WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - As a mob of his supporters assaulted the Capitol, former US President Donald Trump sat in his dining room off the Oval Office, watching the violence on television and choosing to do nothing for hours to stop it, an array of former administration officials testified in accounts laid out Thursday (July 21) to the House committee investigating the Jan 6 attack.
In the final public hearing of the summer and one of the most dramatic of the inquiry, the panel provided a panoramic account of how, even as the lives of law enforcement officers, members of Congress and his own vice president were under threat, Trump could not be moved to act until after it was clear that the riot had failed to disrupt Congress’ session to confirm his election defeat.
Even then, the committee showed in never-before-seen footage from the White House, Trump privately refused to concede – “I don’t want to say the election’s over!” he angrily told his aides as he recorded a video message that had been scripted for him the day after the attack – or to condemn the assault on the Capitol as a crime.
On Thursday, the committee detailed how the entire apparatus of government – the top White House lawyer and other senior West Wing advisers, low-level aides, Pentagon officials, Republicans in Congress and even his own daughter – mobilised to respond to the deadliest attack on the Capitol in two centuries as it unfolded and implored the president to do the same, but he willfully declined.
“You’re the commander in chief. You’ve got an assault going on on the Capitol of the United States of America, and there’s nothing?” General Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s highest-ranking military officer, told the panel. “No call? Nothing? Zero?”
In perhaps one of the most jarring revelations, the committee presented evidence that a call from a Pentagon official to coordinate a response to the assault on the Capitol as it was underway initially went unanswered because, according to a White House lawyer, “the president didn’t want anything done.”
And the panel played Secret Service radio transmissions and testimony that showed in chilling detail how close Vice-President Mike Pence came to danger during the riot, including an account of members of his Secret Service detail being so rattled by what was unfolding that they were contacting family members to say goodbye.
Both pieces of testimony were provided by a former White House official whom the committee did not identify by name – and whose voice was altered to protect his identity – who was described as having had “national security responsibilities.”
The witness described an exchange between Eric Herschmann, a lawyer working in the White House, and White House counsel Pat Cipollone about the call from the Pentagon.
“Mr Herschmann turned to Mr Cipollone and said ‘the president didn’t want anything done,’” the witness testified. “Mr Cipollone had to take the call himself.”
The committee also played dramatic radio recordings over the span of 10 minutes, from 2.14pm to 2.24pm, from the moments during which the Secret Service sought a route to safety to evacuate the vice-president from the Capitol, where he was being held in his office near the Senate chamber as the mob closed in.
“Harden the door up,” one agent said. “If we’re moving, we need to move now,” another said. And at another point, “If we lose any more time, we may lose the ability to leave.”
And in a frightening moment over the radio traffic, an agent warned: “There is smoke. Unknown what kind of smoke it is.”
It was a closing argument of sorts in the case the panel has built against Trump, one whose central assertion is that the former president was derelict in his duty for failing to do all that he could – or anything at all, for 187 minutes – to call off the assault carried out in his name.
Thursday’s session asserted that Trump’s inaction during the riot was the final, glaring violation of his oath of office, coming at the end of a multipronged and unsuccessful effort to overturn his 2020 election loss.
Cipollone described to the committee how he and the entire staff believed Trump needed to do more to quell the violence, but demurred when asked about the president’s view on whether the riot should end, citing executive privilege.
“I believed more needed to be done,” Cipollone testified.
White House officials recounted how the president declined to take the few steps down the hallway to the White House briefing room to call off the violence, instead tweeting an attack on Pence as he was fleeing for his life.
“I think that in that moment, for him to tweet out the message about Mike Pence, it was him pouring gasoline on the fire and making it much worse,” said Sarah Matthews, a former White House press aide who resigned Jan 6 and was one of two witnesses who testified in person Thursday.
The other was Matthew Pottinger, a Marine Corps veteran who was the deputy national security adviser and the highest-ranking White House official to resign Jan 6.
“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, referring to Trump’s Twitter condemnation of the vice-president. “I simply didn’t want to be associated with the events that were unfolding on the Capitol.”
Matthews also told the committee that Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, confided to her that Trump had not wanted to mention the word “peace” in any tweets, and only grudgingly relented to his daughter Ivanka Trump’s suggestion that he ask people to “stay peaceful.”
McEnany “looked directly at me and in a hushed tone shared with me that the president did not want to include any sort of mention of peace in that tweet,” Matthews testified.
While Pence was making phone calls trying to deploy the National Guard to the Capitol after evacuating to protect himself and his family, Trump did not make a single call to a government official to try to stop the violence, witnesses said.
The call Trump did make was to Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer who was helping his efforts to overturn the election results, including calling Republican senators on Jan 6 to get them to disrupt Congress’ electoral count.
The hearing hardly marked the end of the committee’s work. The panel plans to enter a second investigative stage, prepare a preliminary report and hold additional hearings in September.
“The investigation is still ongoing, if not maybe accelerating,” said Representative Elaine Luria, a member of the committee. “We’re gaining so much new information.”
Lawmakers said they would use August, when Congress takes a lengthy recess, to prepare a preliminary report of their findings, tentatively scheduled to be released in September.
But a final report – complete with exhibits and transcripts – could wait until December, just before the committee is set to dissolve at the start of a new Congress Jan 3, 2023.