How Trump Turbocharged His Coup — Day Eight
Dereliction of duty doesn't begin to cover it.
Fifty years ago, the faculty adviser to my high school newspaper first explained to me the difference between a “dog-bites-man” story and a “man-bites-dog” story. Only the latter is news, I learned.
So how to explain The Washington Post headline after Day Eight of the January 6th Committee hearings? It read: “Trump Refused to Say, ‘The Election’s Over’ Day After Capitol Attack, New Video Shows.”
Talk about a dog-bites-man story! Donald Trump still doesn’t believe that the election is over. As recently as last week, he called Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to urge him to decertify the state’s 2020 presidential election results. Vos, though a hardcore MAGA autocrat, politely told him that wasn’t possible.
This got me wondering why we all agree that Trump being Trump is still news. Viewing the deliciously humiliating outtakes of Trump’s preparation for his January 7th speech (he has trouble pronouncing “yesterday” and “defiled”) reminded me of the core of his crime against the Constitution. It took me back to my teacher’s important caveat to the hoary journalistic maxim. “If the dog has rabies,” he taught us, “it’s news.” And if the dog kills the man, “your story could make the front page.”
The big takeaway from Day Eight was that the appalling dereliction of duty that was obvious to the world in real-time on January 6th wasn’t the half of it. We can now see that the president was not a frozen bystander watching a peaceful demonstration spin out of control but a rabid traitor ripping the heart out of the body politic, trying to eat democracy alive in the small dining room off the Oval Office.
Beyond new details about how Trump resisted the desperate pleas of his children, his Fox cheerleaders and his entire staff to call off the assault on the Capitol, the Committee didn’t break much new ground. We need more Cassidy Hutchinsons spilling the beans. But the members—who have put on the best hearings since the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973—did manage to attach a new lens to the events of January 6th—a lens that could help federal prosecutors build their case.
Day Eight focused tightly on the 187 minutes between 1:10 p.m., when Trump finished his speech on the Ellipse at the same moment as the Proud Boys breached the Capitol complex, and 4:17 p.m., when —realizing his coup had failed—the president finally told his supporters that he loved them but they should go home. “What explains Trump’s behavior?” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) asked in his opening statement. “The mob was accomplishing [his] purpose…He didn’t fail to act; he chose not to act.” Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA) framed it slightly differently: “In the end, this is not, as it may appear, a story of inaction in a time of crisis, but instead it was the final action of Donald Trump’s own plan to usurp the will of the American people and remain in power.”
That action was to turbocharge the initial assault on the Capitol. To make sure the insurrection continued, Trump never called law enforcement. “You’re the commander in chief — you’ve got an assault going on the Capitol of the United States of America and there’s nothing? No call? Nothing? Zero?” General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, disgust in his voice. It’s no wonder Trump told the White House photographer to get lost. He didn’t want any record of what he was doing in secret that day—what he was doing instead of fulfilling his oath.
Once again, the Committee effectively used Trump’s own aides to illuminate his beyond-the-pale conduct. Matthew Pottinger, former deputy national security adviser, and Sarah Matthews, former deputy press secretary, testified live how they felt they had to resign after Trump “poured gasoline on the fire” and “gave a green light” to mayhem with his chilling 2:24 p.m. tweet saying that his vice-president “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done.” While the security footage of the Secret Service hustling Pence into hiding first surfaced during impeachment, only now have we learned that Pence had to be evacuated a second time after the 2:24 tweet. An unidentified White House security professional testified about the potentially “lethal” situation when Pence’s bodyguards were badly outnumbered by the armed mob. “The members of the VP detail at this time were starting to fear for their own lives," the witness said, adding that radio traffic caught "very personal calls" being made—likely from hardened Secret Service agents telling their families that they loved them and goodbye.
Now that a criminal investigation of the Secret Service has begun, it might be a while before we see any texts that can—with any luck—be recovered. The ones I’m most anxious to see are between Tony Ornato, the agent Trump promoted to be his deputy chief of staff, thereby politicizing the Secret Service; his replacement, Bobby Engel, who prevented Trump from going to the Capitol with the marchers; and the still-unidentified agent who ran Pence’s detail and tried to get him in the car to flee, when the whole Congress was sheltering in place. Pence, to his credit, wouldn’t get in the limo. Marc Short, the VP’s chief of staff, testified that his boss thought being seen fleeing would be a bad look for the rest of the world. Undoubtably so. But who told the Secret Service to evacuate him in the first place?
Because the Secret Service scandal is just breaking, the Committee members didn’t have time to get into all of this. But they could have done a better job clarifying the Pence timeline. Doing so would have helped tee up an indictment of Trump not just for interrupting an official proceeding (where he seems clearly guilty) but for seditious conspiracy, where the bar is higher and requires proof of coordination with violent elements.
We know that on January 5th, Pence told Trump that after consulting with his staff, former Vice President Dan Quayle and former Judge Michael Luttig, he had concluded that he did not have the constitutional authority to declare Trump the winner or even to send the certifications back to the states. On the morning of the 6th, in a crowded Oval Office, Trump phoned Pence one more time and called him a “wimp” and a “pussy.”
But at that point, Trump’s followers still had a more favorable view of Pence, thanks to the president’s hopeful comments about him. Just after midnight, Trump had tweeted, “If Vice President @Mike_Pence comes through for us, we will win the Presidency.” At the noon rally at the Ellipse, he went off script and mentioned Pence eight times, all with the implication that he would surely find the courage to do the right thing.
But Trump already knew that Pence wouldn’t play ball, so it’s looking increasingly likely that he now moved to a backup plan: Get Pence out of the Capitol so Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), the president pro-tempore of the Senate (the senior member of the majority party), could preside over the certification ceremony and presumably do his bidding. Grassley, now 88 and favored to win reelection this fall, had let the cat out of the bag on January 5th by saying he and not Pence would preside over the certification of Electoral College votes, because "We don't expect him to be there.” (The Committee, so far, has ignored the Grassley angle, perhaps because his office denied he was ever approached with the strategy for overturning the election). My best guess is that Trump’s plan at that point was to go to the Capitol on January 6th, enter like a Roman emperor, and jolly up Grassley as he used his position in the chair to do what senators do best: delay.
But after he was prevented from going to the Capitol, Trump revised his plan to better coordinate with the insurrectionists on the ground. So to get Pence out of the Capitol complex, he decided to be much tougher on his vice-president than he had been just 90 minutes earlier on the Ellipse. What had changed since the rally? The violence had succeeded in interrupting the counting of electoral votes, which showed Trump—sitting in his dining room— that his strategy was working. To make sure it would continue to work, he ramped up his rhetoric from the rally (“All Vice President Pence has to do is send it back to the states to re-certify and we become president and you are the happiest people”) to the 2:24 pm tweet, which basically said that Pence was a coward. As the Committee showed in detail on Thursday, that tweet enraged the mob, which then pushed forward en masse. Jessica Watkins, an insurrectionist, said that “It has spread like wildfire that Pence betrayed us.” Trump did nothing to disabuse the crowd of this notion. At 2:38 p.m.—under pressure from family and aides—he reluctantly tweeted that protesters should “stay peaceful” but said nothing about them leaving the Capitol.
Even after he finally told the mob to go home at 4:17, Trump remained obsessed with Pence and his failed plan to cling to power, not the assault on the Capitol. One of the new bits of testimony Thursday came from an unnamed White House worker who heard Trump muttering when he entered the Residence at the end of the day: “Mike Pence let me down.”
It will be up to federal prosecutors to fill in gaps, but they have many more tools than the Committee, including call records. (We learned Thursday that White House call logs show no calls at all, though we know that Trump borrowed a phone or used a burner to call senators and Rudy Giuliani to press his election claims in the middle of the riot). Aides like Mark Meadows and Pat Cipollone won’t be able to claim executive privilege in the criminal probe, and Giuliani, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn and others will have to decide if they want to cooperate by detailing their conversations with Trump or stay silent and quite possibly go to jail, as G. Gordon Liddy did during Watergate.
As I’ve said from the start, I find all of the Committee members inspiring. I admire their eloquent descriptions of true patriotism and their fearlessness (in contrast to the Democratic Party) in going for the jugular. I laughed when they aired priceless surveillance video of Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) fleeing the mob he had just saluted. They were right to bracket this hearing with Mitch McConnell trashing Trump on the Senate floor. I only wish they had also included his pathetic comment to Jonathan Swan that he will still back him if he’s the nominee of a party that even former Sen. Alan Simpson now calls “a cult.” Thursday’s hearing told us again how another “leader” who flunked the character test of his generation, Kevin McCarthy, confessed to being “scared” of a mob he now minimizes. His early 2021 account of Trump’s call amid the riot captures the president’s mindset that day: “Well, Kevin,” Trump told the House minority leader about the violent insurrectionists, “I guess they’re just more concerned with election theft than you are.” A couple of weeks later, McCarthy visited Mar-a-Lago and bowed down to the tyrant.
At the end of Day Eight, Liz Cheney once again delivered pitch perfect remarks, her last in these hearings before a Wyoming Republican primary next month that she is expected to lose to a MAGA flunkie. She said that the committee will follow new leads in August and hold more hearings in September. “The dam has begun to break,” Cheney said. Let’s hope so.