WASHINGTON — He wasn’t speaking metaphorically. It wasn’t a flippant comment. President Donald Trump had every intention of joining a crowd of supporters he knew were armed and dangerous as they marched to the Capitol. And there had even been talk of marching into the House chamber himself to prevent Congress from ratifying his electoral defeat.
For a year and a half, Trump has been shielded by obfuscations and characterization errors, benefiting from the uncertainty of what he was thinking on January 6, 2021. If he truly believed the election was stolen, s really expected the Capitol rally would be a peaceful protest, the argument goes, so could he be held responsible, let alone charged, for the ensuing chaos?
But for a man who notoriously avoids leaving emails or other trails of evidence of his unspoken motives, any doubt about what was really going through Trump’s mind that day of violence seemed to have been eviscerated. by the testimony presented in recent weeks by the House committee investigating the attack on the Capitol – in particular the dramatic appearance last week of a 26-year-old former White House aide who offered a chilling portrait of a president willing to do almost anything to cling to power.
More than perhaps any insider account that has emerged, the memories of the aide, Cassidy Hutchinson, demolished the fiction of a president who had nothing to do with what happened. Each revelation was stunning in itself: Trump knew guns were in the crowd as he urged his supporters to “fight like hell,” and even tried to stop anyone from disarming them. He was so determined to join the mob at the Capitol that he lashed out at his Secret Service detachment for refusing to take him. And he was so nonchalant about the heckling he started that he suggested Vice President Mike Pence might deserve execution for refusing to overturn the election.
But when added together, the various revelations produced the clearest picture yet of an unprecedented attempt to subvert the traditional American democratic process, with a sitting president who had lost at the polls planning to march with an armed mob. to the Capitol to block the transfer of power, dismissing many concerns about the potential for violence along the way.
“Innocent explanations for Trump’s conduct seem virtually unbelievable based on the testimony we’ve seen,” said Joshua Matz, who served as counsel for House Democrats in Trump’s two Senate impeachment trials. “At the very least, they powerfully shift the onus to Trump and his defenders to prove that he did not act with a corrupt and criminal mindset.”
So nearly 2½ centuries after America’s 13 colonies declared independence from an unelected king, the nation finds itself weighing a bleak new view of the fragility of its democracy – and the question to know what could and should be done, if anything. on this subject.
To the extent that there could be a turning point in this debate, Hutchinson’s testimony proved pivotal for some who had been willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt or were unsure that the committee had gathered enough evidence on the state of mind of the former president. .
Solomon L. Wisenberg, a former assistant independent attorney under Ken Starr, called his account a “smoking gun” as he pleaded “for his criminal guilt on charges of seditious conspiracy”. Mick Mulvaney, who served as Trump’s third White House chief of staff, said he defended him, but learning that Trump knew some in the crowd were armed and still encouraged him to come to the Capitol. “Certainly change your mind,” he said. FoxNews.
David French, a conservative critic of Trump, had been skeptical that the committee would produce enough evidence. “But Hutchinson’s sworn testimony fills a gap in the criminal case against Trump,” he wrote on The Dispatch, a conservative website. Two law professors, Alan Z. Rozenshtein of the University of Minnesota and Jed Handelsman Shugerman of Fordham University, also opposed the lawsuits until they saw Hutchinson, writing on the Lawfare blog that she has changed her mind because she provided “evidence of intent”.
The hearings, which will continue after Congress returns on July 11 from recess, presented only the prosecution’s side of the story. With Trump’s acquiescence, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican leader, opted not to appoint anyone to the select committee after Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected some of his initial selections, leaving the panel composed. entirely from Democrats and two Republicans deeply critical of the former president.
Neither Hutchinson nor any of the other witnesses who testified were cross-examined. Their testimony was often presented in short, edited clips rather than in full, and no testimony to the contrary was offered publicly. In a courtroom, if it ever came to that, the case against Trump would be tested in a way it has not been before.
“The committee presentation was a purely political exercise, misleadingly edited,” said Jason Miller, who served as Trump’s political adviser during and after the election.
Yet even outside the confines of the courtroom, Miller and others in Trump’s camp primarily attacked the committee or attempted to undermine elements of the testimony rather than produce much of the defense of the actions. of the former president or some other explanation of his condition. of mind.
In his social media posts, Trump denied asking that armed supporters be allowed into his rally. “Who would ever want that?” he wrote. “Not me!” He focused more of his energy on castigating Hutchinson in scathing personal terms (“whacko”, “total phony”) and focused on one small aspect of his testimony, namely whether he rushed the wheel of his presidential vehicle when his Secret Service detail refused. to take him to the Capitol on January 6.
Throughout his political career, Trump survived one scandal after another because authorities felt unable to read his mind. Investigators could not prove he intended to break the law when he authorized hush money to silence a porn actress or when he provided false appraisals of his properties to lenders or when he sought to obstruct the investigation into Russian election interference. Fact checkers also documented tens of thousands of false statements he made while in office, but were reluctant to say he knowingly lied.
“He learned from dad, Norman Vincent Peale and especially Roy Cohn that you can get away with almost anything if you never back down and insist long enough and hard enough that you’re right, and he held on. good until the last round.” back in the White House, said Gwenda Blair, his biographer, referring in turn to Fred Trump; the author of “The Power of Positive Thinking”; and the chief lawyer of the Army-McCarthy hearings, who became Donald Trump’s mentor Trump said “he was completely consistent with the way he acted all his life.”
Anthony Scaramucci, a longtime associate who served briefly in the White House before breaking up with Trump, has spoken in the past about Trump’s power to interpret reality in a way that suited him. But Scaramucci said he concluded that Trump fully understood the election was not stolen and that his Jan. 6 actions to void it were illegitimate.
“I believe President Trump knows everything he does is a ruse,” Scaramucci said. “On more than one occasion throughout the campaign” in 2016, “he would turn to me and others and say funny things like ‘Why can’t people realize what you realize about me, that I play the role and I’m full of things at least 50% of the time? That kind of joke. So he knows it’s all a lie.
What the hearings demonstrated with an array of witnesses drawn almost entirely from the president’s own allies and advisers is that if Trump didn’t know, he certainly had every reason to know. Adviser after adviser, including two successive attorneys general and several campaign officials and lawyers, told him there was “nothing there,” as one put it, in regarding widespread electoral fraud. Yet he persisted in telling crazy stories of conspiracies.
While Attorney General Merrick Garland must weigh many factors before deciding whether to bring a case, including whether it is in the national interest to indict a former president, Hutchinson’s account of Trump’s actions before and the January 6 provided the building blocks for a possible prosecution by demonstrating that he and his advisers understood that they were playing with fire.
While Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, claimed in a memoir that Trump had ‘spoken only metaphorically’ when he vowed to march to the Capitol, in fact, he had been discussing it for days. . Hutchinson first learned of the plan on Jan. 2 when Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, told him that Trump would go to Capitol Hill and “look powerful.”
Alarmed, she finds Meadows, her boss. “Looks like we’re going to the Capitol,” she said. Meadows didn’t look up from his phone but made it clear he understood the danger. “Things could get really, really bad on January 6,” she recalled him telling her.
On the morning of January 6, she listened to Meadows being warned that some Trump supporters gathering for a rally on the Ellipse had weapons. Pat Cipollone, the White House attorney, has warned that Trump should not go to Capitol Hill. “We’re going to be charged with every crime imaginable if we go through with this move,” he said, according to Hutchinson.
Trump was fearless. Waiting in a tent to address the crowd, he brushed off concerns about the violence. He criticized the Secret Service for checking fans with magnetometers, standard procedure for a presidential event, and demanded they be removed. “They’re not here to hurt me,” he said. “Take off the f-ing mags. Let my people in.
Addressing the crowd, he declared that he would go with them to the Capitol. But when he got into his armored vehicle, the Secret Service refused to take him, citing his own safety. According to what Hutchinson said, Anthony M. Ornato, White House deputy chief of staff, later told him that Trump burst into rage and demanded to go.
They returned to the White House instead, where Trump simmered to be thwarted. As he watched television footage of his supporters rampaging through the Capitol, he agreed with those in the crowd calling for Pence to be hanged.
Indeed, according to Hutchinson’s testimony, he was on the side of the crowd. As she heard Meadows say, “He doesn’t think they’re doing anything wrong. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.