Americans aren’t the most attentive political observers. But thanks in part to Hollywood, they have a pretty clear vision of what they expect their president to do in an unfolding crisis, especially an attack on U.S. citizens at home or abroad. He (or she, in the movies at least) will march down to the Situation Room, confer with advisers, and at some point address the nation in a sober televised speech.
During the crucial afternoon hours of January 6, 2021, as a mob of protesters stormed and briefly occupied the Capitol, then-President Donald Trump did none of those things. As laid out this evening by the House select committee investigating the assault, Trump spent the afternoon sitting in his private White House dining room, staring for hours at a television tuned to Fox News. He made no effort to quell the violence or protect congressional leaders under threat, and when he was told the rioters were chanting that they wanted to “hang” Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, Trump said that Pence deserved it. The mob came so close to Pence that, the committee revealed tonight, the Secret Service agents protecting him feared for their lives and wanted “to say goodbye” to their families.
For hours, Trump ignored pleas from his staff, his allies in Congress, and even his own daughter Ivanka. Many of those around the president wanted him to forcefully call off the mob and deliver a national address to denounce the violence. All he would do was film and tweet out a short video in which he gently asked his supporters to “go home in peace.” “He refused to defend our nation and our Constitution,” Representative Liz Cheney, the Republican of Wyoming, said. “He refused to do what every American president must.”
Trump’s leadership—or lack thereof—during the Capitol riot was the focus of tonight’s prime-time hearing, the ninth hearing that the committee has held and, for now, the final one scheduled. There will be more, however, committee leaders announced tonight. Cheney said that the panel would spend the month of August reviewing all of the additional evidence it has received since the hearings began, and reconvene for another series in September.
Committee aides had dubbed tonight the “187 Minutes hearing,” a reference to the roughly three-hour window between when Trump finished his speech at the Ellipse and when he released his video aimed at his supporters inside the Capitol. The presentation filled in an aspect of the day about which relatively little had been known, because the Trump White House kept incomplete logs of the president’s activities and phone calls. The Secret Service deleted the majority of texts that its agents sent on January 6, a potential violation of federal law that the National Archives is now investigating.
The committee established that Trump was told within 15 minutes of ending his rally speech that the Capitol was under attack. After the Secret Service rebuffed his demands to join the crowd himself, the president settled into his seat at the head of the dining-room table. (In a hilarious detail, the committee created an illustration of the president’s viewpoint, complete with actual Fox News coverage of the day.) Trump interrupted his Fox viewing to make phone calls—not to help stop the riot but to urge Republican senators to hold strong in their planned objections to the certification of the election.
Viewers tonight saw a mash-up of senior administration officials testifying that they were aware of no Trump calls to the secretary of defense, the attorney general, or the secretary of homeland security. Sarah Matthews, a former deputy press secretary who testified at the hearing, told the panel that Trump could have delivered live remarks to the nation “within a matter of minutes” simply by walking down a hallway to the White House press-briefing room. He did not.
The committee juxtaposed descriptions of the president’s quiet afternoon in the White House with the growing terror at the Capitol. A White House national-security employee, whose identity was obscured by the committee, testified about how scared Pence’s security detail became as they tried to rush him past rioters to safety. Viewers saw footage of Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri scurrying out of danger just hours after he’d raised his fist to encourage the throng that would ultimately force him to flee. Trump continued to resist urgent pleas to issue a forceful denunciation of the violence from members of Congress, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy; prominent Fox News commentators such as Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity; and two of his children, Ivanka and Don Jr. Even when he agreed to send tweets and film a video, aides testified that he haggled over the wording. “The president did not want any sort of mention of peace in that tweet,” Matthews said that Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told her at one point.
This was Trump’s 3 a.m. moment, except it occurred during the middle of the president’s notoriously short workday. It would be easy to say Trump was a mere spectator, choosing to sit out an attempted coup and arguably derelict in his sworn duty to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.” But the January 6 committee has accused the former president of being far more than a passive observer who fiddled while the Capitol nearly fell.
Again and again, the panel has asserted that Trump was an instigator and a would-be participant in the charge, an unhinged leader who literally lunged for the wheel of the car that would take him to the Capitol. “The mob was accomplishing President Trump’s purpose,” Representative Adam Kinzinger said tonight. “So of course he didn’t intervene.” In the committee’s telling, the president watched his legion of supporters attack the seat of American government not only with glee but also with envy, and it is sheer folly to have expected him to try and stop the riot he had fomented.