Jan. 6 committee witnesses testify lives turned 'upside down' by Trump election fraud claims
Efforts to overturn Georgia results, vote replacement claims scrutinized at 4th hearing
The House committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday outlined Donald Trump's relentless pressure to overturn the 2020 presidential election, aiming to show it led to widespread personal threats on the election workers and local officials who fended off his efforts.
The panel resumed with a focus on Trump's efforts to undo Joe Biden's victory by leaning on officials in key battleground states to reject ballots outright or to submit alternative electors for the final tally in Congress. The pressure was fuelled by the defeated president's false claims of voter fraud that, the panel says, led directly to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol.
"A handful of election officials in several key states stood between Donald Trump and the upending of American democracy," said Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, who chairs the committee.
The hearing opened with chilling accounts of the barrage of attacks facing local elected officials, mostly Republicans — including one lawmaker in Michigan whose personal cellphone number was tweeted by Trump to his millions of followers and another in Pennsylvania who had to disconnect the family's home phone line, which was getting calls at all hours of the night.
"It has to stop," pleaded Gabriel Sterling, the chief operations officer at the Georgia Secretary of State's office, in a 2020 video clip shown at the hearing.
Republican Rep. Liz Cheney, the panel's vice-chair, implored Americans to pay attention to the evidence being presented at the hearings.
Trump "didn't care about the threats of violence. He did not condemn them, he made no effort to stop them," Cheney said. "This is serious. We cannot let America become a nation of conspiracy theories and thug violence."
The public hearing, the fourth by the panel this month, stemmed from its yearlong investigation into Trump's unprecedented attempt to remain in power, a sprawling scheme that the chair of the Jan. 6 committee has likened to an "attempted coup."
It reviewed how Trump was repeatedly told his pressure campaign could potentially cause violence against the local officials and their families but pursued it anyway.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, his deputy Sterling and Arizona's Republican state House Speaker, Rusty Bowers, were the key witnesses, along with Wandrea "Shaye" Moss, a former Georgia election worker who, with her mother, said they faced such severe public harassment from Trump allies they felt unable to live normal lives.
Bowers, the first to testify, recounted the pressure he faced. Despite being an avowed Trump supporter, Bowers told the committee he recognized that Biden won the November 2020 presidential election.
He said there was no "strong, judicial, quality evidence" that would convince him to deny his oath and bow to efforts to overturn the election results.
"It is a tenet of my faith that the Constitution is divinely inspired of the most basic foundational beliefs. And so for me to do that because somebody just asked me to, it's foreign to my very being. I will not do it," Bowers said.
Bowers detailed how not only was his office "saturated" with messages and texts to the point of not being able to work, but he had to contend with people intimidating him and his family at home, driving through his neighbourhood with loudspeakers, threatening his neighbours and making false claims that Bowers is a "pedophile" or a "pervert."
The intimidation took an additional toll on Bowers, who described his "gravely" ill daughter, now dead, being upset by what was happening outside the home.
Moss, the former election worker, said she and her family endured harassment, racism and threats after a video of her and her mother — Ruby Freeman, a temporary election worker — was used to propagate Trump's false claims of fraud.
The lies told about them both, Moss testified, have "turned [her] life upside down."
The video, of the pair counting votes, was publicized by Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani who, in a December 2020 call with Georgia state legislators, accused them of "surreptitious illegal activity," the committee heard.
She recounted getting "a lot of threats. Wishing death upon me. Telling me that I'll be in jail with my mother and saying things like, 'Be glad it's 2020 and not 1920.'"
Trump also took aim at Moss and Freeman in a recorded call with Raffensperger, calling the latter a "professional vote scammer" and "hustler," the committee heard.
Freeman did not speak at Tuesday's hearing, but the panel heard her previously-recorded testimony.
She was known as "Lady Ruby" and wore a shirt on election night bearing that name, she said. She no longer wears the shirt and worries about other people even calling her by the nickname.
"I have lost my name and I have lost my reputation. I have lost my sense of security. All because a group of people starting with [Trump] and his ally, Rudy Giuliani, decided to scapegoat me and my daughter," she said.
The FBI, ahead of Jan. 6 and Inauguration Day, recommended Freeman leave her home of 21 years for her own safety. She wound up not returning home for about two months.
"There is nowhere I feel safe. Nowhere. Do you know how it feels to have the president of the United States to target you?" she said in another clip.
Raffensperger, Georgia's secretary of state, testified about a phone call with Trump, who asked him to "find 11,780" votes that could flip his state and prevent Biden's election victory.
During the call, days before the Jan. 6 attack, Trump repeatedly cited disproven claims of fraud and raised the prospect of a "criminal offence" if Georgia officials did not change the state's count. The state had counted its votes three times before certifying Biden's win by a margin of 11,779.
Raffensperger appeared earlier this month before a special grand jury in Georgia investigating whether Trump and others illegally tried to intervene in the state's 2020 election.
He has previously said he took at least one of Trump's statements during their phone call as "a threat."
Elector scheme under scrutiny
Conservative lawyer John Eastman pushed the idea of fake electors in the weeks after the election. Trump and Eastman convened hundreds of electors on a call on Jan. 2, 2021, encouraging them to send alternative slates from their states where Trump's team was claiming fraud.
The idea was designed to set up a challenge on Jan. 6, when Congress met in joint session, with Vice-President Mike Pence presiding over what is typically a ceremonial role to accept the states' vote tallies. But the effort collapsed, as Pence refused Trump's repeated demands that he simply halt the certification of Biden's win — a power he believed he did not possess.
At least 20 people in connection with the fake electors scheme were subpoenaed by the House panel. The committee says it will also show that it has gathered enough evidence through its more than 1,000 interviews and tens of thousands of documents to connect the varying efforts to overturn the election directly to Trump.
No credible claims of widespread 2020 election fraud were brought forth in dozens of cases that went before the courts and were subsequently rejected. The Trump administration's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency characterized the election in a statement as "the most secure in American history."
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In December 2020, William Barr, at the time the attorney general, told The Associated Press that nothing was unearthed "on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election." Barr, in more recent interviews with the House committee, ridiculed some of the claims of fraud put forth by Trump and those close to him.
The committee is expected to produce a report by year's end into its year-plus probe. It does not have the power to indict, but it is expected that the U.S. Justice Department is following the proceedings closely.
Trump allies Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro have been indicted by the Justice Department for refusing to co-operate with the congressional committee.
With files from CBC News