The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump, and Trump alone, turned Jan. 6 into a debacle for our democracy

Stephen Ayres, who has pleaded guilty to charges related to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, and Jason Van Tatenhove, a former member of the extremist Oath Keepers group, are sworn in on July 12 before a hearing of the House select committee investigating the insurrection. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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It was Donald Trump, and Donald Trump alone, who summoned and loosed the mob that sacked the Capitol, threatened Congress and the vice president and imperiled our democracy. That is the powerful message that emerged from Tuesday’s televised hearing of the Jan. 6 select committee. And these hearings make clear just how dangerous it would be for the former president to be elected again.

Amazingly enough, this wasn’t the plan advanced by Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani, Michael Flynn and the rest of Trump’s “Team Crazy” advisers. The page from the authoritarian playbook they chose was sedate by comparison: Nullify the 2020 election by sending troops to impound the voting machines. And it certainly wasn’t the course advocated by Trump’s “Team Normal,” including then-White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, who urged Trump to acknowledge the truth: that he had lost the election to Joe Biden.

On the night of Dec. 18, 2020, witnesses told the committee, Trump presided over a rancorous, hours-long screaming match between the Crazy and Normal camps that ended after midnight with no real resolution. At 1:42 a.m. that night, Trump embarked on a third, radically different course of action: He posted the infamous tweet telling supporters to come to Washington on Jan. 6, ending it with what MAGA extremists understood as a call to arms: “Be there, will be wild!”

That was his decision, not anyone else’s. As Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the committee’s vice chair, said in her opening statement: “President Trump is a 76-year-old man. He is not an impressionable child.” That might be how Republicans eager to exploit his candidacy saw him in 2016. And it’s the accidental subtext in efforts to exculpate him for Jan. 6. But it’s not true.

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Neither the chaos at the White House that December, nor the insurrection that followed in January, leave any doubt as to what happened.

The pandemonium around Trump escalated after courts throughout the country rejected claims of election fraud lodged by Trump’s team of campaign lawyers, led by Giuliani and Powell. Much of what happened has already been described by witnesses such as Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide in the chief of staff’s office. But Cipollone was one of the principals best positioned to see and hear what was really going on, and the clips from his long-sought testimony were striking.

He testified that, by Dec. 1, 2020, he had accepted Attorney General William P. Barr’s assessment there was no voter fraud to uncover that would change the election outcome. And by Dec. 14, when the electoral college tallied the votes, the question of who would be the next president was, for him, firmly settled.

Not for Trump, though. Powell, Flynn and other delusional supporters egged the president on with conspiracy theories about an international cabal, including Venezuela and Iran, magically transforming machine-cast votes for Trump into ballots for Biden.

When White House staff saw Powell, Flynn and an unfamiliar businessman named Patrick Byrne meeting with Trump on Dec. 18, they alerted Cipollone. He and others rushed to the Oval Office to intercede. Powell floated a banana republic scenario in which Trump would name her a special counsel with extraordinary powers, the voting machines would be seized, and Trump would remain in the White House until the “fraud” was uncovered and dealt with.

Cipollone and another White House lawyer, Eric Herschmann, forcefully insisted on the truth: Powell, et al., had presented no evidence to back up their fanciful claims. In Powell’s videotaped testimony, she swigged from a can of Dr Pepper as she dismissed Cipollone and his team as worthless — and managed to do the impossible by making Giuliani look sane.

“I don’t think any of these people were providing the president with good advice,” she sniffed. “If it was me, I would have fired all of them that night and had them escorted out of the building.”

But whatever credit Powell wants to give herself, it was still Trump making the decisions. And he chose a course different, and far more uncontrollable, than the self-aggrandizing scenario Powell suggested.

A former member of the Oath Keepers militia group and a onetime sympathizer who joined the Capitol mob told the committee what happened next. Trump’s Jan. 6 tweets galvanized not just random MAGA acolytes but also more-established violent groups. And some leaders of the insurrection somehow learned in advance that Trump would call on the crowd to march on the Capitol.

There are still dots left for the committee to connect. But the emerging picture is of one man who made the horrific events of Jan. 6 happen. His name is Donald Trump.

This matters, and not just for the history books. Trump can’t be let anywhere near power again, now that we know exactly how he will use it.