The Jan. 6 select committee’s Tuesday hearing, ostensibly focused on extremism, drove clearly toward a subtle goal: Stripping away doubt that Donald Trump was anything but a full participant in a plot to subvert the 2020 election.
The former president wasn’t duped into disbelieving his own loss by fringe lawyers and advisers, select committee members argued. Rather, he assembled that squad of enablers, overrode his more sober-minded staff and forged the path that led to the chaos engulfing the Capitol, they contended during their nearly three-hour seventh hearing.
“The strategy is to blame people his advisers called ‘the crazies’ for what Donald Trump did,” select panel vice chair Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said at the outset. “This, of course, is nonsense. President Trump is a 76-year-old man, he is not an impressionable child. Just like everyone else in our country, he is responsible for his own actions and his own choices.”
What ensued was the Capitol riot committee’s best effort to underscore Trump’s direct hand in key moments on Jan. 6 and in the weeks before. According to evidence they laid out on Tuesday:
- Trump, not his advisers, opted to disregard evidence the election was not stolen from him, and the dozens of court rulings rejecting his challenges.
- Trump, not his advisers, chose to embrace increasingly fringe strategies to stay in power after the Electoral College sealed his defeat — including initiating (but not finalizing) the appointment of Sidney Powell as a special counsel to investigate false claims of election fraud.
- Trump, not his advisers, called for a protest to assemble in Washington on Jan. 6.
- Trump, not his advisers, ad-libbed his speech at an Ellipse rally before the riot to ratchet up the tone of his election challenges, right before a mob descended on the Capitol building.
- Trump, not his advisers, kept plans for a march on the Capitol secret, but ultimately directed his supporters to march on Congress and even attempted to go himself.
“Donald Trump participated in each substantially and personally. He oversaw or directed the activity of those involved,” Cheney said in closing remarks.
As Washington chases its collective tail speculating about a possible referral by the select committee to the Justice Department, Cheney’s commentary repeatedly invoked the language of potential criminal conduct — noting that Trump could not claim to be “willfully blind” to avoid responsibility for the events of Jan. 6.
The potpourri of arguments she and other select panel members offered was the latest example of the dual track their public hearings have taken so far. On the one hand, the committee is focused on filling out the historical record of the attempt to overturn the election and its violent conclusion; on the other, its members are laying out an unmistakable map to a potential criminal case against the former president and his allies.
The panel played numerous clips of video testimony from Trump’s advisers saying they pressed Trump to concede defeat, only to be rebuffed. Former Attorney General Bill Barr recalled asking then-Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows and son-in-law Jared Kushner how much longer the stolen-election talk would continue.
“I think that he’s becoming more realistic and knows that there’s a limit to how far he can take this,” Barr recalled Meadows telling him in late November 2020. “We are working on it,” Kushner chimed in, according to Barr’s videotaped testimony.
Tuesday’s presentation put Trump’s conduct more squarely at the center of the devastating consequences that resulted from his choices. His former campaign manager Brad Parscale texted Trump ally Katrina Pierson that he worried Trump’s rhetoric was directly responsible for the death of Ashli Babbitt, who was shot by a Capitol Police officer as she attempted to breach a lobby off the House chamber during the riot.
“You do realize this was going to happen,” Pierson wrote Parscale on the evening of Jan. 6, an exchange broadcast by the select panel.
Parscale responded: “Yeah. If I was trump and knew my rhetoric killed someone.”
“It wasn’t the rhetoric,” Pierson replied.
“Katrina,” Parscale said. “Yes it was.”
Stephen Ayres, a member of the mob that breached the Capitol who has since pleaded guilty to related charges, helped the committee underscore that Trump’s decision to remain largely silent during the worst of the violence prolonged the riot. When Trump finally tweeted that rioters should leave the Capitol, after 4 p.m. on Jan. 6, he noted that many of them did.
“Basically when President Trump put his tweet out. We literally left right after that,” Ayres testified. “To me, if he would have done that earlier in the day … maybe we wouldn’t be in this bad of a situation.”
The committee intends to home in on that point even more forcefully at its next — and potentially final — hearing next week, focused on Trump’s inaction as the violence at the Capitol built to a fatal pitch. Trump’s top White House lawyer Pat Cipollone recently told the committee, in testimony that was teased at Tuesday’s hearing, that Trump could have, at any point, stepped to a camera and attempted to quell the unrest.
Perhaps the most mysterious direct Trump action that the select committee highlighted Tuesday appeared to seed its latest evidence of potential witness tampering. At the end of the hearing, Cheney revealed that Trump had tried to call an unnamed witness in the select panel’s investigation after its most recent hearing with former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson — someone she said “you have not yet seen in these hearings.”
That person ignored the call and told their lawyer, who went on to inform the committee, which then informed the Department of Justice, Cheney said.
Taylor Budowich, a spokesperson for the former president, tweeted in response that Cheney was circulating “innuendos and lies that go unchallenged, unconfirmed, but repeated as fact.”
“This has been an ongoing pattern, and we’re trying to send the message that witness tampering is a crime in the United States of America,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who co-led Tuesday’s hearing. “People should not be approaching witnesses to try to get them to alter their testimony.”