WASHINGTON — President Donald J. Trump continued pressuring Vice President Mike Pence to go along with a plan to unilaterally overturn his election defeat even after he was told it was illegal, according to testimony laid out in extensive detail on Thursday by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack.
The committee showed how Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign — aided by a little-known conservative lawyer, John Eastman — led his supporters to storm the Capitol, sending Mr. Pence fleeing for his life as rioters demanded his execution.
In the third public hearing this month to lay out its findings, the panel recounted how Mr. Trump’s actions brought the nation to the brink of a constitutional crisis, and raised fresh questions about whether they were also criminal. It played videotaped testimony in which Mr. Pence’s top White House lawyer, Greg Jacob, said Mr. Eastman had admitted in front of Mr. Trump two days before the riot that his plan to have Mr. Pence obstruct the electoral certification violated the law.
Following the riot, Mr. Eastman sought a pardon after being informed by one of Mr. Trump’s top White House lawyers that he had criminal exposure for hatching the scheme, according to an email displayed by the committee during the session.
The panel also offered a reconstruction of Mr. Pence’s harrowing day on Jan. 6. It began with a heated phone call in which Mr. Trump berated him as a “wimp” and questioned his manhood for resisting his order to obstruct the electoral count. It grew more dire as the president, knowing his supporters were attacking the Capitol with the vice president inside, tweeted a public condemnation of him, further whipping up a crowd chanting “Hang Mike Pence!”
“We are fortunate for Mr. Pence’s courage on Jan. 6,” said Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi and the chairman of the committee. “Our democracy came dangerously close to catastrophe.”
Through testimony from a conservative legal scholar, Mr. Jacob and other West Wing aides, as well as Mr. Pence’s own words, the committee dismantled the legal argument Mr. Trump and Mr. Eastman relied on, showing that it had no legal or historical precedent — and went against the fundamental tenets of American democracy. They also showed that both men knew that their plans were not legitimate, but insisted on pushing forward anyway.
Had Mr. Pence followed Mr. Trump’s demands, it would have been “tantamount to a revolution within a constitutional crisis,” J. Michael Luttig, a conservative retired federal appeals court judge, testified before the panel, using sweeping language to describe the threat to the rule of law. Judge Luttig, who had advised Mr. Pence against taking such action immediately beforehand, added on Thursday that had Mr. Trump succeeded, it would have amounted to “the first constitutional crisis since the founding of the Republic.”
And he warned that the threat remains, calling Mr. Trump and his supporters a “clear and present danger to American democracy.”
The Themes of the Jan. 6 House Committee Hearings
The panel’s inquiry is continuing; on Thursday, it wrote to Virginia Thomas, the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas, requesting an interview after obtaining an email exchange she had with Mr. Eastman. Ms. Thomas, known as Ginni, is reviewing the request, a person familiar with the matter said.
In the hearing, the panel revealed that in the days after the Jan. 6 attack, Mr. Eastman told Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer and confidant, Rudolph W. Giuliani, in an email that he would like to be included in a list of people for Mr. Trump to pardon before leaving office. The committee showed a video clip of Mr. Eastman’s testimony in which he flatly answered “Fifth” to a series of questions about his scheme to invalidate the election results. He invoked the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination 146 times during the interview, the panel said.
In one of the most dramatic moments of the hearing, the committee displayed a graphic of Mr. Pence’s flight from the Senate chamber as rioters stormed the Capitol. At 2:26 p.m., the mob was just down the hall from him to his left, only 40 feet away. It also showed previously unseen photographs of Mr. Pence huddled in his office off the Senate floor during the mayhem, as his wife pulled closed the drapes so they could not be seen, and of the vice president in a loading dock somewhere in the Capitol complex, at a time when he had refused to be evacuated from the premises.
“The vice president did not want the world to see the image of the vice president of the United States fleeing the Capitol,” Mr. Jacob said.
The portrait that emerged of Mr. Pence was that of a man who risked his life to prevent a meltdown of democracy set in motion by the president himself.
“Make no mistake about the fact that the vice president’s life was in danger,” said Representative Pete Aguilar, Democrat of California, who led much of the session.
The committee traced a remarkable series of events that began in December 2020, when Mr. Trump and his allies realized that they had exhausted all legal avenues to overturn the election and turned their attention to trying to keep Mr. Trump in office through Congress. Seeking to exploit ambiguities in the Electoral Count Act, an 1887 law that lays out the process by which Congress finalizes a presidential election, they argued that the vice president, who presides over the ceremonial session, could unilaterally throw out electoral votes for Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Mr. Jacob testified that his boss knew early on that the plan was unlawful. Mr. Pence’s first reaction upon hearing of it, Mr. Jacob said, was that there was “no way” this was “justifiable.”
When it came time to stand up to Mr. Trump, Mr. Pence told his staff, “This might be the most important thing I ever say,” Mr. Jacob testified.
By Jan. 4, Mr. Pence and Mr. Jacob were sitting in the Oval Office with Mr. Trump and Mr. Eastman. At the meeting, Mr. Jacob recalled, Mr. Eastman admitted in front of the former president that his plan violated the Electoral Count Act.
Still, Mr. Trump and Mr. Eastman pressed on, continuing with meetings and calls the next day. Mr. Jacob took notes. On Jan. 5, Mr. Eastman told him directly: “I’m here to request that you reject the electors.”
But as they discussed the legal arguments, it became clear Mr. Jacob had the law on his side. Mr. Eastman admitted his theories would fail 9 to 0 before the Supreme Court, Mr. Jacob said.
The pressure on Mr. Pence began to worry his chief of staff, Marc Short. A day before the mob violence, Mr. Short grew so concerned about Mr. Trump’s actions that he presented a warning to a Secret Service agent, according to videotaped testimony the panel played on Thursday: The president was going to publicly turn against the vice president, and potentially creating a security risk to Mr. Pence.
Other aides and advisers were also imploring Mr. Eastman to abandon the plan.
“You’re going to cause riots in the streets,” Eric Herschmann, a White House counsel, testified that he told Mr. Eastman. In videotaped testimony, he said Mr. Eastman had responded: “There’s been violence in the history of our country to protect the democracy or protect the Republic.”
Mr. Jacob said his faith sustained him through the ordeal. He pulled out his Bible in the secure location with Mr. Pence and read a passage in which Daniel is thrown in the lion’s den after he refuses a king’s order, but is protected by God.
Later that evening, with the Capitol secure, Mr. Eastman emailed Mr. Jacob again still seeking to overturn the election.
Mr. Jacob showed it to the vice president. His response? “That’s rubber room stuff.”
Mr. Jacob described what Mr. Eastman was doing as “certifiably crazy.”
A federal judge has already concluded in a civil case that Mr. Trump and Mr. Eastman “more likely than not” committed two felonies in their attempts to overturn the election.
The panel has never heard from Mr. Pence himself, and at one point considered issuing a subpoena to obtain his testimony.
But Mr. Thompson said it ruled out a subpoena for Mr. Pence after receiving “significant information” from two of his top aides: Mr. Short and Mr. Jacob.
In a speech in February, Mr. Pence offered a rebuke of Mr. Trump, saying that the former president had been mistaken in asserting that Mr. Pence had the legal authority to change the results of the election and that the Republican Party must accept the outcome and look toward the future.
“President Trump is wrong,” Mr. Pence said in remarks before the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization. “I had no right to overturn the election.”
The Jan. 6 committee has been presenting the televised hearings as a series of movie-length chapters laying out the different ways in which Mr. Trump tried to cling to power. After an initial prime-time hearing that drew more than 20 million viewers, in which the panel sought to establish that the former president was at the center of the plot, investigators focused their second hearing on how Mr. Trump spread the lie of a stolen election.
Future hearings are expected to focus on how Mr. Trump and his allies pressured state officials to overturn the election; attempted to interfere with the Justice Department; created slates of pro-Trump electors in states won by Mr. Biden; and amassed a mob that marched on the Capitol, while the president did nothing to stop the violence for 187 minutes.
The committee has scheduled two more hearings, for June 21 and June 23, at 1 p.m.