A strikingly broad subpoena sweep against more than 30 former officials and campaign aides of ex-President Donald Trump represents the clearest sign yet of the seriousness of the Department of Justice’s criminal probe into events surrounding the US Capitol insurrection.
The gambit, revealed on Monday, also shows that while Trump may succeed in slowing a separate investigation into the retention of classified information at Mar-a-Lago, his potential exposure to legal consequences is deep and threatening. Trump has not been charged with a crime in either probe.
But the subpoenas show that the DOJ’s investigation, which has proceeded behind the scenes for months and caused Trump critics to express frustration with Attorney General Merrick Garland, is far more expansive than was previously known. And it appears to be intensifying, with investigators apparently narrowing their focus based on other subpoenas, evidence and witness testimony.
“This is the way classic investigations are conducted, moving up the chain so to speak,” David Laufman, former chief of the Justice Department’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section, told CNN’s Erin Burnett Monday.
“They are now encompassing individuals closer and closer to the President to learn more and more about what the President knew and when he knew it.”
The twice-impeached former President has typically been successful at wriggling free of legal scrutiny and scandals that would long have ended the careers of conventional politicians. But it is clear that he is facing legal concerns on multiple fronts, some related to his attempt to overthrow the result of the 2020 election, and all in some ways arising from his view that as president, and even back in civilian life, his position granted him almost unlimited power free of scrutiny.
News of the more than 30 new subpoenas for documents and some for testimony before a grand jury suggest the DOJ is investigating a scheme to create slates of fake electors to invalidate President Joe Biden’s wins in swing states in 2020. There are also indications that prosecutors are looking at Trump’s fundraising operation and the way that the ex-President’s January 6, 2021, “Stop the Steal” rally was organized, according to new information reported by CNN, some of which was first revealed by The New York Times.
The flurry of subpoenas in recent days came just ahead of a 60-day quiet period that the DOJ generally seeks to avoid the appearance of influencing elections with politically sensitive investigations. Midterm elections in November will decide the destiny of the Senate and the House of Representatives and multiple state and local positions. Trump, touting his false claims that he was illegally ejected from power in a fraudulent election, has been a key player in the 2022 campaign.
Trump acolytes who received subpoenas include his former campaign manager Bill Stepien and Sean Dollman, the campaign’s former chief financial officer, sources familiar with the matter told CNN. Trump’s former deputy chief of staff and social media guru Dan Scavino also received a subpoena, according to a source familiar with the matter. None of the three men responded to requests for comment. Brian Jack, the last White House political director under Trump, was subpoenaed as well, according to a source familiar with the situation. Jack also did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.
The revelation comes as the House select committee probing the January 6 insurrection meets on Tuesday to discuss next steps in its investigation and possible new televised hearings following a series of scripted sessions over the summer that painted a deeply damning picture of Trump’s behavior following the last election.
The committee is expected to discuss whether to invite Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence to appear. Committee members do not expect either man to testify, sources said, but some believe they should be asked for the record given the extraordinary circumstances of the former President’s attempt to thwart the peaceful transfer of power after a democratic election.
This subplot is also playing out amid an investigation in Georgia into alleged attempts to try to get local officials to overturn Biden’s victory in the critical swing state.
All these probes have in recent days been overshadowed by yet another legal duel over Trump’s hoarding of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, which led to a prolonged standoff with the DOJ and eventually resulted in an FBI search of his property last month.
Lawyers for the former President argued in a new filing in that case on Monday that a judge should reject the DOJ’s attempt to continue to review classified material as part of its criminal investigation. The department says that the judge’s original prohibition against it doing so effectively makes it impossible for the intelligence community to assess the potential damage from the former President’s apparently lax handling of classified information and presents a grave risk to national security.
In a characteristically expansive interpretation of the position of president, Trump argued in a Monday filing that in his former position, he had broad authority to declassify records and that a former president, should have “absolute right of access” to presidential records – whether they are classified or not. CNN has reported that multiple former senior national security officials dismiss the idea that the ex-President had some kind of scheme to declassify documents en masse. And even if he had, the Presidential Records Act states that presidential documents belong in the National Archives.
But in an audacious move, Trump’s legal team sought to downplay the significance of the dispute.
“In what at its core is a document storage dispute that has spiraled out of control, the Government wrongfully seeks to criminalize the possession by the 45th President of his own Presidential and personal records,” Trump’s legal team wrote to Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee who is presiding over the case as Trump seeks to have a third-party attorney known as a special master sift through the documents for privilege issues.
Each of the Trump team’s claims is highly contentious and appear to conflict with most conventional readings of US law. The argument that Mar-a-Lago was a secure facility and that the evidence was kept in a locked room appears to ignore the fact that some of the 100 documents taken by the FBI from Trump’s home bore the highest levels of classification of the US government and would normally be permitted to be viewed only by a select level of official in the most highly secured venues. And the Washington Post reported last week that the secrets of a foreign nation’s nuclear program was among information the FBI took from his residence. Such intelligence would be among the most highly protected and restricted information in the government’s possession.
Trump’s arguments might appear in many cases to be outlandish. But they could also achieve something he wants – delaying any potential formal legal moves against him for as long as possible by opening up even more appeals in layers of the court system.
In the case of the classified documents drama, that could mean the case stretches well into the 2024 campaign when Trump is expected to mount a bid to win back the White House. The former President has already slammed the DOJ’s action as an example of political persecution, a charge he would be certain to escalate during the heat of a run for the presidency.
But the new indications on Monday of the comprehensive nature of the investigations into the lead up to January 6 raise the question of just how long Trump can keep at bay the multiple investigations arising from his inability to accept his 2020 loss.