The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot showed Tuesday the pull Donald Trump’s words had on his supporters, using the vivid personal account of Stephen Ayres, who illegally breached the building that day, to drive home its point.
Ayres, who pleaded guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct in a restricted building, said he learned about the “Stop the Steal” rally on social media and long believed the election was stolen from Trump. He said it “definitely” would have made a difference if he knew at that time the former president actually possessed no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
Ayres told the committee he “may not have come down” to the Capitol from Ohio, had he known that. Since Jan. 6, Ayres lost his job and sold his house, something he said changed his life — but “definitely not for the better.”
The committee showed evidence about Trump’s profanity-laced Oval Office meeting with West Wing and outside advisers on Dec. 18, when he was urged by outside lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani to seize voting machines and appoint Powell as a special counsel overseeing that effort. As Dec. 19 arrived, Trump focused just before 2 a.m. on Jan. 6, telling his millions of Twitter followers to get to D.C. for a big protest: “Be there, will be wild!”
What ensued was a succession of extremist groups and supporters coalescing behind the effort to overturn the election on Jan. 6, according to evidence and testimony the select committee showed Tuesday.
Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., a member of the panel and vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, highlighted Ayres’ testimony during his weekly press conference Wednesday, noting he “was particularly taken” by Ayres’ comments as someone who participated in the rally and “then took the president’s charge and wish to come march on the Capitol.”
“How it has changed his life was particularly moving,” Aguilar said.
Ayres’ testimony showed Trump was the impetus for him coming to Washington, D.C., under the false pretense that the election was stolen and for him to march to and eventually enter the Capitol.
Ayres said he didn’t plan to march to the Capitol until Trump, during a rally that morning near the White House, told the gathered crowd to do so. “So we, basically, we’re just following what he said,”Ayres said, noting he and others at the rally were “worked up” and expected Trump to join them in their push to the Capitol.
When Trump, finally bowing to aides’ and GOP lawmakers’ pleas, did tell the mob to go home, that convinced Ayres and others to immediately leave the Capitol, he testified.
Trump posted a video on Twitter at 4:17 p.m. telling the rioters to leave, Ayres and others heeded the message after the mob had assaulted law enforcement officers and ransacked the Capitol. “We literally left right after that come out,” Ayres said. If Trump had told the rioters to leave earlier in the day, Ayres said the damage might have been mitigated.
“Maybe we wouldn’t be in this bad of a situation,” Ayres said.
Ayres approached some of the officers who defended the Capitol that day after the hearing and attempted to make amends. He told Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn: “Sorry. I’m really sorry.” In a tweet, the officer made clear it was not accepted, however.
Trump’s Dec. 19 tweet set into motion organizers to hold the rally on Jan. 6, propelled members from far-right extremist groups like the Oath Keepers to call for action on that date and stirred up violent online rhetoric.
‘A woman is dead’
The committee also showed how gripping Trump’s 2020 campaign manger thought was the then-president’s rhetoric during the Jan. 6 Ellipse rally. Brad Parscale texted another campaign staffer, Katrina Pierson, this that evening: “This week I feel guilty for helping him win.”
Pierson wrote back: “You did what you felt was right at the time and therefore it was right.”
Parscale responded, referring to Ashli Babbitt, a pro-Trump rioter shot dead by a Capitol Police officer as she tried to enter the Speaker’s Lobby off the House floor. “Yeah. But a woman is dead,” adding with apparent shock: “Yeah. If I was trump and knew my rhetoric killed someone.”
When Pierson said it wasn’t the rhetoric, Parscale responded: “Katrina. … Yes it was.”
Parscale also told her, in his view, Trump had asked “for civil war.”
The hearing on Tuesday examined the “link of extremism to the activities that happened on Jan. 6 and the fact that the extremists and the former president both had the same goal, which was to stop a peaceful transfer of power. And that that rhetoric meant something,” Aguilar said.
The panel is expected to hold its eighth hearing next week. That one will track 187 minutes within the White House on Jan. 6, as well as examine what Trump was doing and how he could have prevented the violence if he delivered a message to the mob earlier that day telling them to leave.
As for hearings beyond one next week, Aguilar left that open-ended, saying: “We’re not closing the door on anything that could happen in the future based on new information, new witnesses coming forward. As we’ve shown in the past few weeks, there’s always more information that can come out that could alter our calculus.”