For what was originally supposed to be the final January 6 hearing, the committee was faced with a difficult task. The ninth broadcast was meant to be the culmination of the investigation, with a primetime schedule that would allow the congresspeople to review their findings, repeat their sharpest analyses of Donald Trump’s legal violations and moral derelictions, and make their final case to their two most significant audiences – the American public, on the one hand, and the attorney general, Merrick Garland, on the other – that Trump’s conduct on and before January 6 merits prosecution.
But they were also meant to do all of this through revelations of Trump’s own conduct at the White House in the hours while the riot unfolded, conduct that was remarkable not for Trump’s scheming but for his inaction. What was Trump doing during those crucial hours when democracy was on the line, when violence erupted, when lives were in danger and our very constitutional system of government hung in the balance? He did not intervene to stop the insurrection; he did not issue orders or offer help to the military and law enforcement bodies that could have quelled it. Mostly, he just sat on his ass.
Trump’s unwillingness to act is itself damning, of course, but it presented a problem for the committee in that it doesn’t make for compelling TV. For all their political gravity, the January 6 committee hearings derive much of their power from spectacle, high production values, and their capacity to engage and entertain. But the negligence, inertia, passivity that Trump showed in those hours – these things have no plot.
But the committee’s presentation made swift work of highlighting the stakes of Trump’s refusal to call off the mob. Trump spent the hours of the insurrection mostly holed up in a West Wing dining room, watching Fox News’ coverage of the unfolding violence on a TV mounted to a wall. During these hours, we know that Trump made calls to several Republican senators, asking the likes of Alabama’s Tommy Tuberville to stop the election certification even as he was evacuating the Capitol to escape the mob. We know he received calls from Republican congressmen like minority leader Kevin McCarthy, who begged and screamed at Trump to call off the mob while McCarthy and his aides cowered in hiding. We know he got pleas and lectures from the likes of White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, who in taped testimony seemed livid and contemptuous of his former client, and described himself as one of many advisers imploring Trump to call off the murderous crowds that by then were roaming the Capitol halls in search of Mike Pence.
In previous hearings, the committee had been exceedingly generous toward Republicans, casting Pence as a hero for merely declining to facilitate a coup, repeatedly praising the courage of testifying Republicans who have aided Trump’s other crimes and the beauty and integrity of the very institutions whose failures led to January 6 itself. But Thursday’s hearing was a departure from previous installments in that it was willing to hold other Republicans to account, or at least to ridicule their hypocrisy.
The committee members made repeated references to the evident terror of Kevin McCarthy, the Republicans’ House leader, who has since made a great effort to bring Trump back into the party fold. They repeatedly played clips of Mitch McConnell, who has said he would support Trump again in 2024, blaming the former president for the attack. They showed an infamous photo of Missouri senator Josh Hawley raising a fist in encouragement to the insurrectionist mob, and then they showed security footage from the Capitol after the rioters invaded. Hawley – the author of Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs – could be seen running frantically away.
Placed in the context of all this fear and anger from the men who had spent so long serving him and courting his approval, Trump’s refusal to act transforms. It becomes visible not as a passive failure but as a willful choice. All around him, in his presence and through his phone, people who had been his most dependable sycophants for years were pleading with him to act, explaining that the country, and many human lives, were at stake. Knowing this, it is difficult to see Trump’s refusal to act as any of the things that his malfeasances are normally excused as – incompetence, or childlike narcissism, or low-stakes petulance. His actions come to seem not merely mendacious, but sadistic.
Yet Thursday night’s hearing also did a great deal to puncture the mystique of showmanship that has surrounded Trump. In archival clips, we saw outtakes of his Rose Garden video from late on the afternoon of the 6th, the one where, after it was clear that his coup attempt would fail, he finally told the mob that he loved them, and to go home. In the footage, Trump hesitates to speak, repeatedly asking an offscreen aide when he should start. He glowers at his own image on a camera screen; he dispenses with his scripted remarks to deliver a weird, rambling, and barely comprehensible missive to his followers.
In outtakes from a speech he taped the next morning, after the crowd had gone home, he stutters over his words and petulantly nitpicks the script. Damningly, he refuses to say that the election is over; the line gets cut from his remarks.
But the footage is most striking because of how bumbling and small Trump looks, how starkly his own peevishness and intellectual vacuity contrasts with the moral weight of what he has done. He fumbles his words, unable to speak clearly. He bangs on the podium in frustration; he can’t pronounce “yesterday.” “Yesterday is a hard word for me,” he says. And later, “Is it defied or defiled?” Maybe it’s both.