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Sunday, April 14, 2024

11 Details You May Have Missed in the January 6 Report

It’ll be years before the country fully digests the work of the US congressional January 6 Committee, as it completed its groundbreaking investigation this week and dumped final batches of witness depositions totaling thousands of pages of fresh evidence. Hundreds of federal prosecutions are still underway of rioters arrested for their actions that day—and hundreds of more cases are still expected ahead. Meanwhile, a Justice Department special counsel is weighing cases against Donald Trump, his inner circle, and potentially even congressional allies, not to mention various state cases still underway in places like Georgia. 

The 841-page final report, which the committee issued just before Christmas, will surely stand as one of the most important documents of American history—a book-length examination of the closest the country has come to losing its centuries-old, proud tradition of peaceful transitions of power. Seemingly every page is filled with troubling details about the sheer breadth and corruption of Trump’s months-long and wide-ranging effort to overturn the election.

It’s worth remembering that the expectations for the committee were relatively low when it started work, but it’s fair to say that they made an enormous—even staggering, in certain revelations—contribution to our understanding of the period between the November 2020 election and noon on January 20, when Trump finally left office. 

Now, as the country marks the second anniversary of the culminating attack on the Capitol, here are 11 of the key points that stand out as historically important in the final report:

1. Trump’s staff was more definitive that he lost than we understood 

As Liz Cheney writes in her introduction, “Donald Trump’s own campaign officials told him early on that his claims of fraud were false. Donald Trump’s senior Justice Department officials—each appointed by Donald Trump himself—investigated the allegations and told him repeatedly that his fraud claims were false. Donald Trump’s White House lawyers also told him his fraud claims were false. From the beginning, Donald Trump’s fraud allegations were concocted nonsense, designed to prey upon the patriotism of millions of men and women who love our country.”

2. The plot to overturn the election was far bigger than we knew 

The January 6 Committee had previously outlined what it said was a seven-pronged plot to overturn the election through one effort or another. As Cheney wrote, “This was not a simple plan, but it was a corrupt one.” Parts of the effort were visible before Trump left office, like his phone call to the Georgia secretary of state to say, “I just want to find 11,780 votes,” but others, like the fake electors scheme, were not. All of them were more coordinated—and had more high-level inner-Trump-circle participation than we understood. Trump personally enlisted RNC chair Ronna Romney McDaniel, for instance, in the fake elector scheme.

3. The violence could have been much worse 

The committee’s report outlines in worrisome detail the number of weapons, including high-powered AR-15 rifles, carried by members of the crowd converging on the Capitol, as well as the vicious fighting at the Capitol as the Metropolitan Police lines collapsed (what the report calls “the first fighting withdrawal in the history of that force”) and rioters stormed into the building. 

Among the 28,000 Trump rallygoers who went through the Secret Service magnetometers to view his speech at the Ellipse, officers confiscated “269 knives or blades, 242 cannisters of pepper spray, 18 brass knuckles, 18 tasers, 6 pieces of body armor, 3 gas masks, 30 batons or blunt instruments, and 17 miscellaneous items like scissors, needles, or screwdrivers.” But tens of thousands refused to go through the magnetometers and remained outside the secure viewing area—including those with heavier weapons. As the report notes, “Three men in fatigues from Broward County, Florida, brandished AR-15s in front of MPD officers on 14th Street and Independence Avenue. MPD advised over the radio that one individual was possibly armed with a ‘Glock’ at Fourteenth Street and Constitution Avenue, and another was possibly armed with a ‘rifle’ at Fifteenth Street and Constitution Avenue around 11:23 a.m.” And we now know from court cases that far-right extremist groups had pre-located weapons in Virginia as part of a “Quick Reaction Force.” (It’s worth noting that nowhere in the committee’s final report does it mention the pipe bombs also placed on Capitol Hill that day, a case where the FBI appears to still have no meaningful leads two years later and where it just upped the reward money to $500,000.)

One of the most vivid and striking passages in the report comes from Secret Service officials who listened to the radio reports coming from Vice President Pence’s detail inside the Capitol—the detail literally feared for their lives and began telling colleagues back at headquarters to say goodbye to their families and to tell their families they loved them. As one official said, “They’re running out of options, and they’re getting nervous. It sounds like that we came very close to either Service having to use lethal options or worse”; and, “They’re screaming and saying things, like, ‘say good-bye to the family.’”

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To put a fine point on it: The Secret Service agents surrounding the Vice President believed they were about to be in a fight to the death to protect the man next in line for presidential succession. I’ve read and written about presidential security and history going back decades, and I can’t think of a parallel set of fears, except perhaps when Vice President Richard Nixon’s motorcade was attacked in Caracas in 1958, which was seen at the time as the “most violent attack ever perpetrated on a high American official while on foreign soil.” 

4. Big unknowns remain 

As the committee notes, more than 30 witnesses invoked their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, leading to some important holes in the committee’s knowledge. As the report says, “The Committee has substantial concerns regarding potential efforts to obstruct its investigation, including by certain counsel (some paid by groups connected to the former President) who may have advised clients to provide false or misleading testimony to the Committee.” It’ll be interesting whether any potential Justice Department indictments and investigations further pry back the lid on the White House and the role of people like Steve Bannon and Roger Stone.

5. Parts of Trump’s plot targeted every level of government officials involved in counting and certifying elections

One of the most tragic hearings from the January 6 Committee focused last summer on the human toll of President Trump unleashing reckless personal attacks on the relatively anonymous local and state officials in battleground states who were charged with counting and certifying the votes—attacks so vicious and worrisome that some officials, who did nothing wrong and were serving in nonpartisan roles, fled their homes over safety concerns. And the final report is filled with page after page of details about the awful rhetoric—and worse—that Trump directed his supporters to unleash on officials in places like Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Georgia. 

In Arizona, the committee reports, “Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes testified before Congress that his family had ‘go-bags’ packed in case they needed to evacuate and that, because of the threats, he had moved his children ‘out of the family home at least once for three days in the wake of serious threats to [his] family’s safety.’” In Michigan, after Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield resisted Trump’s entreaties to overturn the state’s results, “[Trump] or his team maliciously tweeted out Shirkey’s personal cell phone number and a number for Chatfield that turned out to be wrong. Shirkey received nearly 4,000 text messages after that, and another private citizen reported being inundated with calls and texts intended for Chatfield.” As the committee says, the threats from Trump and myriad other supporters were un-American and beyond the pale: “This, again, is the conduct of thugs and criminals, each of whom should be held accountable.” 

Beyond the election officials themselves, the report has ample new detail about the Trump campaign’s efforts to create and forward to the National Archives and Congress slates of fake electors, people who would vote for Trump rather than Biden, as their states had properly certified. One of the interesting questions left after the January 6 report is whether state attorneys general or local prosecutors in any state will read and examine the evidence of the fake elector scheme for potential criminal charges too. 

6. Trump’s legal and criminal exposure is real 

The January 6 Committee’s own criminal referrals made headlines in December, but the final report reminds us that federal judge David Carter also concluded as part of the court fight over the committee’s work that President Trump likely violated two criminal statutes: 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c) (corruptly obstructing, impeding or influencing Congress’s official proceeding to count electoral votes); and 18 U.S.C. § 371 (conspiring to defraud the United States). And indeed, any prosecutor looking at this report will see both plenty of evidence of corrupt acts and, notably, knowledge that Trump understood he was acting corruptly—because White House aides, lawyers, and campaign officials kept telling him he was doing so. As the committee wrote, “President Trump made corrupt, dishonest, and unlawful choices to pursue his plans.”

7. The Justice Department came close to a meltdown 

As someone who has written books about Nixon’s 1973 Saturday Night Massacre and the 2005 Comey-Mueller-Bush showdown over the NSA wiretapping program STELLAR WIND, my eyes were wide open as I read the sections about how Trump tried to install Jeffrey Clark as acting attorney general in one of his final gambits to overturn the election—an event that almost caused the entire leadership of the Justice Department to resign. Bill Barr, of course, had resigned early, leaving acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen in charge of the department in January 2021, alongside acting deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue. The two faced down Trump as he tried to install Clark, who was willing to sign a letter saying DOJ had doubts about the election. Donoghue saw the possibility the letter “may very well have spiraled us into a constitutional crisis,” and White House counsel Pat Cipollone declared it a “murder-suicide pact.”

While Trump persisted, he was informed that all of the other assistant attorneys general would resign if he pushed the change—but the committee’s work found that even as the showdown unfolded, “contemporaneous White House documents suggest that Clark had already [italics in original] been appointed as the acting attorney general.” Ultimately, Trump backed down as the potential mass resignations spiraled, and was told by assistant attorney general Steve Engel—himself a beloved Trump appointee—that “Clark would be here by himself with a hostile building, those folks who remained, and nothing would get done.” Clark, Engel said, would be leading a “graveyard.” Trump finally said, “It’s not going to be worth the breakage,” and dropped the plan.

8. The US government had reliable, solid intelligence that bad stuff might happen on January 6—and it failed to take action

The committee makes clear in the second sentence of its executive summary that Trump owns everything that happened on January 6, saying its “overriding and straightforward conclusion: the central cause of January 6 was one man, former President Donald Trump, whom many others followed. None of the events of January 6 would have happened without him.” But it’s also clear from the committee report that the US government, both its security agencies and top White House staff, failed to act on warnings that armed, violent individuals were coming to Washington on January 6 in response to the president’s tweet on December 19, 2020, summoning them and promising, “Be there, will be wild!”

In fact, no less than the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, remembers deputy secretary of defense David Norquist saying on a National Security Council call, “the greatest threat is a direct assault on the Capitol.” As Milley says, “I’ll never forget it.” The Secret Service was warned repeatedly, including on Christmas Eve in a document entitled “Armed and Ready, Mr. President” that summarized worrisome tweets, and at a December 30 internal intelligence briefing that specifically mentioned the fiery presidential tweet. The Capitol Police were warned, both by civilian extremism researchers as well as by the Secret Service itself, which forwarded warnings on December 29. The FBI issued a DC-area intelligence bulletin on January 5, warning of “Potential for Violence in Washington, D.C. Area in Connection with Planned ‘StopTheSteal’ Protest on 6 January 2021.” The bulletin even included maps of the Capitol that had been posted to a pro-Trump website. And there was a lot more beyond. 

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It’s clear from the committee’s evidence that the storming of the Capitol was much more of a strategic failure than an intelligence failure. As the committee says, “After President Trump’s signal, his supporters did not hide their plans for violence at the Capitol, and those threats made their way to national and local law enforcement agencies. As described in this report, the intelligence agencies did detect this planning, and they shared it with the White House and with the U.S. Secret Service.” One notable passage in the report documents the presidential staff's concerns with pending violence ahead of January 6, including a conversation where the director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe—a role specifically created after 9/11 to prevent other such surprise attacks—expressed concern. As Cassidy Hutchinson, former assistant to Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, reported, “He was concerned that it could spiral out of control and potentially be dangerous, either for our democracy or the way that things were going for the 6.” And yet, amazingly, the committee shows White House staff shirking their responsibility to inform the president and push him to de-escalate the showdown ahead of January 6. Notably, the committee singles out White House deputy chief of staff Tony Ornato, who oversaw security operations and comes across as uniquely slippery in the report: “Ornato had access to intelligence that suggested violence at the Capitol on January 6, and it was his job to inform Meadows and President Trump of that. Although Ornato told us that he did not recall doing so, the Select Committee found multiple parts of Ornato’s testimony questionable. The Select Committee finds it difficult to believe that neither Meadows nor Ornato told President Trump, as was their job, about the intelligence that was emerging as the January 6 rally approached.”

9. Something happened in the presidential limo on January 6 

One of the strange side-stories of Hutchinson’s blockbuster testimony was her anecdote in the public hearing on June 28, 2022, that Trump, after speaking to the rally on the Ellipse on January 6, got into an altercation with his Secret Service driver in his SUV afterward when he was told that they couldn’t go on to the Capitol. Several big-name political reporters (shamefully) suggested after Hutchinson’s testimony that anonymous Secret Service sources denied the encounter, but none of those sources ever went on the record—and the committee shows that those that did backed up Hutchinson’s suggestion that something happened. Hutchinson said that the second-hand story she was told indicated that Trump seemed to grab for the steering wheel and the neck of the Secret Service driver, and the Committee makes clear it ultimately “obtained evidence from several sources about a ‘furious interaction’ in the SUV.”

As the committee wrote, “The vast majority of witnesses who have testified before the Select Committee about this topic, including multiple members of the Secret Service, a member of the Metropolitan police, and national security and military officials in the White House, described President Trump’s behavior as ‘irate,’ ‘furious,’ ‘insistent,’ ‘profane’ and ‘heated.’” If there’s someone who is lying about what happened in the limo, it’s not Cassidy Hutchinson. 

10. Trump’s silence during the 187 minutes of the attack seems calculated

The committee focused extensively in its hearings and investigation on the “187 minutes” during which Trump remained silent and out of sight while his supporters moved toward the Capitol and stormed the building, interrupting the certification of the Electoral College. The committee frames Trump’s silence as a last-ditch effort to delay or overturn the election—a last-ditch effort that almost succeeded. Trump knew it was his last chance, as the committee writes: “By the afternoon of January 6, virtually all of President Trump’s efforts to overturn the outcome of the 2020 election had failed. Virtually all the lawsuits had already been lost. Vice President Mike Pence had refused Trump’s pressure to stop the count of certain electoral votes. State officials and legislators had refused to reverse the election outcomes in every State where Trump and his team applied pressure. The Justice Department’s investigations of alleged election fraud had all contradicted Trump’s allegations. The only factor working in Trump’s favor that might succeed in materially delaying the counting of electoral votes for President-elect Biden was the violent crowd at the Capitol. And for much of the afternoon of January 6, it appeared that the crowd had accomplished that purpose.” The committee’s report documents starkly how Trump literally erased and stopped history from being recorded as he waited to see how the storming of the Capitol would unfold: He stopped the White House photographer from taking pictures between 1:30 and 4 pm, there are no official records—as there should be—of his telephone calls that afternoon despite his assistant saying “he was placing lots of calls,” and, “the President’s official Daily Diary contains no information for this afternoon between the hours of 1:19 pm and 4:03 pm, at the height of the worst attack on the seat of the United States Congress in over two centuries.” These are huge historical holes, as anyone who studies the presidency knows—the daily diary usually tracks every single interaction a president has to the minute, including who stepped into or out of what room when, when telephone calls were attempted, whether they were successful, etc. And we have these records from the darkest and most fraught moments of American history—the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Saturday Night Massacre, 9/11, and so on. Trump’s foresight to stop these records on January 6 is as solid evidence of a mens rea, a guilty mind, as you could imagine.

11. Trump did lasting damage to our democracy 

It might be easy to say that after the 2022 midterms roundly rejected the worst Trump follow-on election deniers that the threat of what he introduced to American politics in 2020 is over—and indeed, it does seem like the temperature on the existential threat to our democracy has been turned down. But reading through the report, it’s clear that, time and again, Trump came really close to succeeding. 

As the committee writes, “Vice President Pence, along with many of the appointed officials who surrounded Donald Trump, worked to defeat many of the worst parts of Trump’s plan to overturn the election. This was not a certainty. It is comforting to assume that the institutions of our Republic will always withstand those who try to defeat our Constitution from within. But our institutions are only strong when those who hold office are faithful to our Constitution. We do not know what would have happened if the leadership of the Department of Justice declared, as Donald Trump requested, that the election was ‘corrupt,’ if Jeff Clark’s letters to State Legislatures had been sent, if Pat Cipollone, Jeff Rosen, Richard Donoghue, Steve Engel, and others were not serving as guardrails on Donald Trump’s abuses.”

Now there’s a roadmap for how to succeed next time—and others across the country are still pushing to make it easier to overturn the next election.

While Congress did get the Electoral Reform Act through in the final weeks of last year—legislation that should make it harder for the next would-be election-stealer to succeed—there are a lot of holes still in our democracy. And there’s plenty of reason to believe, particularly given the stunning dysfunction of the GOP’s first days of its majority in the House this week, that the period for post-Trump reform is already over. It took the better part of a decade after Watergate to enact the many different reforms that addressed Nixon’s abuses of power and the worst violations of civil liberties and human rights by US intelligence agencies. Post-Trump, the country didn’t even get two years.

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