ANALYSIS — Donald Trump, like a military commander, yells, “Charge!” with his head poking out a window of his heavily armed U.S. Secret Service SUV, arm extended and pointing toward the Capitol.
His followers, hopped up on his election lies, chant in unison on Jan. 6, 2021 as they rumble, under his command, to stop Congress’ counting of the Electoral College vote. Imagine the scene. Consider how close it came to becoming reality.
Something akin to that, according to former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, is what the 45th president of the United States had in mind that day.
Trump was told by his West Wing aides that morning that many of his supporters had come to the capital city, at his direction, armed. He sent them to the Capitol anyway.
During his chaotic presidency, Trump once referred to America’s top military commanders as “my generals.” But on Jan. 6, Hutchinson described a man who was ready to lead what might be called “MAGA’s charge” up that hill to, in his words at a rally earlier that day, “fight like hell.”
To say Trump did not care would be inaccurate, based on the panel’s gripping and unprecedented June public hearings. He seemed to have cared very much about leading an insurrection and remaining in power, according to Hutchinson, a former aide to then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, and other former aides who testified previously.
No one can predict what would have happened if Trump’s motorcade and his “Make America Great Again” mob had reached the lightly defended Capitol Police barricades together.
So hellbent was MAGA Gen. Trump on leading his troops that day that he wanted metal detectors at his Ellipse rally taken away so armed mob members could hear his call to arms up close.
“I don’t f---ing care if they have weapons. They are not here to hurt me. Take the f---ing mags away,” Hutchinson testified she heard Gen. Trump say before he went onstage.
Trump’s implication was the MAGA mob might be here to hurt someone, but why should the U.S. Secret Service care about anyone but him? So enraged was Gen. Trump that he could not lead the battle, Hutchinson was told by colleagues, that he allegedly lunged at the steering wheel of his vehicle and the clavicles of the head of his Service detail when told it was not safe for him to lead the coming battle.
That incredible allegation has been denied by the two agents via anonymous sources and the Secret Service. But neither had at the time of publication formally agreed to, as Hutchinson did, testify under oath and in public to refute her account.
What MAGA commander Trump envisioned certainly was not George Washington and his ragtag army of colonists crossing the Delaware River, nor Paul Revere’s ride, nor U.S. forces liberating cities across Europe during World War II. It wasn’t even George W. Bush’s “we’ll find all of them soon” bullhorn declaration about the 9/11 attackers standing atop smoking rubble in New York.
It was the opposite.
‘State of mind’
Neal Katyal, a former acting U.S. solicitor general, tweeted in real-time Tuesday that “this witness has directly implicated Donald Trump in the violence on January 6.”
Then there was Meadows, a colonel-level consigliere in Trump’s MAGA army. He barely tried to stop the president, and Hutchinson claimed he seemed rather indifferent to the riot.
Hutchinson could see the mob on television inching closer to the Capitol doors. Was the chief of staff alarmed, trying to keep his former Congress mates safe, trying to get Trump to call off his mob?
“Mark still hadn’t popped out of his office or said anything about it. So that’s when I went into his office,” she claimed. “I saw that he was sitting on his couch on his cell phone, same as the morning where he was just kind of scrolling and typing. … Have you talked to the president? And he said, ‘No, he wants to be alone right now,’ still looking at his phone.”
“Trump’s refusal to intervene in, or take proactive steps when warned of potential violence days in advance, reflects on his state of mind,” one former Justice Department official told CQ Roll Call, and who was granted anonymity to be candid.
Hutchinson told the select committee that Meadows, prior to the riot day, was aware violence at the Capitol was possible. He allegedly told Hutchinson “things might get real, real bad on Jan. 6.” Meadows has refused to testify before the select panel. As the day began on Jan. 6, then-White House Counsel Pat Cipollone warned Hutchinson outside the executive mansion not to allow Trump to go to the Capitol. Why?
“Please make sure we don’t go up to the Capitol, Cassidy. Keep in touch with me. We’re going to get charged with every crime imaginable if we make that movement happen,” Cipollone said, according to Hutchinson.
The former DOJ official told CQ Roll Call he believes federal prosecutors could link everything Meadows knew, as well as actions he took and opted to not take, to Trump: “Meadows and Giuliani knew in advance of Jan. 6 that violence at the Capitol was planned and was a real possibility. I believe this knowledge could be inferred to Trump.”
Katyal had this assessment: “This is devastating.”
Maybe. Maybe not.
Fox News Channel, still wildly popular with Trump’s MAGA base and most conservative voters, did carry the impromptu Tuesday hearing live. During a break, Bret Baier, one of its more level-headed anchors, called Hutchinson’s testimony “stunning” and “compelling” because of her “proximity to power.”
Andy McCarthy, a former assistant United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, told the right-leaning network after Tuesday’s hearing concluded that the most damning aspects were “how much information Trump had about how armed the crowd was.”
“Then he not only encourages them, he wants to lead them,” McCarthy added.
Jan. 6 committee member Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said of MAGA Gen. Trump being told moments before taking the stage at the Ellipse his supporters were armed: “It’s at that moment that we … are able to show Donald Trump knew there were members of the crowd who were violent, armed certainly, and who were refusing to lay down their arms to come in.”
“Now, whether they were going to harm anyone else, that was of no import to Donald Trump,” Raskin told CNN. “I could certainly see [federal] prosecutors looking at that, and if they’re making charges of seditious conspiracy … that that crowd, or people who were ringleaders of that crowd, could be charged with seditious conspiracy.”
“It debunks the lie that the violence was all a surprise to Donald Trump,” he added. “It was no surprise.”
For his part, Trump used posts on his social media site to deny most of Hutchinson’s testimony. He called the witness “bad news” and her anecdotes about the alleged SUV incident “fraudulent” — but he did not deny being told that morning many of his supporters outside the Secret Service perimeter at the Ellipse were armed.
Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, called that alleged knowledge “precisely the sort of ‘smoking gun’ evidence needed to prove that the person speaking meant to incite imminent violence.”
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland ultimately will decide if Trump’s wanna-be-general actions will lead to federal charges against him. If any other charge than seditious conspiracy is handed down, legal experts believe a charged Trump could run again for the most powerful office in the world.
Republican voters would then decide whether or not to make what a credible witness with a front row seat inside his West Wing has described as an out-of-control commander in chief the 2024 GOP presidential nominee.
As the country heads into the July Fourth weekend, if Hutchinson’s testimony does not open the door for Trump’s exit from Republican politics, would anything cause conservative voters to declare their collective independence from the (alleged) ketchup-throwing-secret-service-agent-grabbing-election-denying former reality television star?
Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-only CQ Senate newsletter.