The committee walked through how conservative Trump attorney John Eastman put forward a legal theory that Pence could unilaterally block certification of the election — a theory that was roundly rejected by Trump’s White House attorneys and Pence’s team but nevertheless embraced by the former President.
The committee tried to connect Trump’s pressure campaign against Pence to the violence on January 6, by weaving together testimony from Pence aides, Trump’s public statements and comments from rioters at the Capitol.
Some of the most compelling evidence came from the rioters themselves.
Many of them had listened to Trump’s rallies where he claimed — inaccurately — that the election was rigged against him, and Pence had the power to do something about it while presiding over the Electoral College certification. While the insurrection was underway, they cited Trump’s comments about Pence.
And many of them saw, in real-time, Trump’s tweet criticizing Pence while the Capitol was under attack, where he said Pence “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done.”
The point of highlighting this on Thursday was to lay the blame for the violence at Trump’s feet. And right after the attack, many top Republicans agreed with that conclusion. But over the last year and a half, many Republicans have shied away from blaming Trump, and the committee hopes to change that.
Former Trump White House attorney Eric Herschmann told the committee that Eastman told him he was willing to accept violence in order to overturn the 2020 election. The panel played video from Herschmann’s deposition where he described a conversation with Eastman about his claims that the vice president could overturn the election in Congress.
Herschmann warned Eastman that his strategy, if implemented, was “going to cause riots in the streets.”
“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,’ ” Herschmann said.
The star of Thursday’s hearing was not in the room
One person noticeably absent on Thursday was the star of the hearing himself: the former vice president.
The committee cast Pence as the hero — making the case that American democracy would have slipped into a state of chaos had he succumbed to Trump’s pressure campaign.
But as the committee touted Pence’s commitment to the Constitution and bravery on January 6, it was impossible to ignore the fact that the former vice president was not in the room.
Instead, the committee relied on live witness testimony from two former Pence advisers who appeared to speak on his behalf.
Earlier this year, the committee’s chairman, Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, had suggested the committee would seek testimony from Pence. Still, the prospect of Pence appearing before the committee, particularly in public, has always been viewed as a long shot — to say the least.
Asked Wednesday if the committee is still interested in hearing from Pence, committee aides demurred, telling reporters the investigation is ongoing and therefore they cannot provide details about any engagement with a particular witness.
“Nothing new to share on that, other than we continue to search for facts and if there is more to share, we’ll share it in the future,” one of the aides said.
The fact that two of Pence’s former advisers appeared Thursday, and his former chief of staff Marc Short testified on camera behind closed doors, indicates that Pence was not actively seeking to block those around him from sharing information with the committee in his stead.
Luttig turns parts of the hearing into a lengthy constitutional seminar
The January 6 committee’s hearings to date have been briskly produced affairs, with emotional, violent video interspersed with testimony from depositions — and minimal live witness testimony.
On Thursday, Luttig, a retired judge, had other ideas.
Luttig gave lengthy, meandering answers with a halting approach that stretched on while he dove into issues like the history of the Electoral Count Act.
Luttig’s comments were basically the opposite of “must-see TV,” the prime-time hearings that committee has signaled it’s holding to try to connect with the American public about the significance of the January 6 attack on the Capitol and on democracy.
At the same time, the points Luttig made — about how the legal schemes Eastman and Trump pushed were baseless and Trump was told as much before January 6 — were essential to the committee’s case trying to connect Trump’s efforts to overturn the election to the violence. But his delivery got in the way of his message.