Steve Bannon turned the January 6 committee into a politicized spectacle but Alex Jones and Roger Stone could conjure a theater of the absurd out of the probe into one of the most jarring assaults on democracy in US history.
The Infowars demagogue and the Nixonian self-proclaimed “dirty trickster” became the latest acolytes of ex-President Donald Trump to get hit by subpoenas by the House select committee on Monday.
The move was another indication the panel is digging into the organization and funding of Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally, in which both men were allegedly involved, which mushroomed into the Capitol insurrection. Their testimony – should they appear before the panel – could shed light on the key question for the committee about whether the rally had a pre-ordained purpose to trigger an uprising designed to halt the congressional certification of Joe Biden’s election win.
The subpoenas underscored a fast-track strategy by a Democratic-led committee that is unlikely to survive if Republicans, who have long protected Trump, win the House in next year’s midterm elections. The panel is working feverishly and has interviewed more than 200 witnesses, including many members of the Trump administration who came forward voluntarily.
But given the penchant of Stone and Jones for histrionic legal fights, the committee is unlikely to expect quick cooperation. Past behavior is not always predictive, and Stone especially has just emerged from a costly legal fight after his conviction for lying to Congress in another Trump-related case, for which he was pardoned by the ex-President. But like Jones, he has a long record of using moments of accountability to stage political stunts and promote extremism.
Stone said in a statement that he had “no advance knowledge” of the events at the Capitol on January 6 and that any claim or report alleging or implying he did was “categorically false.” He later told CNN affiliate KOKI he would “would probably assert my 5th Amendment right, decline to be interviewed.”
The committee has also shown it is ready to hold recalcitrant witnesses to account, after the House cited Bannon, another longtime Trump political adviser like Stone, for criminal contempt. The Justice Department has initiated a prosecution. Like Bannon, neither Jones nor Stone appears to have a strong case to claim contacts with Trump are shielded by executive privilege since neither were serving as administration officials.
But arguing the point in court could use time that the committee does not have given grim prospects for Democrats of keeping the House in 2022. Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who has a stronger claim to executive privilege, is locked in a standoff with the committee. He is refusing to testify but has not been cited for contempt.
The reputations of Stone and Jones, who are both political bomb throwers who pushed the lie that Trump won the election, suggest that neither will be able to resist the notoriety of a public duel with the panel.
“If you think Steve Bannon upped the drama queen value on responding to a charge of a misdemeanor, my guess is we ain’t seen nothing yet,” said Andrew McCabe, a former deputy director of the FBI who is now a senior CNN law enforcement analyst.
But Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California – a committee member who, as a law student worked in Congress on the Watergate scandal involving Stone’s mentor, President Richard Nixon – said that Stone and Jones had no option but to testify.
“You don’t lie to Congress or else you’re going to fall into other trouble, criminal law trouble. They are characters, but they have to come in and tell the truth,” she said on CNN’s “The Situation Room.”
Stone and Jones were not the only new witnesses targeted on Monday.
The committee also sent subpoenas to Dustin Stockton and Jennifer Lawrence, key players in the “Stop the Steal” movement, and Taylor Budowich, who currently serves as Trump’s spokesman.
A committee with a grave purpose
A new round of exhibitionism by spotlight-hungry members of Trump’s orbit will not disguise the critical purpose of the committee. Trump, after all, tried to use the powers of the presidency to violate the will of voters and to destroy democratic institutions based on a lie of a stolen 2020 election. And given that Trump could run again for the White House as an unmasked wanna-be autocrat, the panel’s eventual findings could be vital reading for voters in 2024.
The ex-President’s selfish refusal to accept the will of voters was laid bare in a Washington court room on Monday. In a plea hearing for a Capitol riot defendant, federal Judge Reggie Walton compared Trump to former Vice President Al Gore after the Supreme Court decided the disputed 2000 election in George W. Bush’s favor.
“Al Gore had a better case to argue than Mr. Trump, but he was a man about what happened to him,” Walton said. “He accepted it and walked away.”
In another stark reminder of the stakes for the committee, unsealed documents revealed an apparent threat to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from Mark Mazza of Indiana, who was charged with carrying a loaded firearm onto the Capitol grounds. Mazza told investigators that if he had reached the speaker’s office on January 6, they’d “be here for another reason.”
Besides seeking testimony from officials and outside allies who were close to Trump and his campaign, the January 6 committee has been fighting him in court over his effort to assert executive privilege over memos, schedules, visitor logs and other documents related to the January 6 period. Lawyers for the House said in a court filing on Monday that the investigators needed the ex-President’s private papers in order to consider legislation to prevent future repeats of the insurrection.
“Any inquiry that did not insist on examining Mr. Trump’s documents and communications would be worse than useless—the equivalent of staging a production of Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark,” their filing said.
Digging deep into ‘Stop the Steal’
Stone has rarely been far from controversy since Trump transformed American politics by launching his campaign in 2015.
He was found guilty in November 2019 of lying to and obstructing Congress in a case that shed light on the extent of Trump’s knowledge about the release of stolen Democratic emails in 2016 by Wikileaks. So he has already established his reputation as a witness who is unlikely to turn on the ex-President. In an unrelated tax case Monday, his attorneys argued he was being hounded over his support for Trump.
“This case would never have been brought if it didn’t involve Roger Stone,” the filing said.
The House select committee has previously issued several subpoenas to organizers of rallies in Washington, DC, on January 5 and 6 that preceded the insurrection. CNN has reported that the investigation has included questions about security forces at the rallies and those associated with Stone and others.
Court records show prosecutors accused two members of the far-right extremist group the Oath Keepers of text messaging about providing security to Stone. An Oath Keeper who appeared to be protecting Stone on January 6 later joined an angry mob outside the Capitol, according to video and images reviewed by CNN and four sources who confirmed his identity.
In its letter to Jones, the committee stated that he was denied a speaking spot at the January 6 rally but that his previous comments indicate he was designated to “lead a march to the Capitol, where President Trump would meet the group.” The committee acknowledged that once at the Capitol, Jones told people “not to be violent.” Trump never showed up on Capitol Hill.
Jones’ subpoena landed less than two months after he was found legally responsible in two lawsuits for damages caused by his false claim that the 2012 school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 26 people including 20 young children died, was a hoax.
Lofgren told CNN’s Jim Acosta on “The Situation Room” that Stone had raised money for security for the “Stop the Steal” rally through his websites and that Jones had claimed to raise most of the cash needed to stage the January 6 event.
There is nothing wrong with staging a political rally. Even Trump’s lies about the election being stolen are protected free speech. But the committee appears to be trying to find out whether the Capitol riot was a direct mob reaction to those lies peddled by Trump at the rally or if the ex-President or those in his orbit specifically laid the groundwork for the protest turning into an insurrection.
CNN’s Katelyn Polantz, Whitney Wild, Zachary Cohen, Ryan Nobles and Annie Grayer contributed to this story.