Former president Donald Trump pressured his vice-president, Mike Pence, to overturn his 2020 election defeat despite being told repeatedly it was illegal to do so, aides to Pence have told the congressional committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.
Members of the Democratic-led House of Representatives select committee said Trump continued his pressure campaign even though he knew a violent mob of his supporters was threatening the Capitol as Pence and lawmakers met to formally certify President Joe Biden’s victory in the November 2020 election.
The committee has used the first three of at least six public hearings to build a case that Trump’s efforts to overturn his defeat amounted to illegal conduct, far beyond normal politics.
Trump has denied wrongdoing, while repeating his false accusations that he lost the election only because of widespread fraud that benefited Democrat Biden. Trump and his supporters – including many Republican members of Congress – dismiss the January 6 panel as a political witch hunt.
The certification vote on January 6 had become a focus for Trump, who saw it as a last-ditch chance to retain the presidency despite his loss at the polls.
Marc Short, who was Pence’s chief of staff, said in videotaped testimony that Pence told Trump “many times” that he did not have the authority to stop the vote certification in Congress as the Republican president sought.
Gregory Jacob, a lawyer for Pence, said the main proponent of that theory, lawyer John Eastman, admitted in front Trump two days before the attack that his plan to have Pence halt the procedure would violate the law.
Eastman had argued Pence could reject results from certain states if he thought they were illegitimate, giving Republicans in those states an opportunity to declare Trump the victor despite the actual vote count.
Advisers to Pence told the committee that idea had no basis in law.
“It is breathtaking that these arguments even were conceived, let alone entertained by the president of the United States,” former US Appeals Court judge J Michael Luttig, an informal Pence adviser, said.
Trump is widely expected to run for president again in 2024, and committee members and witnesses warned he would not accept defeat no matter the outcome.
“Today almost two years after that fateful day in January 2021, that still, Donald Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy,” Luttig said.
The committee showed an email Eastman sent to Trump’s lawyer, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, asking for a presidential pardon. Eastman never received one.
The hearing featured chilling clips of some of the thousands of Trump supporters who descended on the Capitol after a rally in which Trump repeatedly criticised Pence, chanting for Pence to be pulled out of the building or hanged.
Trump tweeted while the attack was going on that Pence did not have the “courage” to stop the count.
“It felt like he was pouring gasoline on the fire by tweeting that,” Sarah Matthews, a Trump White House staffer, said in video testimony.
Representative Pete Aguilar said a witness had told the FBI that the Proud Boys, one of the right-wing groups involved in the Capitol attack, said the group would have killed Pence if they been able to get to him.
The Capitol insurrection delayed certification of the election for hours, injured more than 140 police officers and led to several deaths.
Even after police had suppressed the attack and reclaimed the Capitol, Eastman continued to press Pence’s team to overturn the vote, the committee said.