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Capitol riot panel votes to hold former justice department official in contempt

Violent protesters, loyal to President Donald Trump, stormed the Capitol in Washington DC in January in an attempt to overturn America's presidential election and keep Joe Biden from replacing Trump in the White House. Picture by AP Photo/John Minchillo
Mary Clare Jalonick, Associated Press

The House committee investigating the January 6 US Capitol insurrection has voted to pursue contempt charges against Jeffrey Clark, a former justice department official who previously refused to answer the panel’s questions.

The committee voted 9-0 to pursue criminal charges against Mr Clark, who aligned with Donald Trump ahead of the violent attack as the then-president tried to overturn his election defeat.

Mr Clark appeared for a deposition last month but refused to be interviewed, citing Mr Trump’s legal efforts to block the committee’s investigation.

The Democratic chairman of the January 6 panel, Bennie Thompson, said it had received a last-minute notification from Mr Clark’s lawyer that he now wanted to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Mr Thompson said the lawyer had offered “no specific basis for that assertion” and “no facts that would allow the committee to consider it”, but the committee would give Mr Clark a second chance at a deposition scheduled for Saturday.

“This is, in my view, a last-ditch attempt to delay the select committee’s proceedings,” Mr Thompson said.

“However, a Fifth Amendment privilege assertion is a weighty one. Even though Mr Clark previously had the opportunity to make these claims on the record, the select committee will provide him another chance to do so.”

Mr Thompson said the committee would still proceed with the contempt vote “as this is just the first step of the contempt process”.

The recommendation of criminal contempt charges against Mr Clark would now go to the full House for a vote, although that was expected to be delayed until after the Saturday deposition.

If the House votes to hold Mr Clark in contempt, the justice department will then decide whether to prosecute.

Republican Liz Cheney, the panel’s vice chairwoman, said the committee would consider accepting Mr Clark’s assertion of his Fifth Amendment rights if Mr Clark said he believed that answering questions about his interactions with Mr Trump and others could incriminate him.

“It is important to note, however, that Mr Clark is not excused from testifying simply because president Trump is trying to hide behind inapplicable claims of executive privilege,” Ms Cheney said.

Mr Trump, who told his supporters to “fight like hell” on the morning of January 6, has sued to block the committee’s work and has attempted to assert executive privilege over documents and interviews, arguing that his private conversations and actions at the time should be shielded from public view.

As the current officeholder, President Joe Biden has so far rejected Mr Trump’s claims.

Mr Thompson wrote in Mr Clark’s subpoena that the committee’s inquiry “has revealed credible evidence that you attempted to involve the department of justice in efforts to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power” and his efforts “risked involving the department of justice in actions that lacked evidentiary foundation and threatened to subvert the rule of law”.

Members of the January 6 panel have vowed to hold any witness who does not comply in contempt as they investigate the worst attack on the Capitol in two centuries.

The justice department has signalled it is willing to pursue the committee’s contempt charges, indicting longtime Trump ally Steve Bannon earlier this month on two counts of criminal contempt.

Attorney general Merrick Garland said then that Mr Bannon’s indictment reflected the department’s “steadfast commitment” to the rule of law after Mr Bannon defied a subpoena from the committee and refused to co-operate.

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