Can’t blame Trump for Jan. 6 riots and election lies. He was just ‘following the internet.’

Until Thursday, I felt the Jan. 6 committee hearings were making former President Donald Trump look like a perversely corrupt egotist who was willing to sacrifice democracy and the votes of millions of Americans to remain in power.

But something new bubbled up from the latest hearing, which featured former high-ranking Republican officials who served in the Justice Department under Trump testifying, in specific and painstaking detail, about how the former president pushed the department to back up his claims of widespread voter fraud

Former Acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, relying on his own contemporaneous notes, recalled a meeting in which a series of voter-fraud conspiracy theories were debunked by Justice Department officials, prompting Trump to say: “You guys may not be following the internet the way I do.”

‘Leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen’

Wow. That is not something I had previously considered. Yes, more than a dozen Republicans who served in the Trump administration have now testified under oath to the committee that there was zero evidence the election was in any way stolen. On the other hand, it’s possible the former president followed the internet harder than all these other people, and thus knew things that those who more weakly followed the internet didn’t know.

Richard Donoghue, former acting deputy attorney general, says he told President Donald Trump that the Justice Department couldn’t step in on state elections.

That explains why, as Donoghue recalled in his testimony, Trump told him the DOJ needed to “just say it was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.”

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Without knowing about the man from Mar-a-Lago’s extensive internet-following abilities, that quote might sound like the most powerful person in the world telling the law enforcement arm of the U.S. government to make up some hooey to give him and his dull-witted congressional kowtowers cover to lie and steal an election.

President Donald Trump and Republican Senate leaders in 2019.

President Donald Trump and Republican Senate leaders in 2019.

But clearly, that was not the case. Trump’s voracious appetite for online knowledge must have led him to know something everyone else was missing. It’s like the time I knew virtually nothing about how the High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program in Alaska is a mind-control device and then I read the internet and learned that it definitely is a mind-control device and not a research facility that studies “the properties and behavior of the ionosphere,” as the program’s website would have you believe.

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I “followed the internet” and that helped me “get to the truth,” so the fact that those DOJ guys were not following the internet the way Trump does raises pretty serious questions about their testimony. I mean, if the internet says something is real, who are we to question? Without the internet, I never would’ve met my Nigerian friend who was once a prince and been able to help him with his legal bills by sending him my bank account and Social Security numbers.

‘Pure insanity’ – or was it?

The witnesses at Thursday’s hearing testified about what came to be known as “ItalyGate,” a belief, based on social media videos, that an Italian defense contractor used satellites to change Trump votes to Biden votes.

Really makes you not think, doesn’t it?

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That internet theory, which Donoghue called “pure insanity” and former Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen testified “had been debunked,” wound its way through the Justice Department and then over to the Department of Defense. There, according to testimony, then-Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller called an official in Italy and asked that it be investigated.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., addresses the Jan. 6 committee hearing on June 23, 2022.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., addresses the Jan. 6 committee hearing on June 23, 2022.

House Jan. 6 committee member Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said, “This is 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.”

Respectfully, Rep. Kinzinger, Donald Trump wasn’t “scouting the internet.” He was “doing his own research,” and those of us who’ve gargled horse dewormer to ward off COVID-19 and only wound up in the hospital 11 times know that’s a smart way of finding THE TRUTH.

Seeking some pardons, just in case

We also learned Thursday that a number of Republican members of Congress had such confidence in the former president’s following of the internet that they requested pardons relating to their attempts to overturn the election before he left office.

Former aides to the president, in depositions, said Trump toyed with giving a “blanket pardon” to anyone involved in activity leading up to Jan. 6, 2021. An email on that Jan. 11 from Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., was shown during the hearing. In it, Brooks sought a pardon for “every congressman and senator who voted to reject the Electoral College vote submissions from Arizona and Pennsylvania.”

From left, Steven Engel, Jeffrey Rosen and Richard Donoghue are sworn in June 23, 2022,  before testifying before the committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

From left, Steven Engel, Jeffrey Rosen and Richard Donoghue are sworn in June 23, 2022, before testifying before the committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

If you do some light following of the internet, you’ll see scurrilous suggestions that anyone seeking a pardon must know they’ve done something illegal.

But if you’re a more devoted internet follower like myself or former President Trump, you’ll find things like this tweet that I sent Thursday: “Hey, who among us hasn’t engaged in some mild coup-ing at various times in our lives?”

You simply can’t blame Trump for telling millions upon millions of Americans that the election was stolen and that they should immediately send him money they don’t have. Nor can you blame Brooks or Rep. Matt Gaetz or Rep. Louie Gohmert or Rep. Scott Perry or Rep. Andy Biggs for seeking coup-related pardons for a coup they for sure didn’t do.

They follow the internet, folks. If you can’t trust that, what can you trust?

Follow USA TODAY columnist Rex Huppke on Twitter @RexHuppke and Facebook:

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: January 6 hearing: Donald Trump was just ‘following the internet’