Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony is too incriminating for the DOJ to ignore
Any congressional oversight hearing that seeks to convince an audience of something new must feature both style and substance. Recognizing that their work is anything but a typical congressional oversight hearing, members of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol knew from the outset that they had their work cut out for them.
First, the style. The select committee clearly appreciates that in a hyper-partisan political environment, optics matter just as much as substance. Every step they’ve taken in their presentation was done to preempt the charge that this is a partisan investigation, that we already know what happened on Jan. 6 and that most everyone outside of the D.C. bubble has moved on to more immediately pressing matters such as rising inflation and crime.
The committee knew its biggest challenge was to get people to pay attention to its findings. That’s why it broadcasted its first hearing in primetime and has relied on taped witness testimony, documentary-style footage of the riot and exquisite audience cliffhangers, such as a tease that they had evidence that several Republican congressmen had asked the White House for preemptive pardons. All of this makes great television.
In response to the charge that this was a partisan witch hunt, the select committee convinced its members to take a back seat to the evidence. Instead of appearing camera-hungry, Democratic committee members have largely let the video testimony of former President Trump’s own inner circle do the talking for them. The committee understands that no transcript or retelling can substitute for hearing directly from those who were in the room.
The committee has also relied almost exclusively on Republican witnesses, many of whom worked for President Trump. And when there has been questioning, it has predominantly been carried out by the two Republican committee members. So effective has the presentation been that some Republicans (including Trump) believe House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) made a huge tactical blunder in pulling GOP support for the inquiry in hopes that he could then dismiss its findings.
Now, more importantly, the substance. Prior to Tuesday’s unscheduled emergency hearing, the committee’s biggest finding was that Trump was told unequivocally by his closest advisers that the “Big lie” of a stolen election was just that — a lie.
The list of those pleading with him to back off his claims of a fraudulent election included his attorney general, members of his family and even his campaign manager responsible for securing his second term. Senior leaders of the Department of Justice (DOJ ) told him point-blank at several points that they had investigated several of his claims and found nothing.
This means that Trump knew that what he was telling his supporters and the public was not true, and that his Oval Office pressure campaign on state-level elections officials to overturn the results weren’t backed by credible evidence. “Just say that it was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen,” he reportedly said. Trump was confident that if he could just get officials in certain states to lie for him, his supporters in Congress would do everything they could to keep him in power.
As if that weren’t enough, Tuesday’s hearing uncovered bombshell after bombshell. Cassidy Hutchinson, a former top aide to Trump’s White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, detailed meetings prior to Jan. 6 in which Trump and senior staff were warned of potential violence at the Capitol — warnings that were met with indifference and inaction. When she questioned Meadows about the threats, Meadows told her outright “things might get real, real bad.”
Perhaps most damning in a long list was the shocking revelation that Trump was told that many of his supporters at his speech at the Ellipse on the morning of Jan. 6 were armed, some with AR-15s. When he voiced frustration that they were too far back from the stage and ruining his visual, he was told they didn’t want their weapons to be found. His response? He ordered the Secret Service to get rid of the magnetometers.
The president knew there were weapons in the crowd and yet still sent them to the Capitol with instructions to “fight like hell.” He even wanted to personally march with them despite being told by countless officials that doing so would only make things worse. When he saw the violence escalate on TV, and despite pleas from his most ardent supporters to get his followers to stand down, he stood idly by. In his view, according to Hutchinson, “he didn’t think the rioters were doing anything wrong.”
Given the scope and effectiveness of evidence presented so far, many are asking what the chances are that Trump, or the growing list of Republican officials who asked for pardons, will ultimately be charged with a crime. His own White House counsel warned that they “were going to get charged with every crime imaginable,” from obstructing justice to inciting and encouraging a riot.
The DOJ – the agency with the power to indict and charge Trump – has given hints that it is closely watching the hearings and wants to get its hands on the information collected by the select committee to inform its own investigations. We don’t know the status or scope of the DOJ’s inquiry, but the committee’s findings ultimately may be too incriminating to ignore.
Casey Burgat is an assistant professor and the director of the legislative affairs program at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.