The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot resumed its public hearings Monday with recordings from depositions from Donald Trump’s former attorney general and campaign director to detail how the former president pursued his false claims about the November 2020 election.
Bill Barr, the attorney general at the time, said Trump became “detached from reality” in his pursuit of fighting the election result. The panel of seven Democrats and two Republicans has accused Trump of emboldening a mob of his supporters to lay siege to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Committee chair Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, opened the nearly three-hour hearing saying Trump “betrayed the trust of the American people” and “tried to remain in office when people had voted him out.”
The first group of witnesses was supposed to include former Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien appearing in person. But Stepien was a last-minute pullout due to a family emergency, pushing back the start time of the hearing 45 minutes.
Subcommittee chair Bennie G. Thompson later confirmed Stepien’s wife went into labour and he travelled from Washington to be with her, leaving his lawyer, Kevin Marino, to appear in his place.
Trump went ‘in a different direction’
The committee played portions of a recorded interview with Stepien conducted in February. In those segments, Stepien said he advised the president to expect that mail-in ballots — which increased greatly in 2020 due to the pandemic — would likely be tabulated for hours or even days to come and that leads could change in some states.
Trump, Stepien said, told the adviser “he was going to go in a different direction,” leading to the incumbent president declaring victory on election night, with a handful of states still in play.
The committee also heard from Chris Stirewalt, a former Fox News political editor.
Stirewalt said Fox went to “great pains” to inform viewers that leads might change because Democratic voters, recent electoral history had shown, tended to favour mail-in balloting more than Republicans. He also explained the process of his network declaring Arizona as being won by Joe Biden.
That declaration rocked the Trump campaign, allies of the former president said in pre-recorded testimony that was played Monday.
Claims about Canadian voting company ‘disturbing’: Barr
Despite the Arizona declaration, however, Fox broadcast several claims of electoral fraud by Trump surrogates, including lawyer Rudy Giuliani, in the weeks after the Nov. 3 election.
Stepien said in his recorded deposition that as Trump continued his election protestations, a distinction grew between “Team Normal” and “Rudy’s Team.” Giuliani, Sidney Powell and other allies of the president shared wild allegations of voting fraud, some involving foreign entities, as well as legal strategies to help Trump.
“What they were proposing I thought was nuts,” said White House lawyer Eric Herschmann in a recorded deposition.
The session early Monday also included more details from a recent deposition conducted with Barr, who was perceived to have stood by Trump when investigations about his 2016 campaign played out.
Barr parted company with Trump in mid-December 2020, but not before telling the Associated Press there was no evidence of fraud widespread enough to overturn the previous month’s election result, which made Trump angrier than he’d ever seen him before, the former attorney general testified.
Barr said in newly released clips that the theories of fraud multiplied and became like a game of ‘Whac-a-Mole,” and that Trump had become “detached from reality” in his obsession.
Barr also said he advised the president that the Justice Department “was not an extension of his legal team.” He said things “deteriorated” in the last week of November 2020 in terms of Trump’s wild claims and his relationship with the president.
Claims about the Dominion Voting Systems machine, Barr said, were among the “most disturbing” for being outlandish and shaking the faith in the electoral process. Dominion, founded in Toronto, has sued a number of Trump allies and U.S. cable networks over the unproven allegations.
Threats from Trump supporters
A second group of in-person witnesses on Monday included Philadelphia City commissioner Al Schmidt, a Republican who faced criticism as Pennsylvania’s election was called for Biden.
Regarding a claim that about 8,000 votes were cast there in the names of dead people for Democrats, Schmidt responded: “Not only was there not evidence of 8,000 dead voters voting in Pennsylvania, there wasn’t evidence of eight.”
After Trump angrily included his name in a tweet, Schmidt said he received a host of graphic threats, some of which had specific information about his family and home address.
Federal attorney B.J. Pak detailed a few rebuttals to some allegations of electoral fraud in Georgia. Pak resigned from the Justice Department after being unsuccessful in finding examples of Georgia fraud requested by the Trump administration.
The committee, investigating the early 2021 attack for the past year, has warned that Trump’s effort to overturn Biden’s election victory posed a grave threat and precedent for future U.S. elections.
Stirewalt, in an essay published on The Dispatch early Monday on why he’s testifying, said the stakes are significant.
“What Trump and his gang did in the 2020 election and its aftermath is a big historical moment for our country, far bigger than the Watergate scandal we still discuss 50 years later,” he wrote.
The panel does not have the power to hand down indictments, but could ratchet up the pressure on the Justice Department if it lays out compelling evidence crimes were committed.
No president or ex-president has ever been indicted. Attorney General Merrick Garland has not specified whether he would be willing to prosecute.
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Trump, who may consider another presidential run, said last week that Jan. 6 “represented the greatest movement in the history of our country.”
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White House stays quiet on Justice Department prosecution
The White House is encouraging Americans to watch and “remember the horrors of one of the darkest days in our history,” though President Biden will not weigh in on whether the Justice Department should prosecute Trump.
“The president chose Attorney General Garland because of his loyalty to the law and our constitution, and to restore the independence and integrity of the Justice Department,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters at a briefing Wednesday afternoon.
For his part, Garland told reporters at an unrelated Justice Department news conference that he’s “watching and will be watching all the hearings,” but will not share his “own personal responses.”
The attorney general said commenting about evidence coming out of the subcommittee hearing could affect the department’s ability to “proceed in an effective way” with cases the Justice Department’s Jan. 6 prosecutors are investigating or cases of people who are already facing proceedings.
More than 800 people have been charged in connection with the Jan. 6 riot, he said. Members of two extremist groups have also been indicted on rare sedition charges over their roles leading the attack.
Among those who died at the Capitol that day was a Trump supporter fatally shot while part of a large group seeking to breach a Capitol entrance.
What’s expected at the next hearing?
The next select committee hearing gets underway Wednesday at 10 a.m. ET, with a focus on Trump’s attempts to coerce the Justice Department to pursue his false claims of election fraud.
Though the committee has not yet posted the witness list for its third hearing, multiple reports suggest testimony is expected from then-acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, who replaced Barr following his resignation in the final weeks of the Trump administration.
Rosen’s deputy, Richard Donoghue, is also slated to appear, along with Steven Engle, the former head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.