Jan. 6 panel changed script for star witness — at a steep cost
The House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol scrambled to add new testimony from White House counsel Pat Cipollone to its latest hearing on Tuesday, and in the process bumped aside evidence about former President Trump’s ties to violent extremist groups.
Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) acknowledged the shift on Wednesday, saying the panel wanted to highlight testimony from a hard-won witness after Cipollone sat down for a formal deposition on Friday under subpoena. Left on the cutting room floor was evidence tying some of Trump’s closest allies to some of the prominent right-wing groups on the front lines of the Capitol insurrection.
“It was in the original script, but we pulled some back just because of the timing,” Thompson said in response to a question from The Hill about ties between Trump World and groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers.
“The Cipollone deposition was important. And obviously, it’s just a choice we had to make.”
Cipollone delivered a damaging assessment of Trump’s final weeks in office, confirming that he and other legal advisers had determined Trump had lost the election, exhausted his avenues to contest the result and should have conceded defeat instead of pressing his vice president, Mike Pence, to block the electoral count.
But the last-minute adjustment to feature Cipollone came at a cost, leaving unexplored some of the very ties the committee had previously revealed — and promised to explore in greater depth — between Trump and the extremists.
Left unmentioned, for instance, was a Jan. 5 request from Trump to have chief of staff Mark Meadows contact two informal advisors, Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, who both used extremist groups as security details.
The panel also excluded any mention of the so-called war room at the Willard Hotel near the White House, where leading Trump allies — including his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani — had huddled to devise strategy ahead of Jan. 6. At least one member of an extremist group, the 1st Amendment Praetorian, was reportedly among them.
Yet the extremist groups played a relatively minor role in Tuesday’s hearing, when the panel leaned on Cipollone’s fresh testimony to demonstrate a broader idea: that Trump drove the effort to overturn the election in defiance of his own White House counsel.
To advance that idea, the select committee cobbled together seemingly disparate themes: an “unhinged” meeting at the White House; secretive plans to make Trump’s call to march to the Capitol appear unexpected; and analysis of a tweet that mobilized extremist groups to show up armed in Washington on Jan. 6.
But the undercurrent was the committee’s push to show Trump’s willing engagement each step of the way, even as they fell short of expectations that they might establish a more direct link between the White House and violent extremists. Some outside legal experts noticed the void.
“I think the committee advanced the ball in terms of providing some new information, but it’s very clear that there are gaps in what their investigation has found with regard to potential conspiracy or Trump’s direct links to the militia groups and other extremists,” said Ryan Goodman, co-director of the Reiss Center on Law and Security at the New York University School of Law.
Over the course of the three-hour hearing, the panel sought to solidify Trump’s role, with Vice Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) pushing back on any arguments that Trump was simply led astray by conspiratorial-minded advisers.
“The strategy is to blame people his advisers called ‘the crazies’ for what Donald Trump did,” Cheney said in her opening remarks.
“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.”
To make the case, the committee displayed a draft tweet revealing that Trump had planned days in advance to call on his supporters to march from a rally at the Ellipse, near the White House, to the Capitol, where Congress would be gathered to certify Joe Biden’s victory. The draft was marked “President has seen.”
That was paired with a text from Jan. 6 rally organizer Kylie Kremer stressing the need to be secretive about Trump’s plans to march to the Capitol since he would try to make the call “unexpectedly.” How Kremer knew in advance was not explored.
Trump also welcomed meetings with fringe advisers, including Flynn and Sidney Powell, over objections from his White House lawyers. (Powell joked that Cipollone “set a new land speed record” rushing to one Oval Office meeting with the group.)
And it was Trump, not his speechwriters, who ignored the advice of West Wing aides to insist on attacking Pence during the Ellipse rally — something he did eight times during that speech.
But the committee chose not to build upon its previously teased evidence about Meadows’s call to Stone and Flynn, and never once mentioned the Willard Hotel.
The new evidence provided on Tuesday showed how Trump’s tweet on Dec. 19, when he called for a “wild” protest on Jan. 6, had energized extremist groups around the country, some of them interpreting the message as a call to arms. The committee also revealed evidence of coordination between the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, showing a Facebook post from Florida Oath Keepers chapter leader Kelly Meggs talking about the two groups joining forces with another group, the Three Percenters.
“This week I have organized an alliance,” he wrote. “We have decided to work together to shut this shit down.”
Goodman said it was strange to omit the Meadows call and the hotel.
“I think the fact that the Willard didn’t come up as a nucleus of activity, in which there was a significant overlap between some of the militia groups and Trump’s innermost circle, was unusual, especially because the committee has identified the Willard Hotel as potentially significant in their subpoenas,” he said.
Other committee members echoed Thompson, who said the exclusion was a matter of “bandwidth.”
“There’s only so much time in these hearings. There’s a lot of good stuff. And there was some great stuff that got left off the cutting room floor that hopefully will be released,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), one of the committee’s nine members, said Wednesday.
“As with all the hearings, we’re limited in how much we can cover in a discrete period of time. And that’s why our report will ultimately be so important,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told The Hill.
Goodman argued that the committee succeeded in further demonstrating Trump’s responsibility for the events of Jan. 6, saying it’s clear the former president “made the situation even more incendiary.”
“Even though the committee did not provide very strong evidence of Trump’s direct legal responsibility for the acts of the militias, the hearings certainly provided very strong evidence of Trump’s personal culpability,” he said.
“Without his actions, it’s very apparent that these events would not have occurred.”