The committee was faced with a difficult task in what was supposed to be the final January 6 hearing. As the final broadcast of the investigation, the ninth broadcast was meant to be a primetime opportunity for Congress 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 important audiences – the American public and the attorney general, Merrick Garland – that Trump’s conduct on and before the election was illegal.
But the committee ran into a problem with Trump’s unwillingness to act: It doesn’t make for compelling television. Though their political significance is undeniable, the January 6 committee hearings’ power comes primarily from their visual and entertainment value. However, Trump’s carelessness, inertia, and passivity during those moments had no rhyme or reason.
Trump’s refusal to stop the mob was quickly highlighted in the committee’s presentation. A wall-mounted TV in the West Wing dining room served as Trump’s primary source of information during the uprising’s final hours. Even as he was fleeing the Capitol, Trump made calls to several Republican senators, including Alabama’s Tommy Tuberville, urging him to halt the certification of the election. Representative Kevin McCarthy and his aides hid in fear while Trump begged and screamed for the mob to disperse. We know that Trump received phone calls from Republican congressmen. In taped testimony, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone sounded livid and contemptuous of his former client, and described himself as one of many advisers imploring Trump to call off the murderous crowds that were roaming the Capitol halls in search of Mike Pence.
In previous hearings, the committee had lavished praise on Republicans, praising Pence’s bravery for not facilitating a coup, praising the bravery and integrity of the institutions whose failures led to Trump’s presidency, and praising the beauty and integrity of those institutions. On the contrary, Thursday’s hearing was a marked departure from the previous installments, in that it was willing to hold other Republicans accountable, or at least to ridicule their hypocrisy.
They repeatedly referred to the apparent terror of Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House leader who has since worked tirelessly to bring Trump back into the party fold. Mitch McConnell, who has said he will vote for Trump again in 2024, was repeatedly shown in clips blaming the attack on Trump. Showing security footage from the Capitol after the rioters invaded, they first showed the now-famous photo of Missouri senator Josh Hawley raising his fist in encouragement to them. Running for his life was Hawley, who wrote the book Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs.
Trump’s refusal to act takes on a new meaning when viewed through the eyes of the men who have spent their entire careers working for him and courting his approval. It is not seen as a passive failure, but rather as a conscious decision. Many of his most trusted sycophants had been pleading with him to take action, saying that the country and the lives of many people were in jeopardy. This means that Trump’s inability to act does not fit any of the commonly used explanations for the president’s misbehavior: incompetence, childlike narcissism, or low stakes petulance. His actions take on a sinister quality as well, bordering on the sadistic.
It’s also worth noting that Thursday night’s hearing did an excellent job of dispelling the Trump mystique of showmanship. Outtakes of his Rose Garden video from the afternoon of June 6th, the one in which he finally told the mob that he loved them and to go home, were shown in archival clips. At one point in the video, Trump appears uncertain about when to begin speaking, asking an unidentified off-screen aide for guidance. In front of a live audience, he stares blankly into the camera as he delivers a bizarre, rambling, and barely understandable rant.
He stutters and nitpicks the script in outtakes from a speech he recorded the following morning, after the audience had gone home. Despite the fact that the election is over, he refuses to say so; the line is cut from his remarks.
Trump’s bumbling and small-minded appearance in the footage is the most striking aspect of the video, which contrasts starkly with the moral weight of what he has done. He stumbles over his words and can’t get a coherent thought out. Angry at his inability to pronounce “yesterday,” he bangs on the podium. He says, “Yesterday is a difficult word for me.” “Is it defied or defiled?” comes up later. Maybe it’s a combination of the two.
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