The January 6 Hearings Changed My Mind

House investigators have come far closer than I anticipated to pinning both moral and legal responsibility for the insurrection directly on Donald Trump himself.

Black-and-white photo of January 6 hearings; photographers kneel on the floor in one part of the room, aiming their cameras at a screen showing Donald Trump on a phone
Olivier Douliery / AFP / Getty

Yesterday, the January 6 committee gathered for what might have been its last public convening—a finale of sorts to the blockbuster series of hearings that began in June. Over the course of two hours, the panel broadcast striking footage of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other members of congressional leadership sheltering in the depths of Congress during the Capitol riot, desperately calling for help. It shared evidence that the Secret Service had received reports of potential violence before January 6 and was unnerved by Donald Trump’s role in encouraging that violence on the day itself. And finally, the committee members voted unanimously to subpoena the former president.

“We are obligated to seek answers directly from the man who set this all in motion,” said Vice Chair Liz Cheney, the panel’s lead Republican. In that way, the committee’s work ended where it began: focusing minutely on the responsibility of Trump himself.

When the committee began presenting its evidence in June, I was skeptical that House investigators would be able to show any greater involvement on Trump’s part than what was already public on the day of the insurrection: that Trump had whipped up violence with the Big Lie of election fraud and refused to help quell the riot once it got going. Trump, I thought, was simply too good at escaping accountability, keeping himself an arm’s length away from active involvement. He has a gift for staying just on this side of the line that, if crossed, might bring about a legal or political reckoning.

But the committee has changed my mind. House investigators have come far closer than I anticipated to pinning both moral and legal responsibility for the insurrection directly on Trump.

From the beginning, the matter of blame for January 6 clearly traced back to Trump in certain ways. Even before voters began to cast their ballots in 2020, he set about seeding doubt over the integrity of the results. For months after Election Day, he refused to admit that he had lost reelection. He publicly encouraged his supporters to gather in Washington, D.C., on the day that Congress was set to certify the electoral vote. He announced in a speech on the day itself that he and his supporters would “walk down to the Capitol.” When the riot began, the White House stayed quiet for hours before Trump finally released a statement calling on his supporters to depart. This evidence—which was available to anyone with a television or an internet connection on January 6—should be enough to permanently disqualify Trump from public life.

But to what extent had Trump known about or planned for the riot, as opposed to just taking advantage of it once it occurred? On that day in 2021, watching his speech on the Ellipse, I remember wondering whether his announcement that he would be heading “down to the Capitol” was planned or simply improvised, the way Trump often riffs in front of a crowd. When the president went back to the White House following his speech while his supporters marched over to Congress, I figured that it had been an improvisation after all—a vicious, dangerous one, but not a real expression of his plans and not necessarily evidence of a plot.

The January 6 committee, though, unearthed and told a far more damning story. An unsent presidential tweet released by the committee announced Trump’s intentions to “March to the Capitol after” his January 6 address. A text from a rally organizer documents that Trump planned in advance to announce the march, pretending to do so “unexpectedly.” According to the star witness Cassidy Hutchinson, Trump demanded that the Secret Service drive him to the Capitol, even after rioters had begun attacking police outside the building, and erupted in rage when agents refused. This week, the committee revealed communications among members of the Secret Service confirming Trump’s anger after he was blocked from his trip to the Capitol. The messages show that agents were even preparing a second time to take him down to Congress before this, too, was called off.

As Representative Stephanie Murphy, a committee member, said on Thursday, “all of this demonstrates Trump’s personal and substantial role in the plot to overturn the election. He was intimately involved. He was the central player.”

The committee has not answered every lingering question. It remains unclear, for example, whether there was any direct coordination between Trump and the extremist groups, such as the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, that played a central role in invading the Capitol. Perhaps the panel will be able to address this in its written report, which it will need to produce by the end of the year. But morally and politically speaking, the facts on the table so far add up to the conclusion that Trump was much more closely and actively involved in efforts on January 6, 2021, to overturn the 2020 presidential election than the public record had shown.

At this point, the evidence is so overwhelming that it may even clear the high bar of establishing criminal culpability on Trump’s part for inciting a riot and obstructing Congress. Before the committee began its hearings, I believed that Trump’s involvement in the insurrection was morally odious but outside the realm of what could make for a criminal prosecution. Now I’m not so sure.

Again and again in recent years, journalists covering Donald Trump have learned and relearned a hard lesson: Don’t be too quick to announce that the latest outrage will finally be the catastrophe that does the former president in. One popular meme riffing on this tendency portrays an overconfident commentator declaring, “I’d like to see ol Donny Trump wriggle his way out of THIS jam!”—only for Trump to do just that. “Ah! Well,” says the commentator. “Nevertheless.”

Trump may wriggle out of this jam yet. The many difficulties of enforcing a congressional subpoena mean that it’s far from a given whether the former president will actually end up testifying before the January 6 committee. There’s no way to know what the Justice Department will do when it comes to a criminal investigation. But as the lawyer Ken White commented when news broke in July that the Justice Department was investigating Trump personally in connection with January 6, “the very unlikely is slowly growing more plausible.” The more evidence is revealed, the more plausible it becomes. And that evidence has value in and of itself as clear and brutal documentation of just what happened that January day.