Donald Trump hosted a chaotic six-hour White House meeting at which he discussed ordering the military to seize voting machines in a bid to overturn his re-election loss, before issuing his infamous tweet summoning supporters who would ultimately storm the U.S. Congress.
The meeting, described Tuesday by the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol, took place Dec. 18, 2020, four days after the electoral college had confirmed Mr. Trump’s defeat by Joe Biden, and as Mr. Trump’s legal challenges to the result were failing.
In its seventh public hearing, the committee showed that, despite repeatedly being told by his closest advisers that there was no evidence of election fraud, Mr. Trump continued to push false claims that the vote had been rigged.
Those efforts culminated with Mr. Trump assembling tens of thousands of protesters in Washington – including far-right militias with ties to Mr. Trump’s circle – and dispatching them to the Capitol. In the days before Jan. 6, protest organizers said Mr. Trump was planning to have supporters march on Congress, the committee revealed, suggesting that targeting the Capitol was a pre-meditated decision.
“President Trump summoned a mob to Washington,” said Liz Cheney, the committee’s Republican vice-chair. “The President’s stolen election lies provoked that mob to attack the Capitol.”
In videotaped depositions played at the hearing, several of Mr. Trump’s advisers said they had urged him to concede after the electoral college vote on Dec. 14. In one of the depositions, his daughter, Ivanka Trump, even acknowledged she felt the fight was over.
But a group of conspiracy theorists – including former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn, lawyer Sidney Powell and Patrick Byrne, then-chief executive of Overstock – drafted an executive order for Mr. Trump to seize voting machines to push the false election fraud claims.
When the conspiracy theorists arrived at the Oval Office on Dec. 18, then-White House counsel Pat Cipollone and other staffers rushed to intercept them. The meeting devolved into a shouting match that lasted late into the evening, as the two sides traded insults.
“The screaming was completely out there,” recounted Eric Herschmann, a former White House lawyer, in the videotaped deposition. “What they were proposing, I thought, was nuts.” Mr. Giuliani said he derided Mr. Trump’s staff with a sexually explicit term for not supporting his plan. “The meeting was UNHINGED,” another aide, Cassidy Hutchinson, texted afterward.
After the meeting ended, Mr. Trump urged his supporters to come to Washington on Jan. 6, when Congress was scheduled to formally certify the electoral college results. “Be there, will be wild!” he tweeted.
The call-out sparked a flurry of activity, with groups jumping to mobilize people to come to Washington that day.
Enrique Tarrio and Stewart Rhodes, leaders of far-right groups the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, started a group chat with Ali Alexander, organizer of the Stop the Steal rally, to co-ordinate efforts. These groups were in touch with Mr. Flynn and Roger Stone, another outside adviser to Mr. Trump, the committee said.
The committee showed videos and texts in which Mr. Trump’s supporters openly called for violence on Jan. 6. One promised a “firing squad”; another to see police officers “laying on the ground in a pool of their own blood”; a third said to “bring handcuffs” and strategized how to get into the Capitol via its underground tunnel system.
In text messages revealed by the committee, protest leaders said in the days before the riot that Mr. Trump wanted to have his supporters march on the Capitol, casting this as an organized plan rather than a spontaneous decision.
After speaking with Mark Meadows, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, on Jan. 2, Katrina Pierson, an organizer for the Jan. 6 rally, texted that Mr. Trump would “call on everyone to march to the Capitol.” Mr. Alexander texted that “Trump is supposed to order us to Capitol at the end of his speech.” In a tweet Mr. Trump apparently drafted but never posted, he called on protesters to “march to the Capitol.”
Mr. Trump spoke with Steve Bannon on Jan. 5, shortly before the latter told his podcast that “all hell is going to break loose tomorrow,” according to phone records disclosed by the committee.
At a rally near the White House on Jan. 6, Mr. Trump ultimately exhorted his supporters to go to Congress and “fight like hell.”
Stephen Ayres, an Ohio cabinetmaker who pleaded guilty to breaching the Capitol, said in live testimony Tuesday that he joined the riot because he believed Mr. Trump’s claims of election fraud. He said he now knows that these assertions were false. After his arrest, Mr. Ayres lost his job and had to sell his house.
“The president got everybody riled up, told everybody to head on down, so we were basically just following what he said,” Mr. Ayres told the committee. “It makes me mad, because I was hanging on every word he was saying.”
Jason Van Tatenhove, a former Oath Keepers spokesman, testified that the “racist” group was intent on fomenting an insurrection.
“What it was going to be was an armed revolution,” he said. “People died that day. Law enforcement died that day. There was a gallows set up in front of the Capitol. This could have been the spark that started a new civil war.”
Even some of those in Mr. Trump’s orbit saw it the same way. On the evening of Jan. 6 Brad Parscale, his former campaign manager, texted Ms. Pierson. “This is about Trump pushing for uncertainty in our country. A sitting president asking for civil war,” he wrote, according to Tuesday’s committee hearing.
The committee has been building a case that Mr. Trump tried to thwart the will of voters, first by putting pressure on state-level officials and his own vice-president, Mike Pence, to reverse the election result, then by causing the Capitol riot, during which his supporters tried to stop Congress from certifying the electoral college vote.
Ms. Cheney said future hearings, expected next week, will look more closely at the riot itself.
She also said Mr. Trump had tried to speak with an unnamed committee witness ahead of their testimony. The witness did not speak with Mr. Trump, but instead reported the contact to the committee, which forwarded it to the Department of Justice.
“We will take any effort to influence witness testimony very seriously,” she said.
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