Jan. 6 panel focuses on Trump's pressure on elected officials
Associated Press June 21, 2022
WASHINGTON — The House 1/6 committee outlined on Tuesday Donald Trump's relentless pressure to overturn the 2020 presidential election, aiming to show it led to widespread personal threats on the stewards of American democracy — election workers and local officials — who fended off the defeated president's efforts.
The panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack at the U.S. Capitol resumed with a focus on Trump's efforts to undo Joe Biden's victory in the most local way — 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 fueled by the defeated president's false claims of voter fraud which, the panel says, led directly to the riot at the Capitol.
Chairman Bennie Thompson said Tuesday: "A handful of election officials in several key states stood between Donald Trump and the upending of American democracy."
The hearing opened with chilling accounts of the barrage of attacks facing local elected officials, mostly Republicans, including one lawmaker in Michigan whose personal cell phone number was tweeted by Trump to his millions of followers and another in Pennsylvania who had to disconnect the family's home line that 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 1/6 hearings.
"Donald 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 chairman of the Jan. 6 committee has likened to an "attempted coup."
Tuesday's focus reviewed how Trump was repeatedly told his pressure campaign could potentially cause violence against the local officials and their families but pursued it anyway, according to a committee aide. And it underscored that fallout from Trump's lies continues, with election officers facing ongoing public harassment and political challengers trying to take over their jobs.
Thompson, D-Miss., pointed to recent election disputes in New Mexico and said, "The danger hasn't gone away. It's corrupting our democratic institutions."
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger was testifying about Trump's phone call asking him to "find 11,780" votes that could flip the state to prevent Biden's election victory.
Raffensperger, with his deputy Sterling and Arizona's Republican state House Speaker Rusty Bowers, were key witnesses, along with Wandrea "Shay" Moss, a former Georgia election worker who, with her mother, have said they faced such severe public harassment from Trump allies they felt unable to live normal lives.
"I'm appalled at what I saw," Bowers said in an interview Monday with The Associated Press after arriving in Washington. "I think it illuminates something we need to see big time, and take stock of ourselves. And I hope it would sober us."
While the committee cannot charge Trump with any crimes, the Justice Department is watching the panel's work closely. Trump's actions in Georgia are also the subject of a grand jury investigation, with the district attorney expected to announce findings this year.
Trump defended himself on social media, describing his phone call to Raffensperger as "perfect," similar to the way he described his 2020 call with Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelenskyy that resulted in his first impeachment.
Raffensperger, Georgia's top election official, rebuffed Trump's request that he "find" enough votes to overturn Biden's win in the state — a request caught on tape during a phone call days before the Jan. 6 attack.
During the call, Trump repeatedly cited disproven claims of fraud and raised the prospect of a "criminal offense" if Georgia officials did not change the vote count. The state had counted its votes three times before certifying Biden's win by a 11,779 margin.
The public testimony from Raffensperger came weeks after he appeared before a special grand jury in Georgia investigating whether Trump and others illegally tried to intervene in the state's 2020 election, and after Raffensperger beat a Trump-backed challenger in last month's primary election.
Sterling, Raffensperger's chief operating officer, became a notable figure in Georgia's long post-election counting, and recounting, of the presidential ballots, with his regular updates often broadcast live to a divided nation. At one point, the soft-spoken Republican implored Americans to tone down the heated rhetoric.
"Death threats, physical threats, intimidation — it's too much, it's not right," he said.
Bowers also revealed a second phone call with Trump in December 2020 that he said was mainly small talk, although Trump also referenced their first conversation.
Moss, who had worked for the Fulton County elections department since 2012, and her mother, Ruby Freeman, a temporary election worker, filed a defamation lawsuit in December 2021. Moss claimed conservative outlet One America News Network and Giuliani falsely spread allegations that she and her mother engaged in ballot fraud during the election. The case against OAN has since been dismissed with a settlement.
Both Bowers and Moss, along with Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the panel's vice chair, were among recipients of this year's John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award "for their courage to protect and defend democracy."
The select committee also aimed to untangle the elaborate "fake electors" scheme that sought to have representatives in as many as seven battlegrounds — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada and New Mexico — sign certificates falsely stating that Trump, not Biden, had won their states.
Conservative law professor John Eastman, a lawyer for Trump, pushed the 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 fake electors idea was designed to set up a challenge on Jan. 6, 2021, 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 in his purely ceremonial role.
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.
Associated Press writer Bob Christie in Phoenix contributed to this report.