The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s not only what Trump didn’t do on Jan. 6. It’s also what he did do.

Donald Trump threw gasoline on the flames at the Capitol rather than calling for an end to the fire. And he couldn’t bring himself to say the election was over. He still can’t.

On July 21 the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack outlined a detailed account of President Trump’s defiant inaction during the riot. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post, Photo: Tom Brenner/The Washington Post)

Thursday night’s hearing by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol was billed as a session that would describe in detail what President Donald Trump did not do during a day of violence and mayhem.

More revealing — and damning — was what he did do.

The hearing was a revelation of character, and no more so than the outtakes of a taping the day after the attack and after Congress had certified President Biden’s victory. Trump was in a dark place, according to the testimony, and his aides had prepared a script for him for a video message to the nation. As he read it, he scowled and stopped, rejecting the words he was to read. “I don’t want to say the election’s over,” he said peevishly.

Trump still won’t say the 2020 election is over, nearly 19 months later. The odious legacy of that resistance continues to infect the Republican Party and the politics of the country. Election-denying has become a core belief of a broad swath of the Republican Party.

Many Republicans will not acknowledge Biden’s victory and choose to see the president as an illegitimate leader. Meanwhile, Trump continues to stir this mythology, never willing to let go of the fantasy that the election was stolen, content to continue to spread the lie that Biden’s victory came only because of massive fraud — evidence for which does not exist.

Read The Post's live coverage from Thursday's hearing

Thursday’s hearing further revealed a president incapable of looking beyond himself, unable to see the damage both to the country and to his own legacy that was taking place at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. He was seemingly passive, yes, but he was also belligerent in his unwillingness to follow the advice of many of his most loyal aides, members of his family and outside allies.

His performance was, as committee members said, a dereliction of duty and a violation of his oath to defend the Constitution. Whether it was a crime will be up to the Justice Department — and, if it gets that far, a jury.

What did Trump do and not do on Jan. 6?

He sat in his private dining room off the Oval Office for hours as the Capitol was overrun by armed rioters. He watched Fox News on television while ignoring the urgent discussions among his staff that he needed to say something, do something, to call off the attack.

He did not call Vice President Mike Pence, who was in hiding at the Capitol and whose Secret Service detail had made calls to loved ones to say goodbye, fearful they might not survive the attack. He did not call the Pentagon to order military support to put down the insurrection. He did not call the Department of Homeland Security. He did not seek any law enforcement support.

Who did what the president should have done? Pence, according to the testimony presented. The vice president called the Pentagon and in no uncertain terms called for reinforcements to put down the attack.

What Trump did do as the Capitol was being sacked, and as some rioters were chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” was to send out a tweet at 2:24 p.m. condemning his own vice president as a coward for not blocking the certification process, saying Pence didn’t have the courage to try to overturn the election. It is worth pausing on that. At a time when he could have sought to de-escalate the violence, he did the opposite, adding fuel to the fire raging at the Capitol that had been sparked by his own lies.

There was no evidence that Trump called anyone to stop the violence that afternoon, but he did call Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer who was in the forefront of spreading wild conspiracy theories about the election. He called Giuliani later, too, and Giuliani was calling senators that evening, hoping to persuade someone to slow down the process of certification in a last desperate effort to overturn the election.

Trump sat little more than a minute’s walk from where he watched television to the White House briefing room, where television cameras are always at the ready to broadcast a presidential address to the nation. He could have made a statement that might have halted the violence. He did not do it, even as calls and tweets poured into the White House from allies pleading for him to do something. Instead, he resisted saying anything on camera for more than three hours. He also resisted using any mention of peace in a tweet aimed at the rioters until he was persuaded to do so by his daughter Ivanka.

Former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson said Ivanka Trump tried to convince President Donald Trump to condemn the rioters. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Attack: Before, During and After

The evidence presented Thursday, as in previous hearings by the committee, was an as-told-by story from a galaxy of Republican officials: people who voted for Trump, worked for him and were personally invested in his success, but who — as Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), who co-led the hearing with Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), put it — had reached a breaking point. When called to do so, they told the truth to the committee and the country. These were not political enemies or adversaries of the president but people who served him loyally.

Trump has complained privately that he has had no defenders on the committee, but Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the committee vice chair, brushed aside the notion that the committee’s work would fall apart if challenged. “Do you really think Bill Barr is such a delicate flower that he would wilt under cross-examination?” she asked. “Pat Cipollone? Eric Herschmann? Jeff Rosen? Richard Donoghue? Of course they aren’t. None of our witnesses are.”

The work of the House committee is not finished. It continues to dig and take testimony. More hearings are promised and a full report will be issued. But the committee’s principal contribution is already evident. The summer hearings have significantly added to the pressure on Attorney General Merrick Garland, who must decide whether to bring criminal charges against a former president for the first time in the nation’s history.

Garland said again last week that no one in this country is above the law. But getting to a decision of whether to indict remains perilous, what has been described as one of the most difficult and consequential decisions any attorney general has faced.

The committee has produced a compelling narrative, with much new information and with Trump squarely in the middle. But its work has not been tested in legal terms, its evidence not subjected to cross-examination, its case not hindered by procedural challenges that a criminal case would bring.

Rep. Liz Cheney tells Americans why Jan. 6 should terrify them

Whatever Garland decides — indictment or no indictment — will rile the country, which is already in flames over the former president’s conduct in office. For the attorney general, there is no safe harbor. Indictment would not guarantee conviction, and conviction would not bring peace to the country, as satisfying as criminal charges would be to those who believe that the evidence against Trump is so convincing that they must be brought.

The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol built their case over a series of eight public hearings. Here’s how they did it. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

No matter what the Justice Department does, the committee has produced a body of information beyond what many had questioned was possible. It has plowed ground that had been plowed before and unearthed new revelation after new revelation. Each hearing has delivered more than promised — and with that, the legacy of the Trump presidency has taken a beating.

None of that has quieted the former president, who has indicated he is likely to run again in a 2024 revenge campaign. Just recently he was on the phone with Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly, again seeking to overturn the 2020 election results in that state. Vos says that isn’t possible, which matters little to Trump. The call reflects the mind-set of a man without contrition who cannot let go, and because of that, neither can many of his followers.

It was that hold on people that caused the attack on the Capitol. Trump was the man who, as Cheney has said, summoned the mob and lit the flame. Because he won’t let that go, the country continues to live with the consequences of that dark day in January 2021.

At the close of the hearing, Cheney posed this question: “Can a president who is willing to make the choices Donald Trump made during the violence of January 6th ever be trusted with any position of authority in our great nation again?”

The committee members, through these hearings, have shown their answer. In two years, the voters of this country, especially those who backed him in the past, could be asked to answer it for themselves.

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