The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony was unique. The aftermath hasn’t been.

Cassidy Hutchinson, a top aide to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, testifies at a hearing by the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. (Stefani Reynolds / AFP)
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Perhaps the most revealing of Donald Trump’s numerous tirades about the House select committee’s hearing on Tuesday was one targeting the day’s sole witness.

“Her body language is that of a total bull … artist,” Trump wrote, for some reason hiding his long-demonstrated predilection for vulgarity in an ellipsis. “Fantasy Land!”

He’d posted on his bespoke social media site a number of other times about the witness, Cassidy Hutchinson, and about the hearing itself. It was a “Kangaroo Court,” Trump declared and Hutchinson’s writing, as displayed on a note shown during the hearing, “that of a Whacko?” If you’ve been conscious at any point during the past seven years, you can guess the sorts of complaints Trump offered.

But that “body language” comment Trump posted to Truth Social evoked something other than Trump Trumping. It was immediately reminiscent of the response to another young woman who recently gave high-profile testimony in a heavily watched proceeding: that of actress Amber Heard.

“Amber Heard 2.0” was soon trending on Twitter. The intent of using that phrase was to disparage Hutchinson as a liar and an opportunist, as supporters of Johnny Depp believed Heard to have been in the recently concluded defamation trial. The comparison was fostered by a rapid effort to undercut Hutchinson’s testimony and Hutchinson herself wherever possible. And describing the situation as “Amber Heard 2.0” is, in fact apt: not because the two women were particularly similar but because the reaction was.

Because, in other words, “Amber Heard 2.0” ended up trending.

Former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified on June 28 about President Donald Trump’s actions surrounding the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

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It is necessary first to acknowledge that Hutchinson’s testimony did not provide a full picture of what happened in the Trump White House during the post-election period. Hutchinson testified under oath to remarkable anecdotes with compelling details, at times conveying what she remembered or had noted and at times conveying things she’d been told. Those details about what happened as Trump was leaving the Ellipse after his speech on Jan. 6, 2021, for example, were conveyed to Hutchinson, she said, by a member of Trump’s Secret Service detail.

That story — about an enraged Trump demanding that he be driven to the Capitol, about Trump then attempting to grab the wheel of the vehicle, about Trump then putting his hands on an agent sitting near him — quickly became the focus of the effort to discredit Hutchinson. Figures from the right-most fringe of Republican politics seized on a diagram of the presidential limousine published by the Daily Mail. See! Couldn’t have grabbed the wheel! But Trump wasn’t in that limousine on Jan. 6; it was a less compartmentalized SUV. What’s more, previous reporting from Politico indicated that the agent Trump allegedly accosted had described to committee investigators a dispute between himself and the president in that vehicle.

People speaking on behalf of the Secret Service told reporters that Hutchinson’s description of what she was told is inaccurate. In a statement, an official for the agency indicated willingness by those present to provide sworn testimony about what occurred. The specific details, then, remain hazy.

That it was necessary to start by adjudicating that question is, of course, the point. This conflict is not an insignificant one either for our understanding of what happened on that day or for our assessment of Hutchinson’s credibility. But that credibility depends not on what happened but on whether Hutchinson was told those things happened, since she doesn’t claim she was in the vehicle. The focus on the limousine and how it is structured and if the steering wheel could be reached is part of the familiar process of digging deep enough into a claim to find something that can be presented as fishy — allowing that doubt to swim back upstream to impugn the claimant.

At least this effort to diminish Hutchinson is rooted in something like evidentiary analysis. Hutchinson also was disparaged broadly and on a personal level, dismissed as being merely some low-level staffer, despite her time in Republican politics. Things like Trump’s “body language” assertion or the breathless disparagements by Newsmax host Greg Kelly (“How the hell did ‘CASSIDY’ get her job. Does she have ANY ability? Or is she just a Good looking GOSSIP??”) hew to the more grotesque efforts to tear down Amber Heard.

In his excellent distillation of the Heard-Depp trial, Michael Hobbes compares the scrutiny and disparagement the actress faced with long-familiar patterns.

“All of this — the bad-faith scrutiny, the obsession with minor discrepancies, the confidence that vast conspiracies can be discovered on Google — is instantly recognizable from previous explosions of internet-enabled misogynistic bullying. The ‘body language experts’ that swarmed around Heard spent years applying the same junk science to Amanda Knox, Meghan Markle, and Carole Baskin. The gremlins who targeted Anita Sarkeesian during GamerGate pretended to be offended by the (extremely minor) technical errors in her videos rather than her presence in their boy’s-only treehouse.”

“GamerGate” refers to one of the first prominent explosions of misogyny-driven hyperscrutiny fueled by the internet. A cadre of men, frustrated by new attention to the lack diversity in the video game industry, directed attacks and criticism at those drawing that scrutiny and their defenders. It raged for months, and the relative novelty of the style of attack — group-bullying on the internet, digging up anything that might look like dirt — meant a lack of ability to respond effectively. Doxing and swatting both emerged as common online harassment tactics in part thanks to GamerGate.

Writing for the New York Times, Amanda Hess explored how similar dynamics were deployed against Amber Heard — often but not exclusively by women who supported Depp — which again mirrors the scrutiny quickly applied to Hutchinson. It wasn’t just that Hutchinson was offering testimony, it was that she was offering testimony that impugned a figure with a cultlike following: Donald Trump. She was daring to speak out against someone whom thousands of Americans have spent years reflexively defending. She was confronting a well-oiled system used both to downplay Trump’s actions and to eviscerate his opponents.

To an objective observer, the idea that Hutchinson intentionally would lie under oath — in a hearing sufficiently scripted that she undoubtedly knew what was coming — bears the burden of proof. Her firsthand accounts comport with what we know about Trump and with his actions and statement before and after the Capitol riot. If she is shown to have lied under oath, she should and probably would face legal repercussions.

She has not been shown to have lied under oath, although you might not know it from the MAGA world reaction on Wednesday morning. Those desperate to defend Trump at all costs are deploying a network of allies and an established pattern of scrutiny to try to tear Hutchinson down.

A young woman offering credible testimony against a popular public figure to whom she was once loyal — and invoking the wrath of his defenders. Amber Heard 2.0.

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