Of all the fantastical false claims of fraud and vote manipulation in the 2020 presidential election, “Italygate” was one of the most extreme. And Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) was at the heart of bringing it to Donald Trump’s attention.
But as the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol demonstrated Thursday, Italygate also made its way to the highest levels of the U.S. government. The committee showed Dec. 31, 2020, text messages between Perry and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows that included a YouTube video about it, with Perry asking: “Why can’t we just work with the Italian government?”
Meadows discussed the claim “frequently,” according to Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who led the questioning during the committee hearing on Thursday, which focused on Trump’s efforts to pressure the Justice Department to help overturn the 2020 presidential election results. Perry also pressed acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen to investigate. “I told him this whole thing about Italy had been debunked,” Rosen said during Thursday’s hearing. Another former Justice official who testified Thursday, Richard Donoghue, said the theory was “pure insanity” and “patently absurd.”
That wasn’t Perry’s only involvement in encouraging Trump to get the vote overturned. The committee obtained records from the National Archives showing that Perry was among the Republican members of Congress who met with the president in the Oval Office on Dec. 21, 2020. That day, Meadows tweeted that the meeting’s purpose was “preparing to fight back against mounting evidence of voter fraud. Stay tuned.”
The committee also displayed White House logs showing that Perry returned to the White House the next day — and “this time, he brought a Justice Department official named Jeffrey Clark.”
It was the first known meeting between Clark and Trump — and it probably set off the events that led to a dramatic showdown between the president and senior Justice Department leaders, who had refused Trump’s demands that they declare that fraud had tainted Biden’s victory.
Perry, in a statement Thursday, said he worked with Clark “on various legislative matters” and that “when President Trump asked if I would make an introduction, I obliged.”
The committee also showed testimony from Cassidy Hutchinson, a former special assistant to Trump, and several other former Trump White House officials stating that Perry was among several members of Congress who sought a preemptive pardon from Trump for their activities in the run-up to the Jan. 6 violence.
Perry has forcefully denied that he sought a pardon, saying in a statement on Thursday: “I never sought a Presidential pardon for myself or other Members of Congress.”
Other members of Congress who sought pardons, according to that testimony: Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Andy Biggs of Arizona and Louie Gohmert of Texas. In an email to the White House displayed Thursday, Brooks asked on his and Gaetz’s behalf that Trump “give general (all purpose) pardons” to every member of Congress who on Jan. 6, 2021, voted to reject electoral college submissions from Arizona or Pennsylvania. More than 145 Republican lawmakers voted to object to one or both submissions. Those mentioned by name during the hearing were contacted for comment.
Hutchinson said that Perry spoke with her directly about the request, which Perry denies.
“At no time did I speak with Miss Hutchinson, a White House scheduler, nor any White House staff about a pardon for myself or any other Member of Congress — this never happened,” Perry said in a statement.
Biggs, in a statement Thursday, said Hutchinson was “mistaken” in believing he asked for a pardon.
Gohmert said in a statement that he had sought pardons for “other deserving individuals” but not for himself.
Hutchinson told the committee that Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) talked about pardons but never specifically asked for one. She also said that she heard from Patrick Philbin, a lawyer in the White House Counsel’s Office, that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) had contacted the office and asked for a pardon but that she had not spoken to the Georgia congresswoman directly.
“The general tone was, we may get prosecuted because we were defensive of the president’s position on these things,” Eric Herschmann, a former White House attorney, said in recorded testimony played at the Thursday hearing.
“100% fake news,” Jordan tweeted after the testimony.
“Saying ‘I heard’ means you don’t know,” Greene tweeted. “Spreading gossip and lies is exactly what the January 6th Witch Hunt Committee is all about.”
After that video concluded, Kinzinger stated: “The only reason I know to ask for a pardon is because you think you’ve committed a crime.”
Brooks, in a statement sent to reporters as Thursday’s hearing unfolded, said he had agreed to testify to the committee but only under a set of conditions, including that his deposition be public and that questions be “relevant to, and limited to, events surrounding” the Jan. 6 attack.
Those involved with the insurrection have repeatedly pointed to Perry as the chief conduit for the House GOP Conference to the White House in Trump’s quest to overturn his defeat. Perry has so far stonewalled the committee, defying a subpoena requesting his cooperation in the investigation.
Kinzinger said on Thursday that Republicans’ flirtation with Italygate was “one of the best examples of the lengths to which President Trump would go to stay in power, scouring the internet to support his conspiracy theories.”
Despite being debunked by Justice officials, the theory made its way to Kash Patel, a Defense Department official, who called Donoghue to gauge his view. Finally, the acting secretary of the Defense Department, Christopher Miller, called an attache in Rome to ask that they also investigate.
Some of Perry’s communications with Justice officials were revealed in a report released by the Senate Judiciary Committee in October.
A combat veteran who started his political career in the Pennsylvania legislature, Perry has long pushed false claims and urged the Trump administration to investigate various conspiracy theories propagating unsubstantiated claims of election fraud.
Perry heads the House Freedom Caucus, the hard-right group that counts several of its members among those who sought pardons, according to Thursday’s testimony.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), at the committee’s first hearing this month, stated that Perry was among those who had sought a pardon, but Thursday was the first glimpse of testimony from former White House officials corroborating that claim.
After that first hearing, Perry tweeted: “The notion that I ever sought a Presidential pardon for myself or other Members of Congress is an absolute, shameless, and soulless lie.”
Cheney closed that first hearing with a searing rebuke of those members of Congress who she said helped stoke the violence on Jan. 6.
“I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible,” she said. “There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”
Mariana Alfaro, Matthew Brown, Rosalind S. Helderman and Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.
The Jan. 6 insurrection
Congressional hearings: The House committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol held a series of high-profile hearings to share its findings with the U.S. public. What was likely to be the panel’s final public hearing has been postponed because of Hurricane Ian. Here’s a guide to the biggest hearing moments so far.
Will there be charges? The committee could make criminal referrals of former president Donald Trump over his role in the attack, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said in an interview.
The riot: On Jan. 6, 2021, a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. Five people died on that day or in the immediate aftermath, and 140 police officers were assaulted.
Inside the siege: During the rampage, rioters came perilously close to penetrating the inner sanctums of the building while lawmakers were still there, including former vice president Mike Pence. The Washington Post examined text messages, photos and videos to create a video timeline of what happened on Jan. 6.