Federal prosecutors have directly asked witnesses in recent days about former President Donald J. Trump’s involvement in efforts to reverse his election loss, an individual aware of the testimony said on Tuesday, suggesting that the Justice Department’s criminal investigation has moved right into a more aggressive and politically fraught phase.
Mr. Trump’s personal role in elements of the push to overturn his loss in 2020 to Joseph R. Biden Jr. has long been established, each through his public actions and statements and evidence gathered by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack.
However the Justice Department has been largely silent about how and even whether it might weigh pursuing potential charges against Mr. Trump, and reluctant even to concede that his role was discussed in senior leadership meetings on the department.
Asking questions on Mr. Trump in reference to the electors plot or the attack on the Capitol doesn’t mean the Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into him, a call that might have immense political and legal ramifications.
The department’s investigation right into a central element of the push to maintain Mr. Trump in office — the plan to call slates of electors pledged to Mr. Trump in battleground states won by Mr. Biden — now appears to be accelerating as prosecutors with the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington ask witnesses about Mr. Trump and members of his inner circle, including the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, the person aware of the testimony said.
Key Revelations From the Jan. 6 Hearings
In April, before the committee convened its series of public hearings, Justice Department investigators received phone records of key officials and aides within the Trump White House, in response to two individuals with knowledge of the situation.
Two top aides to Vice President Mike Pence testified to the federal grand jury within the case last week, and prosecutors have issued subpoenas and search warrants to a growing variety of figures tied to Mr. Trump and the campaign to forestall his loss.
A spokesman for Attorney General Merrick B. Garland declined to comment, saying the Justice Department didn’t provide details of grand jury proceedings. The department’s questioning of witnesses about Mr. Trump and its receipt of the phone records were reported earlier by The Washington Post.
If a call were made to open a criminal investigation into Mr. Trump after he announced his intention to run within the 2024 election, as he continues to hint he might do, the department’s leadership can be required to undertake a proper consultation process, then sign a proper approval of the department’s intentions under an internal rule created by former Attorney General William P. Barr and endorsed by Mr. Garland.
But in recent days, Mr. Garland has repeatedly asserted his right to analyze or prosecute anybody, including Mr. Trump, provided that’s where the evidence leads.
“The Justice Department has from the start been moving urgently to learn all the pieces we are able to about this era, and to bring to justice everybody who was criminally liable for interfering with the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to a different, which is the elemental element of our democracy,” Mr. Garland told “NBC Nightly News” in an interview broadcast on Tuesday, when asked to comment on criticism that his investigation was moving too slowly.
The questions on Mr. Trump focused on, amongst other topics, the plan he was pushing to derail congressional certification of Mr. Biden’s Electoral College victory on Jan. 6, 2021, the person aware of the testimony said.
The 2 Pence aides who testified to the grand jury — Marc Short, who was his chief of staff, and Greg Jacob, who was his counsel — were present at an Oval Office meeting on Jan. 4, 2021, when Mr. Trump sought to pressure Mr. Pence into embracing the plan to cite the competing slates of electors as justification to dam or delay the Electoral College certification.
In recent weeks, the Justice Department also seized phones from two key figures, John Eastman, the lawyer who helped develop and promote the plan to upend the Electoral College certification, and Jeffrey Clark, a former Justice Department official who was at the middle of the related push to send the slates of electors pledged to Mr. Trump from states Mr. Biden won.
Prosecutors have also issued grand jury subpoenas to figures connected to the so-called fake electors scheme. Those that have received the subpoenas have largely been state lawmakers or Republican officials, a lot of whom put their names on documents attesting to the undeniable fact that they were electors for Mr. Trump from states that were won by Mr. Biden.
The subpoenas, a few of which have been obtained by The Latest York Times, show that prosecutors are all in favour of collecting information on a gaggle of pro-Trump lawyers who helped to plot and perform the plan, including Mr. Eastman and Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer.
There are also indications that the tense standoff between the Justice Department and congressional investigators over the transcripts of interviews conducted for the Jan. 6 committee hearings is easing. The House is about to start handing over a few of the transcripts and intends to extend the pace in the approaching weeks, in response to people aware of the situation.
Members of the committee, led by Representative Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming, have said they’re still considering making a criminal referral to the Justice Department in hopes of accelerating the pressure on Mr. Garland to prosecute Mr. Trump.
Mr. Garland shrugged off that suggestion.
“I feel that’s totally as much as the committee,” he said in his NBC interview. “We could have the evidence that the committee has presented, and whatever evidence it gives us, I don’t think that the character of how they style, the way by which information is provided, is a specific significance from any legal viewpoint.”