Trump, advisers knew plan to overturn 2020 election was illegal and likely to incite riots
Insiders called plan 'nuts' and 'crazy' according to Jan. 6 committee witnesses
Donald Trump's closest advisers viewed his last-ditch efforts to pressure his then vice-president, Mike Pence, to reject the tally of state electors and overturn the 2020 election as "nuts," "crazy" and even likely to incite riots, witnesses revealed in testimony to the Jan. 6 committee on Thursday.
Gripping new evidence disclosed Trump's heated conversation deriding Pence with vulgar names on the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, before the defeated president took the stage at a rally near the White House.
From there, he sent his supporters to the Capitol to "fight like hell" as the vice-president was to preside over a joint session.
The panel highlighted the physical danger to Pence as rioters came within 12 metres of where he and his team were sheltering — seen in newly revealed photos.
"He deserves to be burned with the rest of them," one rioter is heard saying on video as the mob prepares to storm the iconic building.
"Pence betrayed us," says another, who was wearing a Make America Great Again hat in a selfie video inside the Capitol.
Pence's counsel Greg Jacob testified that he could "hear the din" of the rioters nearby. Asked if Trump ever checked on Pence during the siege, Jacob said: "He did not."
'Are you out of your effing mind?'
During a third day of live hearings, the panel also dissected a plan that conservative lawyer John Eastman presented to Trump that aimed to reverse Joe Biden's election victory, portraying it as unlawful and unconstitutional.
As well, the committee played recorded testimony of Eric Herschmann, a lawyer advising Trump, talking about a phone call he had with Eastman warning him about the plan.
"Are you out of your effing mind?" Herschmann said he told Eastman.
"You're going to turn around and tell 78-plus million people in this country that your theory is this is how you're going to invalidate their votes?" Herschmann said. He warned: "You're going to cause riots in the streets."
A text message from Fox News's Sean Hannity to Trump's chief of staff Mark Meadows about the plan in the run-up to Jan. 6 read: "I'm very worried about the next 48 hours."
Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller said those around Trump called it "crazy." Eastman later sought to be on Trump's "pardon list," according to an email he sent to Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Trump demands 'equal time'
In a social media post Thursday, Trump decried the hearings anew as a "witch hunt," lambasted coverage by "the Fake News Networks" and exclaimed, "I DEMAND EQUAL TIME!!!"
The panel opened the hearing demonstrating 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 Eastman's highly unusual plan to defy historical precedent of the Electoral Count Act, and started pressuring Pence in public and private as the vice-president was to preside over the Jan. 6 joint session of Congress to certify Biden's election.
The panel said the pressure Trump put on Pence to reject the vote, including at a Jan. 6 rally, led directly to the insurrection at the Capitol.
A federal judge has said it is "more likely than not" Trump committed crimes in his attempt to stop the certification.
Pence 'did his duty'
Panel Chair 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."
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.
By refusing Trump's demands, Pence "did his duty," said the panel's vice-chair Republican Rep. Liz Cheney.
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 heard from Greg Jacob, the vice president's counsel. Jacob fended off Eastman's ideas for Pence to carry out the plan. It also heard from 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 budged" from that initial view, Jacob said.
Luttig, a highly-respected conservative scholar who had been a leading contender more than a decade ago for the Supreme Court, said that had Pence obeyed Trump's orders, 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."
Thursday's session also presented new evidence about the danger Pence faced as rioters outside the Capitol chanted "Hang Mike Pence" while carrying a makeshift gallows.
The president's daughter, Ivanka Trump, testified to the panel on video about the "heated" phone call her father had with Pence that morning, as the family met in the Oval Office. Another aide, Nicholas Luna, said he heard Trump call Pence a "wimp." Ivanka Trump's chief of staff, Julie Radford, said she was told the president called Pence "the p-word."
Wife of Supreme Court Justice to be called for interview
In another development Thursday, Thompson said the panel will ask Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, the wife of U.S. 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 this third day of hearings after a blockbuster prime-time start last week.
With 1,000 interviews and reams of 140,000 documents, the committee is illustrating how Trump's false claims of election fraud became a battle cry for thousands of Americans to head to Washington to attend a Jan. 6 rally and then descend on Capitol Hill to "fight like hell" for his presidency.
Four people who attended the riot died: one, a female protester who was part of the mob that forced its way into the Capitol, was shot by a Capitol Police officer; two people died of heart failure; and one person died of an amphetamine overdose. A Capitol Police officer who confronted the rioters died a day later after suffering two strokes.
More than 800 people have been arrested in relation to the Capitol siege, while members of extremist groups the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers face rare sedition charges.
Two former White House aides under Trump, Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro, are facing criminal proceedings for defying subpoenas from the Jan. 6 committee.
Report expected by year's end
The House committee is expected to produce a report on its overall findings before the end of the year.
Midterm elections in November could see the chamber fall under Republican control, in which case inquiries into Jan. 6 would be almost certain to cease.
Trump's actions in the election and its aftermath are also drawing scrutiny elsewhere.
Georgia officials are currently holding a special grand jury to look into attempts from Trump and his White House to pressure state officials to overturn a Biden win in that state, while Navarro also said recently he received a subpoena from the U.S. Justice Department to appear before a federal grand jury, though the reasons aren't entirely clear.
Trump, who was also impeached one week before his term expired in 2021 for inciting the insurrection on Jan. 6, remains a powerful force for the Republican Party. Several candidates across the U.S. in primaries held this spring, including earlier this week, have echoed his claims of 2020 electoral fraud.
With files from CBC News