Well, the Cover-Up Sure Isn’t Making January 6 Look Any Better

Why have so many messages from top government officials disappeared?

A man putting a phone in his jacket pocket
Alex Wong / Getty

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

“Once is happenstance,” Ian Fleming’s Auric Goldfinger tells the spy James Bond in the eponymous novel. “Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”

The villain’s bon mot comes to mind with regard to another gold-obsessed malefactor these days. Last month, the public learned that the Secret Service had deleted, or negligently allowed the deletion of, texts surrounding the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Last week, The Washington Post reported that texts for top officials then in the Department of Homeland Security, including Acting Secretary Chad Wolf and his deputy, Ken Cuccinelli, are also missing. And yesterday, CNN reported that, according to court filings, the Pentagon wiped the phones of top defense officials, including messages from that day. (An official told The Washington Post the deletions were standard process.)

If Goldfinger was right, the question is what the goal of this action was. The old cliché goes that the cover-up, not the crime, is what gets people in trouble. Usually this means that whatever the initial misconduct is, the attempt to hide it provides the proof of a guilty mind or else the “process crime”—obstruction, tampering, etc.—that ends up actually snaring the culprits in the legal system.

In this case, the actual crime remains the most important and dangerous thing: Donald Trump’s failed months-long attempt to steal the presidency via legal machinations and then his last, desperate attempt to foment a riot that would achieve the same thing. Yet nearly two years later, the public keeps learning horrifying new bits of information. The House committee investigating these events has brought into focus the scope and details of the paperwork coup that tried to prevent the certification of the election on January 6, and it has shown Trump’s personal involvement in and approval of the riot itself.

If the actions of Trump and his cronies—especially those outside the government, such as Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell—have become clearer, some of the remaining questions concern what public officials were doing. How is it that other executive-branch agencies were so slow to react? Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony to the committee in June started to crack open a view into the Secret Service’s actions around Trump on January 6, including agents’ alleged refusal to take him to the Capitol. A July committee hearing, seeking to explain why assistance from the Pentagon was so slow, even as a violent mob overran the seat of the federal government, provided some answers but not a full picture.

The revelations of the string of deletions raises the specter that these agencies were not merely complacent but actually complicit. Some of the officials whose texts were deleted, like Secret Service agents, were civil servants, but others were political appointees, although they also held positions that were not meant to be involved in electoral politics and they had taken an oath to defend the Constitution.

Some of the officials whose messages are missing have been publicly critical of Trump’s actions. Ken Cuccinelli, the acting DHS deputy secretary, reportedly rejected a plan to have DHS seize voting machines. Former Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller blamed Trump for the riot.

But the absence of their contemporaneous communications is confounding for anyone who wants to understand what happened on January 6 and after. Did the deleted texts suggest sympathy with the mob? Or were they so critical of the president that the relevant agencies were afraid of attacks from Trump and his allies should the contents ever come to light? Who was responsible for the deletions, and when? Was Trump himself involved in any cover-up? (These questions are a poignant irony for an administration that might never have existed save for concerns about mishandling of federal records.)

Even with all these mysteries, the deletions correspond to Trump’s attempt to enlist essential government departments, such as the Pentagon and the Secret Service, into his political schemes. Officials were aware and troubled by it at the time, even if they didn’t say or do anything about it publicly. The Defense Department was reportedly slow to dispatch National Guard troops on January 6 because Miller already knew that Trump had tainted the Pentagon’s reputation, and they worried that a deployment would look like military support for his attempted coup.

Even as new revelations continue, Trump makes plans for what he’ll do if he returns to office in 2025. In July, Axios’s Jonathan Swan reported on a plan to further subvert the executive branch and turn it into a political operation. If you like the current situation, where we may never know what top public officials were doing and saying while a mob descended on the Capitol, and why, you’re going to love the second Trump presidency.