Five men who former White House aides say requested pardons from President Donald Trump's staff are denying wrongdoing as more is revealed about what led to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The Republican House members – Matt Gaetz of Florida, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, Andy Biggs of Arizona and Louie Gohmert of Texas – have all issued statements criticizing the committee or denying the allegations, which were revealed Thursday during a hearing of the House Jan. 6 committee.
All are members of the Freedom Caucus, the far-right coalition in the House that grew out of the Tea Party movement, and have at times challenged the legitimacy of the committee. All voted against certifying Electoral College votes in Arizona and Pennsylvania, two of seven battleground states Trump lost and that his lawyer John Eastman suggested in a six-point plan should not be counted toward President Joe Biden.
All have made public statements repeating falsehoods about the 2020 election that are similar in nature to Trump and his surrogates' unfounded allegations that the election was beset by widespread fraud. One played a key role in Trump's attempt to use the Justice Department to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
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Catherine Ross, a law professor at George Washington University and author of “A Right to Lie? Presidents, other liars and the First Amendment,” said requesting a pardon suggests culpability on the part of the requestors.
“The most likely explanation is that they knew they were guilty of a crime and they didn’t want to be prosecuted and they didn’t want to go jail,” Ross said. “It suggests knowledge of culpability and legal risk.”
Eric Herschmann, a former lawyer in Trump's White House, told the Jan. 6 committee that Gaetz had a tone of, "We may get prosecuted because we were defensive of the president’s positions on these things."
Ross said the way lawmakers requested pardons was also unusual. The standard practice is to submit an application to the Justice Department, which reviews requests and potentially forwards successful requests to the president. The Trump administration did allow more casual channels for pardon requests, but the lawmakers seemed to request pardons with no backup paperwork, Ross said.
“It suggests to me that the person filling the request knew why they needed a pardon and what they needed it for," Ross said, "which is very suggestive of an ongoing collaboration if not a criminal conspiracy between the people who are having that communication."
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A self-described “Donald Trump Republican,” Gaetz may have been the most vocal about getting a pardon, since three different former White House staffers — Cassidy Hutchinson, John McEntee and Herschmann — said in depositions to the Jan. 6 committee that he asked for a pardon.
“He was doing so since early December,” Hutchinson, who worked as an aide to chief of staff Mark Meadows, said. “I’m not sure why.”
McEntee, who ran the White House's personnel office, said Gaetz told him he asked Meadows for a pardon.
Gaetz has publicly supported Trump’s bogus claims of election fraud since at least Dec. 20, 2020, when he told a crowd, “Democracy is left undefended if we accept the results of a stolen election without fighting with every bit of vigor we can muster.”
On Jan. 6, 2021, he gave a speech on the House floor promoting conspiracy theories about laundering ballots, votes and voter registration forms, and said that Democrats were doing these things because they knew they could not beat Trump fairly.
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“Baseball teams that cheat and steal signs should be stripped of their championships,” Gaetz said. “Russian Olympians who cheat and use steroids should be stripped of their medals. And states that do not run clean elections should be stripped of their electors. This fraud was systemic. It was repeated. It was the same system and I dare say it was effective.”
Since he voted not to certify the electors in Arizona and Pennsylvania, Gaetz has repeatedly downplayed what happened that day, advocated for rioters who were detained pending trial in federal court, and questioned the legitimacy of the Jan. 6 committee.
In July, Gaetz was one of a handful of members of Congress who attempted to gain access to a jail where defendants of the Jan. 6 case were being held. In a press conference afterward, he accused the FBI of “animating criminal conduct” and asked whether prosecutors were withholding “potentially exculpatory evidence.”
Gaetz also faces a federal investigation for possible sex trafficking. A grand jury has been investigating his relationship with a 17-year-old girl; potential violations of the Mann Act, which prohibits taking women across state lines for prostitution; and potential obstructions of justice. His ex-girlfriend testified in the probe earlier this year.
Gaetz has called the probe a witch hunt and said he did nothing wrong. His lawyer, Isabelle Kirshner, has said they see no credible basis for a charge against Gaetz.
“The pardon that he was discussing requesting, was as broad as you could describe, I remember,” Herschmann said, “from the beginning of time up until today, for any and all things.”
Gaetz did not address the pardon issue directly Thursday, but said in a tweet that "the January 6 Committee is an unconstitutional political sideshow."
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Brooks is the only one of the five congressmen in question who spoke at the Jan. 6, 2021, rally near the White House in advance of Trump’s speech. He gave a roaring speech saying patriots would now “start taking down names and kicking ass” and told the crowd, “by the way, stop by the Capitol.”
Later that day, Brooks gave a speech on the House floor making unsubstantiated claims about noncitizens voting in the 2020 presidential election. “In my judgment, if only lawful votes cast by eligible Americans are counted, Joe Biden lost and President Trump won the Electoral College,” he said.
Brooks emailed the White House on Jan. 11, 2021 – five days after the Capitol attack – asking that Trump give pardons to broad groups of people, including “Every congressman and senator who voted to reject the Electoral College vote submissions from Arizona and Pennsylvania."
Brooks, who voted to reject the Arizona and Pennsylvania results, said in the email that Trump and Gaetz both suggested he send the email.
Brooks this week lost a Republican primary runoff for a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama. He originally ran with Trump's endorsement, but Trump rescinded that endorsement around the same time Brooks started dropping in polls.
Brooks defended his pardon request on CNN, saying there was "a concern Democrats would abuse the judicial system by prosecuting and jailing Republicans."
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Perry was the middleman between Trump and Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Clark, an environmental lawyer and open supporter of Trump's baseless claims of voter fraud. Perry introduced the two men.
White House visitor logs show that on Dec. 22, 2020, Perry brought Clark over to the White House to have a meeting with Trump. The committee also revealed a series of texts between Perry and Meadows from Dec. 26, 2020, when Perry asked Meadows to make efforts to elevate Clark within the DOJ.
“Mark, you should call Jeff [Clark],” Perry said in one of the text messages. “I just got off the phone with him.” Perry told Meadows that Clark had to hold a high position in the DOJ to act on Trump’s baseless claims of fraud. “And he explained to me why the Principal Deputy won’t work, especially with the FBI,” Perry wrote. “They will view it as not having the authority to enforce what needs to be done.”
On Dec. 31, Perry texted Meadows a video about a conspiracy theory that Italian satellites were interfering in the 2020 election. Along with a YouTube link to the video, Perry asked “Why can’t we just work with the Italian government?”
Acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen testified Thursday that Meadows forwarded the unfounded theory on to him and attempted to get him to take it seriously. Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller said he eventually called his Italian counterpart to investigate the claim made in the video.
Since Jan. 1, 2021, Perry has served as chairman of the House Freedom Caucus.
“I stand by my statement that I never sought a Presidential pardon for myself or other Members of Congress,” Perry said in a statement. “At no time did I speak with Ms. Hutchinson, a White House scheduler, nor any WH staff about a pardon for myself or any other Member of Congress — this never happened.”
Biggs was the previous chair of the House Freedom Caucus and was one of several Republicans who thought of appointing an alternate, false slate of electors in states that Biden won such as Arizona.
His public advocacy to overturn the election started at least as early as Dec. 3, 2020, when he appeared with other members at a news conference “calling on Attorney General Barr to immediately let us know what he’s doing.”
In a hearing of the Jan. 6 committee on Tuesday Republican Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers testified that Biggs was a part of Trump’s pressure campaign on him to help overturn the election.
Bowers described a call between him and Biggs on the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, in which Biggs asked him to support decertifying electors.
“He asked if I would sign on both to a letter that had been sent from my state and/or that I would support the decertification of the electors,” Bowers said. He told Biggs he would not sign the letter.
“To the extent Cassidy Hutchinson, a former White House staffer, believes I requested a presidential pardon, she is mistaken,” Biggs said. “These hearings, without cross-examination or advance disclosure of evidence, have become a Soviet-style show trial; the truth is less important than the outcome. And the media is aiding and abetting the entire disgraceful affair.”
On Thursday, the committee played a video of Gohmert at the same event as Biggs, claiming widespread election fraud and criticizing Barr and special counsel John Durham for not doing enough to combat alleged fraud in the 2020 election.
“And so there's widespread evidence of fraud cause people haven't done their jobs,” Gohmert said. “If they don't clean up this mess, clean up the fraud, do your jobs, and save this little experiment in self-government.”
Gohmert issued a statement Thursday disputing the testimony, saying he had only requested pardons for U.S. service members and military contractors “who were railroaded by the justice system due to superiors playing politics” as well as a civilian leader he said suffered injustice.
“I had and have nothing for which to seek a pardon,” Gohmert said. “Any assertion to the contrary is unequivocally and maliciously false.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Who are the 5 GOP congressmen aides say requested a pardon from Trump?