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House investigators examining last year’s attack on the U.S. Capitol have set their sights on a figure they deem crucial to discerning former President Trump’s actions through the long hours of the riot: Trump’s former lead attorney.
Pat Cipollone, who served as White House counsel for the final half of Trump’s tenure, has emerged in recent days as a central player in the behind-the-scenes drama that unfolded at the White House on Jan. 6, 2021, after a mob of Trump supporters had breached the Capitol and a team of Trump’s increasingly frantic aides scrambled to convince a reluctant president to call them off.
During Tuesday’s revealing hearing on Capitol Hill, Cassidy Hutchinson, the former lead adviser to Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows, said Cipollone had foreshadowed trouble on Jan. 6 days in advance, and grew furious during the attack when Trump and Meadows took no steps to curb the violence, even as the mob was threatening to kill Vice President Mike Pence.
“Mark, something needs to be done or people are going to die and the blood is going to be on your effing hands,” Cipollone warned Meadows, according to Hutchinson’s firsthand account.
Cipollone appears to be a useful foil to Meadows. Both men had front-row visibility to the numerous plots to keep the president in power. But where the committee has cast Meadows as a servile Trump loyalist, they’ve made clear they see Cipollone as being one of the few inner-circle figures to protest the president’s bellicose plans for Jan. 6, including his persistent intention to march with his supporters to the Capitol that day.
“Please make sure we don’t go up to the Capitol, Cassidy,” Hutchinson told the select committee, relaying Cipollone’s plea to her the morning of Jan. 6. “Keep in touch with me. We’re going to get charged with every crime imaginable if we make that movement happen.”
Cipollone has met with investigators informally behind closed doors, but has not testified under oath. That’s a mistake, said Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the vice chair of the select committee, who has used the public hearings to urge his cooperation.
“We think the American people deserve to hear from Mr. Cipollone personally,” she said during another hearing on June 21.
After numerous public pleas, the committee lost its patience on Wednesday, issuing a subpoena for Cipollone’s testimony.
The subpoena called him “uniquely positioned” to help the committee as it looks to examine Trump’s “awareness of and involvement in activities undertaken to subvert the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.”
The White House counsel was aware of Trump’s various strategies for clinging to power following his election defeat. It was Cipollone’s office that pushed back on the scheme to send fake electors from states Trump lost as “not legally sound.”
“Hey, this isn’t legally sound, we have fleshed this out internally, it’s fine that you think this but we’re not going to entertain this in an official White House capacity on behalf of the President, we’re putting a stop to this,” Hutchinson characterized the White House Counsel’s Office as saying in a portion of her testimony released in court documents in April.
He was also in the now infamous Jan. 3 Oval Office meeting where a host of legal advisers talked Trump out of firing his acting attorney general and replacing him with a Justice Department lawyer willing to advance the president’s baseless claims of election fraud.
The idea that the Department of Justice would falsely tell key states that it had suspicions of such fraud, Cipollone warned in that meeting, was the legal equivalent of “a murder-suicide pact,” according to testimony provided last week by Richard Donoghue, who was acting deputy attorney general at the time.
Cipollone or his office also repeatedly raised legal concerns about Trump’s planned speech and actions on Jan. 6 and repeatedly sought to urge White House action as the attack unfolded.
The White House counsel’s office wanted to strike language from Trump’s speech encouraging his supporters to “fight” as well as march toward the Capitol. Trump did both anyway.
“Both Mr. Herschmann and White House counsel’s office were urging the speechwriters to not include that language for legal concerns, and also for the optics of what it could portray the president wanting to do that day,” Hutchinson said, referring to another top Trump lawyer, Eric Herschmann.
Cipollone also told Hutchinson a few days before the attack he was worried if Trump marched to the Capitol it could appear he was helping to incite a riot or abet other crimes.
“Pat was concerned it would look like we were obstructing justice or obstructing the Electoral College count … that it would look like we were obstructing what was happening on Capitol Hill,” she said.
Cheney has repeatedly indicated they view Cipollone’s actions on Jan. 6 favorably as well.
“Indeed, our evidence shows that Mr. Cipollone and his office tried to do what was right. They tried to stop a number of President Trump’s plans for Jan. 6,” she said in the panel’s fourth hearing.
Hutchinson’s in-person testimony added new details to that portrait.
Cipollone at least twice urged Meadows to demand action from the president, both when rioters first stormed the Capitol and again when he heard there were chants of ‘“Hang Mike Pence” coming from the crowd.
Hutchinson said Cipollone told Meadows something to the effect of, “This is effing crazy, we need to be doing something more.”
Meadows, she said, was indifferent, responding “something to the effect of, ‘You heard him, Pat. He thinks Mike deserves it.’ ”
Cipollone took on the difficult role of White House counsel in the fall of 2018, just as the midterm elections were approaching and Democrats, poised to flip the House from GOP control, were readying to pepper the Trump White House with new investigations.
He was also the face of Trump’s legal team during his first impeachment in 2019 and 2020, when Democrats alleged the then-president had abused his power in leveraging critical defense aid to Ukraine in order to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Biden family. The House impeached him with no Republican support; the Senate declined to convict.
Democrats, at the time, had hammered Cipollone and the other members of Trump’s defense team, saying they had championed arguments with no legal basis. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had suggested they should all be disbarred.
“I don’t know how they can retain their lawyer status, in the comments that they’re making,” Pelosi had said.
By the time of Trump’s second impeachment trial in 2021, Trump was out of the White House and Cipollone was no longer representing him. He had returned to a private firm in Washington, D.C., falling off the media’s radar until the recent House hearings on the Jan. 6 attacks thrust him back into the public eye.
Amid the effort to secure Cipollone’s participation, the committee has won a strong ally in John Dean, the White House counsel to former President Nixon, whose explosive testimony to Congress during the Watergate scandal led to Nixon’s ultimate downfall. For his role in the cover-up, Dean was charged with obstruction of justice, pleaded guilty and was incarcerated for roughly four months. Afterwards, he was disbarred.
Now, Dean is calling on Cipollone to take the similar step, saying his constitutional oath obliges him to cooperate with investigators about the events of Jan. 6.
“It seems the older you are, the more vested you become in your career, and where you’re going to go from the White House. I think Cipollone’s got that problem. He’s got a large family to support. He looks towards Republican clients, probably, and is influenced in Washington. And he’s worried about damaging all that,” Dean said Wednesday evening in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, alluding to Cipollone’s 10 children.
“But I’ll tell you, if we don’t address the problems that this issue raises with Trump and Jan. 6,” he added, “we’re not going to have much of a democracy he needs to worry about.”