Eleven minutes after he returned to the White House from his speech on the Ellipse urging supporters to march on the U.S. Capitol, President Donald Trump learned that the Jan. 6, 2021, protest had turned violent, according to new details presented Thursday by the House committee investigating the attack that day.
But instead of harnessing the power of the Oval Office by ordering military or police intervention or exhorting the rioters to go home, Trump continued to fan the flames of discord — and remained focused on trying to overturn the 2020 election, even as his aides implored him to stop the violence.
He demanded a list of senators’ phone numbers to cajole them not to certify the forthcoming electoral college count. He resisted aides’ entreaties that he make a public statement condemning the insurrection. And at 2:24 p.m., the same moment members of his national security staff were learning how close rioters had come to Vice President Mike Pence, Trump tweeted that his second-in-command was a coward.
Thursday’s hearing — the eighth in a series over the past six weeks — featured numerous revelations, including testimony that Trump resisted using the word “peace” in a tweet as the Capitol was assaulted; that in the absence of action from the president, Pence was giving orders to the military to stop the attack; that the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, urged the president to tell rioters to leave; and that when Trump taped a message on Jan. 7 condemning the violence, he refused to say that the election was “over.”
The committee played harrowing audio from the radio exchanges between the Secret Service agents protecting Pence, who was at the Capitol as rioters sought him out and called for him to be hanged.
Pence, as the presiding officer in the Senate, had refused Trump’s demands to reject the counting of the electoral college votes that day, arguing he was not empowered to do anything other than accept the votes of electors appointed by the states.
A security professional working at the White House told the committee that there were mentions over the radio of “saying goodbye to family members” as the Capitol was breached, then overrun. At another moment, an agent with Pence was heard to say: “We need to move now. If we lose any more time, we may lose the ability to do so.”
Around the same time, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the House minority leader, called Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser. “He told me it was getting really ugly over at the Capitol and said, ‘Please, you know, anything you can do to help, I would appreciate it,’ ” Kushner recalled. “I got the sense that they were scared.”
Trump’s refusal to urge the mob to disperse, his continuing efforts to block the final step of certifying the 2020 result, and his disregard for his vice president’s safety were the focus of the committee’s prime-time presentation as lawmakers sought to persuade the nation that the president’s behavior that day amounted to a dereliction of duty.
Members of the panel said Thursday that the report they plan to issue will tie together the findings of their investigation and underline the former president’s culpability.
“President Trump sat in his dining room and watched the attack on television, while his senior-most staff, closest advisers and family members begged him to do what was expected of any American president,” said Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), who led the questioning Thursday along with Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.).
“President Trump did not fail to act during the 187 minutes between leaving the Ellipse and telling the mob to go home,” Kinzinger said. “He chose not to act.”
As the attack unfolded, aide after aide — and family member after family member — were urging Trump to intervene by either telling the rioters to go home or using his own presidential power to send in assistance, according to testimony Thursday. Cipollone said in recorded testimony that he was not aware of Trump calling any of the relevant federal officials who could have sent resources to the Capitol: not the secretary of defense, not the secretary of homeland security, not the attorney general, not the National Guard.
“I’m not aware of that, no,” Cipollone said, noting that he urged Trump to tell rioters to leave.
Instead, Trump sat in an adjacent dining room, transfixed by what he saw on TV, according to testimony. He also continued to press aides to be taken to the Capitol himself, despite the Secret Service’s decision as he left the Ellipse that it was not safe for him to do so. A D.C. police officer on motorcade duty that day testified that Trump’s motorcade stayed in a hold at the White House for 45 minutes to an hour after his return, waiting to see if he would go to the Capitol after all.
That officer, Sgt. Mark Robinson, also relayed in recorded testimony that he heard Secret Service agents describing in radio transmissions that there had been a heated exchange between Trump and the agents in his limousine, when he wanted to be taken to the Capitol but was told no.
“The president was upset and was adamant about going to the Capitol,” Robinson testified. “And there was a heated discussion about that.”
Trump spoke to his top campaign lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, after returning to the White House. And that evening, Giuliani called a long list of Republican allies in Congress — evidence, the committee said, that Trump remained focused on his own political fortunes as the riot unfolded.
Amid Trump’s inaction, Pence stepped in and gave orders to the military to clear the Capitol and stop the violence, according to Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Even after Trump agreed to send out a tweet urging rioters not to resort to violence, he resisted using the word “peace” in his message, Sarah Matthews, former deputy White House press secretary, testified. Matthews said she was told by White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany that Trump agreed to use the word only after Ivanka Trump intervened.
Trump’s tweet attacking Pence prompted two White House aides to resign from the administration, they testified Thursday.
“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,” said Matthews. “And he shouldn’t have been doing that. He should have been telling these people to go home.”
Matthew Pottinger, the former deputy national security adviser, said he decided to resign as soon as he saw the Trump tweet.
“I was disturbed and worried to see that the president was attacking Vice President Pence for doing his constitutional duty,” Pottinger said. “So the tweet looked to me like the opposite of what we really needed at that moment, which was a de-escalation.”
The hearing also tied together details from prior hearings, including Trump’s efforts to “corrupt” the Justice Department to help him stay in power and his pressure campaign on state and local officials to overturn the result.
Luria and Kinzinger both cited their military service — she is a former Navy commander and he an Air Force veteran — as a way to contrast with what they said was Trump’s dereliction of duty on Jan. 6.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), the committee chairman who attended the hearing remotely after testing positive for the coronavirus earlier this week, called for “stiff consequences” for those responsible for the insurrection.
Trump reluctantly condemned the attack in a three-minute speech the evening of Jan. 7, but only after the efforts to overturn the 2020 election had failed and after aides informed him that members of his Cabinet were discussing invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him from office.
In the prerecorded Jan. 7 speech that the White House ultimately released, Trump charged that the “demonstrators who infiltrated the Capitol have defiled the seat of American democracy.” He added that those who had broken the law “will pay.”
But in an outtake from that video shown Thursday, Trump protested language declaring the election to be over. “I don’t want to say the election’s over,” Trump said, as Ivanka coached him on his words. “I just want to say Congress has certified the results without saying the election’s over.”
Thursday’s hearing came at a time of heightened attention to the Justice Department’s criminal investigation into the Jan. 6 attack. On Wednesday, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the probe dealt with a fundamental challenge to American democracy.
“This is the most wide-ranging investigation, and the most important investigation, that the Justice Department has ever entered into,” Garland said during brief remarks to reporters.
A Trump spokesman on Wednesday called the Jan. 6 investigation a “distraction” from Democrats’ “failures.”
“November is coming, and all the Democrats will have to show for their short term with a congressional majority is another investigation to nowhere, while the world burned,” Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said.
On Tuesday, the former president posted on the social media platform Truth Social that the committee — composed of seven Democrats and two Republicans — “is a Fraud and a disgrace to America. No due process, no cross examinations, no opposing witnesses, no nothing!”
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the committee’s vice chair, said the committee will continue working and is likely to hold more hearings starting in September.
In her closing remarks, Cheney said Trump planned to claim the election was stolen before votes were cast and manipulated his supporters’ love of the United States for his own ends.
Cheney played a recording of former Trump aide Stephen K. Bannon from before the election saying Trump would claim the race was stolen if he was behind in the vote tally on election night.
“What the new Steve Bannon audio demonstrates is that Donald Trump’s plan to falsely claim victory in 2020, no matter what the facts actually were, was premeditated,” Cheney said.
“Here’s the worst part,” she said. “Donald Trump knows that millions of Americans who supported him would stand up and defend our nation. Were it threatened, they would put their lives and their freedom at stake to protect her. And he is preying on their patriotism. He is preying on their sense of justice. And on January 6, Donald Trump turned their love of country into a weapon against our Capitol and our Constitution.”
Mark Berman, Aaron Blake, Amy B Wang and Patrick Marley contributed to this report.