Eugene Robinson: Trump’s behavior on Jan. 6 was worse than you thought. Much worse.
July 22, 2022 Updated Fri., July 22, 2022 at 5:11 p.m.
However outrageous or irresponsible or treasonous you thought President Donald Trump’s behavior might have been on Jan. 6, 2021, it was actually worse. Much worse.
That was the message hammered home by the House select committee’s prime-time hearing on Thursday night. According to testimony presented by the committee, for nearly three long hours, as a violent mob smashed its way into the Capitol and hunted Vice President Mike Pence with homicidal intent, the president sat in his private White House dining room and watched the chaos unfold on a television tuned to Fox News.
He made phone calls, but not to the Pentagon or the Department of Homeland Security or anyone who could help put down the riot. Instead, he called Republican senators and lobbied then to object to final certification of the electoral college vote.
The two-hour hearing – the committee’s eighth and last, at least for now – was a gripping end to Season One of what has been the most compelling television series of the year.
In-person witnesses Matthew Pottinger, who was Trump’s deputy national security adviser, and Sarah Matthews, who was his deputy press secretary, confirmed previous testimony about Trump’s shocking lack of concern for the officials and police officers who were being besieged at the Capitol. After witnessing Trump’s dereliction of duty, both Pottinger and Matthews resigned.
The hearing was led by committee members Elaine Luria, D-Va., and Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill.. Both are veterans – Luria served 20 years in the Navy, Kinzinger was in the Air Force and serves now in the Air National Guard – and both strained to control their visceral outrage at Trump’s inaction.
What was the most shocking and disgraceful moment in the White House that day? The committee highlighted the tweet Trump posted at 2:24 p.m., when he knew the mob had already breached the Capitol’s defenses. Instead of trying to calm his followers, he incited them – and put a target on his own vice president’s back.
“Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify,” Trump tweeted. “USA demands the truth!”
A witness involved with White House security – whose identity the committee obscured, out of concern for the individual’s safety – testified that members of Pence’s Secret Service detail perceived the situation at the Capitol as so desperate, they feared for their lives and sent goodbye messages to their families.
Even before Thursday’s finale, the committee had presented a compelling case against Trump and his enablers, who attempted something unprecedented in U.S. history: the overturning of a free and fair presidential election. Having failed dismally in the courts, Trump chose the formal counting of electoral votes on Jan. 6 as a last-ditch opportunity to take his unlawful, unholy, un-American crusade into the streets.
There should not have been a need for a select committee in the first place. Democrats wanted the Capitol insurrection to be investigated by an independent blue-ribbon commission, as was done following prior national crises such as the John F. Kennedy assassination and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Republicans refused to allow any such thing. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had no choice but to set up a bipartisan panel of House members.
When Pelosi objected to two of House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy’s choices for the committee, McCarthy (Calif.) decided not to participate at all. With his matchless gift for saying the quiet part out loud, McCarthy explained his thinking Wednesday to Fox News host Sean Hannity: “The American people would sit up there and they would think this was a fair process.”
That turned out to be a huge mistake. Two Republicans with backbone – Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and Kinzinger – decided to serve on the committee anyway, putting patriotism above party. And the panel chose to tell the story of Trump’s months-long effort to overturn the election largely through live and videotaped testimony by Republicans, including loyal Trump aides. Trump’s attorney general, his White House counsel and even his oldest daughter told the committee that well before Jan. 6 they had accepted the fact that Joe Biden won.
The question is what happens now.
“There needs to be accountability,” committee chairman Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., said tonight in his opening statement, delivered remotely because he had tested positive for the coronavirus. “Accountability under the law. Accountability to the American people.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland has the authority to seek that accountability – the authority to show that ours is truly a country where no one, not even a former president, is above the law. The nation waits to see what Garland will do.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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