On June 25, 1973, former White House counsel John Dean shocked the country with his testimony to a Senate committee revealing President Richard M. Nixon’s complicity in the Watergate coverup. He recalled “telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency and that if the cancer was not removed that the President himself would be killed by it.” He thereby set in motion the process that led to Nixon’s downfall a little more than a year later.
It has taken 49 years, almost to the day, but on Tuesday afternoon we finally heard congressional testimony about presidential misconduct whose shock value might rival Dean’s. The question now is whether the Republican Party will finally realize that former president Donald Trump is not fit to hold office — that, indeed, our democracy might not survive another Trump term. Or will the GOP shrug this off, as they have every other Trump scandal, as a trivial distraction from what they regard as far more important issues, such as the price of gasoline?
Cassidy Hutchinson, who worked as an aide to then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, electrified a television audience, Dean-style, with her firsthand account of Trump’s actions in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6, 2021, and on that infamous day itself. There were too many jaw-dropping moments to count.
She described how Trump was so angry at then-Attorney General William P. Barr for saying that the 2020 election was not fraudulent that he threw his meal against a White House dining room wall, leaving a smear of ketchup. This was evidence of a president who made Nixon seem like a model of sanity by comparison.
She said Trump was aware that members of the crowd on Jan. 6 were armed but insisted that the Secret Service take the magnetometers away. She quoted Trump as saying, “I don’t f---ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me.” This gives a particularly sinister cast to the sentiments Trump expressed in public that day: He told the crowd on the Ellipse to “fight like hell” and tweeted, while the mob was ransacking the Capitol, that “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country.”
Hutchinson’s testimony suggests that Trump was deliberately inciting violence, heedless of the consequences. Indeed, according to Hutchinson, while the mob was screaming “Hang Mike Pence,” Meadows told her the president “doesn’t want to do anything. He thinks Mike deserves it. He doesn’t think they’re doing anything wrong.”
As if that were not wild enough — a president wanting to put his vice president in mortal danger! — there was also Hutchinson’s testimony about Trump’s attempt to join his followers at the Capitol. When the Secret Service refused to take him to the scene of the mob, Trump reportedly became so “irate” that he tried to grab the steering wheel of the presidential limousine and lunged at an agent who tried to restrain him. Has there ever been an incident of a president trying to attack one of his bodyguards?
To cap off the afternoon, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) showed excerpts from witness testimony about efforts by Trump loyalists to prevent them from testifying. “They have reminded me a couple of times,” an unnamed witness was quoted as saying, “that Trump does read transcripts and just to keep that in mind as I proceeded through my depositions and interviews with the committee.”
Trump, naturally, claims to “hardly” know Hutchinson and calls her a “total phony.” (The list of former associates Trump says he does not know is a long one.) He quickly disputed Hutchinson’s testimony regarding the thrown meal and struggle in the presidential limo. But he is a legendary liar, and he isn’t testifying under oath — as she did.
What Trump has been credibly accused of is far worse than anything that Nixon ever did. There is, in fact, overwhelming evidence to show that Trump was guilty of trying to overthrow the United States government in a self-coup to perpetuate his power despite losing the 2020 election. Moreover, far from ending his plotting when he left office, as Nixon did, Trump continues to spread lies about the vote, to promote election deniers, and to do everything possible to rig the next president election.
In short, the cancer on the presidency that Hutchinson revealed is far more malignant than the cancer that Dean uncovered. The only way to excise this cancer is for Republicans to turn on Trump, as they eventually turned on Nixon after the revelation of the “smoking gun” White House tape.
In Trump’s case, we already have a battery of smoking howitzers. Yet, so far, even the previous testimony heard by the Jan. 6 committee has not broken Trump’s hold on his party. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, only 28 percent of Republicans said that the former president bore “a lot” or “some” responsibility for the events of January 6. Sixty-nine percent said he bore either “not much responsibility” or “none at all.”
If there is any justice in the world, Hutchinson’s testimony will finally break through the force field of indifference enveloping the Republican Party. But having seen Trump survive too many other scandals that should have ended his disgraceful political career, I cannot be overly sanguine that he has finally reached his rightful reckoning. The cancer has been exposed but could still continue to metastasize.