As it builds a case that Donald Trump plotted a coup, the House Jan. 6 committee is painstakingly seeking to undercut his argument that the 2020 election was stolen.
No “rational or sane man” could possibly reach that conclusion given the dearth of evidence and the abundance of top White House advisers who believed that he lost and needed to concede, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the panel’s top Republican, said at the hearing Tuesday.
Trump “cannot escape responsibility by being willfully blind,” she added.
Cheney’s argument seemed to be directed as much toward federal prosecutors as to the television audience watching the panel’s seventh public hearing; she has publicly said she thinks the evidence exists to charge Trump with a crime. One potential defense Trump could offer if he were to face charges is that he was genuinely convinced that he had won a second term and was simply trying to respect the will of the voters. Cheney argued otherwise, and the committee spent a sizable chunk of Tuesday’s hearing detailing all the aides and advisers who told him as much.
The latest star witness to rebut Trump’s claim of a stolen election is Pat Cipollone, the former White House counsel, who didn’t appear in person Tuesday. He gave an eight-hour videotaped deposition last week, parts of which were played at the hearing.
In his testimony, Cipollone said he, too, believed there was no widespread fraud sufficient to overturn Joe Biden’s victory. What’s more, Cipollone said that in private conversations, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said Trump would eventually depart the White House gracefully.
That didn’t happen.
Takeaways from the hearing:
Cipollone agreed with Pence that he had no power to overturn the results
Vice President Mike Pence, who presided over the electoral vote count on Jan. 6, 2021, was under great pressure from Trump not to certify Biden’s win. He refused to comply, telling Trump the Constitution didn’t give him such sweeping powers. That act of defiance angered Trump.
Testimony on Tuesday revealed that Trump was advised not to single out Pence in his Jan. 6 speech. But he ignored the advice.
As the mob breached the Capitol that day, Trump tweeted that Pence lacked the “courage to do what should have been done to protect our country and the Constitution.”
Not only did Pence show “courage,” Cipollone said, but “I suggested to somebody that he should be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his actions.”
No medal came.
Twitter loved Trump
Twitter suspended Trump’s account two days after the attack on the Capitol. But a surprise witness — an ex-Twitter employee — testified that if Trump were anyone else, he would have been banned much earlier.
Obscuring the person’s voice to preserve confidentiality, the committee played audio in which the former employee said: “Twitter relished in the knowledge that they were also the favorite and most used service of the former president and enjoyed having that sort of power within the social media ecosystem.”
In a tweet on Dec. 19, 2020, Trump told his followers about the rally planned for Jan. 6, promising it would “be wild.” He tweeted it as other options fell through and he shifted his focus to assembling a mob on Jan. 6, the panel argued.
The former Twitter employee feared that the tweet would lead to violence.
“It felt as if a mob was being organized and they were gathering together their weaponry and their logic and their reasoning behind why they were prepared to fight,” the person said.
Trump’s former campaign manager feared ‘civil war’
Brad Parscale worked on both of Trump’s presidential bids, serving as campaign manager in 2020 for a time before he was replaced. Parscale traded text messages with Katrina Pierson, a former campaign spokeswoman, on Jan. 6. In his speech, Trump repeated the falsehood that the election had been stolen and that he had won “by a landslide.”
Parscale wrote to Pierson: “This is about Trump pushing for uncertainty in our country.”
“A sitting president asking for civil war,” he added.
Parscale went on to say he had “lost faith” in Trump.
After he told Pierson that he felt “guilty” about having helped Trump win, she wrote: “You did what you felt right at the time, and therefore, it was right.”
“Yeah, but a woman is dead,” Parscale wrote, referring to Ashli Babbitt, a Trump supporter who was killed during the riot. He added, “If I was Trump and knew my rhetoric killed someone.”
“It wasn’t the rhetoric,” Pierson wrote.
“Katrina. Yes, it was,” Parscale replied.
Panel contacted DOJ after Trump tried to call a witness
At the end of the panel’s previous hearing, Cheney warned that Trump allies could be engaging in witness tampering and intimidation.
At the close of Tuesday’s hearing, she said that Trump himself had tried to contact a witness and that the committee had alerted the Justice Department.
“After our last hearing, President Trump tried to call a witness in our investigation, a witness you have not yet seen in these hearings,” Cheney said in her closing remarks. “That person declined to answer or respond to President Trump’s call and instead alerted their lawyer to the call; their lawyer alerted us.
“And this committee has supplied that information to the Department of Justice,” she continued. “Let me say one more time: We will take any effort to influence witness testimony very seriously.”
Cheney has said the panel routinely asks witnesses whether they have been contacted by Trump administration or campaign officials seeking to shape their testimony. Tuesday’s revelations now suggest there have been multiple efforts by those in Trump’s orbit to influence testimony.
At its June 28 hearing featuring former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, the committee highlighted two messages that witnesses had received. One phone call urged a witness to “continue to be a team player” and to keep “protecting who I need to protect” to “stay in good graces of Trump World.”
In another call, a witness was told that someone “let me know you have your deposition tomorrow.”
“He wants me to let you know that he’s thinking about you,” the witness said the person said. “He knows you’re loyal and you’re going to do the right thing when you go in for your deposition.”
NBC News and other outlets have reported that Hutchinson, a former top aide to Meadows, received one of those calls.
The Oval Office fight
The incredibly colorful descriptions of a “hot-blooded,” expletive-filled Oval Office meeting in December 2020 may someday be depicted in a TV drama series.
But it’s the raw substance of the meeting that had the Jan. 6 committee really on edge. It was there that panel members believe Trump and his ragtag team of informal advisers plotted a coup to stay in power.
During the impromptu gathering, conservative attorney and conspiracy theorist Sidney Powell, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and others had presented Trump with a draft executive order that would have directed the Defense Department to seize voting machines. The trio also wanted the president to appoint Powell as special counsel in charge of overseeing the operation and investigating allegations of widespread election fraud that the courts all across the country said didn’t exist.
White House counsel Pat Cipollone; Eric Herschmann, a senior adviser to the president; and others were livid over the harebrained proposal. Cipollone testified that the federal government had no authority to seize voting machines — “a terrible idea” — and that he viewed Powell as unqualified for any formal role.
“I was vehemently opposed — I didn’t think she should be appointed to anything,” Cipollone told the committee in a videotaped deposition Friday.
Powell told the committee she believed that Trump had, in fact, deputized her as special counsel during the meeting. But the gathering went on for hours with no resolution, and a frustrated Trump never pursued the plan further.
Instead, an hour after the meeting broke up, he fired off a tweet urging his millions of followers to come protest the election results on Jan. 6.
“President Trump turned away from both his outside advisers’ most outlandish and unworkable plans and his White House counsel’s advice to swallow hard and accept the reality of his loss,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.
“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.”