The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No one knows what Trump knew and when he knew it

At least no one who’s willing to talk about it.

Former president Donald Trump's legal team argued House managers took Trump's remarks out of context and shared misleading videos of their own. (Video: Adriana Usero, Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

This article has been updated.

Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) had a question for the team of lawyers defending former president Donald Trump in the trial following his impeachment on charges of inciting an insurrection on Jan. 6.

“Exactly when did President Trump learn of the breach of the Capitol,” the question read, “and what specific actions did he take to bring the rioting to an end?” They added a coda: “Please be as detailed as possible.”

The response was not detailed.

“The House managers,” Trump’s attorney Michael van der Veen replied, referring to the members of the House presenting the case against Trump, “have given us absolutely no evidence one way or the other onto that question.”

He offered a few moments from a timeline, including pointing to a tweet from Trump sent at 2:38 p.m. But then he offered a figurative shrug.

On Feb. 12, former president Trump’s legal team argued for his acquittal, saying his words were protected by free speech. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

“With the rush to bring this impeachment, there’s been absolutely no investigation into that,” he said. “And that’s the problem with this entire proceeding: The House managers did zero investigation.”

This is a rather strange response, granted that he and his colleagues are the voice for Trump in the hearing. It is probably safe to assume, though, that if they knew the answer to the question and it reflected positively on Trump, they would offer it. They would probably be disinclined to be generous with what they knew if the information were less useful to their case.

Regardless, the result is that one of the remaining questions about the day still has no good answer. That it lacks an answer is important because of another Trump tweet from a bit before 2:38 p.m. That tweet came at 2:24 p.m.

“Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!”

As we reported on Thursday, that tweet came after Vice President Mike Pence had evacuated the Senate chamber and after rioters were in the building — after, in other words, it was clear that Pence was at some personal risk. Trump didn’t reach out to Pence during the attack, probably because of his frustration that Pence declined to set aside the Constitution and try to subvert Joe Biden’s electoral victory. So it’s unclear if, at the moment that tweet was sent, Trump knew that Pence was at as much risk as he was.

We do know two things about what Trump was doing at this point. We know from news reports that he was watching the events unfold as covered on television. We also know that he at some point called Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), a call in which Tuberville says he informed Trump about Pence’s evacuation.

The cable news coverage

In the month since the attack took place, our ability to pick out what we knew when has gotten blurry. It seems as though we all knew about the protesters inside the building in short order, but that’s not really the case.

The first breach of the Capitol itself happened at about 2:11 p.m. Cable news coverage on the three major networks — CNN, MSNBC and Fox News — was mostly focused on the events outside the building. The two important moments for our purposes, those being the evacuation of Pence and the presence of protesters in the building, were reported at different times by the networks.

Pence was removed from the chamber at 2:13 p.m. MSNBC reported that Pence was being evacuated at 2:14 p.m.

Katy Tur: It seemed like they just ushered Mike Pence out really quickly.
Chuck Todd: Yes, they did. That’s exactly what just happened there. They ushered Mike Pence out. They moved him fast.

CNN noted that members of Congress were in lockdown at 2:26 p.m. Fox News didn’t report that Pence’s whereabouts were unknown until 2:36 p.m.

That’s because Fox in particular was covering the protesters outside. At 2:20 p.m., reporter Griff Jenkins interviewed a Trump supporter who criticized Pence’s decision not to try to undercut the election results. In the past, Trump’s tweets have often followed what he was watching on Fox News; a tweet four minutes later on the same subject is in keeping with that pattern.

That was at about the time that the three networks all first reported that the building had been breached.

  • Manu Raju, CNN, 2:22 p.m.: “We have been told, and there have been spotted, protesters are inside the Capitol Building. There are scores of protesters, we are told, I’m not sure exactly how many, but there have been witnessed — outside the Senate — just off the Senate floor, the second floor of the Capitol.”
  • Bret Baier, Fox News, 2:24 p.m.: “Protesters, Dana, have made their way inside the Capitol. You’re seeing the police presence increase on the outside, but there are people inside the actual Capitol building, just outside the Senate chamber. And both the House and Senate have now adjourned, or paused this entire process because of the security concerns.”
  • Garrett Haake, MSNBC, 2:25 p.m.: “The Capitol building is locked down internally as well. I tried to go through the tunnels to get over there from the Senate — Russell Senate Office Building just across the street to the northeast. I was stopped by Capitol Police who told me that there was no passage in and they were moving into the Capitol building because there are now protesters inside the Capitol building itself.”

Trump may have been watching any — or all — of these channels. If he was listening and not just watching, these are the times when he would have learned that Pence might be in danger.

The Tuberville call

Then there’s that call with Tuberville. It wasn’t actually placed directly to Tuberville. Instead, the president called Sen. Mike Lee’s (R-Utah) phone.

At the time of the question posed by Collins and Murkowski, the timing of the call wasn’t clear. On Friday evening, a spokesman for Lee said that the senator received the call from Trump at 2:26 p.m. Lee has said once he realized Trump was intending to call Tuberville, he quickly handed Tuberville his phone so the two could speak.

With that clarity, it’s now clear that the president spoke with Tuberville — and was told about Pence’s evacuation — two minutes after the tweet.

Other factors

There are other ways Trump might have known that Pence was at risk at 2:24 p.m., of course. He might have been told by law enforcement officials on the ground. He or one of his aides might have been tracking social media and have seen either that the building had been overrun or that Pence had been evacuated.

By 2:18 p.m., for example, Bloomberg News’s Jennifer Jacobs was reporting on Pence’s evacuation on Twitter. Jacobs was well-sourced in the Trump White House; it’s likely that someone in proximity to Trump at the moment might have seen her update.

This is not an unanswerable question, of course. Later on Friday, lead House impeachment manager Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) pointed out that their team had invited Trump himself to testify, but he’d offered a “contemptuous” response declining to come. So, barring a decision to call witnesses and subpoena Trump or someone in his circle — which is unlikely — the answer will likely remain unknown before the Senate votes.

That’s unfortunate. If Trump understood at 2:24 p.m. that the Capitol had been breached and Pence was in danger, that tweet becomes a near-indisputable act of incitement. But for now, we can’t say with certainty that it was.

Rosalind Helderman contributed to this report. This article was updated with MSNBC’s first report of Pence’s evacuation.