Politico

How the Jan. 6 panel's star witness drew a roadmap for Trump’s culpability


The Jan. 6 select committee made a big bet on Cassidy Hutchinson. She delivered on Tuesday — and then some.

With what may prove the most damning testimony about a sitting president’s actions in American history, the former right hand of ex-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows stitched together every element of the panel’s case against Donald Trump. The Capitol riot committee has painted the former president’s potential criminal culpability for his effort to overturn the election in stark hues: investigators have portrayed Trump fuming atop an increasingly conspiracy-addled West Wing and working to corrupt the peaceful transfer of power at any cost.

Yet it was their sixth hearing that most clearly cast Trump as a uniquely pernicious force, thanks to a soft-spoken but bell-clear witness.

“I was disgusted,” Hutchinson said of Trump’s behavior on Jan. 6, particularly after he tweeted an attack on Mike Pence as the then-vice president was fleeing rioters who’d called for his execution. “It was unpatriotic. It was un-American. We were watching the Capitol building get defaced over a lie.”

Hutchinson wasn’t a household name before Tuesday, but it seems unlikely she’ll remain in obscurity. While Trump and his allies rejected her assertions as “hearsay” or, in Trump’s case, simply false, the former president’s allies have offered limited pushback so far to any of the specific evidence and recollections she presented. And much of what she described has been corroborated by others.

Among her recollections, part of a succession of shocking details from inside the White House:

  • Trump was informed that members of the crowd during the “Stop the Steal” rally by his supporters on Jan. 6, 2021, carried weapons. He asked the Secret Service to dismantle metal detectors to let them into the Ellipse so his audience looked larger. Those rallygoers would later march to the Capitol and mount a violent siege aimed at disrupting Congress’ certification of Trump’s loss.
  • Trump lunged at the steering wheel of his presidential vehicle after he was informed that the Secret Service would not permit him to travel to the Capitol following his speech at that Ellipse rally.
  • Trump told aides that he agreed with those who had stormed the Capitol and thought they were right to call for Pence’s hanging.
  • Meadows and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani sought pardons from the then-president for their actions related to challenging the election.

Hutchinson shared her sworn narrative as federal prosecutors appear to be closing in on several of Trump’s top lieutenants in his effort to stay in power. FBI agents last week seized the cell phone of attorney John Eastman, who devised a Jan. 6 strategy to pressure Pence to overturn the election; they also searched the Lorton, Va., residence of Jeffrey Clark, a former Justice Department official whom Trump nearly appointed acting attorney general to aid his election subversion push.

Perhaps as notable as Hutchinson’s testimony was the absence of much substantive pushback from Republicans to her account of worry at the White House about a president determined to get to the Capitol on Jan. 6. A Twitter account for House Judiciary Committee Republicans mocked Hutchinson and described her testimony as “hearsay” and “a joke,” epitomizing the GOP’s Tuesday attempts to impugn her knowledge of Trump World.

After House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy yanked his picks from the select panel following Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s veto of two of them as too close to the probe to credibly serve, the only Republicans able to question Hutchinson were two prominent Trump critics: Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.).

Meanwhile, Trump was also watching. The former president uncorked an 11-post tirade against Hutchinson on the Truth Social platform he created after getting booted from Twitter post-Capitol riot. He called her a “third-rate social climber,” denying her accounts of his comments about Pence as well as his apparent physical confrontation with his Secret Service leader, and even suggested her handwriting was indicative of a “whacko.”

Some Trump allies sought to puncture Hutchinson’s credibility by casting doubt on the notion that Trump could have lunged at the wheel of his car, given the layout of the presidential limousine known as “The Beast.” Others pointed to a January 2021 news article indicating Hutchinson was among those who considered working for Trump even after the riot.

Yet Hutchinson laid out a road map for the committee to test her own credibility. She showed that, time and again, she was a go-to for Trump backers looking to connect with Meadows and, ultimately, the former president himself.

McCarthy called her to vent about Trump’s rally speech on Jan. 6, she recalled. Cipollone complained to her that White House aides could be on the hook for crimes if Trump traveled to the Capitol on Jan. 6, she said. And former national intelligence director John Ratcliffe told Hutchinson he was concerned about Trump’s effort to overturn the election, she testified.

That wasn’t the end of Hutchinson’s under-oath recounting of conversations with top Trump White House officials. Former security aide Tony Ornato relayed to her the details of what took place in Trump’s Secret Service vehicle, as she explained to the select panel.

Each of those accounts could be corroborated by the others she described taking part in the conversation — though it’s unclear whether the panel has connected with any of those witnesses.

Even when Hutchinson wasn’t dropping bombshells, she was helping paint a granular picture of Trump’s West Wing and how it operated. She described top officials as falling into three camps during the riot: those who pleaded with Trump to call off the rioters; those who stayed “neutral,” knowing that Trump didn’t want to act; and those who wanted to “deflect” blame for the violence away from Trump supporters.

Hutchinson described the layout of the West Wing, the way information flowed among officials in Trump’s chaotic offices, and the way Meadows was the connective tissue for Trump among a slew of disparate factions within his orbit.

Where the select committee goes from here is a bigger question now. Its chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), floated the possibility of calling Cipollone in for a transcribed hearing. The former top Trump White House lawyer has already met informally with the panel but has not sat for the type of on-camera interview that many other former aides have.

The panel also plans to highlight the nexus between Trump’s orbit and the domestic extremist groups that seeded the Capitol riot — including the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. And there’s likely to be a further public effort to reconstruct Trump’s movements on Jan. 6, as he watched the violence unfold on TV but took no actions to help quell the mob.

Cheney, the panel’s vice chair, hinted that it may recommend some criminal charges against Trump-linked figures for obstruction or witness intimidation, citing outreach intended to discourage witnesses from fully cooperating with the committee.

“It’s a crime to tamper with witnesses. It’s a form of obstructing justice,” panel member Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said after the hearing. “The committee won’t tolerate it.”

But Hutchinson’s presentation added the historic exclamation point on an already startling set of hearings.

“This was a president who was willing to do anything to overthrow the presidential election of 2020,” Raskin said, “and clearly had violence within his sights on that day … This witness simply blew away any pretense that the president and all the president’s men didn’t know what was actually going on in that crowd.”

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