July 21, 2022
Tonight’s public hearing of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol laid responsibility for the crisis at the Capitol on former president Trump.
The committee’s chair, Bennie Thompson (D-MS), is isolating with Covid, so Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-WY) presided over the hearing. She began with a tribute to Representative Thompson. Scott Simon, the host of NPR’s Weekend Edition, noted that “the Democratic chair of the committee just gracefully, and with full confidence, turned over the running of tonight’s hearing to the vice-chair, who happens to be of another party, and they spoke with mutual trust and respect. That’s how it’s supposed to go.”
The representatives running the hearing were also from different parties, and they referred to each other during the evening not just as colleagues but as friends. With the focus tonight on Trump’s dereliction of duty and violation of his oath of office, two representatives who are also veterans ran tonight’s hearing. Representative Elaine Luria (D-VA) spent 20 years as an officer of the U.S. Navy; Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) joined the U.S. Air Force in 2003 and continues to serve in the Air National Guard.
The committee focused on the 187 minutes—over three hours—between the end of Trump’s speech at the Ellipse in which he urged “an angry armed mob” to march on the Capitol, at a time when it was already under siege, to the moment when he finally told the mob to go home. Within 15 minutes of his speech, Trump had been informed that the Capitol was under attack, and the White House knew some of the rioters were armed. (This keeps tripping me up. If Secret Service agents knew there were weapons near the president, why on earth didn’t they lock the place down rather than let the president just go back to the residence?)
For the next 2.5 hours, Luria pointed out, Trump “did not call Vice President Pence, senior law enforcement officials, military leaders, or DC government officials.”
Instead, as the crisis unfolded, Trump watched coverage of the Capitol riot on the Fox News Channel in the White House dining room. The committee noted that there are no official records from that time. The call logs are blank. The presidential daily diary is blank. The White House photographer was told she couldn’t take pictures. Witnesses, though, have established that advisors, members of Congress, media personalities, and family members all begged him to call off the violent mob he had sent to the Capitol, but he refused. Trump’s White House counsel Pat Cipollone told the committee that none of the White House staff wanted the riot to continue, wording that statement in such a way that he left the impression that the president himself did want it to.
Trump did not fail to act to end the siege, the committee said; he chose not to act. He let the violence continue because the armed mob was giving him what he wanted: the delaying of the electoral count. While he did not call law enforcement officers or other officials to restore order during those 187 minutes, he did talk to lawyer and loyalist Rudy Giuliani, and to senators to get them to slow down the counting of the electoral votes.
Not only did Trump not stop the violence, he tweeted out a link to his Ellipse speech at 1:49, just as police were declaring a riot at the Capitol. Then he “poured gasoline on the fire,” witnesses said, with his 2:24 tweet accusing Pence of cowardice, putting a target on his own vice president’s back, as the committee put it. That tweet led to an immediate escalation in the violence, and at 2:26, Pence had to be evacuated to an even more secure location. He came within forty feet of the rioters, and the situation was so dangerous that Secret Service agents were calling their families to say goodbye.
At 2:38, Trump responded to his advisors’ urging to call off his supporters by tweeting: “Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!” Rioters noted that he told them only to respect the police, not lawmakers, and that he did not tell them to go home. At that point, lawmakers were hiding in the House chamber with gas masks.
The hard fighting continued until 4:17, when Trump finally released the video telling the mob, “Go home, we love you, you’re very special.” The committee established that he released the video only after law enforcement was deployed and was gaining control of the Capitol, making it clear the violent insurrection would not succeed. And, as aides had been saying all day, as soon as Trump told the crowd to go home, it began to disperse. “That’s an order,” one rioter said, although fighting did continue for a while. At 6:01, Trump tweeted that the attackers were “great patriots.”
It was not until January 7, with talk of removing him from offices swirling around the White House, that Trump issued a three-minute video saying that he was “outraged by the violence” and that anyone who had broken a law the day before would be prosecuted. He reassured the country that there would be an orderly transition of power. But outtakes from that taping show Ivanka coaching him and Trump saying he was still unwilling to give up the Big Lie. “I don’t want to say the election is over,” he said. “I just want to say Congress has certified the results.”
And, of course, Trump has never stopped insisting that he won the election and thus continues to threaten our democracy. As Kinzinger said, “The forces Donald Trump ignited that day have not gone away. The militant, intolerant ideologies. The militias, the alienation and the disaffection. The weird fantasies and disinformation. They're all still out there. Ready to go."
In addition to bringing the story of Trump’s attempt to steal the election to its finale, the hearing seemed designed to loosen the loyalty of Trump supporters to the man who had, as Cheney said, taken advantage of their love of country to use them to overturn our democracy.
The committee contrasted Trump’s behavior with that of then–Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and then–Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who were determined to resume the joint session and count the electoral votes. They also held up then–Vice President Pence as a model, showing him working to get the crisis under control even while being held in a secret location that looked much like a parking garage to stay out of the hands of the people calling for his death. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley told the committee that Pence was issuing orders to the acting secretary of defense, Christopher Miller. (Why were people following Pence’s orders?)
The committee’s witnesses tonight, former deputy national security advisor Matthew Pottinger and former deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews, were staunch Trump supporters who found the 2:24 tweet so offensive they resigned that night. The committee has heard almost exclusively from loyal Republicans, a strategy designed to undercut Trump’s cries that it is being run by Democrats. It also played several clips of McConnell and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) blaming Trump for the insurrection (there is a barb for McCarthy because he has switched back to Trump’s support and turned against Cheney over it).
Outtakes of the January 7 video recording tonight punctured Trump’s image as a strong leader: he repeatedly mangles simple language and takes out the word “yesterday” because it is a “hard word for me.” He repeatedly hits the podium in frustration. CNN’s chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins tweeted that multiple sources said it took Trump about an hour to record the three-minute video. His obstinacy made him look isolated and unreasonable; the outtakes made him seem pathetic and childish.
For all that, Trump fared better than Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), the first senator to say he would empower the House Trump loyalists by contesting some of the state votes, who famously raised a fist in solidarity with the protestors on the morning of January 6. The committee showed the image of Hawley raising his fist…and then showed footage of him running at top speed through the Capitol when the rioters broke in. Across the internet, users have been poking fun at Hawley, who has recently been on a crusade to launch what he calls an imperative “revival of strong and healthy manhood in America” and “traditional masculine virtues.” They have been posting pictures of the video to the theme from the running movie Chariots of Fire, for example, and pictures of running chickens. As journalist Adam Serwer tweeted, “Hawley riling up the mob and then fleeing in terror is an incredible political metaphor.”
At the end of the hearing, Cheney praised the witnesses, especially the women. She offered special thanks to Cassidy Hutchinson, who “knew all along that she would be attacked by President Trump, and by the 50-, 60-, and 70-year-old men who hide behind executive privilege,” but had courage to testify nonetheless. Cheney mentioned the female witnesses by name, saying they were “an inspiration to American women and to American girls.”
Cheney then spoke to Trump supporters, reminding them that the testimony had come from Republicans who supported Trump. She played the recently discovered audio clip of Trump confidant Stephen K. Bannon on October 31, 2020, four days before the election, explaining with laughter that Trump would simply declare victory even if he lost. Cheney explained to supporters that they had been set up.
Flattering them, she said Trump knew he could convince his supporters that the election was stolen because he knew they loved their country and that they would put their lives at stake for it, “preying on their patriotism…on their sense of justice.” “On January 6th, Donald Trump turned their love of country into a weapon against our Capitol and our Constitution.”
Speaking especially to the American women whose votes will be key to the upcoming election, she noted that the room in which they were meeting was where the committee on women’s suffrage met in 1918. We… “have a solemn obligation not to idly squander what so many Americans have fought and died for.”
Cheney noted that the hearings have brought new information. “Doors have opened, new subpoenas have been issued, and the dam has begun to break,” she said. The committee will hold more public hearings in September.