What we learned in the eighth January 6 hearing

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‘I don’t want to say the election’s over’: What we learned in the eighth Jan. 6 hearing

As rioting supporters, many armed, stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, then-President Donald Trump refused to urge calm or direct federal resources to protect the Capitol complex, according to evidence and testimony presented by the congressional panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack at its eighth public hearing on Thursday.

According to the panel’s evidence, Trump spent most of the 187 minutes of the Capitol attack alone in the White House dining room, glued to Fox News and unmoved by pleas for action from his increasingly panicked staff and family members.

“Even though he was the only person in the world who could call off the mob he sent to the Capitol, he could not be moved to rise from his dining room table and walk the few steps down the White House hallway into the Press Briefing Room,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chair of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, said in opening remarks.

Thursday’s hearing featured live testimony from two former Trump administration officials who resigned due to the events of Jan. 6: former Deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger and former deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews.

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Matthews testified that she decided to resign after seeing the video Trump released on the afternoon of Jan. 6 in which he told the rioters to go home, but also told them “We love you” and repeated the lie that the 2020 election was stolen.

“He told the people who we had just watched storm our nation’s Capitol with the intent on overthrowing our democracy, violently attack police officers and chant heinous things like ‘Hang Mike Pence’: ‘We love you, you’re very special.’ As a spokesperson for him, I knew that I would be asked to defend that,” Matthews said. “To me, his refusal to act and call off the mob that day and his refusal to condemn the violence was indefensible. I knew that I would be resigning that evening.”

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 conversation on Thursday. The conversation, moderated by Grid Investigative Reporter Steve Reilly, has been edited for length and clarity.

Grid: What are your immediate reactions to tonight’s hearing?

AT: I found it really sad. Some of the details about the Secret Service members calling their families to say goodbye. The one person who could have brought it all to an end was so unmoved by the danger that other people were in. It is really hard to process.

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JR: It is hard to wrap your head around. For all of the knocks that D.C. takes, it is a city with a lot of people who are trying to help others. And that’s Democrat, Republican — across the political spectrum. To hear an account where a branch of government is under attack, law enforcement is overwhelmed, when Trump had access to all of the tools, all the resources and personnel and officials to address it. To choose to do nothing; it’s just stunning. For the audience outside of Washington, D.C. — this is our country and our democracy that we’re talking about. It’s just hard to fathom the choice not to intervene.

AT: Yeah. It’s heavy.

G: How well do you think the committee did telling the narrative of what Trump did and didn’t do on Jan. 6?

JR: I think they did something that’s not normal, but it was effective: focus not just on the findings, but on what the findings mean. They focused overall on this issue of Trump’s fealty to the oath of office and to his constitutional obligations. They framed the hearing as telling the story of how he abdicated those responsibilities, those very solemn responsibilities. Within that frame, every phone call that he didn’t make, every conversation he had on a different topic, added to the weight of that argument.

AT: That’s right. And they also did a good job of framing, upfront, the president’s efforts to keep us from hearing the story. The president’s movements are carefully constructed, and detailed, and recorded, both for his safety and the security of the country, but also by law. And the gaps in the record [the committee reported that the White House phone log and presidential diary had no entries for the 187-minute period, and the White House official photographer was barred from photographing Trump during that time].

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So the committee had to rely on other people describing what they saw then — or in many cases, saying what they heard from someone else, a couple anonymous witnesses again. It explained why they were having to use that sort of evidence nicely. That empty record — the image of the gaps in time — and the narrative of both the lack of action and the lack of empathy, really sort of fit together in this hearing.

JR: I’m reminded of that old political saw that you never let a crisis go to waste. When the chief White House photographer wants to take pictures and is told “no photographs,” that’s pretty stunning. If there’s a hurricane, if there’s any kind of other major event or disaster, it’s an opportunity for a leader to show that they’re in command of the situation, show that they’re empathetic and that they’re watching out for Americans. The total abdication of that was mystifying in the moment and stunning even now.

AT: He didn’t call the secretary of Defense, he didn’t call the attorney general. But he did call Rudy Giuliani and [Republican Alabama Sen. Tommy] Tuberville. We were in a very precarious place as a country.

G: We saw a lot of new video and audio, including the security footage showing Vice President Mike Pence’s security detail. What stood out in terms of the new evidence that was presented today?

AT: Two pieces stood out for me. One, I thought the use of the radio calls on Jan. 6 as things are unfolding was really gripping and woven in well. And then the outtakes from Trump’s speech [the committee detailed a failed attempt to record a presidential message denouncing the violence on the sixth]. He looked so angry, like he was the aggrieved one here after what the Capitol Police and his vice president and countless others had endured.


JR: I think the Secret Service radio traffic from the day was powerful, with the anonymous officials’ interpretation describing the agents’ calls asking colleagues to call their family members.

You know, one of the biggest pushbacks that we’ve heard in defense of Trump is that Jan. 6 wasn’t very violent — along with things that are patently false, like the crowd didn’t have weapons and things like that. But when you have the security officials who were there on the scene on the day describing the intensity of the violence, the security concerns around the both Pence and members of Congress and themselves, it’s very, very hard to refute. I don’t see how that line of argument can be successful going forward.

G: What do you make of the outtake from the video Trump was filming on Jan. 7, where Trump says “I don’t want to say the election is over”?

AT: Well, a couple of things: One, he’s obviously still not saying that the election is over. So this continues. I think if he conceded that the election was over, his continuing assertions to the contrary would be knowingly false. That said, willful blindness is not excused under the law. At this point, it is abundantly clear he knew that he had no claim to an election victory. That may be what he was thinking, that he needed to be able to go on claiming that. From a legal perspective, I think the committee’s work has made that claim legally irrelevant.

JR: I would say, first, he had concerns about alienating his base when they clearly were responding very positively and aggressively to his false narrative of the stolen election. But we’ve also heard in earlier hearings about the hundreds of millions of dollars that Trump was raising off of this. Knowing he was leaving office and looking for sources of income, that may be a concern that was on his mind also. I would be surprised — given that they brought it up and spent so much time on it an earlier hearings — that if and when they further address the question of motive for some of Trump’s conduct and statements, they wouldn’t revisit that point.

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AT: It seems as if there is nothing Donald Trump fears more than being a loser. There’s just an element of pridefulness there, I think. It looked as if the words did not feel right in his mouth.

G: What else stood out to you about tonight’s hearing?

JR: The witnesses were more like props this time. Most of the stunning revelations came from evidence that had been uncovered previous to the hearing. I think they were trying to get a whole lot done in one hearing, and it became a weird jumble of hearing techniques that we’d seen before. Overall, I think it was a gripping and powerful hearing. But I think when you start to take it apart, some of the pieces don’t make as much sense as they did in other hearings.

AT: I mostly agree with that. [Republican Wyoming Rep.] Liz Cheney and [Republican Illinois Rep.] Adam Kinzinger really drilled home that this case hasn’t been made by left-wing partisans. And, in a way that I don’t think other witnesses that they’ve actually had in the room with them have done, both Pottinger and Matthews gave the stalwart, ‘I’m a lifelong Republican. I’ve been on Team Trump since day one.’ So these were the Trumpiest witnesses. And they, too, were disgusted by what they saw that day.

G: We’re at a kind of “season finale” moment tonight, with the committee expected take a break from holding public hearings in August before resuming them in September. What are your thoughts on the case the committee has made so far and whether they have been successful?

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AT: Those sorts of things are easier to see a little farther out, but I’ll make a couple of observations. One, I heard some polling today about how much independents have moved toward viewing Trump as culpable for Jan. 6 and as having lost the election. [Note: An NPR poll released Thursday shows 57 percent of independents say Trump is to blame for the Capitol riot, a 4 percentage point increase since December, and 52 percent of independents say it was an insurrection and a threat to democracy, up 9 points since December.] So if the committee’s effort was to reach the conflicted middle, maybe there are signs that this drip, drip, drip of information — with the occasional gush — is having some effect.

By the same token, each of the committee members who spoke tonight, I believe, made some reference to the fact that what Trump set in motion is still very much alive. Nothing could show us just how true that is more than when they come back in September and Liz Cheney has lost her [Aug. 16] primary — which it looks like she most certainly will do — because she has decided to tell the truth. So, I don’t know. But both of those things are happening at the same time and pointing in different directions about the impact and where we’re headed.

JR: We are an incredibly inattentive society. We love TikTok and anything that can be watched in under a couple of seconds. They have managed to have eight consecutive televised hearings in the space of a few weeks, they’ve gotten people to watch them, and they’ve gotten people to talk about them. I don’t think you can call this anything but an unmitigated success from an oversight perspective. There were op-eds being written before the gavel came down for the first hearing saying, this whole thing was a waste of time, and overblown, and what are they doing. I don’t see anybody writing those op-eds [now] in mainstream news outlets.

AT: That’s exactly right. And in fact, I’ve seen a few [op-eds] saying exactly the opposite — that I underestimated what this committee could achieve. And I think I was probably more sanguine than most because of my affection for congressional oversight. But it has come off much, much more grippingly than I had expected.

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.