The congressional panel investigating the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol last year alleged Tuesday that former President Donald Trump ignited the mayhem with an “explosive invitation” for supporters to come to Washington to try to block certification of his 2020 election loss to Democrat Joe Biden.
The committee said the tweet Trump issued in the early hours of Dec. 19, 2020, came after he ignored repeated advice from his White House advisers that he accept the reality that he had lost and that there was no evidence of fraud that was sufficient to upend the outcome.
Instead, after a lengthy, profane meeting at the White House with aides supporting his continued fight against the election outcome and those who advised acceptance of his loss, Trump tweeted, “Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
The committee showed snippets of videos from some of Trump’s most ardent right-wing supporters urging fellow adherents to meet in Washington to try to block Congress from certifying that Biden had won the election.
In one clip, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones told his viewers, “He is now calling on the people. The time for games is over.”
Congressman Jamie Raskin, one of the committee members, said Trump’s tweet “reverberated pervasively online.”
The committee showed a clip from Steve Bannon, a onetime White House aide to Trump, saying the day before the January 6 insurrection, “All hell is going to break loose tomorrow. All I can say is, ‘Strap on.'”
The committee played a voice-altered clip from a Twitter employee, who said Trump’s tweet “was a mob being organized. The leader of their cause was asking them to join him.”
One of the convicted rioters at the Capitol that day, Stephen Ayres, a former supervisor at a cabinet-making company in the Midwestern state of Ohio who since has been fired, testified that he came to Washington because he believed Trump’s erroneous claim that the election had been stolen from him.
“I was hanging on every word he said,” Ayres said, describing himself as “pretty hardcore into social media.”
But he said he may not have gone to Washington for Trump’s rally near the White House before the confrontation at the Capitol if he had known that Trump and his associates, despite their claims, had not compiled any evidence of election fraud.
Now, he advised, “Take the blinders off and see what’s going on.” Ayres said he realized Trump’s contention of election fraud was unfounded when he subsequently learned that the former president had lost 60 out of 61 lawsuits claiming election irregularities.
In videotaped testimony, Trump’s White House counsel Pat Cipollone said he agreed that Trump should concede defeat, as did Trump’s daughter Ivanka, a White House adviser.
Instead, Trump, after the tumultuous Dec. 18, 2020, meeting at the White House, accepted the advice of two of his legal advisers, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, and business executive Patrick Byrne, to continue to fight the result to remain in power for another four years.
Other testimony focused on the role played by the Proud Boys, a neofascist group, and the Oath Keepers, another right-wing group supporting Trump’s reelection. Five Proud Boys leaders have been charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with the insurrection at the Capitol and are awaiting trial later this year. The same charge has been filed against 11 Oath Keepers, three of whom have already pleaded guilty.
The investigative panel showed scant direct links between Trump and the extremist groups, but noted that in a September 2020 debate with Biden, Trump, when asked to condemn white supremacists, had told the Proud Boys to “Stand back and stand by.”
Jason Van Tatenhove, a former spokesman for the Oath Keepers, described the group as white nationalists, “a dangerous militia.”
He said the group saw the riot at the Capitol as a moment that “could have been the spark that started a new civil war” in America, but also one that gave the Oath Keepers “a path forward that would have given them legitimacy.”
Trump has derided the committee’s investigation, calling its nine members — seven Democrats and two vocal anti-Trump Republicans — “political thugs and hacks.”
The committee has no power to charge Trump with any criminal offenses, although the Justice Department is conducting a lengthy investigation of how the riot unfolded. At the end of Tuesday’s hearing, Liz Cheney, the committee’s Republican vice chairwoman, said Trump had attempted to call one witness who has spoken to the committee but has not yet been called for public testimony.
Cheney said the witness refused to take Trump’s call and that the committee had referred the incident to the Justice Department as a possible case of witness tampering.
The protesters who stormed into the Capitol ransacked congressional offices, scuffled with police and for hours blocked the certification of Biden’s victory. Eventually the Capitol building, a symbol of American democracy, was cleared of protesters, and Biden won the Electoral College vote by a 306-232 count.
In the United States, presidents are effectively chosen in separate elections in each of the 50 states, not through the national popular vote. Each state’s number of electoral votes is dependent on its population, with the biggest states holding the most sway.
More than 800 of the protesters have subsequently been charged with an array of offenses from trespassing to assaulting police officers, and more than 300 have pleaded guilty or been convicted in trials. Sentences have ranged from a few weeks in prison to more than four years. The sedition charges filed against the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers carry substantially longer terms.
At a June 28 hearing, the panel heard testimony from Cassidy Hutchinson, the top assistant to Mark Meadows, Trump’s last chief of staff, that Trump in the waning weeks of his presidency became increasingly angry and volatile regarding his reelection loss.
She testified that Trump knew some of his supporters at a rally near the White House were armed but still urged them to walk to the Capitol.
Hutchinson said Trump berated his Secret Service detail for not driving him to the Capitol, and in December 2020, threw his lunch against a wall of a White House dining room when he learned that then-Attorney General William Barr had concluded there was no election fraud.
After her dramatic testimony, Trump derided her as a “total phony” and “bad news.” But committee member Raskin on Tuesday told NBC News that “Cipollone has corroborated almost everything that we’ve learned from the prior hearings. I certainly did not hear him contradict Cassidy Hutchinson.”
Witnesses at earlier hearings told the investigative panel that there were minimal voting irregularities, not enough to overturn Biden’s Electoral College victory.
In addition, Trump was told it would be illegal for then-Vice President Mike Pence to unilaterally block Biden’s victory as Pence presided over the congressional Electoral College vote count. Still, Trump privately and publicly demanded the vice president block certification of Biden’s win. To this day, Trump contends he was cheated out of another White House term.
Over the weekend, Trump said in a letter that he would allow Bannon to testify before the investigative panel. He also said the committee had “allowed no Due Process, no Cross-Examination, and no real Republican members or witnesses to be present or interviewed. It is a partisan Kangaroo Court.”
Republicans blocked a full-scale probe that would have been patterned after the investigation of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.