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Trump pressure on Pence set the stage for Jan. 6 violence, committee argues

Advisers to Trump and Pence testified that the vice president did not have the power to alter the election results, but Trump lobbied Pence to take action anyway.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The House panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack added to its case Thursday against the country’s former commander in chief, making Donald Trump’s pressure on his vice president the focus of its latest public hearing.

Representative Bennie Thompson, a democrat who chairs the House select committee, opened proceedings this morning by praising former Vice President Mike Pence’s refusal to overturn the 2020 election.

"He resisted the pressure. He knew it was illegal. He knew it was wrong. We are fortunate for Mike Pence’s courage on Jan. 6. Our democracy came dangerously close to catastrophe,” Thompson said. "That courage put him in tremendous danger.”

Lawmakers used the hearing to walk through discussions underway at the Trump White House after it was clear that Trump had lost the November election to his Democratic opponent Joe Biden. In the lead-up to Jan. 6, John Eastman, a law professor working on Trump's 2020 campaign, was pushing a theory that the Constitution empowered Pence to reject the results of the Electoral College, but Pence and his own advisers were resistant.

The Jan. 6 Committee has portrayed Eastman as the architect of a plan to prevent Biden from being certified as president. In addition to lobbying state legislators to question the results of their states’ vote tallies, Eastman wrote a 2-page memo that said Pence should throw out the votes of certain states.

With Pence shirking Eastman's counsel, Trump himself lobbied his vice president to interrupt the congressional proceedings on Jan. 6, 2021, and prevent Biden from becoming president — rhetoric that the committee contends catalyzed hordes of Trump supporters to storm the Capitol.

The committee on Thursday shared excerpts of a video deposition with Marc Short, who was Pence’s chief of staff. Short said Pence was “very consistent” in telling Trump that the vice president did not have the constitutional authority to overturn the election results. Trump nevertheless continued to back Eastman’s convoluted legal theory.

Greg Jacob, one of the former vice president’s lawyers while he was in office, said he had his first conversation with Pence about the vice president’s role in certifying the election in early December 2020.

Jacob testified that Pence’s instinct during that conversation was that there was “no way” the framers of the Constitution would have put one person “in a role to have a decisive impact on the outcome of the election.”

Jacob testified that Pence “never budged” about his belief that the vice president did not have the authority to alter or reject the Electoral College results.

On Jan. 5, Eastman outright asked Pence to reject the Electoral College results, Jacob testified.

Despite Pence and his team’s opposition to Eastman’s theory, Trump released a statement on Jan. 5 saying his vice president agreed with him about the vice president’s authority to alter the election results.

Jacob said Trump’s statement was “categorically untrue” and “shocked” Pence’s team.

Michael Luttig, a retired Fourth Circuit judge who informally advised Pence, testified "there was no basis whatsoever" for Eastman's legal strategy.

“Had Vice President Pence obeyed the orders from his president and declared Donald Trump the next president of the United States, it would have plunged America into what I believe would have been tantamount to a revolution within a constitutional crisis in America which, in my view, would have been the first constitutional crisis since the founding of the Republic,” Luttig said.

When Eastman shared his legal theory with then-White House counsel Eric Herschmann prior to Jan. 6, Herschmann testified in a video deposition that he was stunned.

“I said, ‘Are you out of your effing mind? You’re going to turn around and tell 78 million-plus people that you’re going to invalidate their votes because you think the election was stolen?’” Herschmann recalled, saying he warned Eastman there would be “riots in the streets” if the election was overturned.

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Herschmann said Eastman responded by citing that violence had been used in the past to protect the republic.

Democratic Representative Pete Aguilar of California, who led Thursday's hearing, argued that even Eastman did not believe his own theory about the vice president’s ability to alter the course of the election.

An image of a mock gallows on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, is shown on June 9, 2022, at a public hearing on a House committee's yearlong investigation of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. Committee members pictured from left to right are Rep. Adam Schiff, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, Chairman Bennie Thompson, Vice Chair Liz Cheney, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Rep. Jamie Raskin, and Rep. Elaine Luria, (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

In an October 2020 draft letter to the presiden, Eastman wrote that, when it comes to the vice president’s role in the Electoral College, “nowhere does it suggest [in the 12th Amendment] that the president of the Senate gets to make the determination on his own” about the election.

After the election, Jacob testified, Eastman acknowledged in a meeting that, even if Trump was able to get his legal case contesting the election results before the Supreme Court, they would lose “9-0.”

Eastman wrote in an email obtained by the committee that the so-called “alternate electors” who would cast Electoral College votes for Trump in swing states won by Biden would be “dead on arrival” when they reached Congress because they were not certified by state legislatures.

As for the understanding among those in the Trump White House that contesting the election results could spur violence, Jacob testified he warned Eastman about that very possibility.

“As I expressed to him, that issue might well then have to be decided in the streets, because if we can’t work it out politically, we’ve already seen how charged up people are about this election,” Jacob said.

Early in the morning on Jan. 6, Trump held a heated phone call with Pence.

Former Trump assistant Nicholas Luna said he heard Trump use the word “wimp” on the call with his vice president. An aide to Ivanka Trump, the former presidents eldest daughter, said Pence used the “p-word” during the conversation.

Proceedings by the committee on Thursday included a clip from Ivanka Trump’s deposition where she testified that, during the call, Trump used a “different tone than I had heard him take with the vice president before.”

When Trump supporters stormed the Capitol later in the day, a riot that turned deadly, rioters chanted “Find Mike Pence” and “Hang Mike Pence,” as a gallows, erected by Trump supporters, stood outside the Capitol building.

Advised by his staff to respond to the rioters, Trump sent out a tweet that read, in part: “Mike Pence did not have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.”

Two minutes after that tweet, crowds surged, and Pence was moved to a secure location beneath the Capitol building.

Jacob testified that Pence refused to get into a car to evacuate the Capitol because he “did not want to take any chance that the world would see the vice president of the United States fleeing the U.S. Capitol.”

According to Jacob, Trump did not reach out to Pence during the insurrection to check on his safety.

John Wood, senior investigative counsel for the committee and a former U.S. attorney, will be questioning some of the witnesses.

During the committee's first hearing last week, Republican Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming said that, per a committee interview with a White House aide, Trump had backed rioters’ calls for Pence to be hanged.

“Maybe our supporters have the right idea. Mike Pence deserves it,” the then-president reportedly said.

In the aftermath of Jan. 6, Eastman called Herschmann, continuing to inquire about the legal strategy for contesting election results in Georgia.

"I said to him, 'Are you out of your effing mind?' Right? I said, 'I only want to hear two words coming out of your mouth from now on 'orderly transition,''" Herschmann said in the video. "Eventually he said 'orderly transition.'"

Herschmann, an attorney himself, speaking to Eastman then said: "I'm going to give you the best free legal advice you're ever getting in your life: get a great effing criminal defense lawyer, you're going to need it."

In the days after Jan. 6, John Eastman emailed Rudy Giuliani asking for a presidential pardon.

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