By LISA MASCARO and MARY CLARE JALONICK
WASHINGTON (AP) — The 1/6 committee on Thursday plunged into Donald Trump’s last-ditch efforts to salvage the 2020 election by pressuring Vice President Mike Pence to defy historical precedent and reject the electoral count in the run-up to the U.S. Capitol riot.
With two witnesses Thursday, including Pence’s counsel, the House panel is making a case that Trump’s false claims of a fraudulent election left him grasping for alternatives as courts turned back dozens of lawsuits challenging the vote.
Trump latched onto conservative law professor John Eastman’s obscure plan and launched a public and private pressure campaign on Pence days before the vice president was to preside over the Jan. 6 joint session of Congress to certify Joe Biden’s election victory. A federal judge has said it is “more likely than not” Trump committed crimes in his attempt to stop the certification.
Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson 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.”
By refusing Trump’s demands, Pence “did his duty,” said the panel’s vice-chair Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming.
The committee was portraying gripping, if complicated, final days before the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection as the defeated Trump mounted his effort to upend longstanding election procedures, putting his own vice president in danger as the mob headed toward the Capitol.
The panel is hearing from Greg Jacob, the vice president’s counsel who fended off Eastman’s ideas for Pence to carry out the plan; and retired federal judge Michael Luttig, who called the plan from Eastman, his former law clerk, “incorrect at every turn.”
Jacob said that Pence summoned him to his West Wing office in early December 2020 to seek clarity about the vice president’s role in the certification of election results. He said it became clear to Pence that the founding fathers did not intend to empower any one person, including someone running for office, to affect the election result.
Pence never wavered from that initial view, Jacob said.
Luttig said that had Pence obeyed Trump’s orders, obviously contrary to the law, the declaring “of Donald Trump as the next president would have plunged America into what I believe would have been tantamount to a revolution within a constitutional crisis in America.”
The panel aims to show that Trump’s pressure on Pence directly contributed to the attack on the Capitol.
“The illegality of the plan was obvious,” the committee said in a court filing against Eastman.
With graphic video, viewers saw what happened as rioters outside the Capitol were chanting “Hang Mike Pence” and spewing vulgarities while storming the building. Thursday’s session was expected to divulge new evidence about the danger Pence faced with a makeshift gallows on the Capitol grounds as the vice president fled with senators into hiding. Nine people died in the insurrection and its aftermath.
Thompson said Thursday the panel will ask Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, for an interview amid disclosures of the conservative activist’s communications with people in Trump’s orbit ahead of the attack. He did not specify a schedule for that.
“It’s time for her to come talk,” Thompson told reporters ahead of the hearing.
Ahead of the hearing, Pence’s former chief of staff, Marc Short, said his boss was determined to stay at the Capitol that night and finish the job, despite the threats.
“He knew his job was to stay at his post,” Short said on CNN on Wednesday.
Short said Pence didn’t want the world seeing the vice president leaving the Capitol when “a hallmark of democracy” was under siege.
The panel reconvened for a third hearing this month after a blockbuster prime-time start last week.
The panel’s yearlong investigation is showcasing Trump’s final weeks in office as the defeated president clung to “the big lie” of a rigged election even as those around him — his family, his top aides, officials at the highest levels of government — were telling him he simply lost the election.
Former Attorney General William Barr, who resigned at the end of 2020 rather than be part of Trump’s plans, testified earlier that the president was becoming “detached from reality” if he believed the lies. He said he told the president his claims of voter fraud were “bull-—.”
With 1,000 interviews and reams of 140,000 documents, the committee is connecting the dots, showing how Trump’s false claims of election fraud became a battle cry as he summoned thousands of Americans to Washington for a Jan. 6 rally and then sent them to Capitol Hill to “fight like hell” for his presidency.
More than 800 people have been arrested in the Capitol siege, and the panel is considering whether to send a referral for criminal charges against Trump to the Justice Department. No president or former president has ever been indicted by the Justice Department, and Attorney General Merrick Garland has said he and his team are following the proceedings in Congress.
Thursday’s hearing was unpacking the Eastman plan to have the states send alternative slates of electors from the five or seven states Trump was disputing, including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. With competing slates for Trump or Biden, Pence would be forced to reject them, returning them to the states to sort it out, under the plan.
The committee in hearings ahead will be delving into the roles of extremist groups and others who heeded Trump’s call to Washington. Leaders and others from the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys face rare sedition charges over their roles in the Capitol attack.
Several members of Congress are also under scrutiny, including Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., whom the committee has asked for an interview to discuss a Capitol tour he gave that included basement tunnels to a group of people the day before the attack.
The panel is also probing several candidates for elected office, including the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, who were among the rioters.
The panel, which is expected to deliver a final report on its findings later this year, intends for its work to be a record for history of the most violent attack on the Capitol since the War of 1812. Unlike other national traumas that have pulled the country together, the Jan. 6 Capitol attack appears to have left many Americans divided. Congress splintered over forming the committee, which most Republicans opposed.
The panel’s two Republicans, Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, have been shunned by the GOP for their work with Democrats leading the investigation into Trump and his role in the Capitol attack.
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking and Eric Tucker in Washington and Farnoush Amiri in Los Angeles contributed to this report.