Jan. 6 hearing focuses on how extremists answered Trump's 'call to arms'
Members of Proud Boys, Oath Keepers have been charged separately by Justice Department
The Jan. 6 committee on Tuesday focused on ways violent far-right extremists answered Donald Trump's tweet for a big Washington rally as a "call to arms," as the panel probed whether they co-ordinated with White House allies in the deadly U.S. Capitol attack and effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
The panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol is delving into what it calls the final phase of Trump's multi-pronged effort to halt Joe Biden's victory. As dozens of lawsuits and false claims of voter fraud fizzled, Trump met late into the night of Dec. 18 with attorneys at the White House before tweeting the rally invitation — "Be there, will be wild!"
Members of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers groups who are now facing rare sedition charges readily answered the invitation.
"This tweet served as a call to action — and in some cases a call to arms," said one panel member, Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla.
Tuesday's hearing was the seventh for the Jan. 6 committee. Over the past month, the panel has created a narrative of a defeated Trump "detached from reality," clinging to false claims of voter fraud and working feverishly to reverse his election defeat. It all culminated with the attack on the Capitol, the committee says.
'What they were proposing … was nuts'
The panel featured new video testimony from Pat Cipollone, Trump's former White House counsel, recalling the explosive late-night meeting at the White House when Trump's outside legal team brought a draft executive order to seize states' voting machines — a "terrible idea," he said.
"That's not how we do things in the United States," Cipollone testified.
He and other White House officials scrambled to intervene in the late-night meeting Trump was having with attorneys Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani, retired national security aide Michael Flynn and the head of the online retail company Overstock. It erupted in shouting and screaming, another aide testified.
"Where is the evidence?" Cipollone demanded about the false claims of voter fraud.
"What they were proposing, I thought, was nuts," testified another White House official, Eric Herschmann.
But Trump was intrigued and essentially told his White House lawyers that at least Powell and outside allies were trying to do something.
"You guys are not tough enough," Giuliani in video testimony recalled the president telling the White House attorneys. "You guys are p-----s," he said, using crass language.
Graphic, violent text messages
As night turned to morning, Trump tweeted the call for supporters to come to Washington on Jan. 6, when Congress would be tallying the Electoral College results. He wrote, "Be there, will be wild!"
Immediately, the extremists reacted.
The panel showed graphic and violent text messages and played videos of right-wing figures, including Alex Jones and others, laying out that Jan. 6 would be the day they would fight for the president.
In vulgar and often racist language the messages beaming across the far-right forums planned for the big day that they said Trump was asking for in Washington. It would be a "red wedding," said one, a reference to an episode of the television show Game of Thrones that featured mass killing. "Bring handcuffs."
Several members of the U.S. Capitol Police who fought the mob that day sat stone-faced in the front row of the committee room.
"The problem of politicians whipping up mob violence to destroy fair elections is the oldest domestic enemy of constitutional democracy," said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., in opening remarks.
At the witness table to testify in person was Jason Van Tatenhove, an ally of Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes. Another witness was Stephen Ayres, who pleaded guilty last month to disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building. He has said that on Jan. 2, 2021, he posted an image stating that Trump was "calling on us to come back to Washington on January 6th for a big protest."
The committee is probing whether the extremist groups, including the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and QAnon adherents who had rallied for Trump before, co-ordinated with White House allies for Jan. 6. The Oath Keepers have denied there was any plan to storm the Capitol.
The committee began the second half of the hearing making connections between Trump allies Flynn and Roger Stone and the extremist groups that were preparing to come to Washington.
It showed a picture of Rhodes, the Oath Keeper leader, walking with Flynn, former national security aide to Trump, outside the Capitol at some point.
The committee also heard from Trump's former campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson, who testified about her concerns around those planning for Jan. 6.
This was the only hearing this week, as new details emerge. An expected prime-time hearing Thursday has been shelved for now.
Stunning testimony by former aide
This week's session came after former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson provided stunning accounts under oath of an angry Trump who knowingly sent armed supporters to the Capitol on Jan. 6 and then refused to quickly call them off as violence erupted, siding with the rioters as they searched menacingly for Vice-President Mike Pence.
Trump has said Cassidy's account is not true. But at Friday's private session, Cipollone did not contradict earlier testimony. Raskin said the panel planned to use "a lot" of Cipollone's testimony.
On Dec. 29, the Proud Boys chairman posted a message on social media that said members planned to "turn out in record numbers on Jan. 6th," according to a federal indictment.
The group planned to meet at the Washington Monument, its members instructed not to wear its traditional black and yellow colours, but be "incognito."
The Proud Boys have said their membership grew after Trump, during his first debate with Biden, refused to outright condemn the group and instead told them to "stand back and stand by."
When he sent this tweet, Trump became the first president in American history to call for a protest against the peaceful transfer of power. <br>At tomorrow's hearing, America will see how it mobilized dangerous extremists & white nationalist groups to come armed to “Stop the Steal.” <a href="https://t.co/z6muqx3AlZ">pic.twitter.com/z6muqx3AlZ</a>—@RepRaskin
Oath Keepers had 'quick response force': court filings
The night before Jan. 6, Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio met with Oath Keepers leader Rhodes at an underground parking garage, according to court filings along with images a documentary filmmaker trailing the group provided to the panel.
The Oath Keepers had also been organizing for Jan. 6 and established a "quick response force" at a nearby hotel in Virginia, according to court filings.
After the Capitol siege, Rhodes called someone with an urgent message for Trump, another group member has said. Rhodes was denied a chance to speak to Trump, but urged the person on the phone to tell the Republican president to call upon militia groups to fight to keep the president in power.
An attorney for Rhodes recently told the committee that he wants to testify publicly. Rhodes was already interviewed by the committee privately, and it's unlikely the panel will agree.
The panel also intends to note that many of the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol appeared to be QAnon believers. Federal authorities have explicitly linked at least 38 rioters to the pro-Trump conspiracy theory, according to an Associated Press review of court records.
One of the most recognizable figures from the attack was a shirtless Arizona man who called himself the "QAnon Shaman." He carried a spear and wore face paint and a Viking hat with fur and horns.
A core belief among QAnon followers is that Trump was secretly fighting a cabal of "deep state" operatives, prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites, some of whom worship Satan and engage in sex trafficking of children.
The panel has shown, over the course of fast-paced hearings and with eyewitness accounts from the former president's inner circle, that Trump was told "over and over," as Vice-Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said, that he had lost the election and his claims of voter fraud were just not true.
As the three-hour hearing ended, Cheney said that Trump had tried to call a witness who had yet to appear, suggesting a possible instance of witness tampering that she said had been referred to the U.S. Department of Justice.
"We will take any effort to influence witness testimony very seriously," Cheney said.
With files from Reuters