WASHINGTON — A House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection is turning to former President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign on state and local officials to overturn his 2020 election loss.
In its fourth hearing this month, the panel is examining how Trump focused on a few swing states, directly urging officials to decertify President Joe Biden’s victory or find additional votes for himself. It was part of a larger scheme that also involved dozens of lawsuits, pressure on Department of Justice officials and, eventually, lobbying Vice President Mike Pence to reject Biden’s win at the congressional electoral count on Jan. 6.
“Pressuring public servants into betraying their oaths was a fundamental part of the playbook,” the committee’s chairman, Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, said of Trump and his allies. “And a handful of election officials in several key states stood between Donald Trump and the upending of American democracy.”
‘They did their jobs’
The panel is keeping to a tight narrative as it makes its case to the American public that Trump’s efforts to overturn his defeat directly led to the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, when hundreds of his supporters broke into the Capitol and interrupted the certification of Biden’s victory.
The witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing were all public officials who were directly lobbied by Trump or who received threats for doing their jobs after Trump persuaded millions of his followers — with no evidence — that he had actually won, not lost, the election.
Arizona’s Republican state House Speaker Rusty Bowers, who testified in person at the hearing, spoke about phone calls from Trump and his allies asking him to decertify Arizona’s legitimate electors and replace them. Bowers said he repeatedly asked Trump’s attorneys to show evidence of widespread fraud, but they never provided any.
There was no legal pathway to execute such a request, Bowers said he told them, adding that he wouldn’t do anything illegal for Trump. “You are asking me to do something against my oath, and I will not break my oath,” Bowers said he responded.
Other state officials told similar stories in videotaped testimony. Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler said he got repeated calls from Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and other Trump aides, but he refused to answer them.
The calls continued even after Cutler asked them to stop. “I understand you don’t want to talk to me,” Giuliani said in one of the messages.
Focus on Georgia
Trump’s pressure was most intense in Georgia, where Biden narrowly won after years of GOP presidential victories in the state. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his deputy, Gabe Sterling, testified about becoming two of the president’s top targets as he floated conspiracy theories and as they refused to back down to his pressure.
The committee played audio of the call where Trump asked the officials there to “find 11,780″ votes that could flip the state to prevent Biden’s election victory.
“There were not votes to find,” Raffensperger said.
Raffensperger said he and his team went through “every single allegation,” and down every “rabbit hole,” that Trump and his allies presented to state election officials. But Trump wouldn’t accept it. He told Raffensperger that it could only be dishonesty or incompetence that they couldn’t find the necessary amount of votes.
Competing against Trump’s false statements was like a “shovel trying to empty the ocean,” Sterling said. He said he couldn’t convince even some of his own family members that the election outcome was valid.
Threats to public officials
The hearing also examined how Trump’s threats put state officials in danger.
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Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson talked about how her “stomach sunk” when she heard the sounds of protesters outside her home one night after the election when she was putting her child to bed. She wondered if they had guns or were going to attack her house. “That was the scariest moment,” not knowing what’s going to happen, Benson said.
Another Michigan official, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, told the committee about receiving 4,000 text messages after Trump published his phone number online. Cutler, the Pennsylvania House speaker, said his information was also revealed online, prompting protesters to show up at his house when his 15 year-old son was home alone.
Arizona’s Bowers told stories of people outside his house on loudspeakers and one man with a gun who verbally threatened his neighbor. He teared up as he spoke of his daughter, who he said was “gravely ill,” and his wife becoming upset as people swarmed outside.
‘The lie hasn’t gone away’
At the beginning of the hearing, Thompson pointed to a standoff in New Mexico in which GOP officials in one county refused to certify an election in recent weeks because of unspecified concerns with Dominion voting systems. The voting machines were first targeted baselessly by some of Trump’s lawyers as they pushed falsehoods about widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. One of the New Mexico officials was recently sentenced for entering Capitol grounds during the Jan. 6 insurrection.
They later voted to certify the results after pressure from state officials and courts.
“The lie hasn’t gone away,” said Thompson. “It’s corrupting our democratic institutions. People who believe that lie are now seeking positions of public trust. And as we’ve seen in New Mexico, their oath to the people they serve will take a back seat to the Big Lie.”
Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.