The congressional committee investigating the attack on the Capitol painted a picture Tuesday of how – as door after door closed on President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election and even his White House staff understood that he had lost – Trump embraced ever more fantastical conspiracy theories peddled by fringe actors and ultimately took matters into his own hands with a single tweet that would “unleash a political firestorm.”
“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” Trump wrote. “Be there, will be wild!”
On the heels of stunning testimony last week, the select committee delivered an intimate look into the days leading to the violent attack on the Capitol, as the panel appeared to be positioning itself – with just one hearing likely remaining – to link Trump’s moves in those final days to the eventual violence and extremism that would be seen at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Through seven hearings to date, the committee’s findings have creeped inexorably closer to the former president himself, with GOP Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming dramatically ending Tuesday’s session with the disclosure that Trump tried to call a witness, who declined to answer. Cheney explained that the committee “will take any effort to influence witness testimony very seriously.” For his part, Trump himself appears to be growing increasingly rattled as the committee pierces his inner circle.
The committee spent much of the hearing detailing a Dec. 18, 2020, meeting at the White House described as “the craziest meeting of the Trump presidency” – one that lasted more than six hours, spanned multiple rooms and inspired screams heard by those nearby. Characterizing the scene in which Trump had been joined by members of his staff and outside advisers, the committee described a heated confrontation between those who seemed to understand that no more lawful avenues existed with regard to the election and others who continued to insist they would find evidence.
“You have heard considerable testimony about President Trump’s attempts to corruptly pressure Vice President Pence to refuse to count electoral votes, to corrupt the Department of Justice, to pressure state officials and state legislatures and to create and submit a series of fake electoral slates,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida said. “Now, we will show you what other actions President Trump was taking between Dec. 14, 2020, and Jan. 6.”
Through taped interviews on Tuesday, the committee showed how by Dec. 14, when the Electoral College met and certified the results of the 2020 presidential election, those within Trump’s inner circle, including Attorney General William Barr, spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany, adviser Ivanka Trump and White House counsel Pat Cipollone, accepted that the president’s attempt to stay in office was over.
But on Dec. 18, when outside advisers – including Trump loyalists Sidney Powell and Michael Flynn – paid a surprise visit to the president, they urged him to consider a plan to seize voting machines along with other efforts, like appointing Powell to a position in charge of legal efforts to overturn the election.
Cipollone in a taped interview said that he and others responded by asking “one simple question” that night: “Where is the evidence?”
The committee suggested that at the end of the night, just hours after the fiery meeting – described as the “stuff of legend” – that Trump criticized White House staff for not being aggressive enough and appeared to take matters into his own hands early the next morning with a tweet that “electrified” his supporters.
“President Trump turned away from both his outside advisers’ most outlandish and unworkable schemes and his White House counsel’s advice to swallow hard and accept the reality of his loss,” Raskin said. “Instead, Donald Trump issued a tweet that would galvanize his followers, unleash a political firestorm and change the course of our history as a country.”
The tweet, the committee showed, spurred a tsunami of attention from right-wing media, which spread the message even further, with one commentator predicting a “red wedding,” or massacre, would take place on Jan. 6 when Congress came together in a joint session to certify the vote.
Twitter employees became concerned about anticipated violence on Jan. 6, as illustrated by one who spoke to the committee and testified that the social media giant had considered adopting a stricter content moderation policy after Trump told the Proud Boys during a presidential debate months earlier to “stand back and stand by.” But Trump’s account would not be removed until after the attack on the Capitol.
“I very much believe that Donald Trump posting this tweet on Dec. 19 was essentially sticking a flag in D.C. on Jan. 6 for his supporters to come and rally,” said the Twitter employee, who was unidentified and whose voice was obscured.
Among those who came to the Capitol, inspired by Trump’s activity on social media, was Stephen Ayres, who testified Tuesday and appeared to exemplify the assertions of Jan. 6 committee members that the crowd gathered – and acted – at Trump’s behest. He explained that after the president mentioned the rally, “I felt like I needed to be down here.”
“For me personally, I was pretty hard core into the social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. I followed President Trump on all the websites,” Ayres said. He later added – consistent with the Jan. 6 committee’s assessment of the damage of Trump’s lies – that if he had known the president had no evidence that any election fraud had occurred, he may not have come to the Capitol for the rally.
When Ayres attended the rally at the Ellipse on the National Mall, he said he didn’t know ahead of time that he and the other supporters would head to the Capitol, but he said “the president got everybody riled up, told everybody to head on down, so we basically just did what he said.”
The panel went on to suggest that Trump’s direction that rallygoers head to the Capitol was not the spontaneous act he has suggested but was planned Members revealed a draft tweet that Trump never sent ahead of his speech at the Ellipse where he told his supporters to head to the Capitol.
During her opening remarks, Cheney described how “millions of Americans were persuaded to believe what Donald Trump’s closest advisers in his administration did not.”
“These Americans did not have access to the truth like Donald Trump did,” Cheney said. “They put their faith and their trust in Donald Trump. They wanted to believe in him. They wanted to fight for their country, and he deceived them.”
The hearing came days after former White House counsel Pat Cipollone’s marathon testimony that the Jan. 6 committee called “critical,” some of which was featured during Tuesday’s hearing. But more is expected at the next hearing.
Over the weekend, attorneys for Steve Bannon sent a letter to the committee saying the former White House chief strategist is willing to publicly testify – a major reversal from his earlier position after Trump reportedly sent Bannon’s lawyers a letter waiving executive privilege.
But whether Bannon’s testimony is heard remains to be seen. Bannon’s lawyer indicated that his client would prefer to testify at a public hearing, as opposed to in a taped, closed-door meetings like the committee has conducted with others. On Sunday, Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California seemed reluctant to welcome a live testimony from Bannon, saying that the committee ordinarily works with depositions.
And while the committee was widely expected to hold an additional hearing Thursday during prime time, the event has been pushed back to next week, perhaps due to new information.
The hearing slated for next week, which is likely the final hearing of the series, is expected to focus on Trump’s “behavior” during the 187 minutes when a mob was storming the U.S. Capitol.