WASHINGTON — The House select committee scrutinizing the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol on Wednesday formally requested an interview with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, taking the unusual step of calling the minority leader, who was in close contact with former President Donald Trump before, during and after the violence and has fought to shut down any investigation of the events.
McCarthy quickly announced that he would refuse to cooperate, but the request sent a clear message that the committee’s investigators are willing to pursue the highest-ranking figures on Capitol Hill for information about Trump’s mindset as the violence unfolded. A federal judge has suggested that the former president’s attitude will be pivotal to determining whether Trump can face any liability for the day’s mayhem.
It set up a politically charged showdown between House Democrats investigating the assault and McCarthy, a California Republican who is on track to become the speaker of the House if Republicans retake the chamber in November. And it suggested that investigators believe that McCarthy, who has acknowledged that he spoke by telephone with Trump while rioters stormed the Capitol, may also have been involved in conversations afterward about the then-president’s culpability in the assault and what should be done to address it.
In a letter Wednesday, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chair of the committee, said the panel had obtained “contemporaneous text messages from multiple witnesses” that refer to White House staff members expressing “significant concerns” about Trump’s “state of mind and his ongoing conduct” in the days after Jan. 6.
“It appears that you may also have discussed with President Trump the potential he would face a censure resolution, impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment,” Thompson wrote to McCarthy, referring to the part of the Constitution that allows for a president to be removed if he is determined to be unable to do his job. “It also appears that you may have identified other possible options, including President Trump’s immediate resignation from office.”
McCarthy released a statement Wednesday evening, saying he was refusing a meeting and condemning the investigation as “illegitimate.” He led his party’s opposition to the formation of a bipartisan panel as initially conceived to investigate the riot, opposed the creation of the current committee and has attacked the panel’s work for weeks.
“The committee’s only objective is to attempt to damage its political opponents,” he said, adding: “It is with neither regret nor satisfaction that I have concluded to not participate with this select committee’s abuse of power that stains this institution today and will harm it going forward.”
His refusal to meet with the committee raised the question of whether the panel would issue a subpoena to try to force him to testify or hold him in contempt of Congress if he refused to comply. Those moves would represent major escalations in the battle over the investigation, which most Republicans have characterized as a partisan exercise intended to tarnish Trump and their party.
The committee proposed meeting with McCarthy on Feb. 3 or 4. He is the highest-ranking lawmaker the panel has pursued in its inquiry.
In September, the committee included McCarthy on a list of hundreds of people whose records it instructed social media and telecommunications companies to preserve for possible use in the inquiry, which was reported earlier by CNN and confirmed by The New York Times. McCarthy’s spokesperson, Mark Bednar, criticized the panel at the time as “politically motivated” and categorized its request as “an authoritarian, unconstitutional attempt to rifle through individuals’ call logs.”
In the days after the mob attack, McCarthy struck a different tone. He initially condemned the violence and said Trump “bears responsibility” for the violence.
“What we saw last week was not the American way,” McCarthy said on the floor of the House. “Neither is the continued rhetoric that Joe Biden is not the legitimate president.”
But McCarthy eventually changed his stance, reembracing Trump — who remains popular among the Republican base — and visiting him at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, near the end of January.
“Your public statements regarding Jan. 6 have changed markedly since you met with Trump,” Thompson wrote in his letter. “At that meeting, or at any other time, did President Trump or his representatives discuss or suggest what you should say publicly?”
In a recent interview, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., vice chair of the committee, pointed to the Mar-a-Lago meeting as a turning point for McCarthy. He would later lead his party’s effort to oust her from her leadership post for continuing to call out Trump, his election lies and the complicity of many Republicans in spreading them. And after initially saying he would back a bipartisan inquiry into the Jan. 6 attack, he reversed course and argued vociferously against any investigation by Congress.
“Looking back, the moment that Leader McCarthy went to Mar-a-Lago near the end of January, it was pretty clear the path that he had chosen,” Cheney said. “It was one that was not faithful to the Constitution. I believe we have a duty to our oath of office that requires that you put that above politics.”
The letter to McCarthy is the committee’s latest attempt to learn more about Trump’s actions as rioters marauded through the building for hours on Jan. 6 and his frame of mind in the days that followed.
In particular, the panel said it was interested in a phone call McCarthy had with Trump during the riot. McCarthy previously described the call, in which he asked Trump to send help to the Capitol, as “very heated.”
During that call, according to an account given last year during impeachment proceedings, Trump sided with the rioters, telling McCarthy that they were evidently more upset about the election than the Republican leader was.
The committee also cited a Politico article reporting that McCarthy divulged to other Republicans that Trump had admitted some degree of responsibility for the Jan. 6 attack in his one-on-one conversations with McCarthy.
The committee has interviewed more than 340 witnesses, including former White House aides. On Wednesday, Kayleigh McEnany, a White House press secretary under Trump, appeared before the committee for a virtual interview, according to a person familiar with the situation.
The request to meet with McCarthy is the third time the committee has asked a Republican lawmaker to voluntarily agree to an interview. Reps. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania and Jim Jordan of Ohio have refused to cooperate with the panel.
Jordan — who in November told the Rules Committee that he had “nothing to hide” — denounced the panel’s inquiry Sunday and called the request for an interview an “unprecedented and inappropriate demand.”
Perry, who is close to Jordan, last month refused a voluntary meeting with the committee, calling the panel “illegitimate.”
McCarthy made similar arguments Wednesday, saying the panel wants to interview him “about public statements that have been shared with the world and private conversations not remotely related to the violence that unfolded at the Capitol.”
“I have nothing else to add,” he said.
To date, the committee has been reluctant to issue subpoenas for sitting members of Congress, citing the deference and respect lawmakers in the chamber are supposed to show one another. But Thompson has pledged to take such a step if needed.