Ex-Trump counsel gears up for starring appearance in Jan. 6 hearing
Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel who fiercely defended Donald Trump in his first impeachment trial, is gearing up to be the star witness against the former president as the House Jan. 6 committee winds down its public hearings with a detailed look at Trump’s three hours of inaction as the Capitol riot unfolded.
Cipollone has been a reluctant participant in the investigation, rebuffing initial requests for an under-oath interview with the House select committee, which was able to secure his eleventh-hour cooperation only via subpoena.
His marathon deposition on July 8, however, has proven a gold mine for the panel, providing confirmation for some of the core allegations to emerge from the yearlong probe into the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection and Trump’s role in provoking it.
Not only did Cipollone tell investigators that Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud were fallacious, but also that the president’s legal team told him repeatedly that the election was lost and he should concede defeat.
Cipollone also verified a White House visit on Dec. 18, 2020, from several prominent figures in the Stop the Steal movement — including Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney; Sidney Powell, another conspiracy-minded lawyer; Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser; and Patrick Byrne, former CEO of Overstock.com — who sought to convince Trump to have the Pentagon seize voting machines in battleground states.
Many of those details had been presented publicly in earlier hearings, including just days earlier when Cassidy Hutchinson, a former top aide to Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows, had described Jan. 6 as a chaotic day of tension and infighting at the White House, where Cipollone had scrambled to convince a resentful president to intervene while the Capitol was sacked.
Still, to have Cipollone — a Trump loyalist and the public face of his first impeachment defense — siding with the critics in debunking Trump’s claims of a “stolen” election has been something of a coup for the select committee. It’s an unusual alliance that the panel members have been only happy to forge.
“In general, Pat Cipollone was able to corroborate every major element of Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the election results in 2020. He was aware of all of it, and he tried to throw up some legal guardrails at different points,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a constitutional lawyer who sits on the select committee.
“It’s a remarkable thing that the lawyer who defended Trump in the first impeachment trial had to try to talk Donald Trump down from the ‘big lie’ and to play defense against this group of outside advisers who really wanted to stage a military coup by having the U.S. military take over election machines.”
Cipollone’s interactions with Democrats weren’t always so welcome.
In 2019 and 2020, when Cipollone fought to defend Trump from charges that he’d abused his powers in dealings with Ukraine, Democrats in Congress railed against the reserved White House counsel, not least for his argument that the administration had no obligation to cooperate with the congressional investigation.
“I don’t know how they can retain their lawyer status, in the comments that they’re making,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at the time.
More than two years later, the Jan. 6 committee had been similarly frustrated with Cipollone’s refusal to participate under oath. In its public pleas for Cipollone’s cooperation, investigators stressed that they saw him as one of the few voices in the White House that day pushing for Trump to take some kind of action.
“Our evidence shows that Mr. Cipollone and his office tried to do what was right — they tried to stop a number of President Trump’s plans for Jan. 6,” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), vice chair of the committee, said during a hearing last month. “But we think the American people deserve to hear from Mr. Cipollone personally.”
That sentiment grew exponentially following the explosive June 28 testimony from Hutchinson, who relayed Cipollone’s escalating frustration as other officials, notably Meadows, declined to confront Trump while a mob of his supporters stormed violently into the Capitol.
“I remember Pat saying to him something to the effect of, ‘The rioters have gotten to the Capitol, Mark. We need to go down and see the president now,’” Hutchinson said.
When Meadows responded that Trump “doesn’t want to do anything,” Cipollone lost patience, Hutchinson testified.
“Mark, something needs to be done or people are going to die and the blood is going to be on your effing hands,” Cipollone responded, according to Hutchinson. “This is getting out of control. I’m going down there.”
It was Hutchinson’s remarkable narrative that led the committee to get more aggressive in pursuing Cipollone’s testimony — cooperation they won by issuing him a subpoena shortly after her appearance.
“Without Cassidy Hutchison, I’m not sure if Pat Cipollone would have been in when he was,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), the second of the two Republicans on the nine-member committee. “She was very heroic in what she did. And she’s compelled at least him and other witnesses to come forward.”
Cipollone’s fly-on-the-wall insights will likely be featured in Thursday’s prime-time hearing on Capitol Hill, where the committee is promising to explore the 187 minutes between the start of the Capitol attack and the release of Trump’s message for the mob to stand down.
Cipollone was one of the few to speak directly with Trump that day, allowing him to fill gaps left by Meadows, who turned over his text messages but refused to sit down for a deposition with the panel’s investigators, even under subpoena.
In December, the House voted to hold Meadows in contempt of Congress, though the Justice Department declined to bring charges.
Cipollone told the committee that he pushed back on White House plans to seize voting machines during the Dec. 18, 2020, meeting.
“That’s a terrible idea for the country,” he said. “I don’t understand why we even have to tell you why that’s a bad idea for the country.”
Other witnesses who may be featured in the next hearing include Ivanka Trump, who is said to have spoken with her father at least twice on Jan. 6, according to earlier testimony.
Former Vice President Mike Pence’s national security adviser Keith Kellogg said Ivanka Trump had characterized Pence as “a good man” after overhearing her father’s angry call with his vice president. And she returned to Trump’s office later that day amid encouragement from other aides, who hoped her close relationship with her father would help her to reach him in a way other staffers couldn’t.
“I think she went back in there because Ivanka can be pretty tenacious,” Kellogg told the committee behind closed doors.
Sarah Matthews, a former White House deputy press secretary, is also reportedly in negotiations with the committee to appear publicly.
In a portion of her videotaped deposition already shown by the committee, she criticized Trump for attacking Pence in a 2:24 p.m. tweet — after the Capitol had already been breached.
“The situation was already bad, and so it felt like he was pouring gasoline on the fire,” Matthews told the committee privately.
Yet the featured witness is expected to be Cipollone, who spent a full day with the committee behind closed doors, only a sliver of which has been revealed publicly. Leading the discussion in Thursday’s hearing will be Reps. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) and Kinzinger, who characterized Cipollone as a crucial figure in the wide-ranging investigation.
“He’s able to corroborate some folks; he’s got kind of unique perspectives. It’s all going to be important,” he said.
“I’m not going to reveal anything from the upcoming hearing because we want to keep that ’til we’re there,” he added. “But … I think his interview was key.”