During the seventh hearing of the congressional inquiry into the 2021 Capitol riots, the panel on Tuesday presented further evidence that Trump was told, repeatedly, that his claims of fraud were false, but that he continued to push them anyway.
At the same time, the committee accused him of urging his supporters to head to Washington DC on 6 January 2021, not only to protest but to “be wild,” as Congress certified President Joe Biden's election victory.
'A call to action ... a call to arms'
A major focus of the hearing on Tuesday was a tweet that Trump sent on 19 December 2020, which spoke of a “big protest” at the coming joint session of Congress. “Be there, will be wild!” he wrote.
Stephanie Murphy, a Democratic member of the panel, said the tweet “served as a call to action and in some cases as a call to arms.”
She said the president “called for backup” as he argued that Vice President Mike Pence and other Republicans didn’t have enough courage to try to block Biden’s certification.
The tweet “electrified and galvanised” Trump’s supporters, said Jamie Raskin, another Democratic committee member, especially “the dangerous extremists in the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys and other far-right racist and white nationalist groups spoiling for a fight”.
The committee also showed a montage of videos and social media posts after the tweet was sent, as supporters reacted and planned trips to Washington, some of them using violent rhetoric and talking about killing police officers.
An 'unhinged' meeting
The committee spliced together video clips from interviews to describe an allegedly chaotic meeting on 18 December, in the hours before Trump's tweet.
Former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who testified live before the panel two weeks ago, called the meeting between White House aides and informal advisers “unhinged” in a text that evening to another Trump aide.
Other aides described “screaming” and profanity in the meeting, as advisers floated wild theories of election fraud with no evidence to back them up, and as White House lawyers aggressively pushed back.
The video clips included testimony from lawyer Sidney Powell, who had pushed some of the wildest theories, including of breached voting machines and hacked thermostats that she attempted to link to false claims of fraud.
White House lawyer Eric Herschmann, one of the aides who pushed back, said the theories were “nuts” and “it got to the point where the screaming was completely, completely out there.”
The aides described a chaotic six hours of back and forth, starting with Trump talking to a group of informal advisers with no White House aides present.
'Where is the evidence?'
Both Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, and Powell said in interviews that Cipollone rushed in to disrupt the gathering.
Cipollone, who sat with the committee for a private interview last week after a subpoena, said he didn’t think the group was giving Trump good advice, and said he and the other White House lawyers just kept asking them, “where is the evidence?”. But they did not receive any good answers, he said.
Hours later, at 1:42 am, Trump sent his “be wild” tweet.
Two witnesses were in the hearing room for testimony – a rioter who has pleaded guilty to entering the Capitol and a former Oath Keeper who described his experiences with the group.
Stephen Ayres, who pleaded guilty last month to a misdemeanour count of disorderly conduct and is scheduled to be sentenced in September, said he was in Washington on 6 January at the behest of Trump, and that he left the Capitol when Trump – after several hours – told them in a tweet to leave.
“Basically we were just following what the president said,” Ayres said.
He said his arrest less than a month later “changed my life, not for the better” and it makes him angry that he hung on Trump’s every word, and that some people are still doing that.
When asked if he still believes the election was stolen, Ayres said, “Not so much now.”
Jason Van Tatenhove, a former ally of Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, who left the group years before the insurrection, said the group is a “violent militia.”
“I think we need to quit mincing words and just talk about truths – and what it was going to be was an armed revolution,” he said. “I mean, people died that day … This could have been the spark that started a new civil war.”
Rhodes and other members of the Oath Keepers, along with another far-right group, the Proud Boys, have been charged with seditious conspiracy in the most serious cases the Justice Department has brought so far in the 6 January attack.
The inquiry continues.