In the tradition of the Clintonometer, the Trump Apocalypse Watch, and the Impeach-O-Meter, the Is It a Crime-O-Meter is a wildly subjective and speculative estimate of whether the Jan. 6 select committee’s work will convince enough individuals of relevance (prosecutors, juries, voters) that Donald Trump committed insurrection-related crimes that he will be, in some fashion, held accountable for them.
The joke about having apostate GOP Rep. Liz Cheney serve as vice-chair of the House’s Jan. 6 select committee was that putting a Republican in charge of something might end up being the most politically effective move that modern congressional Democrats have ever made. It wasn’t just any Republican, either; it was the daughter of one of the most ruthless GOP operators of his era, former vice president Dick Cheney, a man so skilled in the deft dance of the political rhumba that he once got away with shooting a guy in the face.
That analysis has proven sound. The committee’s success or failure will be determined by election results in 2022 and 2024, and, depending on how that goes, whether there is ever another election afterwards. But, in the meantime, its hearings have pulled high TV ratings, seemingly nudged the share of Americans who believe Donald Trump should be prosecuted for his role in the Capitol riot upwards, and coincided with a relatively non-disastrous period of polling for Democrats in general. (These recent results presumably also have something to do with the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.)
Other members of the committee no doubt deserve credit for the effectiveness of its presentations; chair and Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson in particular has managed to project seriousness and integrity without being sanctimonious or super friggin’ boring, a balance that has proven elusive for many of his predecessors in similar roles. But, indeed, Cheney’s statements and turns questioning witnesses have been the most aggressive, informative, and newsworthy of the past few weeks.
Among other reasons, this is because she’s played to the serialized-television format of the hearings by teasing “bombshell”-type revelations and then fully airing them later in context that makes them even more dramatic. Most notably, she mentioned during the first hearing that the committee would present testimony suggesting that Trump reacted approvingly when he heard that mob in the Capitol was chanting the phrase “hang Mike Pence.” She made good on that promise on Tuesday when questioning Cassidy Hutchinson, the former aide to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. “As an American,” Hutchinson said after seeing a clip from a previous interview with the committee during which she recounted hearing Meadows tell another official about Trump’s alleged comments, “I was disgusted.”
A few other moments on Tuesday suggest Cheney has some more sizzlers planned, particularly regarding the White House’s connection to Jan. 6 violence.
Early in the hearing, Cheney had Hutchinson recount conversations she says she had on Jan. 2 with Rudy Giuliani (who was at that point Trump’s lead campaign attorney) and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. Giuliani, in Hutchinson’s recollection, said the president planned not just to hold a rally on Jan. 6, but to confront Congress: “We’re going to the Capitol,” she remembered him as saying. “It’s going to be great. The President’s going to be there. He’s going to look powerful. He’s going to be with the members, he’s going to be with the senators.” Meadows, she said, told her that “things might get real, real bad” on that day. (Hutchinson noted when quoting others that she may not have remembered their remarks verbatim.)
So—according to this witness—a plan existed ahead of time for Trump to not just travel to the Capitol but enter it (because that’s where “the members [of Congress]” and senators are), in order to make some sort of point about power.
This would in itself have only been a highly unusual breach of typical protocol. Of course, when the time came on Jan. 6 that Trump could have made such a visit, the Capitol was in the process of being overrun by protesters who smashed their way through police lines, doors, and windows to get into the building and interrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s victory.
In its statements and presentations, the committee has asserted a number of times (with supporting photos and video) that this incursion was instigated and led by two militia/gang groups, the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. During the committee’s first hearing, it was noted that several hundred members of Proud Boys arrived in the Capitol area en masse before Trump had finished speaking at his rally, which was being held more than a mile away, and that members of the Oath Keepers entered the building (after mobs led by Proud Boys breached it) in what looked like a coordinated “stack” formation.* This would imply the attack was premeditated rather than being the result of spontaneously inflamed emotion.
What several moments in Cheney’s questioning of Hutchinson hinted was that people close to Trump were in communication with members of these groups in the weeks before the riot.
First, Cheney played a video from one of Hutchinson’s interviews in which she said she generally recalled “hearing the word Oath Keeper and hearing the word Proud Boys closer to the planning of the January 6th rally when Mr. Giuliani would be around.” Cheney also noted that longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone “was photographed with multiple members of the Oath Keepers who were allegedly serving as his security detail” on Jan. 5th and Jan. 6th.
Then Cheney and Hutchinson had the following exchange:
CHENEY: Ms. Hutchinson, Is it your understanding that President Trump asked Mark Meadows to speak with Roger Stone and General [Michael] Flynn on January 5th?
HUTCHINSON: That’s correct. That is my understanding.
CHENEY: And Ms. Hutchinson, is it your understanding that Mr. Meadows called Mr. Stone on the 5th?
HUTCHINSON: I’m under the impression that Mr. Meadows did complete both a call to Mr. Stone and General Flynn the evening of the 5th.
(Stone, who was convicted during the Trump-Russia investigation of lying to Congress about who he had communicated with about the Clinton campaign’s hacked emails, has denied speaking to Meadows. Cheney also played a select committee deposition video in which Flynn—Trump’s first national security adviser, who pleaded guilty to lying to federal authorities during the Trump-Russia case as well, but then tried to retract his plea and got pardoned by Trump—pleaded the Fifth in response to questions about whether be believed the violence on Jan. 6 was morally and legally justified.)
Then there was this (“Eastman” is John Eastman, a Trump election lawyer):
CHENEY: Is it your understanding that Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Eastman, and others had set up what has been called, quote, a war room at the Willard Hotel on the night of the 5th?
HUTCHINSON: I was aware of that the night of the 5th.
CHENEY: And do you know if Mr. Meadows ever intended to go to the Willard Hotel on the night of the 5th?
HUTCHINSON: Mr. Meadows had a conversation with me where he wanted me to work with Secret Service on a movement from the White House to the Willard Hotel so he could attend the meeting or meetings with Mr. Giuliani and his associates in the war room.
CHENEY: And what was your view as to whether or not Mr. Meadows should go to the Willard that night?
HUTCHINSON: I had made it clear to Mr. Meadows that I didn’t believe it was a smart idea for him to go to the Willard Hotel that night. I wasn’t sure everything that was going on at the Willard Hotel, although I knew enough about what Mr. Giuliani and his associates were pushing during this period. I didn’t think that it was something appropriate for the White House Chief of Staff to attend or to consider involvement in, and made that clear to Mr. Meadows.
Throughout the afternoon, he mentioned a few more times going up to the Willard Hotel that evening, and then eventually dropped the subject the night of the 5th and said that he would dial in instead.
So Meadows was eager to meet personally on the night before the riot with one of the guys who’d (allegedly) been throwing around the names of the groups that started the riot.
This information all but put a giant flashing FORESHADOWING sign above an exchange that Cheney and Hutchinson had had earlier, during Hutchinson’s rundown of what she remembered from Jan. 6th itself. At one point, Hutchinson said she had tried to find Meadows during Trump’s rally speech to tell him that Capitol police security lines were already being overrun:
HUTCHINSON: He was in a secure vehicle at the time making a call. So when I had gone over to the car, I went to open the door to let him know and he had immediately shut it. I don’t know who he was speaking with.
It wasn’t something that he regularly did, especially when I would go over to give him information. So I was a bit taken aback, but I didn’t think much of it and thinking that I was — would be able to have the conversation with him a few moments later.
LIZ CHENEY: And were you able to have that conversation a few moments later?
CASSIDY HUTCHINSON: Probably about 20 to 25 minutes later. There was another period of, between, where he shut the door again, and then when he finally got out of the vehicle we had the conversation. But at that point there was a backlog of information that he should have been made aware of.
LIZ CHENEY: And so you opened the door to the control car and Mr. Meadows pulled it shut?
CASSIDY HUTCHINSON: That’s correct.
LIZ CHENEY: And he did that two times?
CASSIDY HUTCHINSON: That’s correct.
LIZ CHENEY: And when you finally were able to give Mr. Meadows the information about the violence at the Capitol, what was his reaction?
CASSIDY HUTCHINSON: He almost had a lack of reaction. I remember him saying “Alright,” something to the effect of, “how much longer does the President have left in this speech?”
Anyway, after I had connected all of this string, feeling pretty pleased with the sleuthing that had been done, I found out that the following exchange took place on CNN three weeks ago:
CNN ANCHOR JAKE TAPPER: Are there going to be witnesses that describe actual conversations between these extremist groups and anyone in Trump’s orbit?
JAN. 6 COMMITTEE CHAIR BENNIE THOMPSON: Yes.
TAPPER: There will be?
So there’s that, as well. The meter remains at FULL CRIME, with ketchup that President Baby threw at the wall available for dipping.
Correction, July 1, 2022: This sentence originally implied that Proud Boys entered the Capitol building proper during Trump’s speech. The building was not in fact breached until later in the day.