WASHINGTON — The House select committee scrutinizing the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol on Wednesday formally requested an interview with Representative Kevin McCarthy, taking the unusual step of calling the minority leader, who was in close contact with former President Donald J. Trump before, during and after the violence and has fought to shut down any investigation of the events.
Mr. McCarthy quickly announced that he would refuse to cooperate, but the request sent a clear message that the committee’s investigators are willing to pursue the highest-ranking figures on Capitol Hill for information about Mr. Trump’s mind-set as the violence unfolded. A federal judge has suggested the former president’s attitude will be pivotal to determining whether Mr. Trump can face any liability for the day’s mayhem.
It set up a politically charged showdown between House Democrats investigating the assault and Mr. McCarthy, the California Republican who is on track to become the speaker of the House if Republicans retake the chamber in November. And it suggested that investigators believe that Mr. McCarthy, who has acknowledged that he spoke by telephone with Mr. Trump while rioters stormed the Capitol, may also have been involved in conversations afterward about the president’s culpability in the assault and what should be done to address it.
In a letter on Wednesday, Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi and the chairman of the committee, said the panel had obtained “contemporaneous text messages from multiple witnesses” that refer to White House staff members expressing “significant concerns” about Mr. Trump’s “state of mind and his ongoing conduct” in the days after Jan. 6.
“It appears that you may also have discussed with President Trump the potential he would face a censure resolution, impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment,” Mr. Thompson wrote to Mr. McCarthy, referring to the part of the Constitution that allows for a president to be removed if he is determined to be unable to do his job. “It also appears that you may have identified other possible options, including President Trump’s immediate resignation from office.”
Mr. McCarthy released a statement Wednesday evening, saying he was refusing a meeting and condemning the investigation as “illegitimate.” He led his party’s opposition to the formation of a bipartisan panel as initially conceived to investigate the riot, opposed the creation of the current committee and has attacked the panel’s work for weeks.
“The committee’s only objective is to attempt to damage its political opponents,” he said, adding: “It is with neither regret nor satisfaction that I have concluded to not participate with this select committee’s abuse of power that stains this institution today and will harm it going forward.”
His refusal to meet with the committee raised the question of whether the panel would issue a subpoena to try to force him to testify, or hold him in contempt of Congress if he refused to comply. Those moves would represent major escalations in the battle over the investigation, which most Republicans have characterized as a partisan exercise intended to tarnish Mr. Trump and their party.
The committee proposed meeting with Mr. McCarthy on Feb. 3 or 4. He is the highest-ranking lawmaker the panel has pursued in its inquiry.
In September, the committee included Mr. McCarthy on a list of hundreds of people whose records it instructed social media and telecommunications companies to preserve for possible use in the inquiry, which was reported earlier by CNN and confirmed by The New York Times. Mr. McCarthy’s spokesman, Mark Bednar, criticized the panel at the time as “politically motivated” and categorized its request as “an authoritarian, unconstitutional attempt to rifle through individuals’ call logs.”
In the days after the mob attack, Mr. McCarthy struck a different tone. He initially condemned the violence and said Mr. Trump “bears responsibility” for the violence.
“What we saw last week was not the American way,” Mr. McCarthy said on the floor of the House. “Neither is the continued rhetoric that Joe Biden is not the legitimate president.”
But Mr. McCarthy eventually changed his stance, re-embracing Mr. Trump — who remains popular among the Republican base — and visiting him at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla., near the end of January.
“Your public statements regarding Jan. 6 have changed markedly since you met with Trump,” Mr. Thompson wrote in his letter. “At that meeting, or at any other time, did President Trump or his representatives discuss or suggest what you should say publicly?”
In a recent interview, Representative Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming and the vice chairwoman of the committee, pointed to the Mar-a-Lago meeting as a turning point for Mr. McCarthy. He would later lead his party’s effort to oust her from her leadership post for continuing to call out Mr. Trump, his election lies and the complicity of many Republicans in spreading them. And after initially saying he would back a bipartisan inquiry into the Jan. 6 attack, he reversed course and argued vociferously against any investigation by Congress.
“Looking back, the moment that Leader McCarthy went to Mar-a-Lago near the end of January, it was pretty clear the path that he had chosen,” Ms. Cheney said. “It was one that was not faithful to the Constitution. I believe we have a duty to our oath of office that requires that you put that above politics.”
The letter to Mr. McCarthy is the committee’s latest attempt to learn more about Mr. Trump’s actions as rioters marauded through the building for hours on Jan. 6 and his frame of mind in the days that followed.
Key Figures in the Jan. 6 Inquiry
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In particular, the panel said it was interested in a phone call Mr. McCarthy had with Mr. Trump during the riot. Mr. McCarthy previously described the call, in which he asked Mr. Trump to send help to the Capitol, as “very heated.”
During that call, according to an account given last year during impeachment proceedings, Mr. Trump sided with the rioters, telling Mr. McCarthy that they were evidently more upset about the election than the Republican leader was.
The committee also cited a Politico article reporting that Mr. McCarthy divulged to other Republicans that Mr. Trump had admitted some degree of responsibility for the Jan. 6 attack in his one-on-one conversations with Mr. McCarthy.
The committee has interviewed more than 340 witnesses, including former White House aides. On Wednesday, Kayleigh McEnany, a White House press secretary under Mr. Trump, appeared before the committee for a virtual interview, according to a person familiar with the situation.
The request to meet with Mr. McCarthy is the third time the committee has asked a Republican lawmaker to voluntarily agree to an interview. Representatives Scott Perry of Pennsylvania and Jim Jordan of Ohio have refused to cooperate with the panel.
Mr. Jordan — who in November told the Rules Committee that he had “nothing to hide” — denounced the panel’s inquiry on Sunday and called the request for an interview an “unprecedented and inappropriate demand.”
Mr. Perry, who is close to Mr. Jordan, last month refused a voluntary meeting with the committee, calling the panel “illegitimate.”
Mr. McCarthy made similar arguments on Wednesday, saying the panel wants to interview him “about public statements that have been shared with the world, and private conversations not remotely related to the violence that unfolded at the Capitol.”
“I have nothing else to add,” he said.
To date, the committee has been reluctant to issue subpoenas for sitting members of Congress, citing the deference and respect lawmakers in the chamber are supposed to show one another. But Mr. Thompson has pledged to take such a step if needed.