Among the various failings of the Mueller investigation into 2016 was the fact that the probe never managed to establish Donald Trump's clear intent despite the damning web of connections between his campaign and the Kremlin.
The select committee investigating Jan. 6 has made avoiding that trap the central focus of its work. The panel dedicated its first hearing to establishing that Trump was repeatedly informed by his inner circle that his fraud claims were "Bullshit," as then-Attorney General Bill Barr put it.
In Thursday's hearing, the Jan. 6 committee laid bare the utter illegality of conservative attorney John Eastman's scheme to overturn the 2020 election. Not only did White House attorney Eric Hershmann recount in a deposition aptly advising Eastman to "get a fucking criminal defense lawyer," Eastman himself ultimately requested in writing (an email) to be put on Trump's pardon list following Jan. 6.
But perhaps most damning for Trump was a sequence of clips in which the committee established that Trump himself had "dictated" a statement designed to apply ultimate pressure to Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to certify the election on Jan. 6.
Despite the fact that several Trump aides testified that they and Pence told Trump the Eastman scheme was illegal, Trump issued a statement the day before the Capitol attack reading, "The Vice President and I are in total agreement that the Vice President has the power to act."
The statement was patently false and created at the direction of Trump, as a sequence of depositions played back-to-back established during Thursday's hearing.
Former vice presidential counsel Greg Jacob said of the statement, "We were shocked and disappointed because whoever had written and put that statement out, it was categorically untrue."
Former Pence Chief of Staff Marc Short testified that he contacted Trump aide Jason Miller immediately to register Team Pence's discontent. When the lawyer running the deposition asserted then that Trump had sent out a "baldly false" statement, Short responded, "I interpret the statement as false, I'll let you figure out who sent it out."
Cue the deposition of Trump aide Jason Miller. "He dictated most of it," Miller said of Trump's involvement in generating the statement. “I know with specificity on this one that it was me and him on the phone talking through it and ultimately the way this came out was the way he wanted to,” Miller added.
Before all is said and done, the committee is also expected to turn to Trump's role in an emergency Oval Office meeting on Jan. 3 in which Justice Department appointee Jeffrey Clark attempted to convince Trump to install him as acting attorney general. The meeting, which included Trump, Clark, then-acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, and then-Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, continues to be one of the most damning examples to date of Trump's criminal intent. The Washington Post writes:
Rosen told Trump that the Justice Department could not “flip a switch and change the election,” according to notes of the conversation cited by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“I don’t expect you to do that,” Trump responded, according to the notes. “Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.” The president urged Rosen to “just have a press conference.”
Rosen refused and Trump ultimately backed off his threat after several people in the room assured him that firing Rosen would lead to mass resignations at the Justice Department. But most importantly to proving criminal intent, Trump admitted to knowing the Justice Department couldn't change the results, he just wanted them to inject enough doubt into the electorate to allow him and his GOP henchman to pull off the coup.
The other instance in which Trump clearly admitted his corrupt intent to defraud American voters was the phone call in which he ordered Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to "find 11,780 votes"—the exact number he would have needed to overtake rival Joe Biden in the state.
Donald Trump has spent a lifetime escaping legal liability for his actions by making cryptic statements, claiming ignorance, and studiously avoiding documentable involvement in corrupt ventures.
But Trump’s panicked response to losing the 2020 election may be his undoing. The Jan. 6 committee is firmly establishing that Trump both knew he lost the election and knew Eastman's gambit was illegal, yet he directly pressured multiple people to help him defraud the American people. The end result of their efforts was a violent coup attempt on Jan. 6 that cost multiple lives, left hundreds injured, and announced to the world that American democracy was faltering.
At some point, Attorney General Merrick Garland will have to make a decision about whether to prosecute a former president. The Jan. 6 panel is quickly making the prospect of Garland backing down unimaginable, though sadly, not impossible.