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Maddow Blog | Why the Jan. 6 subpoena for Trump’s White House counsel matters

MSNBC logo MSNBC 6/30/2022 Steve Benen

When former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified before the Jan. 6 committee this week, one name came up 18 times. It was former Trump White House counsel Pat Cipollone who didn’t want Donald Trump to go to the Capitol after his speech at the Ellipse. It was Cipollone who wanted then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to intervene with Trump about the rioters. It was Cipollone who lobbied to keep dangerous lies out of Trump’s pre-riot remarks.

It was also Cipollone who warned Team Trump not to challenge the election results, even threatening to resign at one point in the post-election process.

Given all of this, the House select committee’s interest in Cipollone is both obvious and understandable: He’s in a unique position to answer key questions.

It’s against this backdrop that the bipartisan panel sent the former White House counsel a subpoena yesterday. NBC News reported:

It’s worth emphasizing that congressional investigators spoke to Cipollone in a limited capacity in April, when he voluntarily agreed to cooperate with the probe. But by all accounts, there were some questions the attorney was not prepared to fully answer, and the Q&A amounted to an informal interview.

The committee’s leaders said in a statement yesterday, “While the Select Committee appreciates Mr. Cipollone’s earlier informal engagement with our investigation, the committee needs to hear from him on the record, as other former White House counsels have done in other congressional investigations.”

The latter part of that sentence was of particular interest: While it might seem unusual for a White House counsel to offer congressional testimony, it’s not at all unprecedent. On the contrary, former White House counsel Don McGahn — Cipollone’s predecessor in Donald Trump’s administration — testified just last year before the House Judiciary Committee.

What about attorney-client privilege? The legal dynamic is complex, and there are experts who can speak to this with more authority than I can, but as a matter of professional responsibilities, the White House counsel is not the president’s attorney. The counsel’s office represents the interests of the presidency, not the president.

While in office, Trump had plenty of lawyers representing him and his interests. Cipollone’s job was to represent the presidency as an institution and the White House’s interests.

With this in mind, Rep. Liz Cheney, the Republican vice chair of the Jan. 6 committee, has been  increasingly unsubtle in her public and private calls for Cipollone’s testimony. The subpoena from yesterday afternoon was the obvious next step.

We’ll learn soon enough how the former White House counsel responds, but in case this isn’t obvious, congressional investigators don’t want to talk to Cipollone because they think he did something wrong. It’s the exact opposite: They want to talk to him because think they did things right and can shed light on others’ wrongdoing.

If Cipollone wants to do the right thing, and was waiting for a formal legal summons to force his hand, he now has one. Watch this space.

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