Seventh Jan. 6 hearing showcases chaotic post-election plotting

Introducing Grid Health, our new weekly health and policy newsletter

‘UNHINGED’: Seventh Jan. 6 hearing showcases Trumpworld’s chaotic post-election plotting

Then-President Donald Trump planned to summon a mob of supporters on Jan. 6 to march to the Capitol, with many likely prepared to commit violence, the congressional panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack said on Tuesday.


Hear more from the conversation between Anne Tindall, Justin Rood and Steve Reilly:




Trump’s ad-libbed violent rhetoric in his Jan. 6 rally speech was part of a secret weekslong effort by the president to retain power despite losing the 2020 election, which hinged on disrupting — physically, if necessary — Congress’ certification of the actual vote, according to testimony and analysis the panel provided. The president’s plans were known by close aides, who helped keep it secret both from the public and from agencies who could have ensured safety and order, according to the committee.

In its seventh public hearing, the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol presented new evidence showing Trump’s advisers and others knew there was no basis to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and feared the likelihood that a Jan. 6 protest could turn violent but moved forward with both anyway.

“After the election, President Trump relentlessly pursued multiple interlocking lines of effort, all with a single goal: to remain in power even though he had lost,” committee member Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., said in an opening statement.

ADVERTISEMENT

A large portion of the hearing focused on what Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., described as a “heated and profane clash” at the White House on the evening of Dec. 18, 2020, between Trump allies Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani, former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, and a group of White House lawyers and advisers.

“The west wing is UNHINGED,” then-Mark Meadows aide Cassidy Hutchinson wrote in a text message at the time of the meeting, according to evidence presented at the hearing.

Hours after the Dec. 18 meeting, Trump sent an infamous early-morning tweet that motivated thousands of supporters to come to Washington: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”

Former congressional investigators Anne Tindall, who is now counsel at the nonprofit group Protect Democracy, and Justin Rood, investigations editor at Grid, discussed their reactions to the hearing in a Twitter Spaces conversation on Tuesday. The conversation, moderated by Grid Investigative Reporter Steve Reilly, has been edited for length and clarity.

Grid: This was an information-dense three-hour hearing. What is standing out to you most following the hearing?

ADVERTISEMENT

Anne Tindall: It was a gripping hearing. Yes, a lot of new information. I don’t think it added a ton to what we know about what [Rep.] Liz Cheney [R-Wyo.] at the first hearing laid out as, sort of, the hub-and-spoke conspiracy of the efforts to overturn the election. But it included some really gripping testimony and evidence, I thought, about how clear the threat of violence was and what a central role the president himself played in stoking it.

Particularly effective, I thought, was the breakdown of the planning for Jan. 6: all the warnings about violent groups and their plans for attending, the sub rosa plan to march to the Capitol kept from the government entities that could keep people safe on purpose. And then President Trump’s ad-libbing most of the inflammatory rhetoric into his speech after it had been toned down by some of the folks in the White House Counsel’s Office.

Justin Rood: The focus here was on marshaling the facts to establish the violence on Jan. 6 and the assault on the Capitol were not happenstance — were not phenomena that simply arose from the crowd that was gathered — but they were part of a plan, or an understanding and expectation that had begun in late December with the “it’ll be wild” tweet and continued through that day. And that what we saw was the result of planning and efforts by the president and enablers to build a crowd, an armed crowd, with a plan to take them to the Capitol and to potentially disrupt the proceedings. That was laid out very well and clearly, I think, using both new information and old.

The effect is that the committee has taken off the table the notion that this stuff happened spontaneously or without anyone’s expectation — or that things that the president may have ad-libbed, for instance, or sent in a particular tweet were just kind of how he was feeling at that moment. When they line that timeline up — when Rep. Cheney said at the beginning, we’re going to be going from mid-December to the morning of Jan. 6, it’s really clear on that timeline that folks were building the plan to gather armed crowds and to bring them to the Capitol.

G: If we drill down on what we learned about the ad-libbing of that speech (by Trump on Jan. 6), why might that be important from a legal perspective?

ADVERTISEMENT

AT: A couple of things. One is, most of the charges that he would face criminally would be some form of conspiracy — whether it’s conspiracy to defraud or conspiracy to a seditious conspiracy, also incitement. But all of these things require overt acts. And here you have another collection of acts that the president took on his own to sort of move forward the plan to overturn the election.

And also, in all of these, his state of mind will be at issue. And state of mind is hard to draw from a speech reading over language that has been vetted and drafted by staffers and vetted throughout the White House. It’s a lot easier to draw state of mind from the statements he ad-libbed. And everything he added in appears to have been related to either urging strength, violence and defense of country by the folks he already knew were armed, or calling out, again, Mike Pence and putting a target on his back even though he’d been warned that would be dangerous to do. I think he gets in hotter water, with each of these hearings, and I would love to be a fly on the wall of the Justice Department.

JR: We heard the term “civil war” used twice in today’s hearing in a non-theoretical, non-historical context. I found that really, really alarming. We saw it in Brad Parscale’s texts in which he makes reference to a sitting president calling for a civil war. And we heard it from one of the witnesses, former Oath Keeper Jason Van Tatenhove, who said that was what Trump was aiming for, so to speak.

It’s hard, when you have folks screaming “1776″ over and over, not to miss the references for violent conflict. But to hear it referenced here, a civil war referenced twice in that context, I thought was particularly chilling.

AT: It was. And pair that with the increasing embrace of that sort of rhetoric by one of the major political parties in the United States. Rep. Raskin referenced this in his closing statement, but you think about the [Eric] Greitens ad put out a couple of weeks ago in Missouri, calling for open season on RINOs. You have Rick Scott talking about voters marching to the sound of bullets. I mean, there’s both accountability here but also a warning that if we don’t do something — and, in fact, one of the witnesses himself sort of pointed this out — if we don’t do something to stop this, it’s only gonna get worse.


JR: I think that sense of urgency and concern was really important. I want to go back to a previous kind of question that we’ve had about Jan. 6, which is the law enforcement response and the federal government’s response to this.

We’ve been told the story that nobody really knew what was going to happen. But we clearly saw here — both in Parscale’s texts of the concerns that he was sharing and reflections that he was sharing, and Katrina Pierson, one of the key organizers for the “Stop the Steal” rally on the sixth. Pierson was really freaking out about some of the folks who had been invited — Ali Alexander, Alex Jones — and the possibility for violence from their supporters. In fact, at one point she makes reference to getting in trouble with the Park Service because of this march to the Capitol that they had not alerted the Park Service of.

Clearly there were plenty of people within Trump’s orbit who were aware of and worried about the possibility of violence, and had their hands on the buttons on the phones that could reach out to any government agency to assist with a response or planning. The issue is not just, as I think Rep. Cheney is really focused on, what Trump didn’t do that day, but what so many of the staff who clearly had concerns and could read — I want to say between the lines, but I think they could read the lines themselves — and see what Trump was calling for and what his supporters were saying online. Why that wasn’t shared, and why there wasn’t a sense that the government was something that needs to be protected, is really concerning.

G: The committee focused a lot today on a meeting in the White House on Dec. 18, 2020, between some key Trumpworld figures and White House lawyers. Why was that meeting such a focal point, and what did we learn about it from the new evidence we saw today?

AT: It serves a few purposes. And I think that what we learned was not particularly new, but it was told dramatically in a way that is sticking with people. But you clearly had the folks who were in the White House — the White House Counsel’s Office and the White House Staff Secretary Derek Lyons saying, “What Rudy Giuliani and Gen. Michael Flynn and Sidney Powell are urging you to do is nuts.” And then Powell and Giuliani and Flynn saying, you know, “They’re not trying to help you, we’re the ones who are here to actually do something.” It makes clear that the solid advice was available.

ADVERTISEMENT

At one point, there was testimony that he was saying that at least Powell and Giuliani were giving him ideas and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and his team were not offering up ideas about how to turn over the election. And it’s not a coincidence, I assume, that early the next morning, at 1:42, he sent out the tweet that set in motion this final option for overturning the election — and that is disrupting the actual counting of the electoral votes with violence.

JR: It really makes clear how this raid on the Capitol was almost like Plan C. Plan A was, well, let’s call on the Insurrection Act and have [the Defense Department] seize all the voting machines. And then when that was a non-starter, Plan B was let’s empower Sidney Powell as a special prosecutor and get her a clearance and she can make this case for us. And when Cipollone wouldn’t even go along with that, it seems like, well, the president still had Twitter, and he can call on his mobs, and we’ll figure out how to take it from there. But it’s just kind of astonishing that that was the level of planning that was going into this as some of the more reasonable voices were getting shut out of the room, bit by bit.

AT: And I also feel like each of these hearings has had Trump as main character, and then someone else comes in for a beating. And up until this point, it’s been other people who were enabling him. And today I think that was Twitter. And the voices within Twitter saying we are going to have blood on our hands, essentially — but the powers that be letting it all unfold in front of us.

JR: Anne, can I put on your congressional investigator hat for a second and ask: That [testimony from a former Twitter employee] was the first time that we saw that technique of the voice change and testifying behind a screen. What did you think of how they did that?

AT: I think that the risk is that an anonymous source is always less persuasive than someone willing to make themselves known under oath in front of the world. It may be that the blame cast on Twitter will be less clear as a result. It’s really chilling that whoever within Twitter wanted to come forward and provide this testimony to the committee for either personal safety or professional reasons, feels like they can’t do that. I certainly talked to confidential witnesses when I was a congressional investigator, but anything we put out publicly, we used the sources who would go on the record.

ADVERTISEMENT

JR: When I was an investigator, this was always something that we treated as a theoretical possibility if we needed to, but we really felt like unless you have armed gangs chasing you, it wasn’t kind of the sort of thing that we would want to offer someone. The fact that they did here, I think, may — for those who are predisposed to lend credibility to the panel, I think it is chilling. And I’m a little bit concerned that it may not have the same effect for folks who may still be viewing the panel somewhat skeptically.

But we saw a few curveballs. We also saw our first witness who wasn’t really a fact eyewitness to anything that we’re talking about. We had Van Tatenhove, the former Oath Keeper, as a witness. And then they had, actually, one of the Jan. 6 rioters there at the table as another witness, which is also a curveball.

I thought that they played very well. I thought that they were able to give good context. But I don’t know how you would have used them or what you think about those unusual types of witnesses being used in this hearing.

AT: I think one of the things that has kept the story of Jan. 6 from punching through the political noise to the extent that those of us who either live in or obsess over Washington would think is — the violence did ultimately cease, the election was certified, Biden is president. It seems like a story about important people and their bad day. I imagine the committee is — through Mr. Ayres, through the police officers, through Shaye Moss — trying to draw connections between what was planned and how it really hurt real ordinary Americans.

One of the most poignant things I have seen so far actually happened after the hearing ended, and Mr. Ayers went over, it appears that Mr. Ayers went over to each of the Capitol Police officers and Metropolitan Police officers who were in the hearing room and apologized. And that sort of humanizing of the story helps it resonate more, I think, with more Americans.

ADVERTISEMENT

JR: Well, I think it also adds a note of reconciliation. That’s something that — at this political moment, generally speaking, and specifically in terms of how the 2020 election is viewed and the way this very investigation is going and is being received — ”reconciliation” is simply not a word that you hear very often. Let’s hope with good faith that that was a real gesture. It would definitely be a grace note to a hearing that otherwise was mostly about plans to commit violence on a grand scale.

G: Was there anything that you were expecting to see or hear at today’s hearing that you didn’t?

JR: We’ve talked from the beginning about how there was this inside game and this outside game — there was the effort to gin up these false slates of electors, and at the same time, there was this outside game of the violent rally, the protest that turns into a riot with the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers and others seeded with arms in the crowd.

We were looking for any crossover connection between those two plots. If that was going to be presented at a hearing, I was expecting it to be at this hearing. And we didn’t hear a whole lot of that. There were examples in which different figures were in communication. We heard about Roger Stone’s text chain with Roger Stone’s friends that had him in touch with [then-Proud Boys leader] Enrique Tarrio and [Oath Keepers Leader Stewart] Rhodes and others. We had examples of Mike Flynn being in contact with folks. But there was nothing that helped us understand, I felt, if there was any kind of coordination or planning between those two efforts beyond simply the president’s awareness that they were both taking place. We didn’t hear more on that.

AT: I think that’s right. I think one thing I would say about that is, that is extremely important to the narrative coherence of what the committee is doing here. It’s essential to the public accountability that those connections are clear and don’t feel attenuated. I think, legally, for a conspiracy to be proven, you don’t all have to be in the same room. The chain communication is a classic form of evidence in a conspiracy. So I don’t think it necessarily hurts the legal case — which, of course, hasn’t been brought yet.

ADVERTISEMENT

I think one other thing that I think is interesting and I would love to hear — I have no idea if they’ll be able to get the evidence to put on — but something happened between when that Dec. 18 meeting broke up after midnight — and Sidney Powell was or was not made special counsel to seize voting machines — and when Trump, at 1:42 in the morning, sent out his tweet to come to D.C., it’ll be wild. What prompted him to move on to the last-ditch effort? Was there communication between the president and Roger Stone or Gen. Flynn or Steve Bannon or any of these folks who were more directly connected to the militia movements, who ultimately did come closer than any of the lawyers to overturning the results? That’s my speculation. I don’t know.

JR: Immediately following Trump’s tweet that you just referenced, the committee did a great super-cut of Alex Jones and Tim Pool and a bunch of other big right-wing platformers basically interpreting that tweet and saying this is it, this is a major historical event. So it was very quickly and directly amplified to Trump’s audience. They pointed out that he continued to promote it in that way. At no point did anyone step in and say, “This needs to be peaceful, please leave your weapons at home.” Nothing like that. It was full speed ahead.

And to your point, Trump was in all of the meetings that we’ve heard about so far. He was certainly aware of what some of these Freedom Caucus [members], Rep. Scott Perry (R-Penn.) and others, were trying to do in Congress. He was certainly aware of what Giuliani and Powell were up to, and plans for the rally, and was in touch with Steve Bannon and others the morning of.

So if there was one person who knew everything that was going on, it’s beginning to look more and more like that person was Donald Trump.

AT: It sure is.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Steve Reilly
    Steve Reilly

    Investigative Reporter

    Steve Reilly is an investigative reporter for Grid focusing on threats to democracy.