Witness to Jan. 6 probe: Trump tried to take the wheel—literally—in bid to crash democracy

Witness to Jan. 6 probe: Trump tried to take the wheel—literally—in bid to crash democracy

On the day of the insurrection, and after then-President Donald Trump delivered a speech from the Ellipse that inspired a mob to lay siege, he desperately wanted to go to the Capitol. 

In his remarks that afternoon, he told the mass of his supporters he would walk with them to the Capitol no less than twice. They would “go together,” Trump said to wild cheers.

“I’ll be there with you, we’re going to walk down… you have to show strength and you have to be strong. We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing and only count the electors who have been lawfully slated, lawfully slated,” he urged to the crowd. 

But Trump would not join them—though not for lack of trying, according to stunning live testimony delivered Tuesday by Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to Trump’s White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.

Under oath and penalty of perjury, Hutchinson said when Trump ended his speech on Jan. 6 and got into “The Beast” or the president’s vehicle, with members of his security detail. He was under the impression left on him by Mark Meadows that it was possible for him to go to the Capitol.

Video from Jan. 6 shows that Trump was in an SUV version of “The Beast,” a nickname for the presidential car. 

Trump left the Jan. 6 rally in the SUV version of the Beast, fwiw, as opposed to the limo. He appears to be sitting in the rear passenger seat. Hutchinson testified she was told he grabbed at the wheel, then at the “clavicles” of an agent, as he demanded to go to the Capitol. pic.twitter.com/nTZw48ToD9

— Josh Wingrove (@josh_wingrove) June 28, 2022

When the head of his security detail, Robert “Bobby” Engel, told him it wasn’t safe and they did not have the assets to protect him and must return to the West Wing, Trump exploded. 

“I’m the fucking president,” Trump allegedly raged. “Take me to the Capitol now.”

Trump grabbed at Engel’s arm and attempted to wrest control of the steering wheel, Hutchinson testified, recalling this moment as it was relayed to her by Engel and Anthony Ornato, the head of White House operations on Jan. 6.

When Engel told the president to stop, Trump then “used his free hands to lunge” at his clavicle. 

It was a desperate scene. 

This was just one disturbing sequence of events revealed by the probe after more than a year of investigation into the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. 

Trump was also aware, Hutchinson testified, that his supporters in Washington, D.C., arrived heavily armed and carrying everything from assault rifles to sharpened flagpoles to bear mace and body armor to blunt objects.

When talk of Trump visiting the Capitol initially began to swirl, White House counsel Pat Cipollone repeatedly expressed to Hutchinson this was a no-go. He feared Trump visiting the Capitol during the Joint Session might trigger a wave of legal headaches. 

“We are going to get charged with every crime imaginable,” Hutchinson recalled Cipollone saying. 

But like the fact that his supporters were heavily armed, Trump didn’t care about that. 

Trump was told of the possible threats and wanted security checkpoints eased—not tightened, she said. Specifically, he wanted his security teams to remove the magnetometers, often called “mags,” that were dissuading his armed followers from entering the space he’d made for his speech.

Rather than relinquish their weapons, Hutchinson said, many of Trump’s followers opted to listen from beyond the barrier and walk—still armed—to the Capitol afterward. This wasn’t making Trump happy.

Hutchinson was within earshot when she heard Trump say: 

“You know, I don’t f-ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the f-ing mags away. Let my people in. They can march to the Capitol from here. Let the people in. Take the f-ing mags away.”

Just four days earlier, the president’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, had been optimistic with Hutchinson as Trump’s “wild” protest loomed. He told her Trump would look “strong” and that it would be a great day for America.

But Meadows had his doubts. He told her after the meeting with Giuliani: “Things might get real, real bad on Jan. 6.”

Things had already been bad for weeks. 

The former aide, who had a front-row seat to the inner workings of the White House, described on Tuesday the outrage Trump had at former Attorney General Bill Barr after Barr publicly proclaimed there was no voter fraud in the 2020 election widespread enough to alter the outcome. 

He would break dishes often, she said, But on this day, she remembered peeking through a door into the White House dining room. A valet was fixing a tablecloth. She was waved into the room and saw Trump, irate, as he watched the television where Barr’s remarks were discussed. 

Ketchup, she said, had been splattered on the wall and a plate was shattered on the floor at his feet. 

And when the mob was surrounding the Capitol, its members engaging in hand-to-hand combat with an outnumbered police force, Hutchinson recalled how Cipollone urged Meadows to do something. Things kept escalating. A gallows had been erected on the Capitol lawn.

Rioters were “literally calling for the vice president to be f-ing hung,” Cipollone urged Trump’s chief of staff.

According to her testimony, Meadows responded: “You heard it, Pat, he thinks Mike deserves it. He doesn’t think they’re doing anything wrong.”

Meadows had been hurriedly fulfilling Trump’s requests around Jan. 6 for quite some time at this point and on the eve of the insurrection, Hutchinson newly revealed Tuesday, there was one special request: Trump asked Meadows to contact Roger Stone and former national security adviser Michael Flynn. 

What was said on that call is not yet clear. Stone, a longtime GOP operative, was in D.C., with members of the Oath Keepers who allegedly served as his personal security detail for the event and a rally preceding it. Stone has invoked his Fifth Amendment with the probe and so too has Flynn. 

A staggering clip featuring Flynn’s testimony was aired by the committee Tuesday. In it, Flynn invokes his Fifth Amendment right to the most basic of questions, including whether he felt it was morally acceptable to upend the nation’s transfer of power with violence. 

The retired three-star general answered succinctly: “Fifth.”

In her recorded deposition before the committee, Hutchinson previously revealed that a number of Republican lawmakers in Congress sought pardons or discussed receiving pardons from Trump after Jan. 6. One of those lawmakers included Rep. Jim Jordan, a huge proponent of Trump’s push to overturn the election results. 

Jordan has been wildly inconsistent about his communication with Trump on Jan. 6 and rebuffed a subpoena. He has said previously that he couldn’t remember when he spoke to Trump; first it was before the riot, then it was after. Then he wasn’t sure. 

But Hutchinson’s testimony clarified Tuesday that Jordan had called Meadows just around 2:15 PM on Jan. 6. The conversation was brief and they discussed, she testified, the ‘Hang Mike Pence’ chants. 

For his part, Trump responded to testimony today with outrage and claimed Hutchinson was lying. It is a “fake story,” Trump said. 

Hutchinson’s attorney issued a statement after her appearance saying she was proud of her service to the president and that she felt it was “her duty and responsibility to provide the committee with truthful and candid observations of the events around Jan. 6.”

When Trump sent out the tweet on Jan. 6 specifically attacking then-Vice President Pence after the rioters entered the Capitol, she described a sinking feeling. Offering some of the starkest and most plain-dealing assessments to emerge from witness testimony, Hutchinson said:

“As a staffer that works to always represent the administration to the best of my ability and to showcase the good things he had done for the country, I remember feeling frustrated, disappointed, and really it felt personal. I was really sad.

As an American, I was disgusted. It was unpatriotic. It was un-American. We were watching the Capitol building get defaced over a lie.”

Hutchinson said she is still processing her feelings about the day. 

The New York Times reported that her testimony on Tuesday was a surprise because of the new information that emerged to investigators after she switched attorneys. Hutchinson’s current lawyer is Jody Hunt of the D.C. law firm Alston & Bird. Hunt is a longtime ally to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, even once serving as his chief of staff. Prior to this, Hutchinson had retained Stefan Passantino, once the White House deputy counsel under Trump.

Creating distance between probe witnesses, the former president, and members of his administration has become a tricky endeavor, according to the committee. 

Without identifying those involved, Cheney presented transcripts from calls received by witnesses to the committee and other statements. 

In one message, someone the committee only identified as a “person” called one witness and said: “[A person] let me know you have your deposition tomorrow. He wants me to let you know that he’s been thinking about you. He knows you’re loyal and you’re going to do the right thing when you go in for your deposition.”

Committee Vice Chair Cheney said Tuesday: “I think most Americans know that attempting to influence witnesses to testify untruthfully presents very serious concerns.”

We commonly ask witnesses connected to Trump whether they have been contacted by anyone attempting to impact testimony. Below are examples of answers we have received to this question. pic.twitter.com/pwxyJBf7Kl

— January 6th Committee (@January6thCmte) June 28, 2022

After the hearing concluded Tuesday, NBC News reported that “a source close to the Secret Service” said Bobby Engel and “the limo driver” are prepared to testify under oath that neither of them was assaulted and that Trump never lunged for the wheel.

An important distinction to make as Republicans in the House and Senate have now seized on Hutchinson and accused her of lying to the committee: Though Hutchinson referred to “The Beast” as a limousine during her testimony, again, footage from Jan. 6 shows that Trump did not get into a limo, but a Suburban-style SUV also referred to as “The Beast.”

This distinction potentially undercuts claims that it was physically impossible for Trump to “lunge” at Engel or others depending on where he was sat in the vehicle.

A spokesperson for the committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The Secret Service released a statement as well on Tuesday, saying it has been cooperating with the probe since its inception and will keep cooperating on the record in regard to the allegations that surfaced today.

A notable point:

1) Bobby Engel is not denying Hutchinson was told of an altercation in the Beast, which is what she testified to. 2) Tony Onrato, who told the story, is not included in the SS denial. 3) This is the PRIMARY topic that was not direct testimony against either Trump, Meadows, Rudy

— emptywheel (@emptywheel) June 28, 2022

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