By MARY CLARE JALONICK, ERIC TUCKER and KEVIN FREKING Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The House committee investigating the Capitol insurrection used its latest public hearing on Thursday to focus on the pressure that then-President Donald Trump put on his vice president, Mike Pence, to delay or reject the certification of Joe Biden’s election victory on Jan. 6, 2021. The committee is trying to show how that pressure incited an angry mob to lay siege to the Capitol that day.
Pence, presiding over the certification in the vice president’s traditional ceremonial role, did not give in. He declared Biden the next president early the next morning, after the congressional session resumed and the rioters were cleared.
Lawmakers on the nine-member panel, and the witnesses who testified at the hearing, all described Pence’s decision as having averted a constitutional crisis.
Takeaways from the committee’s third public hearing this month:
A VICE PRESIDENT UNDER PRESSURE …
Greg Jacob, a counsel to Pence who fended off pressure to carry out the plan, said in live testimony at the hearing that the vice president first summoned him to his West Wing office in early December 2020 to seek clarity about his role in the certification of election results.
But Jacob said it was clear to the vice president that the founding fathers did not intend to empower any one person, including someone running for office, to affect the election results.
“And our review of text, history — and frankly, just common sense — all confirm the vice president’s first instinct on that point, there is no justifiable basis to conclude that the vice president has that kind of authority,” Jacob said.
But in the coming weeks, the committee laid out, Pence would come under pressure from to invalidate Biden’s win and find a way to keep Trump in power. While many White House aides made clear that they didn’t agree with the scheme, a conservative law professor named John Eastman increasingly had the ear of Trump. He wrote multiple memos suggesting Pence could reject electors or simply declare Trump the winner.
… AND IN DANGER
In video testimony, Pence’s former chief of staff, Marc Short, said that the vice president told Trump “many times” that Pence did not agree with the scheme. But Trump kept up the pressure anyway.
On the morning of Jan. 6, as Pence issued a public statement making clear that he would certify the legitimate results of the election, Trump told thousands of his supporters in front of the White House that he hoped Pence would reconsider. The committee showed video from that rally in which Trump said that if Pence doesn’t come through, “I won’t like him as much.”
That pressure, the committee asserts, put Pence in immediate danger after rioters marched down to the Capitol and chanted for his death.
In one video played by the committee, a Trump supporter said he had heard reports that Pence had “caved,” and if he did they were going to drag “politicians through the streets.” As Pence evacuated the Senate and hid in the Capitol, rioters in front of the building chanted “bring him out!” A fake guillotine was constructed on the National Mall, and people breaking into the building chanted “Hang Mike Pence! Hang Mike Pence!”
“Donald Trump turned the mob on him,” said Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, the chairman of the panel.
A CLOSE CALL IN THE CAPITOL
As the rioters broke in, Pence hastily evacuated his post presiding over the Senate. California Rep. Pete Aguilar, a Democrat on the committee who led Thursday’s hearing, told Jacob that the group was at one point only 40 feet from the rioters.
Jacob, who was with Pence at the time, said they had “heard the din” of the violent mob as they evacuated but that he didn’t know they were that close.
The committee also showed never-before-seen photos of Pence after he had evacuated to a secure location in the Capitol, including one photo in which he was reading one of Trump’s tweets.
Jacob said that Secret Service agents wanted them to evacuate the building but Pence refused to get in the car.
“The vice president didn’t want to take any chance” that the world would see him leaving the Capitol, Jacob said.
A ‘HEATED PHONE CALL’ AND A PRESIDENT’S THREATS
The committee shed some new light on a phone call between Trump and Pence the morning of Jan 6. In videotaped testimony, Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, said the conversation was “pretty heated” and “a different tone than I had heard him take with the vice president before.”
In other taped interviews, aides described snippets of the conversation, which they had only heard from Trump’s side of the call. Trump’s personal aide, Nicholas Luna, said he heard the word “wimp.” Ivanka Trump’s chief of staff, Julie Radford, said she was told the president called Pence “the p-word.”
Testifying in person, Jacob said he was there when Pence returned from taking Trump’s call. The vice president was “steely, determined, grim,” Jacob said.
In the following hours, Trump went to the rally stage and criticized the vice president to his thousands of supporters. Aguilar said the committee found that Trump had revised the speech to include criticism of Pence.
AN ILLEGAL SCHEME
Aguilar called Eastman’s scheme, which was amplified by lawyer Rudy Giuliani and others, “a legally and morally bankrupt idea.”
After writing memos challenging the nation’s election laws in December, and convening state electors on a call, Jacob said that Eastman laid out his theory at a Jan. 4 meeting with Trump, Pence and a small group of aides. He said Pence, as the presiding officer, could reject the votes outright. Alternately, he could “suspend the proceedings and declare essentially a 10-day recess” during which the results would be sent back to certain state legislatures. Eastman said he preferred the second option, Jacob said.
The next morning, on Jan. 5, Eastman had changed his mind, Jacob said. He walked into a meeting and said, “I’m here to request that you reject the electors.”
Pence never wavered, Jacob said.
Retired federal judge Michael Luttig, who had spoken to Pence’s staff ahead of Jan. 6, also testified at the hearing. He said that if Pence had declared Trump president, it would have “plunged America into what I believe would have been tantamount to a revolution within a constitutional crisis.”
DISTRUST OF EASTMAN
As Eastman gained the president’s favor, several White House aides grew increasingly concerned about the possible ramifications of what he was proposing. But Trump did not listen to their advice.
The committee played videotaped testimony from Eric Herschmann, a White House lawyer, expressing incredulity at Eastman’s legal theory that a vice president could overturn an election. “Are you out of your effing mind?” Herschmann said he told the professor, adding that he should get a good lawyer.
Trump campaign aide Jason Miller said colleagues had told him they thought Eastman “was crazy.”
Eastman was subpoenaed by the committee, but repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment rights during his interview. He has also sued to block the panel from obtaining many of his communications from the time.
TURNING TO THEIR FAITH
Pence is a deeply religious man, and Jacob’s testimony recounted the vice president’s faith — and his own — as the events unfolded.
In one discussion, Jacob said, Pence told him: “I can’t wait to go to heaven and meet the framers, and tell them the work that you did in putting together our Constitution is a work of genius.”
They started Jan. 6 at the vice president’s house, saying a prayer together. And as they hunkered in the undisclosed location, Jacob said he pulled out a Bible, reading a verse about a second in command who defied an order he could not follow. He said he “took great comfort” in the passage.
Short said in his videotaped interview that he texted Pence a Bible verse at the end of the day.
“I fought the good fight I finished the race, I’ve kept the faith,” the passage reads.