Trial by Committee
BY RICHARD C. GROSS
“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
— George Orwell, 1984
The House Jan. 6 committee sharpened its knives probing into Trump at its latest hearing, warning him against contacting witnesses and straining to find solid evidence that he planned the storming of the Capitol, including making the violent and deadly siege seem spontaneous.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat who heads the nine-member panel, came close to blaming the former president for staging the violent attack with help from the far-right Proud Boys and Oath Keepers gangs.
“Donald Trump summoned a mob to Washington, D.C., and ultimately spurred that mob to stage a violent attack on our democracy,” he said.
The select committee’s nationally televised nearly three-hour seventh hearing since June 9 did not produce any bombshells. It focused on testimony under oath, both from videos and live appearances, in an apparent bid to prove whether Trump was responsible for organizing the unprecedented American coup attempt.
Even though Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Virginia got close to Washington during the Civil War, close was not enough. Union forces fought them back.
Trump’s supporters argue that the wild demonstration by thousands of people got out of control. But the former president said before the melee that he wanted a “fight like hell.” He certainly got a big one, resulting in seven deaths, two of them from heart attacks.
The panel tried to emphasize that Trump’s efforts to put together a massive protest against what he termed a “stolen election” amounted to trying to overturn a legitimate election that Joe Biden won. His aides repeatedly tried and failed to persuade him that he lost, according to testimony.
“The president got everybody riled up and told everybody to head on down,” Stephen Ayres of Ohio testified. He pled guilty to charges of disorderly conduct for participating in the riot. “We basically were just following what he said.”
Nazi leaders used that as a defense at the Nuremberg trials after World War II; they said they were just following orders. The difference is Trump had no authority but his influence as president to order civilians to do anything.
“People died that day,” testified Jason van Tatenhove, a onetime Oath Keepers spokesman. “Law enforcement officers died, there was a gallows set up in front of the Capitol. There could have been the spark that started a new civil war, and no one would have won there. That would have been good for no one.”
Brad Parscale, Trump’s former campaign manager, put the blame squarely on Trump for the uprising at the Capitol, according to the panel’s evidence.
“A sitting president asking for civil war . . . I have lost faith,” he texted Jan. 6 to a former Trump spokeswoman, Katrina Pierson. Trump’s “rhetoric killed someone,” he wrote.
A civil war today would be suicidal because the United States has an overwhelming number of military forces, with more than a million in the Army alone, including the reserves and National Guard, plus its firepower and air superiority.
Both sides had fewer than 200,000 soldiers each at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. Their weapons: canons, muskets, bayonets and their hands. Union soldiers later received repeating rifles.
Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, vice chair of the committee, departed from the theme of the hearing toward its end to warn Trump against witness tampering, a potential crime. Potential crimes against the former president seem to be piling up. But nothing so far seemed indictable.
The committee has no authority to charge anyone with a crime, only to refer possible criminal charges to Attorney General Merrick Garland.
“After our last hearing, President Trump tried to call a witness in our investigation, a witness you have not seen in these hearings,” Cheney said. “That person declined to answer or respond to President Trump’s call, and instead alerted their lawyer to the call.
“Their lawyer alerted us. And this committee has supplied that information to the Department of Justice. Let me say one more time, we will take any effort to influence witness testimony very seriously.”
Cheney’s use of the word “their” raises the question of whether more than one witness was involved.
In an effort to prove Trump tried to put on the rally as a spontaneous mob action, the panel showed a text sent Jan. 4 by Kylie Kremer, one of its organizers: “POTUS (President of the United States) is going to have us march there/the Capitol,” adding, Trump was “going to call for it ‘unexpectedly.’”
If that text wasn’t a clear indication that planning for the rally had been underway, with Trump involved, the committee showed draft documents containing a tweet apparently written by Trump that never was sent. They were obtained from the National Archives.
“I will be making a Big Speech at 10AM on January 6th at the Ellipse (South of the White House),” it said. “Please arrive early, massive crowds expected. March to the Capitol after. Stop the Steal!!”
How much more proof is needed that Trump was a central figure in a Battle of the Bulge-like final all-out effort to overturn the results of the Nov. 3, 2020 election?
The committee has tried to show that Trump knew precisely what he was doing, not that he psychologically believed he won reelection. From his past behavior, it’s not difficult to conclude he’s acting unhinged to avoid prosecution.
A New York Times/Siena College poll released a day before the hearing found that 49 percent among all voters said the riot was an effort to overthrow the government. Another 55 percent said Trump’s actions after the election marked a threat against American democracy.
Siena is a Franciscan liberal arts school situated in Loudonville, N.Y., outside of Albany, the capital.
Despite an exhaustive seven years of living with Trump, four of them with him as president, of all things, 61 percent of Republicans in the survey counted him as the legitimate winner of the election and 72 percent termed the siege of the Capitol a protest that got out of hand.
The survey asked if Trump committed crimes while battling the election outcome. Fully 89 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of independents replied yes. But 80 percent of Republicans said he hadn’t. Are we ever divided.
The hearings have produced at the very least circumstantial evidence that Trump was cognizent of planning for and promoting the “Save America” rally on the Ellipse in his failed attempt to keep himself in power. Will that be enough for an indictment?
He has teased publicly that he plans to run again in 2024. Merely based on what Americans have heard about his efforts to stay in the White House, it would be absolutely irresponsible to vote him into any office — including dog catcher, if there still is such a position anywhere in the United States.
Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and became foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.