House panel continues Jan. 6 investigation

House panel continues Jan. 6 investigation

WASHINGTON — The House panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection systemically made the case in its second hearing Monday that Trump and his advisers knew that his claims of fraud in the 2020 election were false.

The argument is key to the committee’s investigation as the nine-member panel details its evidence about what led to the violent insurrection. The rioters who broke into the Capitol that day and interrupted the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory were echoing Trump’s falsehoods that he, not Biden, had rightfully won the election.

Takeaways from Monday’s hearing:

A witness pulls out, but video tells the story

The hearing began with a scramble as Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Bill Stepien, the panel’s top Monday witness, said he would not appear due to a “family emergency.” The committee’s chairman, Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, said Stepien’s wife was in labor.

But the committee had a plan B — hours of Stepien’s previous interview with the panel that was recorded on video. The committee aired multiple clips of that interview, along with others, as the hearing unfolded.

Stepien told investigators that Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani was urging Trump to declare victory on election night, despite Stepien’s warnings that it was “way too early” to make a prediction like that.

“My belief, my recommendation, was to say that votes were still being counted, it’s too early to tell, too early to call the race,” Stepien said in one clip.

Yet Trump went to the podium in the White House press room and said that the early results were “a fraud on the American public” and that “frankly, we did win this election.”

Trump’s ‘mind was made up’

Trump’s advisers told him repeatedly that he should wait on the results and should not declare that there was widespread election fraud. But Trump would not listen, and increasingly relied on wild claims that were pushed by Giuliani and Trump attorney Sidney Powell, among others, according to testimony.

The panel showed video from Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump, her husband, Jared Kushner, and campaign aide Jason Miller. Ivanka Trump told the panel that “it was clear” the election wouldn’t be called on election night, and Kushner said he had told Trump at one point that Giuliani’s advice was “not the approach I would take.” But Trump responded that he had confidence in Giuliani.

Miller said there was a meeting on election night in which he told Trump that they shouldn’t declare victory until they had a better sense of the numbers. But Trump told a room of advisers that anyone who didn’t agree with Giuliani was being “weak.”

Stepien said his group of advisers was dubbed “team normal.” Another White House lawyer, Eric Herschmann, said that the theories of fraud — including Powell’s assertions that voting machines were rigged to switch votes — were “nuts.”

Former Attorney General William Barr, who declared publicly at the time that there was no evidence behind Trump’s fraud claims, said the president was increasingly becoming “detached from reality.”

A monthslong campaign

Trump’s claims of fraud did not start after election day. The committee showed clips where Trump previewed his strategy in speeches throughout his 2020 campaign. In August of that year, he told an audience that fraud was the only way he would lose.

Stepien told the committee that he and House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy had met with Trump in the summer of 2020 and made a two-pronged case for why he should stop criticizing mail-in voting. He and McCarthy told Trump that he was leaving “a lot to chance” and that there were GOP party workers on the ground who could help get mail-in votes for Trump.

McCarthy, who has declined to cooperate with the Jan. 6 panel despite a subpoena, was “echoing the same argument,” Stepien said.

“But the president’s mind was made up,” Stepien said.

The ‘Red Mirage’

Chris Stirewalt, a former political editor for Fox News Channel, testified in person at the hearing. Stirewalt made the election night call that President Joe Biden won Arizona – a moment that prompted “anger and disappointment” in Trump’s inner sanctum at the White House, Miller said.

Stirewalt explained that the network, along with others, had expected that there would be a so-called “red mirage” at the beginning of the evening as in-person Republican votes came in, and many of the mail-in votes that would be counted later on would lean Democratic. He noted it happens every election.

Trump had not only exploited that pattern to make false claims of fraud, but contributed to it in his campaign to call mail-in voting into question.

“We had gone to pains, and I’m proud of the pains, we went to, to make sure that we were informing viewers that this was going to happen because the Trump campaign and the president had made it clear that they were going to try to exploit this anomaly,” Stirewalt said.

Associated Press writers Farnoush Amiri and Kevin Freking contributed.