POLITICS

This time, it wasn't what he did. It was what he wouldn't do as a mob attacked the Capitol

Susan Page
USA TODAY
  • Witness: "It was him pouring gasoline on the fire and making it much worse."
  • At the eighth hearing Thursday night, the panel narrowed its focus to that one day and to one man.
  • The picture that emerged was of a president most notable for what he wasn't doing.

The juxtapositions were jarring.

As rioters breached the Capitol on the afternoon of Jan. 6, 2021, Secret Service officers guarding Mike Pence on Capitol Hill felt so imperiled that some were calling family members to say goodbye, just in case. Minutes later, watching the mob on his TV at the White House, President Donald Trump was posting a tweet that sharpened the target on his vice president's back.

Pence "didn't have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution," Trump scoffed. Members of the mob, reading his message in real time, heightened their search to hunt down Pence. 

On Jan. 6:Secret Service agents feared for their lives during Capitol attack, made goodbye phone calls

"It was him pouring gasoline on the fire and making it much worse," said Sarah Matthews, then a deputy press secretary, who testified Thursday at a prime-time hearing of the House committee investigating Jan. 6. He was giving them a "green light" for their violence, she said.

In a series of hearings over the last six weeks, the Jan. 6 panel has showcased sweeping testimony about Trump's increasingly desperate efforts to question and overturn the results of the election he had lost in 2020. That campaign culminated in an assault aimed at subverting the final step, the largely ceremonial certification of electoral votes by Congress.

Now, at the eighth hearing Thursday night, the committee narrowed its focus to that one day and to one man, dissecting in detail what Trump did during 187 minutes – the three hours or so from the beginning of the attack on the Capitol until he finally urged the rioters to go home.

Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., center, speaks as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing at the Capitol in Washington on Thursday. From left, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., and Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.

Jan. 6 hearing recap:Trump 'chose not to act,' Sen. Hawley 'riled up' the crowd, then fled

At times the hearing had the feel of a pointillist painting, dabs of details that only with a step back form a coherent portrait.  

The picture that emerged was of a president most notable for what he wasn't doing after he addressed an angry rally of his supporters at the Ellipse. As the violence began, White House counsel Pat Cipollone told the committee, Trump didn't call a single official at the Defense Department, Homeland Security, the FBI, or the National Guard to deploy forces to help the overwhelmed Capitol Police to quell the riot.

Instead, for more than three hours, he sat in his small dining room next to the Oval Office and watched the riot rage on his widescreen TV mounted over the fireplace. Again and again, he rebuffed the entreaties of White House aides, Republican congressional leaders, the Fox media personalities who had always been his champion, and even his daughter Ivanka to condemn the violence and tell his supporters to go home.

He finally recorded a grudging video, posted it at 4:17 and retired to the White House residence.

At this hearing and the previous ones, the Jan. 6 committee has managed to do what typically seems impossible in Congress. The narrative was tightly organized, propelled by film clips and oversized tweets and photographs of dramatic moments. Two members, Virginia Rep. Elaine Luria, a Democrat, and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican, conducted almost all the questioning. That avoided the parade of five-minute question times for each member which is often an opportunity for grandstanding.

Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., delivers an opening statement during a public hearing before the House select committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol held on Thursday. Rep. Liz Cheney is on the left.

And while House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy refused to appoint Republicans to the committee, calling it a political witch hunt, almost all the testimony at the hearings has come from figures close to Trump. On Thursday, those testifying in person were both one-time members of his West Wing staff, former deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger and Matthews. 

The hearing sets the stage for the final months of the committee's work. The Thursday session was initially planned to be the final hearing, but Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the Republican vice chair, announced that more would be held in September. "We've received new evidence, and new witnesses have bravely stepped forward," she said. "The dam is beginning to break." 

Apparently one of those watching was Trump. An hour after the hearing ended, he issued a 12-word statement: "'15 minutes of fame' Matthews, who I didn't know, is clearly lying," it said, displaying a tweet that she posted on the last day of the Trump administration, on Jan. 20: "Thank you President Trump and Vice President Pence for your service to the American people."

At the hearing, she noted that she had resigned from the White House on Jan. 6, a decision she made after Trump posted the tweet denouncing Pence. 

Former National Security Council member Matthew Pottinger and former Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Matthews testify on Thursday.

The hearing also showed new outtakes from Trump's efforts to record a video on Jan. 7, as the nation was still reeling from what had happened the day before. He read from a script loaded onto his teleprompter. He called the attack "heinous" and said, "To those who broke the law, you will pay."

But then he balked. "But this election is now over; Congress has certified the results," he began to read. "I don't want to say the election's over," he protested. And he didn't.

A White House aid testifies that President Donald  Trump's "unpatriotic" anger was "over a lie."