The House select committee investigating the Capitol attack revealed at its inaugural hearing that Donald Trump’s top Republican allies in Congress sought pardons after the January 6 insurrection, a major disclosure that bolstered the claim that the event amounted to a coup and is likely to cause serious scrutiny for those implicated.
The news that multiple House Republicans asked the Trump White House for pardons – an apparent consciousness of guilt – was one of three revelations portending potentially perilous legal and political moments to come for Trump and his allies.
Related: January 6 hearing: Trump was at heart of plot that led to ‘attempted coup’
At the hearing, the panel’s vice-chair Liz Cheney named only one Republican member of Congress, congressman Scott Perry, the current chair of the ultra conservative House freedom caucus, who sought a presidential pardon for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.
The select committee did not elaborate on which other House Republicans were asking for pardons or more significantly, for which crimes they were seeking pardons, but it appeared to show at the minimum that they knew they had been involved in likely illegal conduct.
The extraordinary claim also raised the prospect that the Republican members of Congress seeking clemency believed Trump’s election fraud claims were baseless: for why would they need pardons if they really were only raising legitimate questions about the election.
“It’s hard to find a more explicit statement of guilt consciousness than looking for a pardon for actions you’ve just taken, assisting in a plan to overthrow the results of a presidential election,” Jamie Raskin, a member of the select committee, told reporters.
The disclosure about the pardons came during the opening hour of the hearing where the panel made the case that Trump could not credibly believe he had won the 2020 election after some of his most senior advisors told him repeatedly that he had lost to Joe Biden.
Trump, according to videos of closed-door depositions played by the select committee, was told by his data experts he lost the election, told by former attorney general Bill Barr that his election fraud claims were “bullshit”, a conclusion Ivanka Trump said she accepted.
The admissions by some of Trump’s top aides are important since they could put federal prosecutors one step closer to being able to charge Trump by obstructing an official proceeding or defrauding the United States on the basis of election fraud claims he knew were false.
It’s hard to find a more explicit statement of guilt consciousness than looking for a pardon for actions you’ve just taken
At the heart of the case the panel appears to be trying to make is the legal doctrine of “willful blindness”, as former US attorney Joyce Vance wrote for MSNBC, which says a defendant cannot say they weren’t aware of something if they were credibly notified of the truth.
The potential case against Trump might take the form that he could not use, as his defense against charges he violated the law to stop Biden’s certification on January 6, that he believed there was election fraud, when he had been credibly notified it was “bullshit ”.
Also in the first hour of the hearing, the select committee cast in a new light the contentious 18 December 2020 meeting Trump had at the White House with his former national security advisor Michael Flynn, and former Trump lawyer and conspiracy theorist Sidney Powell.
The Guardian has reported extensively on that meeting, where Powell urged Trump to sign an executive order to seize voting machines and suspend normal law, based on Trump’s executive order 13848, and to appoint her special counsel to investigate election fraud.
Cheney confirmed the reporting by this newspaper and others, that the group discussed “dramatic steps” such as seizing voting machines, but also alluded to a potential discussion about somehow obstructing Biden’s election win certification.
The basis for that characterization, based on how Cheney described the late night meeting at the Oval Office that later continued in the White House residence, appears to be how Trump, just hours later, tweeted that there would be a “wild protest” on January 6.
It was not clear whether Cheney was laying the groundwork for the select committee to tie Trump into a conspiracy of some sort, claiming this represented two people entering into an agreement and taking overt steps to accomplishing it – the legal standard for conspiracy.
But the phrase “wild protest” would shortly after be seized upon by some of the most prominent far-right political operatives.
Hours after Trump’s tweet, according to archived versions of its website, Stop the Steal changed its banner to advertise a “wild protest” before Ali Alexander, who led the movement, even applied for a permit to stage a rally on the east side of the Capitol on January 6.