The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The case against Donald Trump

President Donald Trump at the Jan. 6, 2021, rally in Washington, before his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
15 min

The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol concluded what is expected to be the last of its public hearings on Thursday by unspooling the evidence it had gathered. There was no more mystery about its conclusions than there would be when watching a prosecutor’s closing argument at a criminal trial: The riot was a function of the actions and decisions of the former president.

“The vast weight of evidence presented so far,” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the committee vice chair, said in an opening comment, “has shown us that the central cause of January 6th was one man, Donald Trump, who many others followed. None of this would have happened without him. He was personally and substantially involved in all of it.”

What followed was a review of that evidence, a stitching together of hours of prior testimony and the injection of newly uncovered details as the committee has continued its work. It was, as the prior analogy would suggest, a prosecution of a case — and an effective one.

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Trump’s responsibility for the violence that unfolded that day can be viewed as an escalation over three periods of time: the months before the election on Nov. 3, 2020, the period from Election Day to Jan. 6, and the events of Jan. 6 itself.

Before Election Day

There’s no real beginning point for Trump’s unending claims that American elections are riddled with fraud. He made such claims about the very first election in which he participated, his loss at the 2016 Iowa caucuses to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). But we can point to a moment when the specific strain of allegation that defined his response to the 2020 election took root.

In the spring of 2020, in the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, states moved to increase mail-in voting as part of an effort to limit in-person interactions. Trump opposed that change, having been on-record in the past that expanding access to voting would disadvantage his party. As is often the case with a spurious claim that Trump makes, the process of defending it causes him to entrench himself in his case. So, over the months that ensued, he and his team elevated numerous claims that mail ballots were suspect or vectors for fraud, despite the utter lack of evidence to that point.

His campaign team appears to have been frustrated: mail-in ballots are a useful way to lock in votes well in advance of Election Day. In testimony aired during Thursday’s hearing, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Bill Stepien, described trying to get Trump to embrace having his supporters vote by mail. But, he said, “the president’s mind was made up.”

It’s likely that Trump’s original goal was nebulous, just to have space — as he had after that caucus in Iowa and after the 2016 presidential contest — to claim that he did better than people might have thought. But as the months passed and it became clear that Republicans were taking his skepticism to heart, a plan formed.

Voting methodology had become partisan, so Democrats were voting earlier by mail and Republicans on Election Day in-person. Paradoxically, that meant that Democratic votes would often be counted later, since processing mail ballots is slower. And that meant that the earliest vote totals reported on Election Day would be very favorable to the incumbent. This was dubbed the “red mirage,” since, over the following hours and days, support for Joe Biden would slowly be added to totals and Trump’s lead would shrink or vanish.

So Trump planned to simply announce victory shortly after polls closed, hoping to create a sense not that votes were being counted but that his victory was being unwound. Even before Election Day, Axios reported that this was Trump’s plan. Former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale told the Jan. 6 committee that he’d heard rumblings along those lines as early as July.

As Trump adviser Roger Stone put it in a comment captured by a team of documentary filmmakers: “The key thing to do is to claim victory. Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”

During Thursday’s hearing, the committee showed an email sent by right-wing activist Tom Fitton. It included a proposed script for Trump to use. It read, in part: “The ballots counted by the Election Day deadline show the American people have bestowed on me the great honor of reelection to President of the United States.” That was sent Oct. 31, 2020.

The rhythm here is clear. Trump was uninterested in waiting to see whether the American public wanted him to have a second term in office. Instead, he spent months tilling the soil of doubt by making unsupported claims that mail-in ballots would lead to fraud. Then he and his allies developed a plan to take advantage of the resulting divide, using misleading early vote totals as a predicate for claiming victory.

Meaning that anything that followed could and would be cast as theft.

From the election to Jan. 6

The election was called on Nov. 7, 2020, as those slowly counted votes in Pennsylvania revealed that Biden had won a majority of electoral votes and would be president.

That same day, Trump’s aides told him that it was over. Communications aide Jason Miller told the committee about a conversation he’d had with Trump that Saturday.

“At some point, myself and a handful of other folks went over and sat down with the president and communicated that the odds of us prevailing and legal challenges were very small,” Miller testified. He was right.

Over the following weeks there were other moments in which Trump was told that he would be leaving the White House in January. Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows, testified that Meadows told her that Trump knew that he’d lost.

“A lot of times he’ll tell me that he lost,” Hutchinson testified that she was told by Meadows, “but he” — that is, Trump — “wants to keep fighting it. He thinks that there might be enough to overturn the election, but he pretty much has acknowledged that he has lost.”

Why would he want to keep fighting it? Simply, to preserve his power. He wanted to remain president and understood that preserving a sense among his supporters that he should be president, that he had won, was important to doing so. Just as it had been important for years that he deny other realities to give his base space to rise to his defense. Behind the scenes, he was even conveying to people that he had no intention of leaving the White House on Inauguration Day.

Preserving the idea that victory was possible meant rapidly cobbling together detours as legal avenues to a second term were shut down.

First, he and his team tried to halt that slow counting of votes in several states. When that failed, he and his attorneys tried to block the certification of the vote, the formal validation of the election results. He came closest in Michigan, where two Republican members of the certification board in the state’s largest county at first opposed certification, backing down only after facing public pressure.

When that failed, attention turned to the finalization of the electoral votes that would be counted in Washington on Jan. 6. Trump’s allies put together a plan in which alternate slates of electors would meet on Dec. 14, the day electors cast their ballots, ostensibly in hopes that those slates would eventually be determined to be the legitimate ones.

Republican Party chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told the committee that she’d gotten a call from Trump and his attorney, John Eastman, asking that the Republican National Committee aid this effort. Eastman, she said, began to “talk about the importance of the RNC helping the campaign gather these contingent electors in case any of the legal challenges that were ongoing change the result of any of the states.”

With that in their back pocket, Trump and his team tried to invalidate those valid electoral slates. He and his attorneys called state officials in Georgia to encourage the state to “find” enough votes that he would be declared the winner. That call is now a subject of an investigation in Fulton County, Ga. Hutchinson’s takeaway from it, according to her testimony: “That call was crazy.”

Ultimately, the plan to reject Biden’s duly certified electors came down to that count on Jan. 6, as Trump was increasingly aware. The idea was that Republicans in the House and Senate would raise dubious questions about the submitted electors and send them back to states. Speaking to Justice Department officials in December, he encouraged them to simply declare that the election had been tainted by fraud — and then “leave the rest to me and the [Republican] Congressmen.” When the Justice Department leadership declined, Trump plotted to replace them.

Another vector for blocking the electors was promoted in a memo written by Eastman. It suggested that Vice President Mike Pence could simply reject them out of hand. Trump seized on this idea, publicly pressuring Pence to do exactly that — despite the lack of evidence that this was viable. Even Eastman, the committee said on Thursday, admitted in an email on Jan. 6 that Trump had been advised this wasn’t feasible.

On Dec. 11, 2020, the Supreme Court shut down Trump’s last major legal effort to block Biden’s election. When Trump learned of the decision, he was furious.

Hutchinson and Meadows ran into him shortly afterward.

“He said something to the effect of I don’t want people to know we lost, Mark,” Hutchinson testified. “This is embarrassing. Figure it out. We need to figure it out. I don’t want people to know that we lost.”

A week later, Trump met with allies and aides to discuss last-ditch options for retaining power. It included speculation about seizing voting machines and appointing attorney Sidney Powell — already exposed as spreading unfounded claims about the election — as special counsel. Ultimately the meeting didn’t result in significant action.

A few hours after that lengthy meeting ended, though, Trump sent out a tweet, linking to false claims about fraud.

“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” he wrote. “Be there, will be wild!”

That tweet comes up over and over again in the indictments obtained against rioters; it was the point at which many of them decided to travel to Washington and participate in that protest.

During this period, from the election to Jan. 6, Trump could have taken the entire country down a different path. But he wanted to retain power, and, as the days passed, his options for doing so narrowed. In the end, he only had that last point of pressure, the normally rote congressional counting of submitted electoral votes.

So that’s where he put pressure.

On Jan. 6 itself

Trump began his day on Jan. 6 making phone calls. He spent some time working on the speech he would give at a rally just south of the executive mansion. Then, a bit after 11:30 a.m., he left the White House for the short drive to the Ellipse.

One of the more revealing aspects of the committee’s work has been to make clear just how aware federal protective services were about the crowd outside Trump’s speech that day. There was a secure area immediately in front of the stage where attendees were screened by magnetometers. And there was a much larger surrounding area in which many attendees remained without entering — and without being checked for weapons.

Secret Service reports detail a number of encounters with armed individuals in the vicinity, as the committee reported on Thursday. This comported with warnings they’d received in the preceding weeks; the Secret Service and other law enforcement agencies had been warned about increasing chatter about possible violence in Washington and at the Capitol.

Trump apparently knew that some in the extended audience were armed, too. In her testimony before the committee, Hutchinson relayed a comment she heard Trump make that morning: “I don’t … care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me.” During his speech, in fact, he encouraged the security screeners to stand down so that the audience could better fill the space in front of the stage.

During his speech, Trump reiterated a variety of false claims about the election. The committee showed clips from the speech in which he elevated debunked claims about votes in Michigan and Georgia, juxtaposing those comments with testimony from former deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue in which he describing telling Trump that those specific claims were baseless.

It’s important to remember that the speech at the Ellipse wasn’t originally Trump’s plan. In the aftermath of his Dec. 19 tweet, a number of allies refocused their efforts on doing things that day. One group, made up of fringier elements of his coalition, aimed to have a rally on Capitol Hill. Another planned the event at the Ellipse. Eventually, those were folded together — though without an authorized plan for a march from the speech to the Capitol.

Trump wanted such a march. The White House drafted a tweet mentioning it. One of the organizers of the Ellipse speech texted an ally to indicate that Trump planned to “spontaneously” announce a march from the White House to the Capitol. During his speech, he did just that, despite warnings from his attorneys. Much of the crowd moved to the Capitol, providing a critical mass of people that allowed them to push past police.

Remember, Trump knew they were armed. According to the committee, he’d also been warned that there was a threat of violence. But Trump knew they were “not here to hurt me” and planned, as he announced, to march with them.

“I recall him saying that he wanted to physically walk and be a part of the march and then saying that he would ride the [presidential limo] if he needed to,” Trump’s press secretary Kayleigh McEnany testified. When then SUV taking him from the speech venue didn’t head to the Capitol, Trump became furious, according to witness testimony. Secret Service staffers prepared for an unscheduled trip to the Capitol — a plan that, documents obtained by the committee reveal, was only called off at about 1:55 p.m.

About 15 minutes before the Capitol was breached.

According to testimony obtained by the committee, Trump already knew about violence on Capitol Hill; he’d been told shortly after arriving back at the White House. But instead of speaking out, he proceeded to watch events unfold. Molly Michael, Trump’s assistant at the time, testified about Trump’s activities during the riot: “It’s my understanding he was watching television.”

Allies flooded the White House with requests for Trump to intervene. He didn’t.

“You heard him, Pat,” Hutchinson says she heard Meadows tell White House counsel Pat Cipollone. “He doesn’t want to do anything more. He doesn’t think they’re doing anything wrong.”

If anything, he actively made the situation worse. Shortly after Fox News interviewed a Trump supporter who expressed exasperation at Pence’s decision not to try Trump’s power-grabbing ploy, Trump tweeted an excoriation of the vice president. The mob was enraged; some rioters were only about 40 feet from Pence as he evacuated to a safer position.

When Trump eventually did send out a message to his supporters that they should go home, most of the damage was done. Like Pence, the House and Senate had been moved to safety. Windows were smashed. Scores of police officers were attacked and injured. The rioter who tried to climb through a window near where House members were evacuated was already dead.

In video obtained by the committee, rioters seeing Trump’s message responded as desired: “That’s our order” — to go home.

Why didn’t Trump act more forcefully? Why didn’t he speak out sooner? Again, for the same reason he’d done everything else: He wanted to retain power. And this was the last, most dangerous part of that effort.

“Our committee may ultimately decide to make a series of criminal referrals to the Department of Justice,” Cheney said in her opening statement on Thursday, “but we recognize that our role is not to make decisions regarding prosecution.” Instead, the committee concluded its hearing by voting to subpoena Trump for testimony.

That subpoena will almost certainly never result in testimony from the former president. But, to some extent, it doesn’t matter. The case has been made.

The prosecution rests.