A congressional panel on Tuesday unveiled new evidence of former president Donald Trump’s plot to pressure state-level officials to help overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
That plot was driven by Trump’s lies, panel members and witnesses said at the fourth hearing of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“Pressuring public servants into betraying their oaths was a fundamental part of the playbook,” committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said in his opening remarks. “And a handful of election officials in several key states stood between Donald Trump and the upending of American democracy.”
The hearing featured live testimony from three Republican state officials — Arizona State Rep. Rusty Bowers, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Georgia Secretary of State Chief Operating Officer Gabriel Sterling — who described Trump’s efforts to overturn the results in their states. “I just thought, ‘this is a tragic parody,’” Bowers said of the Trump campaign’s efforts to pressure him.
Also appearing before the committee was Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, a former Georgia election worker who was named by Trump in statements falsely alleging election fraud, along with her mother Ruby Freeman, also a former poll worker. Freeman described how their president’s decision to target them upended their lives.
“There’s nowhere I feel safe. Nowhere,” Freeman said. “The president of the United States is supposed to represent every American, not to target one.”
Former congressional investigators Anne Tindall, who is now counsel at the nonprofit group Protect Democracy, and Justin Rood, investigations editor at Grid, discussed their reactions to the hearing in a Twitter Spaces conversation on Tuesday. The conversation, moderated by Grid Investigative Reporter Steve Reilly, has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: If we could start with just your initial impressions: What stood out to you from tonight’s hearing?
Justin Rood: This hearing, at least as much as any of the others, really packed an emotional punch. We heard both the poll workers and the election officials talk about the threats and violence that they and their family members faced: homes broken into. Threats against neighbors. Militia members showing up with a gun threatening neighbors. Just startling things.
As much as this was a continued indictment of Trump, figuratively, and his role in trying to overturn the election results, it was just shocking to know that this level of abuse to officials and poll workers is possible and is happening — and is being encouraged by elected officials, who rely on the system that those people run. That was the biggest take-away from me, setting aside everything that we’re learning about the findings from the investigation.
Anne Tindall: I agree, I thought it was a really powerful hearing. I thought Bowers was really straightforward but moving. And I thought that Shaye Moss was spellbinding in talking about the consequences that this had for real Americans. I was reminded of the fact that so many of the rights that we all cherish have been won and expanded by Black Americans who did not enjoy them for much of our country’s history — and yet, continually, have been called upon to show great courage and hold up our institutions as Shaye and her mother had done at great sacrifice.
G: In addition to the emotional impact of that testimony, we also saw some new facts come to light here. Did anything stand out to you in terms of the new evidence presented tonight?
JR: This was the first time that we heard [Republican Wisconsin] Sen. Ron Johnson’s name mentioned not simply as a cheerleader for “Stop the Steal,” but as a potential functionary. We saw text messages from one of his senior aides to a senior aide to [Vice President] Mike Pence from Jan. 6, indicating that Ron Johnson had received or gotten ahold of information from the so-called alternate electors, or false electors, and wanted to hand-deliver those to Pence on the sixth. It was immediately shot down, it seems, by Pence’s aide. But we did not know that Johnson was involved in this to that extent.
Johnson put out a statement that appears to deny involvement in the overall scheme but doesn’t seem to deny that there was awareness in his office of what was going on here.
And then [Republican] Rep. Andy Biggs from Arizona was named as having leaned on Bowers, the Arizona House speaker. We had heard Biggs’ name mentioned at the very beginning of all of this on Jan. 6, in [far-right organizer] Ali Alexander’s video, in which he talks about having planned these “wild” events with Biggs, Paul Gosar and Mo Brooks, three House Republicans. So it was interesting to hear Biggs’ name come up again — referencing, again, around the sixth itself, leaning on Bowers to go ahead and endorse an effort to decertify the legitimate electors from their state.
AT: It’s hard not to view this amassing of evidence that the Jan. 6 committee has done and not go back and think about the question that was in so many people’s minds while this was all playing out. People like [Trump lawyers] Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, John Eastman and former president Trump may come off as unscripted, ad hoc, ineffective — you know, this is not like your legal eagles running the show here. And you could think that this was sort of a clown show. But holding up that clown show, or producing that clown show, was a very broad network of people who went to great lengths to plan multiple attacks, to make sure that they left no avenue unexplored.
As Bowers said, they had a lot of theories, just not a lot of evidence. They were going to do what they could to create evidence to overturn the election. And I think maybe the duly signed, fake elector signatures that came into Washington — perhaps, with the aid of members of Congress — is the most stark example of the breadth of that organization. It’s not an easy thing to carry off, even if they come across as sort of buffoonish as they’re doing it.
JR: I think that’s right, Anne. Buffoonish is a good word. At the same time, there was very clear pressure that was being applied. And that pressure was consistent and relentless. You talk about Rudy Giuliani making 18 phone calls or whatever it was. [White House Chief of Staff] Mark Meadows’ constant pressure on these officials in Georgia to set up a phone call. It’s remarkable just to hear that the president of the United States had to do that at all. Normally, you would pick up the phone right away when they say the president’s calling. But at the end of the day, that pressure campaign got the phone call. It didn’t get the results that they were looking for. But for sure, they still know how to bring pressure, and that’s one of the things that today’s hearing brought into real stark relief was both direct and indirect pressure on figures high and low in the states.
Another thing, just putting on my hat as a former conservative staffer to a Senate committee, is the willingness of a Republican White House to reach so far deep into a state mechanism to try to determine its outcome. It just felt not like the respect for state self-control and autonomy that you normally hear from the conservative side. And certainly disappointing.
G: How well do you think the committee did tonight in presenting this sophisticated, multipart plan to overturn the results of the 2020 election to viewers who might not be as familiar with all the details?
AT: I thought for the most part it was very well presented. Maybe because the story here was primarily about the pressure put on these officials. We’ve all watched enough of “The Sopranos” or “The Godfather” to recognize the tone of voice and the character of threats that were coming to the state officials who were looking to uphold their oaths.
With respect to the personnel at the hearing today, I thought that, unlike some of the previous ringleaders, [Rep. Adam] Schiff [D-Calif.] did a little too much talking. He had really compelling witnesses there who could tell the story themselves, and he did some summarizing that I didn’t think was necessarily helpful. But that didn’t undercut what I thought was a very effective hearing.
JR: I think that going into a hearing like this, when you’re talking about having folks from several different states describing conversations that were happening, in between each other chronologically, there is a very, very strong instinct to start with the charts and the maps, and trying to give people a comprehensive overview of what’s going on.
They didn’t do that, and I think that was really smart. I think they saw the power of these hearings as being able to communicate directly the emotional punch of what some of these folks went through, as well as the real threats to our democracy that they were experiencing. And they let that speak for itself.
We will be seeing a report. I assume it will be lengthy, and I assume that it will have all of the charts and graphs and everything that we need to really understand exactly when each phone call happened and when each state became a focus of the Trump campaign, and so forth. But they saw these hearings as the opportunity to have an impact. And they built their plan around that. And I thought that was pretty impressive.
G: What facts do you think this committee still needs to explain? And what questions do you expect it to address in the hearings going forward?
JR: I will start with the biggest one for me coming out of the first hearing, which is that there was clearly a plan for some form of direct action on Jan. 6, some appeared to call for violence. At the same time, there was this alternate electors effort, to screw with the certification process and see if we can’t create enough of a crisis to hold on to power. Trump appears to have lines into the communities for both of those and was involved to one extent or another. But understanding his involvement in both of those and how both of those work together still seems like an open question that a lot of people would like a lot more clarity on.
Outside of the specific “Stop the Steal” effort are the questions around the federal response that day. And it sounds like the further we’re getting into the hearings, we’re really not going to get into issues in any real depth around where what happened with the FBI, what happened with foreknowledge or advanced warning that something might happen on Jan. 6. I have to say, at this point, looking at the mountain of evidence from all sides, it seems like the only people who didn’t know that something was going to happen was the FBI. And I really think that there needs to be some accountability for that.
AT: I completely agree with that last point and hope to see that laid out in the report if we don’t hear more of it in the hearings.
Related to the questions still unanswered about coordination between Trump and his allies and those who actually carried out the attack on the on the Capitol: We’ve heard name-dropping of other members of Congress. But they haven’t been a focus of the hearing. And that, of course, is not necessarily surprising. Just the fact that they issued subpoenas to some of them was unprecedented. Nevertheless, that you have members of Congress who might have been involved in some of the planning and may, in fact, be a connection between people who actually got into the building — as the evidence from the [Rep. Barry] Loudermilk [R-Ga.] tour on Jan. 5 suggests — that’s a really big, important piece of this puzzle that is still not quite in place.
G: What moment from the hearing in particular sticks in your mind at this point?
JR: Clearly, some of the testimony was really evocative, and that will stay with us. We’ve talked about that a little bit. So I’ll note that one of the moments that will stick in my mind was when I clicked over to the Fox News website and saw that they had their hearing coverage front and center, which is certainly not where it was when we started this saga with the committee’s hearings, and at least from the coverage that I read looked like they were treating this as a fairly straight news story. And that’s a surprising turn of events. Certainly for anyone who’s followed our coverage of the topic.
AT: I think that’s right. Pretty remarkable to hear [Fox News host] Bret Baier call it “compelling.” But if you’re going to move Fox News, someone like Bowers is the kind of guy who can do it.
I think what will stick with me most, however, is Ms. Moss’ testimony. The FBI told her mother she had to leave her house. Men stormed into her grandmother’s house threatening a citizen’s arrest. Don’t forget that we’re talking about Georgia here, where Ahmaud Arbery’s death was the result of a citizen’s arrest. The degree to which this campaign waged by the president had a profound and lasting impact on the election workers who are necessary to the functioning of our democracy — that’s just a really, really chilling thought.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.