The House Jan. 6 committee on Thursday zeroed in on former President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign on then-Vice President Mike Pence to delay or overturn the 2020 presidential election, characterizing it as an illegal scheme.
The committee aimed to show that Mr. Trump and his allies continued to prod Mr. Pence to refuse to certify the election, despite warnings from legal advisers that the plan would violate federal law. The pressure campaign put the vice president in direct aim of Capitol rioters and placing democracy itself on a razor’s edge, witnesses and lawmakers said.
“[Mr. Trump] latched on to a scheme that, once again, he knew was illegal,” Rep. Pete Aguilar, California Democrat and member of the committee, said Thursday. “And when the vice president refused to go along with it, [Mr. Trump] unleashed a violent mob against him.”
Mr. Trump called the committee a “kangaroo court” this week and said the Democrats’ only goal in holding the hearings was to prevent him from seeking a second term in 2024.
On Thursday, he continued to speak out.
“I DEMAND EQUAL TIME!!!” Mr. Trump said on his social media platform, Truth Social, before Thursday’s hearing.
Key to Thursday’s session was witness testimony and recorded depositions dismantling the legal theory put forward by conservative lawyer John Eastman, who proposed that the vice president could, acting as president of the Senate, delay or overturn the election certification.
“This was false and Dr. Eastman knew it was false,” said Committee Vice Chair Rep. Liz Cheney, Wyoming Republican. “In other words, it was a lie.”
Mr. Pence’s former counsel, Greg Jacob, told the committee that he challenged Mr. Eastman directly on the theory.
“The history was absolutely decisive and again, part of my discussion with Mr. Eastman was, ‘If you were right, don’t you think Al Gore might have liked to have known in 2000 that he had authority to just declare himself president of the United States?’” Mr. Jacob told the committee. Mr. Gore was the sitting vice president in 2001 when Congress certified the close presidential election for his opponent, Republican George W. Bush.
Mr. Jacob said Mr. Eastman acknowledged, in their conversation, that Mr. Gore “did not and should not have had that authority at that point in time.”
The committee also revealed Thursday that Mr. Eastman acknowledged that going through with the plan could spark unrest.
In a recorded deposition revealed Thursday, former Trump White House lawyer Eric Herschmann told the committee he had warned Mr. Eastman that his plan to overturn the election would “cause riots in the streets.”
“I said, ‘You’re completely crazy.’ I said, ‘You’re going to turn around and tell 78-plus million people in this country that your theory … is how you’re going to invalidate their votes because you think the election was stolen.’ And I said, ‘They’re not going to tolerate that,’” Mr. Herschmann said in the deposition.
He said Mr. Eastman told him in response that violence would be tolerable in the interest of “democracy.”
“And he said words to the effect of, ‘There’s been violence in the history of our country in order to protect the democracy, or to protect the republic,’” Mr. Herschmann said.
The committee revealed that days after the attack, Mr. Eastman sent an email to lawyer and Trump confidante Rudolph W. Giuliani requesting a presidential pardon.
Mr. Jacob told the committee that Mr. Pence dismissed the Eastman plan outright “as his first instinct” and “never budged from his position.”
In a letter to Congress on the day of the certification, Mr. Pence denied that he had the powers as vice president to overturn the election, despite pressure from Mr. Trump.
Mr. Pence’s refusal made him a target of the mob on Jan. 6, the committee said.
“The vice president’s life was in danger,” Mr. Aguilar said.
Mr. Aguilar said Mr. Trump had been fueling the fire against his vice president, issuing a tweet against Mr. Pence accusing him of not having the courage to object to certifying the electoral votes for now-President Biden.
The lawmakers displayed a digital diagram showing that the mob came within just 40 feet of Mr. Pence’s hiding place inside the Capitol, as some in the crowd threatened to hang him.
Thursday’s hearing was the third in a series of public appearances scheduled by the committee over the next month to unpack the findings of its nearly yearlong investigation.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Rudolph W. Giuliani.