Thursday’s January 6 committee hearing, which documented President Donald J. Trump’s relentless but unsuccessful campaign to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to help him reverse his 2020 election loss, veered sharply at times between unstable discussions of constitutional law. and disturbing images of the threats and violence that inspired Trump’s attacks on Pence.
But at the heart of the committee’s presentation was a simple narrative.
Weeks before the mob attack on Capitol Hill, Trump joined forces with a law professor named John Eastman, who espoused the theory that Pence, in his role as Senate president, had the power to alter the outcome of the election, or at least to delay the certification of Trump’s defeat.
Armed with this dubious legal cudgel, and with his other avenues to retain power closing, Trump pushed and shoved Pence, including publicly on January 6, which helped anger his supporters and trigger the riot on Capitol Hill.
Pence, backed by his own advisers and other legal experts, resisted Trump from the moment the idea arose.
Here are four takeaways from Thursday’s hearing.
Even Eastman doubted the legality of his plan and let Trump know.
Mr. Trump went ahead with the pressure campaign on Mr. Pence despite the fact that Mr. Eastman, a former clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas and a law professor at Chapman University, was unsure at times about the legality and the political viability of his own plan. .
The committee, for example, presented an email that Eastman had written in the early stages of the scheme, in which he said that the idea of lawmakers in pro-Trump states drafting alternative lists of voters to give Pence a reason to disputing the results was “dead on arrival in Congress.”
Eastman also admitted in a private conversation with Pence’s top attorney, Greg Jacob, that if the Supreme Court ever had to rule on the legality of a vice president deciding the results of an election on his own, the court would vote unanimously. to drop the matter, Mr. Jacob testified.
But more importantly, Jacob told the committee in a videotaped statement, excerpts of which were played during the hearing, that Eastman had admitted in Trump’s presence that the plan to pressure Pence violated a known 1887 law. such as the Electoral Count Law. According to Jacob, Eastman acknowledged the scheme’s illegality to Trump on January 4, 2021, just two days before Pence was to oversee the election certification.
That crucial admission by Mr. Eastman was highlighted by Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming and the committee’s vice chair, who has long suggested that Mr. Trump could be charged with a federal crime for his role in obstructing the vote certification. Count on January 6.
The Topics of the House Committee Hearings on January 6
If prosecutors can prove that both Mr. Trump and Mr. Eastman knew in advance that the plan to pressure Mr. Pence would violate the law, it could be important evidence suggesting intent, should the Justice Department decide to initiate criminal action. case against any of them.
Both Ms. Cheney and a colleague on the committee, Representative Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., mentioned that a federal judge had already ruled in a related civil lawsuit that Mr. Trump and Mr. Eastman likely conspired together to obstruct the certification of the election and committing fraud against the United States.
In his March ruling, Judge David O. Carter wrote that “the plan’s illegality was obvious,” calling it a “strike in search of a legal theory.”
Apparently, Eastman was worried enough about being prosecuted for his role that he asked a few days after Jan. 6 about getting a pardon before Trump left office.
Pence never hesitated to reject Trump.
If there was one thing the committee hearing made clear, it was that Pence, despite his record of loyalty to Trump, never believed he had the power to decide the election, and hardly anyone else in Trump’s orbit did. , either.
According to Jacob, Pence’s “first instinct” was to reject the idea out of hand, undermining claims by Trump allies at the time that he was open to the idea. Mr. Jacob told the committee that even during his first meeting with Mr. Pence about Mr. Eastman’s plan, the vice president was appalled, saying he didn’t think founders who “abhor concentrated power” would have agreed. in which a person…especially one who had a stake in the outcome, could have exercised sole discretion over an election.
It turned out that Pence had broad support both inside and outside the White House. The committee, in its presentation, offered a long list of aides and advisers who seemed to disagree with Trump and Eastman.
In a recorded statement, Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff, said Mark Meadows, Trump’s own chief of staff, agreed that the vice president did not have a large or decisive role to play in determining the outcome of the election. the elections.
Another top Trump adviser, Jason Miller, in his own recorded statement, told the committee that Pat Cipollone, Trump’s White House counsel, thought Eastman’s plan was “insane.” He added that Sean Hannity, the very pro-Trump anchor on Fox News, felt that Mr. Pence had done the “right” thing to turn him down.
Even Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, seemed to doubt Eastman’s legal theory, according to Eric Herschmann, a former senior White House counsel. But, as Herschmann pointed out in a recorded statement, that didn’t stop Giuliani from publicly promoting Eastman’s plan on Jan. 6.
There was no legal basis for Eastman’s plan.
At times, the hearing sounded like a law school seminar on electoral procedure, with highly technical discussions of how the vice president’s role on Jan. 6 fits into the 12th Amendment and the Voter Count Act.
At the forefront of those discussions was J. Michael Luttig, a former federal appeals court judge revered by conservatives. The morning before the attack on Capitol Hill, Judge Luttig posted a series of messages on Twitter in which he asserted that Pence did not have the power to use his own discretion to decide the election.
“The sole responsibility and power of the Vice President under the Constitution is to faithfully count the electoral college votes as cast,” Justice Luttig wrote.
He added: “The Constitution does not empower the Vice President to alter in any way the votes that have been cast, either by rejecting some of them or otherwise.”
In his testimony on Thursday, Justice Luttig denounced Eastman’s plan as “constitutional mischief,” adding that if Pence had agreed, he would have “plunged the United States into what I think would have been the equivalent of a revolution within a constitutional crisis in the United States.
The pressure campaign helped trigger the violence.
Trump’s public calls for Pence to carry out Eastman’s plan raised expectations among his supporters that the vice president would, and fueled anger when he didn’t.
Short, Pence’s chief of staff, was so concerned about the possibility of Trump supporters turning on the vice president that he alerted the Secret Service on Jan. 5.
Pence continued to reject Trump even after a call from the president on the morning of Jan. 6 in which Trump called him a “coward” and worse, according to testimony compiled by the committee.
At 2:24 p.m. on January 6, Trump sent out a tweet that said, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done.”
A Trump aide told the committee that at the time he felt like Trump was “pouring gasoline on the fire.” Immediately, the committee said, there was a noticeable increase in the crowd both inside and outside the Capitol, some of whom began chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!”
Mr. Pence was evacuated from his ceremonial Senate office and taken to safety, barely escaping the angry mob that stormed the building. When Aguilar told Jacob, who had been with Pence at the Capitol that day, that members of the crowd were only 40 feet from them, he seemed taken aback.
“I could hear the din of the rioters in the building as we moved,” Jacob said. “But I don’t think I realized they were that close.”