The Jan. 6 House Select committee’s summer season finale on Thursday night was a deep examination of how President Donald Trump sat on his bum for three hours on January 6, 2021, watching Fox News in the West Wing dining room, while the Capitol was ransacked on his behalf. But his idleness, the committee sought to prove, should not be confused with ineffectiveness. It was complicity.
“President Trump did not fail to act during the 187 minutes between leaving the Ellipse and telling the mob to go home,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, the Illinois Republican and one of the committee’s point persons for the evening, said. “He chose not to act.” Or, as Chairman Bennie Thompson, appearing by video while he recovers from COVID, said, “for 187 minutes on January 6th, this man of unbridled, destructive energy could not be moved.” It would have been counter to the former president’s interests to call off the mob.
It’s not that Trump wasn’t fully apprised of what was going on. Aside from Fox News’ coverage, a constant stream of advisers spent those 187 minutes trading turns with each other to enter the lion’s den—a small dining room—to persuade him to act, while members of Congress, lawyers, and television personalities desperately tried to reach him by phone.
Among those in the White House who pushed Trump to issue an unequivocal denunciation of the rioters and order them to go home—because the rioters, they demonstrated, were treating his tweets and statements as orders—were, according to White House Counsel Pat Cipollone: Fellow lawyers Pat Philbin and Eric Herschmann, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner (who took a shower during all of this?), Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Dan Scavino, Gen. Keith Kellogg, and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.
When Rep. Liz Cheney, the committee vice chair, asked who on “the staff” did not want people to leave the Capitol, Cipollone said “I can’t think of anybody on that day who did not want people to get out of the Capitol, especially when the violence started.”
“What about the president?” Rep. Adam Schiff chimed in.
“She said the staff,” Cipollone responded.
The committee overlaid footage of what was happening inside the Capitol at specific moments where the president was dithering—or worse, inflaming—the situation. One specific sequence in a national security chat log was particularly disturbing. At 2:16 p.m., the message, “VP being pulled” came across. At 2:18 p.m., the warning came that if a decision wasn’t made in two to three minutes, “VP may be stuck at the Capitol.” At 2:20 p.m.: “Second Floor and Senate Door has now been breached.” And at 2:24 p.m., two messages: “explosions on the rotunda steps” and “Service at the Capitol does not sound good right now.” Officers at ground zero, one witness told the committee, were phoning in instructing command to say goodbye to their families.
Trump would’ve been briefed on all of this information fairly quickly. But at 2:24 p.m., he tweeted, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!” Pence was in danger, Trump knew it, and this was his order. He would issue a couple of tweets in the next hour asking protesters to respect law enforcement, sure. But as one member of the Oath Keepers said in a radio communication the committee played, well, he didn’t say anything about members of Congress.
Despite these descriptions of a president blessing a violent riot on the seat of government because the legislature wouldn’t overturn an election he had lost… there was also more levity in this hearing than any of the others so far. Just as Trump knew what he was doing, so does the committee. And the committee is not above being petty.
Did the committee need to play, and then replay in slow-motion, footage of a high-stepping Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley skedaddling from the scene shortly after raising a fist in the air to encourage the protesters? No. Was it funny, though? It was the first hearing I’d been to where a moment garnered not just chuckles, but outright laughter in the room. That loosened things up a bit, and similar laughs were heard when audio was played of Donald Trump Jr. explaining a Godfather reference and video was shown of Cipollone awkwardly whispering with his lawyer about how to answer a question. The joy Kinzinger, meanwhile, took in confirming a witness’ account that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was “scared and begging for help” was noticeable. It was the latest in a string of asides, throughout the series of hearings, about how McCarthy is a duplicitous coward.
Shortly after 4 p.m., after Trump had been browbeaten by everyone in his life to get the situation under control, he relented and filmed a video telling protesters to go home. The staff who had been arguing with him felt it was time to call it a day.
“When he finished this video, I think everyone was, like, day’s over,” Herschmann told the committee. “I think people were pretty drained.”
The committee didn’t take well to that comment. The Capitol was still very much under siege, and wouldn’t be cleared out for hours more. Mike Pence was still working from the Capitol, doing the president’s job of coordinating the response while Trump decamped to the White House residence. And once that was all done, Congress had to resume doing what it showed up to do that day before it was so rudely interrupted: certify the presidential election.
“Emotionally drained,” Virginia Rep. Elaine Luria, who co-led the presentation with Kinzinger, asked rhetorically of Herschmann’s comment, “at the White House?”
The two live witnesses at Thursday’s hearing didn’t serve as central to the proceedings, but more as added color. The committee could have well left out Matthew Pottinger, a former deputy national security adviser who resigned over Trump’s inaction on Jan. 6. He used his witness perch to give unnecessary long, sweeping speeches about American history and democracy. Buddy, we just want to know what food Trump threw at the wall that day.
The other witness, former deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews, was more to the point in sharing her account. In one anecdote, she related how a fellow member of the press team didn’t feel like Trump should condemn the rioters because it would be “handing the media a win.” Frustrated, Matthews pointed to the images of the riot on TV and said, “do you think it looks like we’re f’ing winning?”
During the hearing, the House GOP’s official twitter account tweeted that Matthews was “just another liar and pawn in Pelosi’s witch-hunt”—which is quite a thing to say about a current staffer for the House GOP. The tweet was eventually deleted. In her closing statement, Cheney observed how it was young women in their 20s, like Matthews and Hutchinson, who had the courage to testify publicly knowing the threats coming their way from the “50-, 60-, and 70-year-old men who hide themselves behind executive privilege.”
Then she turned to the matter at hand.
“In our hearing tonight, you saw an American president, faced with a stark and unmistakable choice between right and wrong, there was no ambiguity, no nuance,” she began her conclusion. “Donald Trump made a purposeful choice to violate his oath of office, to ignore the ongoing violence against law enforcement, to threaten our constitutional order.”
“Every American must consider this,” she continued. “Can a president who is willing to make the choices Donald Trump made during the violence of Jan. 6 ever be trusted with any position of authority in our great nation again?”
Maybe there will be legal consequences for Trump when all is said and done. But Cheney’s goal is political. It reminded me of what she said last year immediately after losing her gig as the no. 3 House Republican leader, and how she would organize the next phase of her career.
“I will do everything I can,” she said in May 2021, “to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office.”
She, and the committee, are making progress.