Was Trump's call witness tampering? Jan. 6 hearing disclosure lacks crucial details, analysts say

Rep. Liz Cheney's revelation former President Donald Trump called a Jan. 6 hearing witness was startling, but more details may be needed to prove a witness tampering.

  • The person who received the call from Trump was not identified.
  • The revelation came after Cheney warned last month of contacts with witnesses that raised "concerns."
  • Witness tampering typically involves intimidation or threats to influence or prevent testimony.

WASHINGTON – More than once during its year-long investigation, members of the House committee examining the Capitol attack suggested former President Donald Trump’s conduct was not only wrong but criminal.

At the end of a three-hour hearing earlier this week, the panel made yet another startling disclosure, revealing Trump called an unnamed witness, later identified in reports as a White House support staffer, following blistering testimony in June from a former Trump administration aide, Cassidy Hutchinson. 

More than that, Republican Rep. Liz Cheney, the committee's vice chair, said the alleged incident had been referred to the Justice Department as possible evidence of witness tampering.

“Let me say one more time, we will take any attempt to influence a witness’ testimony very seriously,” warned Cheney, who last month presented witness statements detailing contacts that raised "concerns."

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Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., gives a closing statement during a public hearing Tuesday of the Jan. 6 committee.

The Justice Department declined to comment, but the episode adds to mounting allegations placing Trump at the center of the most consequential events linked to the deadly insurrection – from promoting false assertions of election fraud and summoning the mob that subsequently stormed the Capitol to the more recent allegations suggesting Trump and his associates may have sought to intervene in the committee’s investigation.

While the Wyoming lawmaker's hearing-ending revelation was dramatic enough, legal analysts and former prosecutors said the account lacked crucial details before it could be determined that Trump's alleged conduct was criminal.

According to Cheney, the call was placed soon after last month's hearing, featuring Hutchinson, a former top aide to Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows who told lawmakers among other things that the then-president was aware before the Capitol attack that some in the mob were armed.

The recipient of the call, who Cheney described only as a witness who has not yet been featured in the hearings, did not answer though the person referred the attempted contact to a lawyer who alerted the committee. The person has since been identified as a White House support staffer who did not regularly communicate with the former president and continues to work at the White House, CNN first reported.

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Cassidy Hutchinson, aide to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, is sworn in before testifying before the House Jan. 6 committee on June 28, 2022.

Such a staffer could fall into the category of personnel who maintain White House operations, not necessarily considered a member of the Trump administration.

"Anyone getting a call from Trump, much less someone he never called before, would be uncomfortable. But a call that never went through, and that has no content, does not come close to being substantive evidence of an effort to influence a potential witness," said Patrick Cotter a former federal prosecutor who pursued organized crime figures, including mobster John Gotti.

"That said, my guess is that Cheney knows this but was putting a shot across Trump and his minions’ bow to warn them to stay away from any witnesses. I think that is a smart move on the representative’s part," Cotter said. "If the Trump gang has any brains they will stay far away from all the witnesses before they cross the line into real witness intimidation."

A person typically engages in witness tampering when using intimidation or threats with the intent to influence or prevent testimony at an official proceeding.

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'Be a team player'

A photo showing House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Meadows aide Cassidy Hutchinson, is displayed on a monitor as Hutchinson testified during the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol hearing to present previously unseen material and hear witness testimony in Cannon Building, on Tuesday, June 28, 2022.

Indeed, Cheney's warning sounded a now-familiar theme.

Following Hutchinson's testimony last month, Cheney referred to other troubling witness contacts.

“Our committee commonly asks witnesses connected to Mr. Trump’s administration or campaign whether they’ve been contacted by any of their former colleagues who attempted to influence or impact their testimony,” Cheney said, before displaying excerpts from witness statements detailing the outreach.

“What they said to me is as long as I continue to be a team player, they know I’m on the team, I’m doing the right thing, I’m protecting who I need to protect, you know, I’ll continue to stay in good graces in Trump World,” one witness said.

The lawmaker referred to another example in which a witness told the committee: “(A person) let me know you have your deposition tomorrow. He wants me to let you know that he’s thinking about you. He knows you’re loyal, and you’re going to do the right thing when you go in for your deposition.”

Cheney did not identify the targeted witness, but The New York Times has reported that Hutchinson was the recipient of the pre-deposition contact, prompting the committee to move up her scheduled public hearing.

The source or sources of the prior contacts have not been revealed publicly, but Cheney said it was Trump who allegedly made the more recent attempt.

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Then-President Donald Trump looks at his phone during a roundtable with governors on the reopening of America's small businesses, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, June 18, 2020

Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich described the account as "innuendos and lies."

"The media has become pawns of the Unselect Committee," Budowich tweeted earlier this week.

But Trump's alleged outreach is not without precedent.

A major focus of a criminal investigation in Georgia is Trump's Jan. 2, 2021, telephone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in which the former president urged the state official to tilt the 2020 statewide vote in his favor.  

"So look, all I want to do is this: I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state," Trump told Raffensperger, according to audio of that call.

While Trump has referred to the contact as a "perfect" call, investigators are examining it as part of a pressure campaign to overturn results of the 2020 election.

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Rusty Bowers, Brad Raffensperger and Gabriel Sterling are sworn in before testifying before the Jan. 6 committee on June 21.

'Incredibly reckless'

Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesperson in the Obama administration, said Cheney's reference to Trump's involvement begs for more detail.

"If he (Trump) knew that this person was going before the committee, then this was incredibly reckless," Miller said. "The details matter in these instances, but I don't think we have enough."

David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami, said Trump's alleged conduct tracks a pattern of erratic behavior already outlined by the committee.

"This is another example of an individual who doesn't want to abide by the rules and regulations that the rest of us live by," Weinstein said, adding that Justice would likely pursue information referred by the committee.

"Certainly, the department has the authority to subpoena the relevant witnesses and call records," he said. "If this (referral) comes to me while I'm at Justice, I'm interested."

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