WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s extraordinary effort to overturn his 2020 election defeat came into ever-clearer focus Thursday, with testimony describing his pressuring Vice President Mike Pence in vulgar private taunts and public entreaties to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the run-up to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
Trump’s closest advisers viewed his last-ditch efforts to halt congressional certification of his loss as “nuts,” “crazy” and even likely to incite riots if Pence followed through, witnesses revealed in stark testimony Thursday.
At its third public hearing into the January 6, 2021 insurrection, the panel detailed a “relentless” pressure campaign by Trump on Pence — as cornerstone of a criminal conspiracy to keep the defeated president in power.
“Donald Trump wanted Mike Pence to do something no other vice president has ever done: the former president wanted Pence to reject the votes and either declare Trump the winner or send the votes back to the states to be counted again,” panel chairman Bennie Thompson said.
“Mike Pence said no. He resisted the pressure. He knew it was illegal. He knew it was wrong.”
The panel revealed how Trump put his vice president in danger as Pence was presiding over a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, when the defeated president sent his supporters to the Capitol to “fight like hell” over his false claims of a fraudulent election.
Rioters came within 40 feet of the place at the Capitol where Pence and others had been evacuated. Never-before-shown photos showed Pence and his team sheltering.
“He deserves to be burned with the rest of them,” one rioter is heard saying on video as the mob prepares to storm the iconic building.
“Pence betrayed us,” says another rioter, wearing a Make America Great Again hat in a selfie video inside the Capitol.
Pence’s counsel Greg Jacob testified that he could “hear the din” of the rioters nearby. Asked if Trump ever checked on Pence during the siege, Jacob said: “He did not.”
Trump’s original speech didn’t mention Pence but he ad-libbed to berate his vice president in a move Democratic committee member Pete Aguilar said helped incite the insurrection and the threats against Pence.
But Pence resisted, releasing a letter to Congress saying the vice president had no “unilateral authority” to overturn election counts.
Aguilar said an informant from the neofascist Proud Boys told the FBI the group would have killed Pence given the opportunity.
With live testimony and other evidence from its yearlong investigation, the panel held its third hearing this month aiming to demonstrate that Trump’s repeated false claims and desperate attempt to stay in power led directly to the Capitol insurrection.
All told, the committee is pulling together a dark portrait of the end of Trump’s presidency as the defeated Republican was left grasping for alternatives as courts turned back dozens of lawsuits challenging the vote.
Trump latched onto conservative law professor John Eastman’s obscure plan to defy historical precedent of the Electoral Count Act and reverse Joe Biden’s victory.
Trump aides and allies warned bluntly in private about his efforts, even as some publicly continued to stand by the president’s false election claims. Nine people died in the insurrection and its aftermath.
“Are you out of your effing mind?” Eric Herschmann, a lawyer advising Trump, told Eastman in recorded testimony shown at the hearing.
“You’re going to turn around and tell 78-plus million people in this country that your theory is, this is how you’re going to invalidate their votes?” Herschmann said. He warned: “You’re going to cause riots in the streets.”
A text message from Fox News’ Sean Hannity to Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows about the plan in the run-up to Jan. 6 read: “I’m very worried about the next 48 hours.”
Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller said those around Trump called the plan “crazy.”
The committee has said the plan was illegal, and a federal judge has said “more likely than not” Trump committed crimes in his attempt to stop the certification.
Eastman later sought to be “on the pardon list,” according to an email he sent to Trump layer Rudy Giuliani shared by the committee.
In a social media post Thursday, Trump decried the hearings anew as a “witch hunt,” lambasted coverage by “the Fake News Networks” and exclaimed, “I DEMAND EQUAL TIME!!!”
On Capitol Hill, panel Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., cited Pence’s own words that there was “almost no idea more un-American” than the one he was being asked to follow — reject Americans’ votes.
By refusing Trump’s demands, Pence “did his duty,” said the panel’s vice-chair, Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming.
The panel heard from Jacob, the vice president’s counsel who fended off Eastman’s ideas for Pence, and retired federal judge Michael Luttig, who called the plan from Eastman, his former law clerk, “incorrect at every turn.”
Jacob said it became clear to Pence from the start that the founding fathers did not intend to empower any one person to affect the election result, and he “never budged.”
Pence was determined to stay at the Capitol that night and finish the job, even as his security team prepared for him to leave, Jacob said.
Luttig, a conservative scholar, said in a halting voice but firm terms that had Pence obeyed Trump’s orders, declaring “Trump as the next president would have plunged America into what I believe would have been tantamount to a revolution within a constitutional crisis in America.”
Thursday’s session presented new dramatic evidence about the danger Pence faced as rioters chanted “Hang Mike Pence” with a makeshift gallows outside the Capitol.
The president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, testified about the “heated” phone call he had with Pence that morning, as the family joined in the Oval Office. Another aide, Nicholas Luna, said he heard Trump call Pence a “wimp.” Ivanka Trump’s chief of staff, Julie Radford, said she was told the president called Pence “the p-word.”
In another development Thursday, Thompson said the panel will ask Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, for an interview amid disclosures of the conservative activist’s communications with people in Trump’s orbit ahead of the attack. He did not specify a schedule for that.
“It’s time for her to come talk,” Thompson told reporters.
The panel’s yearlong investigation is showcasing Trump’s final weeks in office as the defeated president clung to “the big lie” of a rigged election even as those around him — his family, his top aides, officials at the highest levels of government — were telling him he simply had lost.
With 1,000 interviews and some 140,000 documents, the committee is showing how Trump’s false claims of election fraud became a battle cry as he summoned thousands of Americans to Washington and then Capitol Hill.
Thursday’s hearing unpacked the Eastman plan to have the states send alternative slates of electors from states Trump was disputing, including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. With competing slates for Trump or Biden, Pence would be forced to reject them, returning them to the states to sort it out, under the plan.
The panel played video showing Eastman repeatedly invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination while being interviewed by the committee.
More than 800 people have been arrested in the Capitol siege, including members of extremist groups facing rare sedition charges over their roles in the Capitol attack.
The panel is considering whether to send a referral for criminal charges against Trump to the Justice Department. No president or former president has ever been indicted by the Justice Department, and Attorney General Merrick Garland has said he and his team are following the proceedings in Congress.
Several members of Congress are also under scrutiny, and the panel is also probing several candidates for elected office who were among the rioters.
In a letter earlier this week, the Justice Department warned the committee it is complicating the federal investigation and requested transcripts of all witness interviews the panel has conducted.
The panel, which is expected to deliver a final report on its findings later this year, intends for its work to be a record for history of the most violent attack on the Capitol since the War of 1812.