First, some housekeeping on the decision at hand. Should the Biden White House do this — which hasn’t been fully decided and would be subject to a court challenge — it would be significant. However little regard Biden’s White House might have for Trump’s, even White Houses of opposing parties generally avoid this kind of thing. No White House wants to potentially undermine its claims to executive privilege or to set a precedent that its inner workings could one day be disclosed by its successors. (The Biden White House would argue this situation is different from virtually any other, of course.) It’s also not precisely clear exactly what the Biden White House has to hand over, and it might deem certain things to be privileged.
At the same time, given how little we know about what Trump did that day — Trump’s second impeachment included no witnesses and was focused on his alleged public incitement, rather than his failure to call off the mob — pretty much anything would seem likely to shed some light.
Here are some things that could use some illumination.
The first big one is whom he was talking to. We know based upon reports and comments from certain Republicans that he spoke with at least a few of them: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), — this last one after inadvertently calling Sen. Mike Lee of Utah.
Precisely when the former two conversations took place or what they involved is pretty uncertain — because McCarthy and Jordan have been tight-lipped.
We know the call with Tuberville was placed at 2:26 p.m. We also know McCarthy has said he was “the first person to contact” Trump during the riots. But McCarthy has also said that, when he spoke with Trump, the president had already “put a tweet out there,” which McCarthy viewed as insufficient in reining in the rioters. Trump’s first tweet urging peaceful behavior came at 2:38 p.m. — 12 minutes after the Tuberville call was placed.
Jordan, meanwhile, has offered weirdly evasive answers about his conversations with Trump that day. He initially said he didn’t remember whether they spoke before, during or after the riot — as if it wouldn’t have been a memorable conversation if it had pertained to the riot. Politico later reported that Jordan, in fact, joined with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) to plead with Trump to call off his supporters.
Why does this matter? Because it would fill out the picture of when and how much such pleading might have taken place. It would also tell us how long Trump’s apparently callous reaction lasted.
We already knew Trump’s response was delayed, with plenty of reporting suggesting he was initially approving of what the rioters were doing. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a Trump critic, has said Trump was “walking around the White House confused about why other people on his team weren’t as excited as he was.” Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) has said Trump told McCarthy on their call, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
If the call to McCarthy came earlier, it would suggest Trump’s response was even more delayed. If it came later, it would suggest Trump’s callousness about the scenes lasted well into the situation. Even if we might not know the full content of these calls, in other words, the timing of them would fill out the picture of Trump’s slow response and possibly how much he liked what he was seeing, even as the situation progressively spiraled out of control.
Another big question is who, beyond the usual suspects, was physically around Trump. That could be significant not just on who might have had his ear as this was playing out, but could also help guide the Jan. 6 committee’s subpoenas (several of which were handed out Thursday).
A question related to both of the above is whether Trump was actually engaging in any official business at that time. We know one of his earliest calls after the rioters broke into the Capitol shortly after 2 p.m. was to Tuberville, a freshman who led the challenge to the electoral college results. That would seem to suggest where Trump’s head was at, at least as of 2:26 p.m.
Was he just spending his time minding his political future and tuned into cable news? The would certainly make it more difficult to dismiss a response that even many Republicans say was tardy. (McCarthy at one point suggested the House might censure Trump — which would have been unprecedented for a president — for having not “immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.”)
Some of these questions might not be fully answered. But there’s also the likelihood that there are plenty of events and people that would merit scrutiny in light of whatever is released. And ultimately that might be the chief utility of this — if we actually ultimately see the documents, after a likely and potentially lengthy court battle, that is.