well.

But not every Republican is comfortable with their party’s efforts to meddle in an ongoing criminal probe.

Vulnerable freshman Rep. Marc Molinaro of New York said he wants to “stay out” of the legal drama surrounding the former president.

“We’re gonna let it play out. You know, I’ve been desperately attempting to stay out of presidential politics,” he said. “We got a lot of good candidates and we’ll see where it all ends.”

And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – who cut ties with Trump after January 6 but did not vote to convict him in his second impeachment trial – was characteristically silent on Tuesday when asked about the news of Trump receiving a target letter from Smith. McConnell still has not commented on either of Trump’s indictments.

Despite Trump facing the potential of a third criminal indictment, several House Republicans made clear they would support the former president no matter what.

Texas Rep. Troy Nehls said emphatically that he still supports him.

“I have from the beginning,” Nehls said. “Donald Trump’s the leader of our party, and Donald Trump is going to be Joe Biden in 2024 for a second time.”

Nehls accused the “far left” of having a “severe crush on this guy.”

“They have a crush on Donald Trump. They wake up every morning thinking about him. They go to bed at night thinking about all these indictments,” Nehls said. He attacked “that nut job up there in Manhattan” and asked, “When will the left stop?”

He added that the investigation shows that Democrats were “scared shitless” of Trump.

“Why are they doing everything they can to prevent him from being on the ballot in 2024? I’ll tell you why. Because Donald Trump will win in 2024 and the left just they’re scared shitless,” he said.

Tennessee Rep. Tim Burchett said that he “probably” would not support Trump in 2024 “if he’s found guilty of a felony.” But he added that Trump will benefit politically from this.

“Every time they indicted him, his numbers go up,” Burchett said when asked if this calls into question Trump’s viability as a candidate.

GOP Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, who called the DOJ target letter of Trump “unfair” and accused the DOJ of going after Trump “from day one,” told CNN that the earlier indictments of the former president so far are only further inciting his base of supporters.

“Look at his base,” Norman told CNN. “It’s inciting his base because wrong is wrong. They know that.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Manu Raju, Morgan Rimmer, Nikki Carvajal and Lauren Fox contributed to this report.

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