Trump accused of ‘dereliction of duty’ in dramatic Jan. 6 hearing
The White House was paralyzed for three hours on Jan. 6 as former President Trump rebuffed frantic pleas from anxious aides to intervene to quell the violence at the U.S. Capitol, according to evidence presented Thursday night by the House committee investigating last year’s rampage.
Trump’s inaction over that 187-minute span — even in the face of desperate calls from top staff and close family — allowed the riot to escalate, investigators charged, threatening the lives of lawmakers and his own vice president, Mike Pence, who was at the Capitol on Jan. 6 to certify Joe Biden’s election victory.
That inactivity was no accident, in the panel’s telling, but just another part of Trump’s plan to weaponize the fury of his supporters — convinced by Trump himself that the election was “stolen” — in an effort to remain in power despite his election defeat.
“President Trump did not fail to act during the 187 minutes between leaving the Ellipse and telling the mob to go home,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). “He chose not to act.”
Thursday’s prime-time hearing — the eighth in six weeks — was an autopsy of those tense 187 minutes, from the moment Trump finished his rally speech at the White House Ellipse, where he encouraged supporters to “fight like hell” and march to the Capitol, until he released a video urging the rioters to go home.
The account of those hours portrayed a president fixated on the riot, which he was following closely on Fox News from the head of the table in the White House dining room, a witness testified. He would remain there for more than 2 1/2 hours, beginning at 1:25 p.m., the committee said, calling Republican lawmakers, to urge them to fight the election results, and his campaign lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who was spearheading the “Stop the Steal” campaign.
The details of Trump’s actions during those hours are only now coming into focus, based on witness testimony, and the committee suggested the secrecy was by design.
The presidential daily diary contains no information from the period between 1:21 p.m. and 4:03 p.m.; the call log is empty for nearly eight hours that day; and the White House photographer was prohibited from taking pictures of Trump, despite her efforts to do so.
Still, after interviewing more than 1,000 witnesses, the committee has cobbled together much of what happened that day. Among the revelations presented during Thursday’s hearing:
• Trump was not in the dark about the violence at the Capitol. Within 15 minutes of returning to the White House, he learned the building was under attack.
• Trump did not call any of his national security leaders for the duration of the riot, opting instead to call lawmakers about the certification vote
• Pence’s security staff feared for their lives when the mob breached the Capitol, dreading they were trapped and might have to resort to lethal force.
• Trump resisted adding any calls for “peace” in the few tweets he sent as the attack was unfolding. With the urging of his daughter, Ivanka Trump, he agreed to a compromise: “Stay peaceful,” he said in his 2:38 p.m. tweet.
• In similar fashion, Trump did not want to include language in his late afternoon videotaped message to supporters telling them to “go home in a peaceful way.”
• Trump’s last words before retiring to his residence the evening of Jan. 6 made no mention of the attack. Instead, he was angry with his vice president. “Mike Pence let me down,” he said.
• And on Jan. 7, Trump still struggled to acknowledge the election was over, demanding to exclude that language from his video address.
The panel also demonstrated the tension between those staffers pushing aggressively to stir Trump into action, and others — including then-chief of staff Mark Meadows — who appeared resigned to the idea that Trump was ready to watch the chaos at the Capitol play out.
Pat Cippollone, Trump’s former chief counsel, was squarely in the former group. He was among the few people to confront Trump in the dining room during the violence, and his message to the president, he testified, “was pretty clear.”
“There needed to be an immediate and forceful … public statement that people need to leave the Capitol now,” Cipollone said.
To boost its case, the committee brought in two former White House staffers who resigned in protest over how Trump handled Jan. 6: Matthew Pottinger, former deputy director for the National Security Council, and Sarah Matthews, then deputy press secretary. Both of them described being appalled by Trump’s refusal to act to protect the Capitol, and both of them would resign on Jan. 6 to protest what they called his failure to meet his most basic presidential obligations.
For Matthews, the final straw was the 4:17 p.m. Rose Garden video, in which Trump told the crowd to disperse, calling them “special people.” For Pottinger, the decision came even earlier, after Trump’s 2:24 p.m. tweet attacking Pence, who quickly became a target of the violent mob.
“That was the moment that I decided that I was going to resign, that that would be my last day at the White House,” Pottinger said.
“I simply didn’t want to be associated with the events that were unfolding on the Capitol.”
While staffers were making little headway with Trump, the panel demonstrated the fear felt at the Capitol.
Those protecting Pence feared for his life as well as their own and, just 40 feet away from rioters, believed they may soon need to use deadly force.
“There was a lot of yelling. A lot of very personal calls over the radio, so it was disturbing. I don’t like talking about it, but there were calls to say goodbye to family members, so on, so forth,” an anonymous official said in audio played Thursday.
The committee also highlighted the actions of some of Trump’s closest congressional allies, who have echoed the false claims of a stolen election, downplayed the violence in the Capitol on Jan. 6 and fought to defend the former president from any insinuation that he encouraged the rampage.
The panel played numerous clips of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), detailing his pleas to Trump for action, and his previously leaked comments attacking Trump for his behavior that day.
“He told me it was getting really ugly over at the Capitol and said, ‘Please, you know, anything you could do to help, I would appreciate it.’ I don’t recall a specific ask, just anything you could do,” said Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser.
“I got the sense that … they were scared,” he said, adding, “He was scared, yes.”
The panel also showed footage of Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who was seen shortly before the riot lifting his fist in solidarity with protesters, fleeing for his life, jetting out of the Senate chambers and bolting through the basement.
Trump would leave the dining room only after 4 p.m., when he headed to the Rose Garden to film a message to supporters telling them to go home but also, “We love you. You’re very special.”
Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), another committee member, said the video was not an instance of Trump finally rising to the occasion.
“In the end it is not, as it may appear, a story of inaction in a time of crisis but instead is the final action of Trump’s own plan to usurp the will of the American people and remain in power,” Luria said.
“Not until it was clear that his effort to violently disrupt or delay the counting of election results failed did he send a message to supporters that he commiserated with their pain and told them affectionately to go home,” she added, noting it included no condemnation.
Matthews likewise said staff was demoralized after the video was released.
“That was disturbing to me because he didn’t distinguish between those that peacefully attended his speech earlier that day and those that we watched cause violence at the Capitol. Instead, he told the people who we had just watched storm our nation’s Capitol with the intent on overthrowing our democracy, violently attack police officers, and chant heinous things like ‘Hang Mike Pence,’ ‘We love you, you’re very special.’ And as a spokesperson for him, I knew that I would be asked to defend that,” she said.
“And to me, his refusal to act and call off the mob that day and his refusal to condemn the violence was indefensible.”
One of the last comments Trump made to a staffer before retiring for the day, according to the committee, was that “Mike Pence let me down.”
A video taken the next day that staffers designed to be a second chance for Trump to condemn the actions of the day prior also left the president struggling.
“I don’t want to say the election’s over, I just want to say Congress has certified the results without saying the election’s over, OK?” Trump said.
He later quibbled over a line saying rioters “broke the law.”
Pottinger and Matthews were just a few of those who resigned in the wake of Jan. 6. And even many of those who remained said they did so only to protect their offices in the final days of the administration.
Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, for instance, organized a meeting of Cabinet officials to “steady the ship” amid calls to use the 25th Amendment to remove Trump.
As part of that meeting, he sent a memo to Trump demanding he “no longer publicly question the election results after Wednesday, no one can deny this is harmful.”
He also offered a veiled dismissal of Giuliani.
The memo suggests Trump listen to his Cabinet secretaries “while limiting the role of certain private citizens, who, respectfully, have served you poorly with their advice.”