Trump’s choices escalated tensions and set U.S. on path to Jan. 6, panel finds

Across eight hearings, the panel’s findings have illustrated how the president repeatedly courted violence following his election defeat

President Donald Trump talks with others in the Oval Office at the White House on Nov. 13, 2020.
President Donald Trump talks with others in the Oval Office at the White House on Nov. 13, 2020. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Donald Trump had already been told by his campaign manager, his top campaign lawyer and his lead data analyst that he had lost the presidential election when he was visited by his attorney general on Dec. 1, 2020.

William P. Barr was a steadfast Trump ally. But in the Oval Office that afternoon, he had no solace to offer the president. He told Trump that claims of 2020 voter fraud were “complete nonsense,” “crazy stuff,” “a grave disservice to the country,” he later recounted. They were “bullshit.”

In an interview with the Associated Press that day, he offered the country the same conclusion, though in less profane terms: The Justice Department had found no evidence sufficient to overturn Joe Biden’s election win.

Trump could have accepted what Barr later termed “reality.”

But inside the White House, the AP story was met with presidential fury. Sitting inside the ornate West Wing dining room, Trump threw his lunch, shattering a porcelain dish and leaving ketchup dripping down the wall.

That account came from a White House aide who testified to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, which over eight public hearings in the past six weeks has laid out an elaborate case with a stark conclusion: It was Donald Trump himself who repeatedly set the nation on the path to violence in the weeks after he lost reelection.

Former Mark Meadows aide Cassidy Hutchinson said on June 28 former president Donald Trump threw his lunch against the wall in response to an interview. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Jabin Botsford/Reuters)

At each moment when Trump could have soothed an agitated nation, he escalated tensions instead, the committee has illustrated through its presentation of 20 live witnesses, scores of videotaped depositions and vast documentary evidence. At each moment when longtime loyal advisers offered their view that his election loss was real, he refused to listen and found newcomers and outsiders willing to tell him otherwise.

On at least 15 different occasions, the president barreled over those who told him to accept his loss and instead took actions that sought to circumvent the democratic process and set the nation on the path to violence, according to the committee’s evidence.

The resulting attack on the Capitol was not spontaneous, the committee has argued, but instead a predictable outcome that Trump enabled even after learning the crowd he was addressing that day was armed and baying for blood. Once violence was underway, the committee showed at its hearing Thursday, Trump refused for hours to intervene to stop it, resisting entreaties to even call for “peace.”

“President Trump is a 76-year-old man — he is not an impressionable child,” said Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the committee’s vice chair, at the panel’s July 12 hearing. “Just like everyone else in our country, he is responsible for his own actions and his own choices.”

Trump, she said, “cannot escape responsibility by being willfully blind,” invoking a legal term for a person who can argue they were unaware their actions were wrong only because they purposely ignored evidence to the contrary.

On July 12, Jan. 6 committee Vice Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said that President Donald Trump was responsible for his own actions during the insurrection. (Video: The Washington Post)

The committee, which interviewed more than 1,000 people in all, has not limited its inquiry to the president, unveiling new information about the cast of characters who enabled some of Trump’s darkest impulses following the election.

There was, for instance, his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, who one witness said was intoxicated when he urged Trump to declare victory on election night despite the vote count. (Giuliani denies it.) Or John Eastman, the constitutional scholar, who sold Trump on a theory that the vice president could use the joint session of Congress on Jan. 6 to overturn the election, even while acknowledging to White House lawyers that the move would be illegal and likely rejected unanimously by the U.S. Supreme Court. And then there was the bevy of Republican members of Congress who cheered Trump on before Jan. 6 but then asked him for pardons afterward when the plot to keep Trump in office fizzled.

But again and again, the committee has returned with relentless focus to the commander in chief — his knowledge, his planning, his choices.

On the social media platform Truth Social and in interviews, Trump has repeatedly denounced the hearings as a partisan exercise intended to harm his political prospects and has denied the most damaging revelations lodged against him.

“So the Unselect Committee of political HACKS refuses to play any of the many positive witnesses and statements, refuses to talk of the Election Fraud and Irregularities that took place on a massive scale,” he wrote in a June message.

The hearings are not a legal trial. Witnesses have not been cross-examined, and some have complained the committee has played clips of their words taken from lengthy closed-door depositions without proper context. The committee — composed of seven Democrats and two Republicans, all of whom are sharply critical of Trump — has made no effort to offer potentially exculpatory information.

Still, the evidence put forward by the committee — which includes newly disclosed text messages, internal White House records and accounts from those who have not before spoken publicly — has formed a compelling presentation that, in the lead-up to Jan. 6, Trump chose a course that made violence likely, if not inevitable.

‘You see what I deal with?’

The outcome of the presidential election was supposed to be final on Dec. 14, 2020. On that day, electors gathered in state capitols across the country to formally cast their ballots in a reflection of certified tallies of the popular vote.

But behind the scenes, Trump was directing the Republican Party establishment to get involved in a plan concocted by a cadre of his legal advisers. The idea was to wrangle Trump supporters to gather in key swing states to cast ballots for him instead. The committee revealed that he called Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel to fill her in on the plan.

“Essentially, he turned the call over to Mr. Eastman, who then proceeded to talk about the importance of the [Republican National Committee] helping the campaign gather these contingent electors in case any of the legal challenges that were ongoing changed the result of any of the states,” McDaniel told the committee, in testimony that for the first time connected the president directly to that scheme.

Not all Republicans were sold on continued efforts to overturn the vote. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took to the Senate floor on Dec. 15 to declare that “the electoral college has spoken. So today, I want to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden.”

Trump campaign documents show advisers knew fake-elector plan was baseless

Others who had been with Trump until then, including members of his inner circle, privately acknowledged in conversations they later recounted to investigators that the president had lost.

But days later, Trump welcomed into the Oval Office an unvetted delegation of outside advisers pushing a last-ditch plan and outlandish conspiracy theories, including that the election had been stolen by foreign powers via Nest thermostats.

Led by lawyer Sidney Powell and ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn, they met with the president alone for 1o to 15 minutes before White House counsel Pat Cipollone and others who had caught wind of the unplanned gathering rushed into the room.

In an exchange punctuated by insults and yelling, members of Trump’s senior staff spent hours trying to persuade him that his visitors were spinning wild tales with little basis in reality. The shouting during the meeting got “completely, completely out there,” testified White House lawyer Eric Herschmann. “It’d been a long day. And what they were proposing, I thought was nuts.”

Witness testimony to the Jan. 6 select committee described a Dec. 18, 2020, meeting where Trump campaign officials clashed with White House staff. (Video: The Washington Post)

But Trump was inclined to side with the interlopers over his own staff, intrigued by a proposal to use an executive order to seize voting machines.

“He was very interested,” Powell testified of the president’s reaction to the idea, which, she said, “apparently nobody had bothered to inform him of.”

Powell testified that Trump declared he would name her special counsel to investigate the election and offer her top-secret clearance. She said his aides responded that, even if she held the title, no one in government would listen to her.

‘You see what I deal with? I deal with this all the time,’ ” Powell recounted that Trump responded, speaking dismissively of the White House attorneys.

‘Unhinged’: The White House meeting that preceded Trump’s ‘will be wild’ tweet

The group departed after midnight, with the future of their proposals uncertain. But Trump still had a plan for keeping his election grievances — and hopes to cling to power — alive.

A showdown with Justice

“Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election,” he tweeted at 1:42 a.m. on Dec. 19. “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild.”

The tweet galvanized Trump supporters and extremist groups around the country. Later that morning, the head of the Florida branch of the extremist group Oath Keepers wrote on Facebook that the organization had formed an alliance with other extremists called the Proud Boys. “We have decided to work together and shut this … down,” he wrote, adding an expletive for emphasis.

That same day, prominent YouTuber Tim Pool informed his viewers that Jan. 6 could be “Trump’s last stand.”

“It’s a time when he has specifically called on his supporters to arrive in D.C.,” he said. Alex Jones, the far-right founder of Infowars, likewise told his audience that day that the president had issued a call for “we the people to take action, to show our numbers.”

Extremists quickly began calls for violence. “Why don’t we just kill them? Every last Democrat down to the last man, woman and child,” read one message posted online and presented by the committee. “It’s time for the day of the rope. White revolution is the only solution,” read another.

While Trump’s supporters made plans to descend on Washington, the president remained focused on using the vast powers of the federal government to endorse the falsehood that the election had been stolen, the committee showed.

“Just say the election was corrupt,” Trump told acting deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue during a call in late December, according to notes Donoghue took at the time. “Leave the rest to me and the [Republican] Congressmen.”

Three days after Trump’s “will be wild” tweet, the president met in the Oval Office with a group of Republican members of Congress who were convinced, in the words of one attendee, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), that “this election has been stolen.”

Another member who attended, Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, had an idea for the president: He should meet Jeffrey Clark, a mid-level Justice Department official whom Perry apparently understood to be a fellow traveler on issues related to the election.

In the two weeks that followed, Trump repeatedly pressured Justice Department officials to intervene in the outcome of the election. He threatened to fire acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen and in his place install Clark, the head of civil litigation for the department, whose experience was mostly in environmental law.

During a New Year’s Eve meeting at the White House, Justice Department officials testified Trump attempted to rope in his Department of Homeland Security as well, placing the agency’s acting deputy secretary on speaker phone to berate him for not ordering that voting machines be seized. Rosen had explained there was neither legal authority nor factual basis to justify the unprecedented step.

By Jan. 3, Trump came so close to handing the reins of the Justice Department to Clark that White House phone logs began referring to the mid-level official as “acting attorney general.”

That night, Justice Department officials made their last stand in a remarkable two-and-a-half-hour Oval Office showdown. During the meeting, Clark promised Trump he would do as the president desired if put in charge. Department leaders countered that those were empty assurances by a man who had never so much as met the FBI director.

It’s impossible. It’s absurd. It’s not going to happen. It’s going to fail. He has never been in front of a trial jury, a grand jury. He’s never even been to Chris Wray’s office,” Donoghue testified he told Trump.

“‘You’re an environmental lawyer. How about you go back to your office and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill?’” Donoghue said he told Clark.

The group told the president that putting Clark in charge would spark a wave of resignations across the department — and stretch into the White House Counsel’s Office.

On June 23, witnesses said they warned President Donald Trump about potential resignations if he installed DOJ official Jeffrey Clark as acting department head. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Jeff Clark will be left leading a graveyard,” assistant attorney general Steven A. Engel told the president.

Trump agreed to back off. “That’s it,” he told the group. “We’re not going to do it.”

But the president was not deterred for long.

The vice president’s choice

Instead, he leveled all his focus on the joint session of Congress scheduled for three days later. Trump’s plan was to try to bully his own vice president publicly and privately into using his constitutional role presiding over the session to thwart Biden’s victory.

Mike Pence had already been drafting a letter stating his view that the Constitution gave him no power to change the results of the election.

On the afternoon of Jan. 5, Trump summoned Pence to the Oval Office to push him one-on-one. After their meeting ended, Trump’s campaign released a statement from the president.

“The vice president and I are in total agreement that the vice president has the power to act,” Trump said in the statement.

Pence’s aides testified the assertion was entirely false. Jason Miller, a Trump campaign aide, testified Trump had dictated it himself.

Trump’s words put a target on the back of his long-loyal vice president just as the president’s angry backers began flooding the Washington area by the plane-, bus- and carload.

Permits for the Jan. 6 rally called for a large demonstration on the Ellipse, near the White House and about 2 miles from the U.S. Capitol. But the committee presented evidence that some protesters came to Washington planning to march on the Capitol after speeches from Trump and others had concluded.

Trump was aware and encouraging of the plans, spreading word that he would issue a call for protesters to descend on the building during his speech that day, the committee argued. He drafted a tweet promoting his speech that concluded “March to the Capitol after. Stop the Steal!!” The tweet, obtained by the committee from the National Archives, was never sent.

Two key rally organizers both wrote in text messages sent before Jan. 6 that they knew Trump was planning to direct his followers down Pennsylvania Avenue.

“POTUS is going to call for it just unexpectedly,” Kylie Kremer, a leader of Women for America First and an organizer of the rally at the Ellipse, wrote on Jan. 4, insisting that plans for the march “can not get out.”

“Trump is supposed to order us to the capitol at the end of his speech but we will see,” wrote Ali Alexander, an organizer of the “Stop the Steal” movement, the following day.

Over the final 24 hours before the Jan. 6 rally, witnesses testified that Trump drew gleeful energy from the gathering crowds, which he could hear from his desk in the Oval Office. Listening to their anger, he instructed that his speech for the Ellipse rally be altered in ways more likely to rile up his fans.

“Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore,” he added to the draft of the speech on the evening of Jan. 5. “Together, we will stop the steal.”

The next morning, he instructed that a reference to Pence be inserted. “We will see whether Mike Pence enters history as a truly great and courageous leader,” he planned to say.

White House lawyers were concerned. One pulled aside speechwriter Stephen Miller to complain the line would be “counterproductive,” Miller testified. Obliging, speechwriters yanked the line. But later that morning, Pence told Trump by phone that he would not comply with the president’s demands. Trump responded by calling the vice president “a wimp” and then ordering the line questioning Pence’s courage be reinserted.

‘I’ll be there with you’

As the debate over Trump’s speech unfolded, some of his advisers grew anxious over the size and anger of the building crowds.

Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, testified that she heard Meadows receive a briefing that morning that members of the crowd had been spotted armed with guns, knives, bear spray, body armor and even spears. She said Meadows was told the president had also been informed.

But the president’s concerns were apparently elsewhere, fixated on the apparent less-than-capacity crowd in the area set aside for the rally.

“He was f---ing furious,” Hutchinson texted another staffer at the time, according to messages obtained by the committee.

Former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified on June 28 that former president Donald Trump waved off security concerns during the Jan. 6 rally. (Video: Reuters)

She said staff informed Trump that some members of the crowd were declining to go through magnetometers set up as a standard safety precaution for presidential speeches, preferring to listen to Trump’s words from afar rather than relinquish their weapons.

“ ‘I don’t f---ing care that they have weapons,’ ” Hutchinson testified that she overheard the president say. “ ‘They’re not here to hurt me. Take the f---ing mags away. Let my people in.’ ”

Once onstage, Trump, an inveterate ad-libber, added language likely to wind the armed crowd up further.

Trump did not deliver just the one line about Pence that had alarmed his staff. He railed against his vice president eight separate times. He didn’t tell the crowd to march on the Capitol once, as included in his prepared remarks. He urged them forward four times.

And he added one more line: He promised to join.

“We’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you,” he said.

Multiple Trump aides testified that the president had been talking for days about joining the crowd as it marched to the Capitol. Hutchinson testified that she was told that, after the speech, Trump tried to order his Secret Service detail to drive him to the Hill, even grabbing for the steering wheel of the vehicle and for the collar of an agent. Trump has denied the account.

Former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified on June 28 that former president Donald Trump lunged at a secret service agent on Jan. 6. (Video: Reuters)

His security detail refused. Trump returned to the White House fuming, leaving behind an armed and angry crowd, moving on the Capitol as requested.

A call for peace?

Having set the nation on a course for violence, Trump made one last fateful choice on Jan. 6: He opted not to act once it erupted, the committee argued in its Thursday hearing, the final one planned until September.

Testimony revealed that he was informed as soon as he returned to the Oval Office that his supporters had followed his directions, surging toward the Capitol. They were ripping down barriers, pushing aside outnumbered police officers and threatening to breach the building.

The president responded by ignoring pleas for help from Republican members of Congress, media allies and even his own family. Instead, he watched television and placed a call to Giuliani as he continued to strategize how to delay the official proceedings.

At 2:24 p.m., Pence’s Secret Service detail was hustling him to safety. Newly revealed audio played by the committee captured the voices of the armed guards, wavering with fear, as they described rioters closing in, the vice president’s window for escape closing.

But instead of attempting to calm the situation, Trump targeted Pence again, tweeting that the vice president “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country.”

Twelve minutes later, he tweeted again, this time writing: “Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!”

No condemnation of violence, no instruction to the rioters to vacate the Capitol. Former press aide Sarah Matthews testified that she was told Trump resisted even using the word “peace,” only grudgingly agreeing — at the urging of his daughter Ivanka — to the awkward “stay peaceful” language as rioters continued their assault on the police.

Finally, at 4:17 p.m., the White House distributed a video in which Trump told rioters to “go home.” But the committee revealed that Trump ditched language prepared for him by his staff that would have more forcefully called on rioters to leave Washington, preferring to ad-lib a statement that was mostly sympathetic to the mob. “We love you. You’re very special,” he said.

Even the following day, as members of Trump’s Cabinet began discussing whether to try to remove him from office, Trump refused to acknowledge the reality of his election loss. In outtakes of a video Trump recorded at the urging of his staff, the president could be seen tripping over his words, visibly frustrated and coached from off-camera by Ivanka.

“I don’t want to say the election’s over,” he could be heard announcing to the room. “I just want to say Congress has certified the results without saying the election is over.”

For Trump, the election would never be over.