The House Rules Committee on Thursday weighed the contempt of Congress referral against Trump Department of Justice official Jeffrey Clark, who was censured Wednesday by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol after he refused to answer their questions.
The move tees up a vote by the full House to refer Clark to the very agency where he once worked for prosecution, even as the Jan. 6 committee agreed to a last-minute request by Clark’s lawyer to reconvene a meeting where Clark can plead his Fifth Amendment right to their questions, invoking protections against self-incrimination.
“People sort of talk about the Fifth Amendment without stopping to think about what he is saying if he invokes the Fifth — that he won't answer a question because he's worried about criminal prosecution," Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) vice chair of the Jan. 6 committee, said ahead of the hearing.
"And if you think about that in the context of questions we're asking, which have to do with his discussions with President Trump about the election. And if he feels that he can't answer those questions about discussions with Donald Trump because he's worried that he could be facing criminal prosecution, the American people deserve to know that,” Cheney added.
Clark, a mid-level attorney at the Department of Justice (DOJ), became a central figure in former President Trump’s quest to have the DOJ investigate his baseless claims of voter fraud, with Clark pushing superiors to send a letter encouraging states to delay certification of their election results.
Trump weighed installing Clark as acting attorney general as other DOJ officials resisted his efforts.
In his opening statement, Jan. 6 committee Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said Clark was an isolated case among the now more than 250 people that have sat down with the committee.
“Mr. Clark believes he’s protected by these sweeping claims of privilege. Executive privilege, even though the former president said he wouldn’t try to stop Mr. Clark from testifying. Attorney-client privilege, even though Mr. Clark wouldn’t say who his client is. And, as I stated last night, Mr. Clark came to us on Wednesday, through his attorney, stating that he is now claiming Fifth Amendment protection,” Thompson said during the Rules Committee meeting.
“Mr. Clark previously had the opportunity to make Fifth Amendment assertions on the record and declined. But a Fifth Amendment privilege assertion is very significant. So the Select Committee has agreed to provide him another chance to come in and assert that privilege on a question-by-question basis, which he’s required to do by law if he’s making such a claim,” he added.
Rules will formally vote on the matter after the deposition the committee has scheduled for Clark on Saturday, allowing for a quick response after the last-minute delay.
“They will hold in abeyance a decision based on what comes up Saturday, and then they can reconvene for so we would not have to come back before the committee,” Thompson said Thursday.
Republicans sought to defend Clark in the Rules hearing, arguing that the courts should resolve the issue, not Congress.
“I am here to object to the Select Committee’s disregard of legitimate legal claims progressing through the courts. I am here to object to the Select Committee’s insistence on proceeding with a contempt of Congress referral when Mr. Clark has declared his intention to invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege not to incriminate himself,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), who was slated to serve on the Jan. 6 committee before Republicans largely boycotted the panel after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rejected some of the GOP’s picks.
“Simply put, this contempt vote is not ripe,” he added.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) previously said he would hold a vote this week on Clark’s censure, but the vote will now likely take place next week following the special Saturday deposition scheduled for Clark.
Clark could then face prosecution by DOJ much as it has gone after onetime White House strategist Stephen Bannon, who failed to show for his deposition. Bannon is now facing two counts of criminal contempt of Congress, which together carry up to two years in prison and $200,000 in fines.
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