The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s 7-hour phone gap should spur quicker action for Jan. 6 justice

President Donald Trump speaks with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto by phone at the White House on Aug. 27, 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

An 18½-minute gap in President Richard M. Nixon’s Oval Office tapes fueled suspicions of a Watergate coverup and remains one of the most infamous symbols of White House malfeasance. A gap of seven hours and 37 minutes in President Donald Trump’s White House phone logs might be even more ignoble.

The Post’s Bob Woodward and CBS News’s Robert Costa revealed Tuesday that the White House call records turned over to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack are stunningly incomplete, showing no calls between 11:17 a.m. and 6:54 p.m. — that is, when a pro-Trump mob smashed its way into the Capitol. But Mr. Trump was not incommunicado. Voluminous reporting established long ago that he reached out to Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) and spoke with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) during this period.

Did Mr. Trump or his aides purge the records, or did the then-president avoid using official channels to skirt record-keeping? In either case, how — and why? The White House records gap underlines questions about who else Mr. Trump spoke with, or tried to, and what he said.

These are not idle questions. They speak to Mr. Trump’s state of mind as he failed to call off the mob he had riled up that morning. Did he hope that the violence would intimidate then-Vice President Mike Pence into attempting to illegally overturn the 2020 presidential election results? Did he expect this to occur as he told his throngs to “show strength” that morning, or did he welcome the violence after it started?

The public needs answers. Even if Mr. Trump or one of his enablers does not run for president in 2024, history requires a complete record of Jan. 6’s horror. The Capitol invasion was itself dreadful; the apparent indifference, or perhaps even approval, of the commander in chief, who should have acted swiftly to protect Congress, was another national tragedy that can never be repeated.

Any kind of corrupt White House record-keeping is also a major problem. If presidents can ignore or evade record-keeping requirements with impunity, they could engage in extensive wrongdoing and bet that investigators will never find enough evidence to expose them.

The Jan. 6 committee must redouble its efforts to establish the definitive story about one of the darkest days in the nation’s history — and any possible attempt to manipulate the record. The panel will require more help from the Justice Department and the courts. Prosecutors must bring swift cases against all those held in contempt for failing to cooperate with the committee. Judges must adjudicate these cases with all possible speed. If Republicans retake the House in this November’s elections, they will quickly shut down the committee. If Trump-aligned witnesses defy legitimate congressional subpoenas and simply wait out the clock until the majority shifts, Congress’s ability to investigate even the gravest of matters might be irreparably hobbled.

The latest revelations should also remind lawmakers that the circumstances that led to Jan. 6 remain largely the same. Specifically, the Electoral Count Act, which governs the process for tallying presidential electoral votes, is vague, enabling those seeking to overturn election results far too much room to argue that the law would permit it. A bipartisan group of senators is discussing long-needed reforms but has made little progress. They must get on with it.

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Editorial Page Editor David Shipley, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Associate Editor Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).