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Next chapter of Jan. 6 hearings tackles Trump’s pressure on state election officials

Crying fraud after he lost reelection in 2020, Donald Trump backed a convoluted legal strategy engineered to keep him in office.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection spent its Tuesday hearing on former President Donald Trump's direct involvement in an elaborate attempt to have state officials subvert 2020 election results.

That Trump had lost his bid for a second term became clear within hours of the polls closing when Fox News called Arizona for the Democratic challenger, Joe Biden. As other networks followed suit over the next week, Trump devoted himself to a legal strategy premised on the baseless claim that widespread election fraud had occurred.

Refusing to admit defeat, Trump looked to officials in swing states won by Biden, urging them to either reject ballots outright or to put forward “alternate electors” who would contest the Electoral College results, preventing the certification of the vote scheduled for Jan. 6.

Lawmakers who have been studying the insurrection that delayed the certification asserted Tuesday that Trump’s team began developing the false-elector strategy while Trump was still campaigning.

It was a strategy that required Vice President Mike Pence to play a prominent role because he would need to count Republican-backed electors instead of Democratic-backed electors in swing states legitimately won by Biden. Pence ultimately condemned the plan, however, and no Republican governor or legislative body agreed to certify the alternate slates of pro-Trump electors submitted in seven states won by Biden.

The committee revealed Tuesday that a group of illegitimate electors from Michigan seeking access to the Jan. 6 ceremony in Congress contemplated heading to the Capitol on Jan. 5 so that they could camp there overnight.

An aide to Republican Senator Ron Johnson texted a member of Pence’s staff about hand-delivering to the vice president false elector certificates from Wisconsin and Michigan on Jan. 6.

Pence’s aide responded: “Do not give that to him.”

Trump had a direct link to the efforts to gather illegitimate electors, according to evidence the committee presented Wednesday.

One video deposition played at the latest hearing has Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel testifying that Trump called her, then transferred the call to John Eastman, a law professor working with his campaign, who urged her to help Trump’s campaign gather alternate electors.

Continuing to drive home the overarching message of its first three hearings, the committee presented additional evidence that Trump knew or should have known that the election was legitimate and his legal strategy to stay in power was groundless, yet he forged ahead with his attempt to stay in the White House anyway.

Former Attorney General William Barr speaks during a video deposition to the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The footage aired at a hearing on June 9, 2022. (House Select Committee via AP, File)

In another excerpt from videotaped deposition, former Attorney General Bill Barr said Trump’s claims of election fraud in Georgia “had no merit.” 

Several state and federal election officials who investigated Trump’s allegations, including B. J. Pak, who was a then-U.S. attorney in Georgia, and former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Richard Donoghue also told the committee there was no election fraud in Georgia.

The White House counsel’s office told Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows and Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani that the Electoral College strategy was not legally sound, Meadows' aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified in another deposition aired Tuesday.

The lawyer Eastman helped construct this legal strategy that he himself admitted did not hold water.

The latest hearing follows testimony last week from Pence's attorney, Greg Jacob, who said that Eastman admitted in the lead-up to Jan. 6 that his false-elector strategy would lose "9-0" if brought before the Supreme Court. Even in his own emails, Eastman conceded that the alternate-electors gambit would be dead on arrival without the backing of state officials.

Arizona Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers, himself a Republican who campaigned for Trump, described to the committee how he refused urging from the then-president to have a state committee hear claims of election fraud. He said Trump in turn asked Bowers to reject the electors in his state and help put forward electors that would swing the state in Trump’s favor. 

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“I said, ‘You are asking me to do something that is counter to my oath,’” Bowers recalled telling the president and Giuliani, making Bowers the latest witness to say he told Trump his scheme was illegal.

Bowers said Giuliani replied: “Aren’t we all Republicans here? I would think we’d get a better reception.”

Pushing Trump’s team to show evidence of voter fraud to back their claims of election fraud, Bowers said Giuliani and Jenna Ellis never gave him anything to support their allegations.

“We’ve got lots of theories, we just don’t have the evidence,” Giuliani said, according to Bowers.

According to Bowers, Republican Representative Andy Biggs called him on the morning of Jan. 6, requesting Bowers to decertify Arizona’s electors who were slated to vote for Biden. Bowers said he refused.

Election officials in Georgia faced similar pressures from Trump and his allies.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger received a call in the aftermath of the election from Trump in which the outgoing president urging Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” and say Trump won in Georgia.

Raffensperger, a Republican, said that the results continued to support Biden’s win in three recounts, including a hand recount of every ballot cast in Georgia.

“What I knew is that we did not have any votes to find,” Raffensperger said.

Trump leaned on Raffensperger in their call, however, stating that Raffensperger was committing a crime and participating in a corrupt subversion of the election by not going along with his claims of election fraud in Georgia.

“I thought then and still think today that that was a threat,” Raffensperger would later say about the call in a memoir.

When the election rancor was at its peak in late 2020, Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer for the Georgia secretary of state, publicly warned that the baseless allegations of election fraud were endangering election workers and creating a politically volatile environment that could catalyze violence.

“Someone’s going to get hurt. Someone’s going to get shot. Someone’s going to get killed,” Sterling said in a speech on Dec. 1.

But Trump continued to claim election fraud in several states, including Georgia.

"Donald Trump did not care about the threats of violence. He did not condemn them, he made no effort to stop them. He went forward with his fake allegations anyway," Representative Liz Cheney said Tuesday.

Sterling testified that he struggled to combat Trump’s election misinformation, given the former president’s massive platform.

“It was kind of like a shovel trying to empty the ocean,” Sterling said.

The threats and violence Sterling predicted came to the fore when Trump and Giuliani publicly accused Georgia election worker Shaye Moss and her mother, who was also an election worker, of tampering with ballots.

Moss testified that the right-wing conspiracy sent her and her mother into hiding. They filed defamation lawsuits against Giuliani and The Gateway Pundit, a far-right conspiracy website that published baseless accusations saying the women committed election fraud while serving as poll workers in Georgia.

Moss, who is Black, testified she received hateful and racist messages on social media, including a threat that said: “Be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920.”

Her mother, Ruby Freeman, testified in a recorded interview that the threats made her scared to go to the grocery store or introduce herself by her name.

"There is nowhere I feel safe. Do you know what it's like to have the president of the United States target you? The president of the United States is supposed to represent every American, not target one," Freeman said.

Representative Adam Schiff described how Trump’s pressure on states to subvert the will of voters and go along with his election plot turned into public pressure that "brought angry phone calls and texts, armed protests, intimidation, and all too often threats of violence and death."

"State legislators were singled out," Schiff said. "So too were statewide elections officials,” Representative Adam Schiff said.

Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Brian Cutler received daily calls from Trump team members, including personal calls from Giuliani where the former mayor of New York urged Cutler to influence the election in Trump’s favor.

Cutler testified in a recorded video that he asked his lawyers to step in and get the calls to stop, all to no avail.

In the days following these calls, Steve Bannon called for a protest outside Cutler’s home.

The Pennsylvania Republican said he had to disconnect his home phone for three days after his number was posted online.

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