Jan. 6 panel calls Trump plan to block election illegal

Capitol Riots

(NewsNation) — The House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol detailed Thursday then-President Donald Trump’s last-ditch effort to salvage the 2020 election by pressuring Vice President Mike Pence to reject the electoral count. 

Pence didn’t testify at the hearing but was in the spotlight as two witnesses shed light on Trump’s desperate attempts to persuade him to overturn the election results. 

Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., opened the hearing citing Pence’s own words that there is “almost no idea more un-American” than the one he was being asked to do — reject the vote.”

“Trump wanted Mike Pence to do something no other vice president has ever done,” Thompson said. “Our democracy came dangerously close to catastrophe.”

In a last-ditch and potentially illegal plan, Trump seized on the unorthodox proposal from conservative law professor John Eastman to have Pence turn back the electors when he presided over Congress to certify the election results on Jan. 6, 2021.

Trump and his allies saw the joint session as their last opportunity to remain in power. A federal judge has said it is “more likely than not” Trump committed crimes in his attempt to stop the certification.

But Pence ultimately rejected Trump’s public and private pressure. Pence remained on the Capitol grounds throughout the rioting and returned to preside over the formal vote count.

By refusing Trump’s demands, Pence “did his duty,” said the panel’s vice-chair Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo.

“President Trump was told repeatedly that Mike Pence lacked the constitutional authority and legal authority to do what President Trump was demanding he do,” she said. “What the president wanted the vice president to do was not just wrong, it was illegal and unconstitutional.”

Trump’s closest advisers viewed his last-ditch efforts as “nuts,” “crazy.”

In recorded testimony shown at the hearing, Eric Herschmann, a lawyer advising Trump, told Eastman, “Are you out of your effing mind?”

“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. “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 read: “I’m very worried about the next 48 hours.”

Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller said those around Trump called it “crazy.”

Greg Jacob, who was counsel to former Vice President Mike Pence, left, and Michael Luttig, a retired federal judge, arrive before the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol holds a hearing at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

In opening remarks, Greg Jacob, the vice president’s counsel who fended off Eastman’s ideas for Pence to carry out the plan, said Pence summoned him to his West Wing office to seek clarity about the vice president’s role in the certification of election results.

He said that Pence studied the law and the history before Jan. 6 and concluded “there is just no way that the framers of the Constitution … that they would have put in the hands of one person the authority to determine who was going to be president of the United States.”

Jacob told congressional investigators in a deposition that Eastman admitted to Trump days before the insurrection that the plot would require Pence to violate federal law.

The law “is not a plaything for presidents or judges to use to remake the world in their preferred image,” Jacob said in a written statement. When leaders “break, twist and fail to enforce our laws in order to achieve their partisan ends, or to accomplish frustrated policy objectives they consider existentially important, they are breaking America,” he said.

Retired federal judge Michael Luttig called the plan from Eastman, his former law clerk, “incorrect at every turn.”

“I would have laid my body across the road before I would have let the vice president overturn the 2020 election on the basis of that historical precedent,” Luttig said in his testimony.

Luttig refers to Jan. 6 as a “war on America’s democracy” in his written statement to the committee.

In the statement published by CNN, he said that if Pence had adhered to Trump’s demands to overturn the election, “America would immediately have been plunged into what would have been tantamount to a revolution within a paralyzing constitutional crisis.”

Thursday’s session also presented new evidence about the danger Pence faced as rioters outside the Capitol were chanting “Hang Mike Pence” armed with makeshift gallows as the vice president fled with senators into hiding.

Video was shown of the rioters spewing vulgarities about Pence as they headed toward the Capitol. Nine people died in the insurrection and its aftermath.

The panel said the vice president was very close to the rioters, at one point there was only “40 feet between the vice president and the mob.”

In a taped deposition, deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews testified that a tweet Trump sent on Jan. 6 helped escalate the situation.

“It felt like he was pouring gasoline on the fire,” she said.

Also on Thursday, Rep. Thompson said the committee will request testimony from Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, a conservative activist and the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

The request is being made in light of newly discovered email correspondence between Eastman and Thomas that reveal her efforts to overturn the 2020 election were more extensive than previously known, according to the Washington Post.

“It’s time for her to come talk,” Thompson told reporters ahead of the hearing.

The committee postponed its Wednesday hearing. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of two Republicans on the panel, tweeted the delay was designed to space out the hearings.

The committee announced that it would hold two hearings next week — one on June 21 and another on June 23 — both scheduled to start at 1 p.m. ET.

In its second public hearing on Monday, the House select committee focused on how Trump refused to accept the results of the democratic process.

NewsNation political editor Chris Stirewalt discussed Monday’s hearing and his testimony in an exclusive interview with Leland Vittert, blaming both parties for allowing hyper-partisanship, and the pursuit of political power to drive decision-making in the wake of the 2020 election.

During his testimony, Stirewalt explained the term “red mirage,”  — an observation that Republican voters are more likely to cast in-person ballots, which are often counted earlier on Election Day.

Stirewalt said Trump exploited that trend to unfairly cast doubt on mail-in ballots, which were counted later and more likely to favor Biden.

Also on Monday, Trump issued a 12-page rebuttal to testimony and evidence presented by the committee.

The committee launched its series of hearings last week in a prime-time spectacle meant to showcase the committee’s initial findings gathered over an 11-month investigation. 

As he mulls another White House run, Trump insists the committee’s investigation is a “witch hunt.” Last week he said Jan. 6 “represented the greatest movement in the history of our country.”

The Jan. 6 hearings have been decried as “political theater” by the GOP, and while there are some strong allegations being made by some of those testifying, the question in many viewers’ minds is whether any actual charges could come out of the proceedings.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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