For more than three hours on Jan. 6, 2021, Donald Trump dismissed pleas from his top aides, lawyers and family members to halt a riot by his supporters at the U.S. Capitol, instead calling up senators in the besieged building and urging them to overturn his election loss to Joe Biden.
At its final sitting of the summer, a congressional committee investigating the insurrection heard testimony from former White House staff and security officials that sketched out Mr. Trump’s behaviour that day, when he sat in his dining room off the Oval Office, watching the attack unfold on Fox News.
It also issued a plea for Mr. Trump and associates who conspired to throw out the 2020 election to face criminal charges. The Department of Justice has so far appeared to hold back from investigating the former president.
“He recklessly blazed a path of lawlessness and corruption,” Bennie Thompson, the panel’s chair said. “There needs to be accountability under the law, accountability to the American people, accountability at every level … all the way up to the Oval Office.”
The hearing sought to show that Mr. Trump’s inaction during the riot was a deliberate choice, and part of his plan to reverse the election results. “President Trump did not fail to act … he chose not to act,” said Adam Kinzinger, a Republican member of the committee.
In a midday speech at the Ellipse, a park near the White House, Mr. Trump exhorted his followers to go to the Capitol and “fight like hell.” Within minutes of arriving back at the White House, the president was told that rioters had breached a police line. He promptly retreated to the dining room and turned on the television.
According to several witnesses, including then-White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Keith Kellogg, a national security official, Mr. Trump made no attempt to call in reinforcements from the National Guard, FBI, Department of Justice or Homeland Security, even as police at the Capitol were overrun and beaten up and the mob stormed into the building.
Rioters hunted politicians, with their ire particularly focused on Mike Pence, Mr. Trump’s vice-president who had refused his demands to throw out the election result.
In one video, the hearing watched a group of rioters firing smoke at police outside the Senate chamber just moments before Mr. Pence was evacuated a few feet away as his bodyguards took him to safety.
A White House security official described radio transmissions from members of Mr. Pence’s security detail from inside the Capitol as rioters stormed in. The Secret Service members were “starting to fear for their own lives,” said the security official, whose identity was masked by the committee.
“There was a lot of yelling, a lot of very personal calls over the radio.” It was, the official said, “disturbing.”
“There were calls to say goodbye to family members, so on and so forth.” Those who had the task of keeping Mr. Pence safe “thought that this was about to get very ugly.”
Despite the White House being informed of the violence at the Capitol, Mr. Trump tweeted that Mr. Pence “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.” Two of his staff, testifying in person at the committee, said the tweet prompted them to resign.
“I simply didn’t want to be associated with the events that were unfolding on the Capitol,” said Matthew Pottinger, Mr. Trump’s deputy national security adviser.
Added Sarah Matthews, the deputy White House press secretary: “I remember thinking that this was going to be bad for him to tweet this because it was essentially him giving the green light to these people, telling them that what they were doing at the steps of the Capitol and entering the Capitol was okay, that they were justified in their anger.”
Mr. Cipollone told the committee that he, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Ivanka Trump, Mr. Trump’s daughter and a top adviser, all implored the president to call off his supporters.
“I was pretty clear there needed to be an immediate and forceful statement that people need to leave the Capitol now,” Mr. Cipollone said. “There needs to be a public announcement fast.”
Cassidy Hutchinson, another aide, said Mr. Meadows told Mr. Cipollone that day that Mr. Trump “thinks Mike deserves” to be hanged, and that the rioters were doing nothing wrong.
Demands for Mr. Trump to intervene flooded in to Mr. Meadows from Republicans in Congress, current and former White House officials, from people in the media and from friends. Text messages displayed by the committee showed that Donald Trump, Jr., urged Mr. Trump to condemn what was taking place, “Asap” or risk “his entire legacy.”
Brian Kilmeade, a Fox News personality, pleaded: “Please get him on TV. Destroying every thing you guys have accomplished.”
But Mr. Trump refused to make a statement ending the riot. Instead, he asked for a list of Republican senators so he could keep calling them and pushing them to overturn the election, Mr. Trump’s then spokeswoman, Kayleigh McEnany, said in a videoed deposition.
Among them was Tommy Tuberville, one of the president’s strongest supporters. Mr. Tuberville was inside the Capitol at the time, as security services prepared those there for evacuation.
“I’m going to have to hang up on you, I’ve got to leave,” Mr. Tuberville recalled telling the president.
At one point, after his daughter’s intervention, Mr. Trump did put out a tweet telling supporters to “stay peaceful!” but made no condemnation of the ongoing riot.
Not until after 4 p.m., 187 minutes after the mob descended on the Capitol, did Mr. Trump record a video in the White House Rose Garden asking the insurrectionists to “go home in peace.” In the message, he also told them “we love you, you’re very special.”
The committee revealed that Mr. Trump discarded a script for the message, which had him calling on supporters to “express their passions and opinions PEACEFULLY” and chose instead to speak extemporaneously.
Conspiracy theorists in Mr. Trump’s circle, meanwhile, made a last-ditch bid to overturn the election that night as Congress reconvened after the riot to certify Mr. Biden’s presidential victory. Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and Mr. Trump’s outside lawyer, made calls to several Republican members of Congress, including senators Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and Mr. Tuberville, and Representative Jim Jordan. In a voicemail for Mr. Tuberville, Mr. Giuliani asked for Republican senators to stop the vote certification.
Inside the White House, those close to Mr. Trump were stunned by his closing message to the mob.
“That was disturbing to me,” Ms. Matthews said. It amounted to the president telling “the people who we had just watched storm our nation’s Capitol with the intent of overthrowing our democracy, violently attack police officers and chant heinous things like ‘hang Mike Pence’ – ‘we love, you’re very special.’”
Ms. Matthews resigned that evening.
Again the following day, Mr. Trump resisted making a follow-up statement. When he finally did in the evening, he edited out language that would have conceded the election. “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, okay?” Mr. Trump said in an outtake from the video statement played by the committee.
At another point, the president balked at referring to his supporters who “broke the law”: “can’t say that,” he said.
Mr. Thompson said the panel will continue investigating over the coming weeks and plans to hold more hearings in September. The committee is expected to issue a report, though members have stressed in the past that the Department of Justice does not have to wait for them to finish before launching its own criminal investigations.
In summarizing the evidence so far, Liz Cheney, the committee’s vice-chair, pointed out that virtually all of the witnesses were former loyalists of Mr. Trump’s, who agree with him ideologically.
“The case against Donald Trump in these hearings is not made by witnesses who were his political enemies,” she said. “It is, instead, a series of confessions by Donald Trump’s own appointees, his own friends, his own campaign officials.”
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