Thursday, February 22

Analysis | 5 takeaways from the Jan. 6 hearing on extremism and Trump


On Tuesday, the Jan. 6 committee held another hearing in which it attempted to tie former president Donald Trump to the most violent extremists leading the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol — and pressed their argument that Trump knew what he was doing and should be held responsible.

Here are five takeaways from the hearing, focused on the nexus between extremism and Trump’s attempts to stay in power.

1. ‘Donald Trump cannot escape responsibility by arguing he is willfully blind’

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said Donald Trump “is not an impressionable child” during Tuesday’s Jan. 6 hearing. (Video: The Washington Post)

Did Trump know he lost the election and lie about it anyway, or was he deluded into thinking he won? The House Jan. 6 committee thinks it’s the former, but either way, they’re pushing for him to be punished for claiming widespread election fraud and inciting an insurrection. On Tuesday, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) argued that Trump was, at the very least, “willfully blind” to the facts that his own advisers were telling him.

Cheney acknowledged that some of Trump’s defenders have argued that he was misled by others, and tried to knock that down.

“The strategy is to blame people his advisers called ‘the crazies’ for what Donald Trump did,” Cheney said Tuesday. “This, of course, is nonsense. President Trump is a 76-year-old man. He is not an impressionable child. Just like everyone else in our country, he is responsible for his own actions and his own choices. … Donald Trump cannot escape responsibility by arguing he is willfully blind.”

“Willfully blind” is a legal term. As The Post’s Aaron Blake has reported, “As recently as 2011, the Supreme Court has reiterated that people who choose to remain willfully blind ‘are just as culpable as those who have actual knowledge.’ ”

If the committee can’t prove Trump knowingly lied to stay in power, then they will try to prove he chose to look the other way when presented with the fact that he lost the election. It suggests the committee is very much still thinking of referring Trump to the Justice Department for prosecution.

2. A throw-down fight between Trump advisers over election fraud — leading to a crucial step forward for Jan. 6

“The crazies” that Cheney referred to in her opening remarks is how Trump advisers described those who, by December, still believed there was widespread election fraud and a legal pathway to keep Trump in power — even though his legal team had lost dozens of court cases around the nation, including in front of Trump-appointed judges.

That team included lawyers Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani and former national security adviser Michael Flynn. And on Dec. 18, 2020, a few days after the electoral college confirmed that President Biden won, this trio — alongside former CEO Patrick Byrne — somehow made it into the Oval Office to talk to Trump alone, right as they were pushing an idea that he could seize voting machines.

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According to Powell’s testimony, White House counsel Pat Cipollone came racing into the Oval Office to try to intervene. And that led to a six-hour meeting that turned into a screaming match between outside Trump advisers promoting election fraud claims and White House advisers who were trying to convince the president that he lost and should concede.

As Cipollone said, in recently-taped testimony shared by the committee today: “We were asking one simple question, as a general matter. Where is the evidence?”

Witness testimony to the Jan. 6 select committee described a Dec. 18, 2020, meeting where Trump campaign officials clashed with White House staff. (Video: The Washington Post)

He said Powell responded to the effect of, “What do you mean, ‘Where is the evidence?’ You should know,” and that her responses had “a general disregard, I would say, for the importance of actually backing up what you say with facts.”

At one point, Giuliani said he called White House advisers weak (though he used much more explicit terms). As White House staffer Cassidy Hutchinson described the meeting, in a text message displayed by the committee: “The west wing is UNHINGED.”

This went on for six hours, finally ending after midnight.

It ended with Trump saying he’d appoint Powell as a special counsel — White House advisers’ worst nightmare. (Powell and others had proposed that Trump give her the authority to seize voting machines.) But Trump appeared to back off that in the next few days, and instead issued the tweet that the committee argues would lead to the attack.

3. What happened after Trump’s ‘Be there, will be wild’ tweet

On Dec. 19, hours after that meeting, Trump tweeted what the committee has argued was a call to arms to his supporters to overturn his election loss: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”

He was referring to the “Stop the Steal” rally one of his supporters was organizing on the day that Congress and Vice President Mike Pence were certifying the electoral college results.

In the hours after that tweet, one pro-Trump group, Women for America First, requested to move their rally permit from Inauguration Day, on Jan. 22, to Jan. 6, the committee showed.

The next day, Raskin said, Ali Alexander, the leader of the Stop the Steal organization and organizer of its Jan. 6 rally, registered Trump supporters including Alex Jones called Jan. 6 a “historic day.” And numerous others chimed in with violent threats: “Jan. 6, kick that [f—ing] door open.” “It ‘will be wild’ means we need volunteers for the firing squad.”

In this hearing, the committee also shared evidence that Trump may have spent the next few weeks after this tweet helping plan for rally attendees to march to the Capitol — suggesting that his call to do so in his speech wasn’t impromptu. The committee shared a never-before-seen draft tweet that Trump had seen (but didn’t send) encouraging people to march to the Capitol, and raised the question of whether Trump allies in the White House communicated with rally organizers about this plan. It also shared records of rally organizers’ conversations in the days leading up to Jan. 6, discussing a plan to have the president call for a march to the Capitol, and emphasizing that this needed to remain secret.

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The committee also shared how Trump ad-libbed some of the more violent parts of his speech on the Ellipse on the day of the attack. One reference to Pence became eight, Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) said. And he added phrases like: “Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.” And “let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.”

And the committee shared a remarkable admission of remorse from a senior Trump campaign aide after the attack: “This is about Trump pushing for uncertainly in our country, a sitting president asking for civil war,” wrote former Trump campaign adviser Brad Parscale after the attack in a text message. “This week I feel guilty for helping him win.”

Overall, what the committee is trying to do is connect Trump to the most extreme, violent elements of the insurrection. They have argued that Trump had a direct influence on their decision to storm the Capitol, and cheered them on. The committee also recently alleged that he knew that armed protesters were coming to the rally, and encouraged them to come to the Capitol anyway. That’s potentially a politically and legally perilous position for the president.

4. How did so many people become radicalized off a lie?

The committee is particularly interested in unraveling the origins of this mass radicalization, which manifested in the most serious attack on the Capitol since the War of 1812.

To that end, on Tuesday they invited someone who said he was swept up in all this. Stephen Ayres, who later pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct related to his activities on Jan. 6, talked about how social media and particularly Trump’s rhetoric led him to believe the election was stolen — and that he needed to leave his home in Ohio to attend the “Stop the Steal” rally in D.C.: “I was pretty hardcore into social media,” he said. Later on in the hearing: “I was hanging onto every word he was saying.”

Ayres said that if he had known Trump was repeatedly told by White House advisers that there was no evidence that the election was stolen, it would have changed his calculus: “I may not have come down here,” he said, under questioning from Cheney.

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When he arrived on the Ellipsis, Ayres said, he didn’t plan to march to the Capitol. But he got riled up by Trump repeating his greatest hits about the election being stolen — rhetoric that was familiar to Ayres from Trump’s tweets — and followed what the president said to do. “I’m angry,” he said, remembering how he felt in that moment. He said he decided to leave only after Trump tweeted for his supporters to go home — hours after the attack began.

The committee also heard from a former spokesman for the right-wing militia group the Oath Keepers, Jason Van Tatenhove. Tatenhove, who is now a critic of the organization, said groups like the Oath Keepers thrive off propaganda, particularly “the swaying of people who may not know better through lies and rhetoric and propaganda that can get swept up in these moments. And I’ll admit, I was swept up at one point as well.”

He said he fears the alliance between Trump and the Oath Keepers isn’t done: “I think we’ve gotten exceedingly lucky that more bloodshed did not happen,” he said, adding, “I do fear for this next election cycle, because who knows what that might bring — if a president that’s willing to try to instill and encourage to whip up a civil war among his followers, using lies and deceit and snake oil and regardless of the human impact, what else is he going to do if he gets elected again?”

5. Another big hearing next week

The committee said that next week, it will focus on what Trump did (or didn’t do) the day of the attack.

One big accusation they plan to make — and have already mentioned in earlier hearings — is that Trump “never picked up the phone that day to order his administration to help,” Cheney said. Rather, it was Pence who was on the phone from a garage in the Capitol, trying to get the Defense Department and Homeland Security to quell the violence.

And Cheney also got at more allegations of witness tampering on Trump’s part. She said that after the last hearing — an explosive one, featuring former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson — Trump tried to call an unnamed witness (“one you haven’t seen yet,” Cheney said). The committee referred information about this call to the Justice Department.

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