WASHINGTON — The day after an explosive Oval Office meeting in which a motley crew of outside advisers clashed with White House lawyers over a plan to seize voting machines, then-President Donald Trump turned his focus to riling up his supporters for the Jan. 6 push to stop the counting of electoral votes, according to evidence presented at Tuesday's House committee hearing.
Two longtime Trump advisers, Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, were in contact with leaders of the violent extremist groups the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, according to text messages and photographs produced by the committee — although Stone, through a lawyer, disputed having participated in a text chain. The two groups began working together for the first time after Trump issued his call for a rally in Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, the panel said.
One witness, Stephen Ayres, who has pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after he entered the Capitol on Jan. 6, said he hadn't planned to march until Trump called on the crowd at a "Stop the Steal" rally to march to the Capitol to encourage Republican lawmakers to block certification. Ayres said he went thinking Trump would accompany the mob.
"We basically just followed on what he said," Ayres said. "I think everybody thought he was going to be coming down. ... I believed it."
The evidence the committee presented Tuesday is designed to fit into its broader case that Trump resorted to inciting violence after he learned that he had lost the election and had no legal means to prevent a peaceful transfer of power. The panel portrayed the weeks after the November 2020 election as a time of desperation for Trump, during which he considered strategies his own lawyers viewed as detrimental to the nation and his close confidants encouraged the extremist groups that led the attack on the Capitol.
Ultimately, siding with White House lawyers against his informal advisers, Trump declined to seize voting machines, even as he insisted publicly — against all evidence — that he was the victim of widespread electoral fraud.
But he remains engaged in an influence campaign, according to Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the panel's top Republican. She said Tuesday that Trump called a witness — whose testimony hasn't been made public — after the last hearing.
"That person declined to answer or respond to President Trump’s call and instead alerted their lawyer to the call," Cheney said. "Their lawyer alerted us, and this committee has supplied that information to the Department of Justice."
Committee members have repeatedly and publicly warned Trump and his allies not to tamper with witnesses.
The committee zeroed in on a Dec. 18, 2020, Oval Office meeting, which Flynn attended, arguing that it was a turning point for Trump — the moment when he abandoned pursuing avenues to use his own power to overturn the election and trained his sights on Jan. 6 and the official congressional count of electoral votes.
It was a wild meeting.
“What they were proposing, I thought, was nuts,” former White House counsel Pat Cipollone said in recorded testimony.
He described arriving in the Oval Office on Dec. 18 to find outside advisers Sidney Powell, Patrick Byrne and Flynn explaining false theories of voter fraud and a plan for Trump to use an executive order to declare a national emergency, take voting machines from states and remain in office.
The discussion quickly devolved into a profanity-laced shouting match. Flynn accused Trump's White House lawyers of quitting on the president. One of them, Eric Herschmann, testified that he challenged Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general and former national security adviser, to come across the room or "sit your ass down."
The sides traded barbs for hours. Trump watched the show. Then, after midnight, the meeting broke up, with Trump's White House lawyers having held their line successfully.
“The meeting has been called, quote, ‘unhinged,’ ‘not normal’ and the ‘craziest meeting of the Trump presidency,’” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.
That was a pivotal moment for Trump, according to the committee, which has produced evidence of the variety of means he pursued to remain in power.
He pressured Justice Department officials to declare election fraud, state officials to reverse election results, allies in key states to create slates of “fake electors” and Vice President Mike Pence to halt the constitutionally required count of electoral votes in the Capitol, according to witness testimony.
The committee suggested that the meeting led Trump to light the kindling for Jan. 6.
On Dec. 19, just hours after the meeting ended, Trump tweeted to his followers that they should come to the nation’s capital.
“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Be there, will be wild!”
That turned into a “call to action” for some and a “call to arms” for others, said Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., a member of the committee.
Some Trump supporters came to see Jan. 6 as the last chance to stop his ouster by voters — and a moment that begged for violence, according to videos and online posts the committee offered.
There was at least one reference to a “red wedding” — the scene from the HBO show “Game of Thrones” in which members of a leading family are slaughtered by enemies.
“I’m ready to die for my beliefs,” a person posted on social media in reference to Jan. 6. “Are you ready to die police?”
In a group chat dubbed “The Ministry of Defense,” Proud Boys and Oath Keepers discussed strategic and tactical plans for Jan. 6, including pinpointing police locations, according to the committee. Kelly Meggs, a leader of the Oath Keepers, directly discussed security with Stone on Jan. 5 and Jan. 6, Raskin said.
Stone denied helping plan the attack.
“Any claim assertion or implication that I knew in advance about, was involved in or condoned any illegal act at the Capitol on January 6 is categorically false," he told NBC News in a text message. "Nor was I involved in the effort to delay the certification of the Electoral College. I gave a speech on January 5 consistent with my constitutional free-speech rights to skepticism about the anomalies and irregularities in the 2020 election. I am certainly entitled to my apocalyptic view of America’s future as expressed in my speech.”
Trump spoke twice to Steve Bannon, his former White House adviser, on Jan. 5, according to White House phone logs reviewed by the committee. That day, on his podcast, Bannon told listeners that "all hell is going to break loose tomorrow."
With the zero hour approaching, Trump escalated pressure on Pence. In previous hearings, the committee detailed a heated phone conversation in which Trump berated Pence for refusing to stop the certification of electors. At the same time, he was adding references to Pence to his speech for the Stop the Steal rally, according to the panel.
Against the recommendation of his lawyers, Trump revised his speech to repeatedly point to Pence as the last man standing between him and the end of his presidency. Committee members have said the references helped incite the crowd to view Pence as a villain. During the storming of the Capitol, the mob got within 40 feet of Pence. Some of the rioters chanted "Hang Mike Pence."
The fiery debate at the White House and the connections between informal Trump advisers and extremists are part of the committee’s effort to demonstrate that Trump, growing increasingly desperate to keep power, would use any means — including violence — to stay in power.
At times, the committee showed segments of Cipollone's testimony to reinforce its conclusion, including one in which he said he believed Trump would eventually give up on trying to reverse the outcome of the election.
“If your question is ‘did I believe he should concede the election at a point in time?’ yes, I did,” Cipollone told the committee in recorded testimony, adding that then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows repeatedly reassured him and then-Attorney General William Barr that Trump would eventually concede.
The committee has said that the investigation isn’t over and that it now plans to receive testimony later this week from Byrne, a former CEO of Overstock.com who pushed Trump to seize voting machines at the December Oval Office session.
By the time of that meeting, Barr had already rebuffed Trump.
“The president said something like some people say we could get to the bottom of this if the department seized the machines,” Barr said in recorded testimony.
“I said absolutely not,” Barr recalled. “There’s no probable cause, and I’m not going to seize any machines.”
The panel’s witnesses Thursday included Ayres and Jason Van Tatenhove, a former spokesman for the Oath Keepers.
When all else failed, committee members say, Trump’s efforts culminated in the attack on the Capitol.
That pained Brad Parscale, who worked on Trump's 2016 campaign and was his first 2020 campaign manager. In a text exchange with fellow Trump campaign veteran Katrina Pierson, Parscale said "I feel guilty" for helping Trump.
In particular, he said, he was saddened that Trump's actions had led to the death of a supporter, Ashli Babbitt, who was shot as she tried to enter the room adjacent to the House chamber on Jan. 6. He attributed her shooting to Trump's riling up his base before the attack.
"It wasn't the rhetoric," Pierson wrote.
"Katrina," Parscale replied. "Yes, it was."