Politics

The Chilling Lesson of Mark Meadows’ Text Messages

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: Thousands of Donald Trump supporters storm the United States Capitol building following a "Stop the Steal" rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. The protesters stormed the historic building, breaking windows and clashing with police. Trump supporters had gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Thousands of Donald Trump supporters storm the United States Capitol building following a “Stop the Steal” rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The more we learn about what Donald Trump and his aides heard and did on Jan. 6, the more clearly we understand his corrupt intent. The latest revelations come from newly disclosed text messages sent to Mark Meadows, Trump’s then-chief of staff, that afternoon. The messages show that Trump’s family, his media allies, and people inside the U.S. Capitol begged him to call off the attack but were ignored for most of the day. And they confirm that Meadows, who has refused to testify in the Jan. 6 investigation and now faces possible indictment for contempt of Congress, was at the center of what unfolded that day.

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But the messages also clarify a standoff that took place in the middle of the afternoon. Shortly after 2:30, Trump sent out a tweet urging his followers to “stay peaceful.” That tweet has been cited as proof that he tried to end the crisis. But the texts, combined with other evidence, show that trusted figures in Trump’s orbit were asking him to do more. They wanted him to tell the rioters to leave the Capitol and go home. On the surface, this looks like a small difference. But Trump refused to do it. Why?

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The simplest answer is that, as his prior behavior demonstrated, he saw the mob as leverage in a last-ditch effort to overturn the election. He had summoned his followers to Washington to pressure Congress to halt the certification of the election, and the pressure had succeeded. If he were to disperse the mob—not just ask it to curtail its violence—he would lose his leverage. So, for nearly two hours, he held out. That’s what the texts are showing us: that the president was being asked to make a specific concession, and that he refused to do so.

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To understand where the text messages fit in, it’s helpful to divide the afternoon of Jan. 6 into segments. The first segment began shortly after 1:10 p.m., when Trump finished speaking to the crowd he had summoned to march on the Capitol. He got back to the White House by 1:20 and, according to aides, immediately began to watch TV coverage of the unfolding drama. Congress was meeting to certify Joe Biden’s election, while outside the Capitol, a Trumpist mob had gathered. Starting around 1:30, the mob crashed through barriers, pummeled police, and broke into the building. Cable channels followed the action. Trump “was busy enjoying the spectacle,” the Washington Post reported, based on interviews with the president’s aides. He “watched with interest, buoyed to see that his supporters were fighting so hard on his behalf.”

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At 2:12, the crisis escalated. As the first group of assailants approached the Senate chamber, the Secret Service whisked away Vice President Pence—who had been presiding over the certification—and the Senate shut down. At 2:18, the House recessed, too. Trump, as he watched this on TV, was “pleased, not disturbed, that his supporters had disrupted the election count,” according to advisers who spoke to reporters.

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Here’s where the texts to Meadows come in. We don’t have the time stamps yet, but from their content, we can infer that some arrived during this period. They told Meadows that assailants were “storming the Capitol,” had “breached” it, and were “breaking windows.” So while Trump was watching the assault on TV, Meadows was getting direct reports from inside the building. One message pleaded: “Is Trump going to say something?” At 2:24, Trump did say something. Instead of calling off the attack, he tweeted a rebuke of Pence for failing to block the certification: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done.”

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At 2:26, Trump spoke directly to Sen. Tommy Tuberville, who was inside the Capitol. Tuberville told the president that Pence had been taken from the Senate chamber and that senators, too, were about to be evacuated. Trump replied, “I know we’ve got problems.” This conversation is the first evidence that Trump was directly informed of the gravity of the situation. Meanwhile, people at the White House—Meadows, Ivanka Trump, and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone—were pleading with Trump to call off the attack. They wanted him to instruct his followers to “stay peaceful,” but Trump didn’t want to include that phrase. Eventually, he gave in. “Please support our Capitol Police,” he tweeted at 2:38. “Stay peaceful!”

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For the next hour and a half, Trump resisted going beyond that message. His advisers and allies wanted him to tell the mob to go home. The text messages show a trail of entreaties. “He’s got to condemn this shit ASAP. The Capitol Police tweet is not enough,” Donald Trump Jr. wrote to Meadows. Fox News host Sean Hannity told the chief of staff that Trump should “ask people to leave the Capitol.” Laura Ingraham wrote that “the president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home.” (Notably, these texts show that Fox News’ hosts knew the Jan. 6 mob was pro-Trump, though on TV they pretended it wasn’t.) House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, in a phone call with Trump, told the president that the attackers were breaking into McCarthy’s office, and he implored Trump to “call them off.

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But Trump held out. In the phone call with McCarthy, he denied responsibility for the violence, blaming it on “antifa,” but he defended the mob in general, telling McCarthy, “I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.” Those two statements seemed contradictory, but they made sense from the standpoint of maintaining pressure on Congress. In a tweet at 3:13, Trump again asked his followers to “remain peaceful,” but he didn’t tell them to go home.

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Advisers kept trying to extract this last concession from Trump. One aide, Jason Miller, drafted tweets in which the president would urge his people to “leave the Capitol” and “head home.” Trump never sent those tweets. For nearly half an hour, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, tried to get hold of Trump to issue a plea—which Christie, in exasperation, delivered on ABC at 4:00—that Trump should “tell his supporters to leave the Capitol grounds.” The text messages to Meadows show that Trump’s allies were also imploring him to go beyond tweets and speak to the mob by video. “We need an Oval address,” Trump Jr. told Meadows. Fox host Brian Kilmeade urged the chief of staff: “Please get him on TV.”

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At 4:05, Biden forced Trump’s hand. In a press conference, the president-elect urged the mob to “pull back,” and he called on Trump “to go on national television … and demand an end to this siege.” About 10 minutes later, Trump partially complied. He finally asked his followers to “go home,” but he also refueled their rage, repeating his lie that the election “was stolen from us.” Two hours later, as the conflict was winding down, he defended the insurrection as a logical response to enemies who had “viciously stripped away” his “sacred landslide election victory.”

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When you put the evidence together—Trump’s instructions to the crowd at his Jan. 6 rally, his subsequent tweets, Miller’s rejected drafts, Christie’s plea, and the text messages from Hannity and Ingraham—all of it is consistent with this theory: For about two hours, despite being asked to tell his people to leave the Capitol and go home, Trump refused to do so, because he wanted to maintain leverage over Congress. This theory makes sense of Trump’s otherwise confusing comments to McCarthy. It also explains the discrepancy between what he was being asked to say and what he tweeted instead. It’s just a theory, but one person, other than Trump, can shed light on the extent to which it’s true: Meadows. Meadows was the intermediary between Trump and everyone else that day. He was in and out of the Oval Office, relaying requests to the president. He got a phone call from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, pleading for help from the National Guard. He talked throughout the day with Kash Patel, Trump’s point man at the Department of Defense. He got text messages warning him that the Capitol was “under siege” and that “if someone doesn’t say something, people will die.” According to the people who sent those messages—including former White House Communications Director Alyssa Farah—Meadows never replied.

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That’s why it’s important that Meadows testify. He’s the key to finding out what Trump was told and how the president responded. We also need to hear from others who were involved in backstage efforts to persuade Trump, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, and Jared Kushner. McCarthy must testify about his phone call. According to White House aides, Trump recorded two other video messages that day that were so defiant and incendiary they were never released; let’s see those videos. And let’s find out whether the president, as alleged by at least one witness, “rebuffed and resisted requests to mobilize the National Guard.” We need to know not just what Trump did that day, but what he didn’t do, and why.

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