Cry Harder, Donald Trump
After Cassidy Hutchinson's testimony, the ex-President's potential legal troubles--and those of possible co-conspirators--become clearer. Yes, we are looking at you, Mark Meadows
For those who were watching the January 6 Special Select Committee yesterday—didn’t it bring back the vibe of Watergate summer? If you missed it and want to watch the whole thing (it’s excellent), go here. And if you want to share today’s commentary on the hearing with a friend, please:
A slide shown towards the end of yesterday’s surprise televised meeting of the House Special Select Committee investigating January 6 was a story in and of itself. It is a January 7, 2020, text from Fox News pundit Sean Hannity to Kayleigh McEnany, a former Fox News producer who was, at that point, probably counting the hours until her stint as White House Press Secretary was over. The text summarized Hannity’s conversation with a president who just thrown a full plate against the wall because his staff prevented him from participating in an insurrection.
Why is this text remarkable? Because, after everything that had happened for five years, the crowd of conspiracy-minded lunatics Trump had summoned to manage his campaign to overturn the election, and the domestic terror that had unfolded on January 6, Sean Hannity still thought the man of his dreams could listen to reason.
Incredible isn’t it? And it is even more incredible that Hannity, despite his deep knowledge of how unhinged Trump was, responded to twenty-something Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony yesterday with a blizzard of lies promoting the Former Guy’s attacks on her.
But countering Hutchinson’s powerful testimony isn’t going to be easy. Like others who have given specific details about Trump’s plan to overthrow the election, the former aide to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has serious conservative chops. An intern in the Trump White House in 2019, Hutchinson worked her way up the chain of GOP extremists from House Republican Whip Steve Scalise (LA-01) to Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and in March 2020, to a position as a special assistant to the President assigned to Mark Meadows Trump’s Chief of Staff.
On the face of it, Hutchinson seems ambitious, smart, articulate and successful, and smart—in other words, not a grifter like Ivanka or Jared. As we also know, she had plenty of access. Trump loyalists wandered in and out at will, and staffers were more or less doing the work of the presidency themselves as the soon-to-be-ex-president wallowed in conspitacy theories. And, as the committee’s vice chair, Representative Liz Cheney (R WY-01), Hutchinson “handled a vast number of sensitive issues” from an office quite near Trump’s. “She worked in the West Wing, several steps down the hall from the Oval Office,” Cheney explained:
Ms. Hutchinson spoke daily with members of Congress, with high ranking officials in the administration, with senior White House staff, including Mr. Meadows, with White House counsel lawyers and with Mr. Tony Ornato, who served as the White House deputy chief of staff.
She also worked on a daily basis with members of the Secret Service who were posted in the White House. In short, Ms. Hutchinson was in a position to know a great deal about the happenings in the Trump White House.
Not so, say Trump and his Fox News publicity arm: Hutchinson, they insist, was a little nobody. She knew nothing, and is only a disappointed job seeker who was denied a job on the Trump staff in exile at Mar-A-Lago staff in exile. “According to people I talked to tonight,” Hannity said, before turning to his usual schtick of blaming Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (CA-12) and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser for the riot.
There is one piece of testimony that may be in dispute. News outlets are now reporting that Trump’s most shocking behavior—engaging Secret Service agents who refused to drive him to the Capitol in fisticuffs inside the armored vehicle known as “The Beast”—may be refuted by the officers themselves.
Yet if a physical struggle did not occur, it does not necessarily impeach Hutchinson as a witness, nor does it impugn other devastating testimony she gave about the days surrounding the January 6 insurrection. Hutchinson was a good witness who was well-prepared by her (many, presumably high-priced) attorneys. She was very clear that she did not see the incident in “The Beast” first hand. Rather, Hutchinson was told about this incident after the fact, and one of the agents, Bobby Engel, appeared to corroborate the allegation that Trump attacked him by mimicking a hand going to his throat as she listened to the story on January 7, 2021.
And, as NYU Law School professor Ryan Goodman told Newsweek, whether there was a physical fight between Trump and his security detail is legally irrelevant. Engle has already testified to an expurgated version of the confrontation: Trump wanted to be driven to the Capitol, but he and another agent “took different views on the topic” and returned him to the West Wing.
While Hutchinson’s testimony might not lessen support among the most devoted MAGA voters and extremist Republicans, it may have fatally cracked any remaining perception that Donald Trump can be an asset to the GOP moving forward. Trump’s “unfavorable” rating among American voters is slowly ticking up, and the conservative media world seems to have been taken aback by Hutchinson’s revelations. I tuned in to Fox News following the hearing, and they were reporting the story more or less straight. At The National Review, Andrew McCarthy noted that, while some aspects of Hutchinson’s testimony could be questioned, she “pulled back the curtain that countless advisers and aides kept around the mercurial Trump for four years.” The subhead, which is an editorial decision, declared ominously: “Things will not be the same after this.”
And the dismay is spreading. Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post led today with the 51 migrants who died in a tractor-trailer in Texas instead of Hutchinson’s testimony, or the Trump’s denials. A MAGA political consultant I checked in with texted back abruptly: “Sorry—too busy to watch.” But one has the sense that they are watching. During Hutchinson’s testimony, the PBS NewsHour’s Congressional correspondent Lisa Desjardins texted GOP congressional aides to find out whether their bosses had comments. She either got no response, or the equivalent of “hubbadahubbadahubbada—we’ll get back to you.”
CNN.com’s Gabby Orr and Pamela Brown were also working the phones and managed to squeeze out a few anonymous comments. One former advisor, who had just spent two hours in a group text with other Trump alums, gasped: “This is a bombshell. It's stunning. It's shocking. The story about `The Beast.’ I don't have words. It's just stunning.For the first time since the hearings started, no one is dismissing this."
Then there is the schadenfreude from people who got out while the going was good. Former Congressman Mick Mulvaney, who preceeded Mark Meadows as Trump’s chief of staff, had this to say:
So what are the takeaways? The Battle in the Beast, which seems to be the only detail in dispute if you exclude the allegations about Hutchinson’s motivations for testifying, is not oone of them. Rather, like any good witness led through her testimony by an excellent prosecutor, Hutchinson connected a series of dots into a story.
And this is what that story shoud lead us to conclude.
Trump’s call to march on the Capitol on January 6 was planned well in advance, and numerous people were part of the conspiracy. On the night of January 2, 2021, when Hutchinson walked Rudy Giuliani from the West Wing to his car, Giuliani asked her if she was “excited” for January 6th. “I remember looking at him saying, Rudy, could you explain what's happening on the 6th? He had responded something to the effect of, we're going to the Capitol.” He then asserted that Mark Meadows knew about it, and she should ask him.
So she did. Returning to the office, Hutchinson found Meadows on the couch scrolling through his phone. It was, by the way, a disturbing and repetitive theme that Meadows was, although omnipresent, disconnected, unresponsive, and passive. Prior to January 6, when everyone else in the West Wing was lighting their hair on fire, it appears that Meadows could usually be found looking at his phone.
“I just had an interesting conversation with Rudy, Mark. It sounds like we're going to go to the Capitol,” Hutchinson recalled saying. “He didn't look up from his phone and said something to the effect of, there's a lot going on, Cass, but I don't know. Things might get real, real bad on January 6th.”
Hutchinson had already been worried, but now she was really worried:
In the days before January 2nd, I was apprehensive about the 6th. I had heard general plans for a rally. I had heard tentative movements to potentially go to the Capitol. But when hearing Rudy's take on January 6th and then Marc's response, that was the first—that evening was the first moment that I remember feeling scared and nervous for what could happen on January 6th.
“And,” she added, “I had a deeper concern for what was happening with the planning aspects of it.” The inference is clear: that the scary thing bearing down on the Capitol was being planned from inside the White House.
Separately, John Ratcliffe, a former member of Congress and, by January 2021 the Director of National Intelligence, “expressed to me that he was concerned that [Trump’s determination to overturn the election] could spiral out of control and potentially be dangerous, either for our democracy or the way that things were going for the 6th.” She also heard the names of militias—the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers—come up in conversation in teh West Wing.
So that’s Thing One: that Trump and Meadows likely knew that organized, armed militias would show up at the rally, and that they would march on the Capitol, because they had contact with them in advance, possibly through a cutout (think: Roger Stone.)
And even if this cabal of plotters didn’t know that these groups would arrive armed and primed for violence, here’s Thing Two: by the time the MAGA troops showed up at the rally, Trump and his people knew they were heavily armed, and the former president urged them to march on the Capitol anyway.
How did Trump know? Becuase people who came to the rally had to pass through magnetometers (this is standard presidential security), and security personnel confiscated a significant cache of weapons from those who entered the Ellipse. “They had weapons and other items that were confiscated: pepper spray, knives, brass knuckles, tasers, body armor, gas masks, batons, blunt weapons,” Cheney explained, something that Hutchinson could not have known, since she was backstage with Trump. But what Hutchinson did know, from the security reports that were coming in, was that those who did not enter the Ellipse were armed with AR-15s and Glocks, “bear spray, body armor, spears, and flagpoles. Spears were one item, flagpoles were one item,” and some people were “fastening spears onto the ends of flagpoles.”
And as Hutchinson testified, when Mark Meadows was told that the crowd was heavily armed, he reacted not at all. She and Tony Ornato, deputy chief of staff for operations, went to warn with Meadows, and he “was sitting on his couch and on his phone which was something typical.” Hutchinson continued:
And I remember distinctly Mark not looking up from his phone, right? I remember Tony finishing his explanation and it taking a few seconds for Mark to say his name.
Because I almost said, Mark, did you hear him? And then Mark chimed in. It was like, Alright, anything else? Still looking down at his phone. And Tony looked at me and I looked at Tony and he — Tony said no, sir. Do you have any questions? He's like, what are you hearing? And I looked at Tony and I was like, sir he just told you about what was happening down at the rallies.
And he was like yeah, yeah. I know. And then he looked up and said have you talked to the President? And Tony said yes, sir. He's aware. And he said, Alright. Good.
When you combine Thing Two with Thing One you don’t have to be a lawyer to get to a potential Thing Three: that the attack on the Capitol was planned in the Oval Office, and that anyone who participated in organizing it, or appeared at it, is a potential target of a criminal investigation.
Hence the hysterical attempts from the Trump camp to distract and—more importantly—the silence from many prominent Republicans, some Congressmen who have refused to testify voluntarily, and others—like Meadows—have avoided a congressional subpoena.
Yet, if we are allowed to have a Thing Four without completely nailing down Thing Three, there’s something else: the committee opened a window on: the intimidation tactics that seem to be emanating from Mar-A-Lago. As Cheney recounted,
First, here is how one witness described phone calls from people interested in that witness' testimony. "What they said to me is as long as I continue to be a team player, they know I'm on the right team. I'm doing the right thing. I'm protecting who I need to protect, you know, I'll continue to stay in good graces in Trump World."
"And they have reminded me a couple of times that Trump does read transcripts.And just keep that in mind as I proceed through my interviews with the committee."
Here's another sample in a different context. This is a call received by one of our witnesses. "A person let me know you have your deposition tomorrow. He wants me to let you know he's thinking about you. He knows you're loyal and you're going to do the right thing when you go in for your deposition."
I think most Americans know that attempting to influence witnesses to testify untruthfully presents very serious concerns.
Those serious concerns have a name: it’s called lying to Congress. It’s also called suborning perjury, and it comes with a fine, a five-year sentence in a selected federal slammer, or both.
As he closed the hearing, Chairman Bennie Thompson (MI-3) conveyed the gravity of the situation that those who are hiding what they know face. “The small number who have defied us outright, those whose memories have failed them again and again on the most important details, and to those who fear Donald Trump and his enablers,” he said.
….your attempt to hide the truth from the American people will fail. And to that group of witnesses, if you've heard this testimony today and suddenly you remember things you couldn't previously recall, or there are some details you'd like to clarify, or you discovered some courage you had hidden away somewhere, our doors remain open.
They might consider walking through those doors—or risk having their own kicked in by federal agents early one fine morning.
I am looking at you, Mark Meadows: and I think Chairman Thompson is too.
Just in case:
Do you know someone who might need information about how to safely manage their reproductive health? Pass it on.
Dame’s Jonathan Reiss points out that we learn nothing from Sunday news shows because the guests are just politicians with talking points, not specialists who deepen our understanding of the news “This neglect of experts extends beyond insurrection and coup coverage, abortion and the judiciary,” Reiss writes. The Sunday shows he watched “had few if any, experts on many other vital issues including climate change, education, immigration, drug policy, civil rights, labor, sexual harassment, over all of 2021. Relying on politicians is extremely damaging. Not only does it keep the public from being fully informed, but `horse-race’ political coverage increases cynicism and polarization.” (June 28, 2022)
As Grace Segers writes at The New Republic, over half of the states are expected to ban abortion in the coming weeks and months, requiring many women to travel over 200 miles for care. But travel may not be possible in an emergency, and the 26 percent of pregnancies that result in miscarriages could lead to denying women life-saving care. “A physician, faced with uncertainty as to whether they’re legally allowed to offer certain forms of care,” Segers writes, “may be hesitant to treat a person who suffers an incomplete miscarriage, for example, due to concerns that they could be held criminally liable for extracting remaining fetal tissue.” (June 28, 2022)
You may have missed this essay by Margaret Atwood after the leaked Dobbs draft, but it is worth returning to as fiction comes alive. “Although I eventually completed this novel and called it The Handmaid’s Tale, I stopped writing it several times because I considered it too far-fetched,” Atwood recalls in The Atlantic. “Silly me. Theocratic dictatorships do not lie only in the distant past: There are a number of them on the planet today. What is to prevent the United States from becoming one of them?” (May 13, 2022)
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