By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. congressional committee probing the deadly Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol voted unanimously on Wednesday in favor of contempt of Congress charges against Jeffrey Clark, a senior Justice Department official under former President Donald Trump.
The seven Democratic and two Republican members of the House of Representatives Select Committee approved a report recommending the criminal charge by a 9-0 vote, after Clark appeared before the committee in early November but declined to answer questions or hand over documents.
The committee's approval of the report paved the way for the entire House to vote on whether to recommend contempt charges, although it also gave him a last chance to cooperate later this week.
Representative Bennie Thompson, the panel's Democratic chairman, said before the vote that Clark's attorney had contacted them on Wednesday evening and said Clark had invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to self-incriminate and agreed to continue his deposition.
Thompson said the committee nonetheless was going ahead with the contempt proceeding, and had ordered Clark to appear on Saturday. "We will not allow anyone to run out the clock, and we will insist that he must appear," Thompson said.
Republican Representative Liz Cheney, the committee's vice chair, said the panel would not finalize the contempt process if Clark "genuinely cures his failure to comply" on Saturday.
Approval by the full, Democratic-controlled House would send the matter to the Department of Justice for a decision on whether to prosecute.
Clark, former acting head of the Justice Department's civil division, was a proponent of Trump's false claims that his defeat by Democrat Joe Biden in the November 2020 election was the result of fraud.
Clark had argued that he was exempt from having to comply with the Select Committee's subpoena because his communications were protected by legal privilege.
QUESTION OF PRIVILEGE
Trump has urged former aides to disregard the subpoenas, issuing often-rambling statements insulting its members and arguing that he is protected by executive privilege, a legal principle that shields presidential communications.
Legal experts dispute that argument, saying it does not apply to former presidents.
The committee has made clear it will force compliance with its subpoenas.
"There’s nothing extraordinary about Congress seeking the testimony of a former Executive Branch official. Even the former White House chief of staff (Mark Meadows) is now cooperating with our investigation," Thompson said.
Trump's longtime adviser Steve Bannon pleaded not guilty last month to two counts of contempt of Congress after he defied a committee subpoena.
Nearly 700 people have been charged with taking part in the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6 by Trump supporters seeking to prevent Congress from formally certifying his 2020 election loss. It was the worst attack on the seat of the U.S. government since the War of 1812.
Four people died the day of the riot, and one Capitol police officer died the next day of injuries sustained while defending Congress. Hundreds of police were injured during the multi-hour onslaught, and four officers have since taken their own lives.
The Select Committee has issued at least 45 subpoenas to individuals and organizations and conducted hundreds of interviews with witnesses.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)