Jan. 6 panel’s conclusion: Trump did nothing to halt riot, sat back and enjoyed it
One day after the last rioter had left the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Donald Trump's advisers urged him to give an address to the nation to condemn the violence, demand accountability for those who had stormed the halls of Congress and declare the 2020 election to be decided.
He struggled to do it. Over the course of an hour of trying to tape the message, Trump resisted holding the rioters to account, trying to call them patriots, and refused to say the election was over, according to individuals familiar with the committee's work.
The public could get its first glimpse of outtakes from that recording Thursday night, when the Jan. 6 committee plans to offer a bold conclusion in its eighth hearing: Not only did Trump do nothing despite repeated entreaties by senior aides to help end the violence, but he sat back and enjoyed watching it. He reluctantly condemned it - in a three-minute speech the evening of Jan. 7 - only after the efforts to overturn the 2020 election had failed and after aides told him that members of his own Cabinet were discussing invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him from office.
"This is what he wanted to happen," Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., who is scheduled to lead the questioning Thursday along with Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said in an interview this week. "You might have earlier on said, 'Was he incompetent? Was he someone who freezes in a moment when they can't react to something? Or was it exactly what he wanted to have happened?' And after all of this, I'm convinced that this is exactly what he wanted to have happen."
Committee aides on Wednesday dubbed the prime-time presentation the "187-minute hearing," a reference to the period between Trump's speech on the Ellipse on Jan. 6 before protesters marched to the Capitol and his remarks late that afternoon from the Rose Garden urging the rioters to go home. The hearing will focus heavily on Trump's inaction in the White House during that time, the aides said on a background call with reporters.
"The president didn't tell his supporters to leave the Capitol and go home until 4:17 p.m.," said one of the aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. "We are going to remind people that there was this inaction at the White House."
The hearing, whose chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., will attend remotely due to his recent COVID diagnosis, is expected to clock in at just under two hours, the aide said.
The hearing is also expected to tie together details from prior hearings, including the inflammatory presidential rhetoric that drew thousands to Washington that day, Trump's willingness to grant audiences to fringe figures peddling fabulist and unconstitutional theories on how he could keep hold of the presidency and the many times he was urged to intervene during the violence but refused to do so.
All of it points to one conclusion, which the committee plans to argue Thursday: Trump wanted the violence, he is responsible for it and his unwillingness to help end it amounts to a dereliction of duty and a violation of his oath of office.
"It's very clear that watching this violence was part of the plan," Luria said. "He wanted to see it unfold. And it wasn't until he realized that it was not going to be successful that he finally stood up and said something."
A Trump spokesman called the Jan. 6 investigation a "distraction" from Democrats' "failures."
"November is coming, and all the Democrats will have to show for their short term with a congressional majority is another investigation to nowhere, while the world burned," said Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich.
On Tuesday, the former president posted on social media platform Truth Social that the committee - composed of seven Democrats and two Republicans - "is a Fraud and a disgrace to America. No due process, no cross examinations, no opposing witnesses, no nothing!"
In the prerecorded Jan. 7 speech that the White House ultimately released, Trump charged that the "demonstrators who infiltrated the Capitol have defiled the seat of American democracy." He added that those who had broken the law "will pay."
But more recently, he has taken to speaking out on behalf of those arrested for involvement in the riot, bemoaning the "appalling persecution of political prisoners."
Two live witnesses are planned for Thursday's hearing: former deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews and former deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger. Both resigned following the events of Jan. 6, and both are expected to explain why. In addition, Matthews is expected to provide details of what she saw in the West Wing that day, including whether Trump knew the violence had broken out when he attacked his vice president, Mike Pence, in a 2:24 p.m. tweet.
Pence, as presiding officer in the Senate, refused Trump's demands to reject the counting of the Electoral College votes that day, arguing he was not empowered to do anything other than accept the votes of electors appointed by the states.
The committee will also show new clips of recorded testimony from Pat Cipollone, the former White House counsel who made his first recorded appearance at last week's hearing. Cipollone is expected to be shown saying he was among the White House aides who pushed back strenuously against unfounded theories of election fraud.
The committee plans to play recorded testimony of Cipollone describing his thoughts about Trump's inaction on Jan. 6 as well as his dismay over Trump's taped statement after the violence had begun to subside. In those comments, the president refused to read from prepared remarks but instead said to the rioters, after urging them to go home, "We love you. You're very special."
The committee is expected to show some of the entreaties in which he was begged him to act, and have witnesses describe others, people familiar with the matter said.
The committee also is planning to reveal that a significant period of time elapsed from the moment aides were instructed to set up a camera and microphone for those remarks to the time Trump actually spoke. The hearing will explore what happened at the White House later in the evening of Jan. 6, including Trump's 6:01 p.m. tweet in which he expressed no remorse for the day's violence.
"These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long," Trump wrote. "Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!"
The committee continues to address security concerns for both members and witnesses. Last week, Capitol Police began stationing officers outside the offices of all panel members. Committee staff remains concerned about the prospect of threats and intimidation aimed at witnesses, an aide told reporters Wednesday.
The hearing will lean heavily into the idea that Trump's dereliction disqualifies him from holding office again. Trump has repeatedly signaled he intends to run for president in 2024.
Luria and Kinzinger, both military veterans, will describe their loyalty to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, multiple individuals familiar with the committee's work said. The commander in chief is obligated under the Constitution "to take care that the laws be faithfully executed" - and Trump failed to do that, they expect to say.
Committee members have billed Thursday's long-anticipated hearing - the second scheduled for prime time - as a finale of sorts that would pull together the evidence of the seven prior hearings to show how Trump's refusal to accept the 2020 result led to violence.
But with new evidence continuing to surface - and fresh investigation targets - committee members said this week that there are likely to be more hearings later this year. The committee is likely to focus intensely on the U.S. Secret Service's apparent deletion of text messages on Jan. 6, the individuals said.
On Wednesday, committee leaders Thompson and Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., issued a joint statement suggesting that the Secret Service may have violated the Federal Records Act by failing to preserve text messages from Jan. 6 during a system migration last year. "Every effort must be made to retrieve the lost data," they said.
The question of how much Trump and his allies have fundraised off of - and profited from - election denialism is under discussion for its own hearing.
"There is no reason to assume this will be the final hearing," one committee aide told reporters Wednesday.
Already, committee members are beginning to discuss what kinds of recommendations to prevent a recurrence of Jan. 6 will emerge from an investigation that has stretched over a year.
Among the possible recommendations, according to people with knowledge of those discussions: proposed changes to the Electoral Count Act, which a bipartisan group of senators has been negotiating for months, to remove ambiguity about the role of Congress or the vice president in counting electoral college votes; passing a law implementing the insurrection clause of the 14th Amendment, which could pave the way to attempting to bar Trump from office in the future; new guidelines for emergency response in Washington; and stronger laws to police domestic terrorism and online behavior that induces violence.