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Fifth January 6 Hearing Shows Scope of Attempts to Undermine Democracy

The fifth hearing by the January 6 2021 committee covered the pressure that Donald Trump exerted on state and federal officials to call the U.S. presidential election in his favor in 2020 so that he could remain in power.

The testimonials came on June 23 2022, after a morning of unfolding stories related to the January 6 2021 attempted coup at the United States Capitol building, an event which was the violent culmination of these targeted, weaponized rhetoric and narratives in the service of discrediting the election results:

The hearing kicked off mere hours after federal investigators raided the home of Jeffrey Clark, who was one of the key Justice Department figures who was involved in Trump’s schemes. He has denied any wrongdoing related to January 6.

Three Trump appointees testified in-person on Thursday, joining a growing list of Republicans who have gone under oath to provide damning information about Trump’s post-election shenanigans. The witnesses were former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, his deputy Richard Donoghue, and Steven Engel, who led the department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

During the hearings, Rosen said that there was a significant effort to get the Justice Department to confiscate voting machines, which they refused to do; the administration also asked them to send letters to various state legislatures, such as Georgia. The Justice Department refused.

The draft of a five-page unsent letter intended for Georgia officials (dated December 28 2020) fully reflects many of the disinformation campaigns that were being circulated publicly by Donald Trump and his circles at that time, showing a clear goal of undermining the public’s faith in American democratic institutions concurrently with the pressure campaign:

Dear Governor Kemp, Mr. Speaker, and Mr. President Pro Tempore:

The Department of Justice is investigating various irregularities in the 2020 election for President of the United States. The Department will update you as we are able on investigatory progress, but at this time we have identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election in multiple States, including the State of Georgia. No doubt, many of Georgia’s state legislators are aware of irregularities, sworn to by a variety of witnesses, and we have taken notice of their complaints.

[…]

The Department believes that in Georgia and several other States, both a slate of electors supporting Joseph R. Biden, Jr., and a separate slate of electors supporting Donald J. Trump, gathered on that day at the proper location to cast their ballots, and that both sets of those ballots have been transmitted to Washington, D.C., to be opened by Vice President Pence.

[…]

The Department also finds troubling the current posture of a pending lawsuit in Fulton County, Georgia, raising several of the voting irregularities pertaining to which candidate for President of the United States received the most lawfully cast votes in Georgia. See Trump o. Raffensperger, 2020cv343255 (Fulton Cty. Super. Ct.). Despite the action having been filed on December 4, 2020, the trial court there has not even scheduled a hearing on [the] matter, making it difficult for the judicial process to consider this evidence and resolve these matters on appeal prior to January 6….

The letter, like the testimonials, underlined how disinformation narratives are used as justification for acts intended to undermine democratic institutions and attack democracy outright – in this case, by denying or ignoring the will of the voting public.

The hearings also revealed that multiple Republican members of Congress asked for post-insurrection pardons, indicating (among other things) that the disinformation and propaganda campaigns were not disseminated in good faith:

Several top Trump aides during the post-Jan. 6 period, including special assistant Cassidy Hutchinson and aide Johnny McEntee, described outreach to White House officials from multiple members of Congress seeking clemency: Reps. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), Scott Perry (R-Pa.), Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).

Additionally, according to the former Trump aides’ testimony, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) sent an email on Jan. 11, 2021, asking for “all purpose” pardons for every lawmaker who objected to electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) never asked for a pardon but did request an update on the status of requests by other members, Hutchinson said.

The flurry of pardon requests followed what the select committee showed was weeks of efforts by Trump’s top congressional Republican defenders to spread misinformation about the results of the 2020 election. Those GOP lawmakers also helped apply pressure on the Justice Department to legitimize those false fraud claims. None of the lawmakers ever received pardons.

Here are some of the relevant “voter fraud” narratives that involved Georgia that we debunked and contextualized at that time, in chronological order:

‘Special Paper,’ ‘Watermarked Ballots’ Conspiracy Theory Spreads on Social Media

Did Monitors Discover a 9,626 Vote Error in the DeKalb County, Georgia Recount?

Trump Tweets About ‘Fake Water Main Break’ on Election Night in Georgia

‘BREAKING: State of Georgia Issues Huge Announcement, Will Conduct Statewide Signature Audit’

Are Georgia Runoff Voters Being Told Voting Machines Are ‘Malfunctioning’?

Trump also tweeted in more generalized terms about the election, pushing narratives deeply entrenched in existing weaponized campaigns, to further the ongoing attacks on democracy. As we wrote in an analysis at the time:

The final goal of such sustained efforts is to destroy faith in institutions, thereby destroying entire countries from within by creating an environment in which the fundamental trust between individuals and governments necessary for social cohesion in liberal democracies can no longer exist. From this perspective, these ongoing denials of the reality of the election’s results can be viewed not simply as one man lashing out in denial as enablers look on, but an ongoing act of aggression against the American people and their long-cherished democratic systems, using social media platforms and their algorithms as both vehicles and enthusiastic enablers for disinformation campaigns.

Whatever their motivations, the way to counteract these threats remains the same. Hybrid threats can be countered by building resilience — in other words, creating and strengthening national (and international) responses to disinformation campaigns and attacks from the ground up with a combination of vetted, credible, transparent actions by institutions, strong and independent journalism unfettered by government censorship or political intimidation, and an overall refusal by individuals and entire institutions to cave to lies uttered by bad-faith bullies. Without resilience and clarity, there is no democracy at all.

The next hearings are now scheduled for July.

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