Jan. 6 panel delves into Trump’s motives with eye to DOJ
The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on Monday sought to establish a key element of its public case against former President Trump — that he knew his claims of election fraud had little merit or likelihood of success but sought to overturn the election anyway.
Pulling back the curtain on the internal machinations of the 2020 Trump campaign, the panel showed testimony from official after official who worked both on the campaign and in the administration who said the former president was repeatedly advised that his claims of widespread election fraud were unsupported by evidence.
Trump’s mindset in pursuing his baseless claims will be a fundamental part of the select committee’s investigation. Showing he knew he was acting on fraudulent claims as he led efforts at the state and federal level to remain in power could demonstrate his culpability not just to the public, but to the Department of Justice for potential criminal proceedings.
Jeff Robbins, a former federal prosecutor and congressional investigative counsel, said the committee has presented the type of evidence that law enforcement typically seek out in building a criminal case, working to establish that Trump knew he lost the election but fought the results anyway and profited off the bogus claims with lucrative fundraising efforts.
“The first piece of what the committee was doing was trying to make Americans understand just how serious this is,” Robbins said. “The second piece of it is directed, I think, in effect at the Justice Department.”
“That’s the kind of evidence that in an ordinary case would leave a prosecutor salivating with the knowledge that there was evidence up, down and sideways of corrupt and dishonest intent,” he said.
Testimony from Monday showed that Trump had been given legal advice that his claims were baseless, including from his own attorney general, William Barr, who said such claims were “completely bogus and silly and usually based on complete misinformation.”
“It was like playing whack-a-mole,” Barr said of the various unsubstantiated theories of widespread fraud in a taped deposition before the committee shared Monday.
“I told him that the stuff that his people were shoveling out to the public was bullshit, I mean, that the claims of fraud were bullshit,” he said in another clip.
The committee also laid out the way Trump was able to raise millions off his false election claims, raising some $250 million for a supposed election defense fund.
“It’s clear that he intentionally misled his donors, asked them to donate to a fund that didn’t exist, and use the money raised for something other than what he said. Now, it’s for someone else to decide whether that’s criminal or not. That’s not the purview of a legislative committee,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the member of the panel who walked through the bulk of evidence during Monday’s hearing, told reporters afterwards.
Several members of the committee in addition to Lofgren have made clear that they want to see the Justice Department seriously scrutinize whether Trump broke the law in the effort to undermine the election that also drove his supporters to attack the Capitol last year.
While the panel believes it has collected damning evidence about Trump, it will likely be Attorney General Merrick Garland and other Justice Department leaders who decide whether to take the unprecedented step of prosecuting a former president.
Monday’s hearing didn’t offer a smoking gun that Trump knew there was no fraud and was aware he was misleading the public. But it hammered home again and again that he was warned against claiming victory and that he was told his fraud claims were repeatedly debunked.
“My recommendation was to say that votes are still being counted. It’s too early to tell, too early to call the race,” former Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said in a video clip from his prior deposition shared by the committee.
“I don’t recall the particular words. He thought I was wrong. He told me so. And … he was going to go in a different direction.”
By laying out what it hopes to be a compelling public case, the select committee is seeking to convince both the Justice Department and voters of Trump’s wrongdoing.
“I would like to see the Justice Department investigate any credible allegation of criminal activity on the part of Donald Trump or anyone else,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who sits on the select committee, said in a Sunday interview with ABC’s “This Week.”
“The rule of law needs to apply equally to everyone,” Schiff said. “And there are certain actions, parts of these different lines of effort to overturn the election, that I don’t see evidence the Justice Department is investigating.”
But even with the testimony from Trump’s own allies that they had urged the former president not to pursue his claims, it could be challenging for investigators to prove that he did not sincerely believe he won the election when he followed the advice of lawyers who were willing to indulge him.
Some of the testimony indicated a schism in the campaign, with attorney Rudy Giuliani encouraging Trump at first to call the election for himself and later to wage a battle based on claims of election fraud.
“There were two groups, my team and Rudy’s team. I didn’t mind being part of ‘Team Normal,’ ” Stepien told the committee, saying he did not believe the tactics encouraged by Giuliani were “honest or professional.”
Barr would later say he was disturbed by Trump’s focus on “sensational” claims surrounding issues with voting machines.
“And I was somewhat demoralized because I thought, boy, if he really believes this stuff he has, you know, lost contact with — with it — he’s become detached from reality if he really believes this stuff,” Barr said.
Then-acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue said Trump was unswayed as the department batted down his claims.
“Sir, we’ve done dozens of investigations, hundreds of interviews. The major allegations are not supported by the evidence developed,” Donoghue said he told Trump.
“This gets back to the point that there were so many of these allegations that when you gave him a very direct answer on one of them, he wouldn’t fight us on it, but he would move to another allegation,” he said.
At a Monday press conference on gun trafficking, Garland declined to comment on any of the evidence that has emerged in the select committee’s hearings but confirmed he is following the public phase of the panel’s investigation.
“I am watching and I will be watching all of the hearings,” Garland said. “And I can assure you that the Jan. 6 prosecutors are watching all of the hearings as well.”
Mychael Schnell contributed.