Justin F. Thulin: Take-home points from the January 6 Select Committee hearings

(J. Scott Applewhite | AP) Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., listen as Cassidy Hutchinson, former aide to Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, testifies as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, June 28, 2022.

The January 6 Select Committee’s hearings have summarized portions of a wide-ranging investigation led by a bipartisan panel of legislators investigating how the 2020 presidential election was almost subverted by President Donald Trump.

While January 6, 2021, has long passed, the threat to American democracy remains. All the hearings have been worth watching. The following points struck me as most important.

The January 6 insurrection was the last step in a carefully planned hub and spoke conspiracy in which the attack on the Capitol was just one spoke of a grander scheme to cling to power. Trump was the hub — the motivating force behind an array of coordinated efforts to subvert the 2020 election.

The vast majority of the individuals who have testified so far are Republicans and Trump supporters: his campaign staff, White House staff, Department of Justice appointees, state-level officials, and citizens who attended the January 6 rally. The vice-chair of the committee is Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, a conservative Republican. This makes the hearings very credible — the opposite of a partisan witch hunt.

For months before the election, Trump primed his supporters to be skeptical of a Biden victory, claiming that the only way he could lose was if there was fraud.

Trump had been told that he may be leading during the first day of tabulating the votes as Republicans favor in-person voting. He had been cautioned that this lead was a “red mirage” that would probably decrease or possibly evaporate all together after mail-in votes, which Democrats use more commonly, were counted.

The committee showed a recently leaked video of Steve Bannon speaking to a group of associates on the evening of October 31, 2020. He said that Trump had a plan to declare victory on election night — even if he was losing.

What Trump’s gonna do is just declare victory. Right? He’s gonna declare victory. But that doesn’t mean he’s a winner,” Bannon, laughing, told the group. “He’s just gonna say he’s a winner.”

In a news conference at 2:30 a.m. the morning after the election, even though millions of legitimate votes had yet to be counted and races in half a dozen swing states still had not been called, Trump claimed victory.

“Frankly, we did win this election.”

Trump was legally entitled to ask for recounts in a few states where the election was very close and have his claims of fraud contested in court. Recall, Trump lost in court over 60 times because his claims of fraud were without merit. Trump was told repeatedly by his campaign team, White House counsel and DOJ officials that there was no evidence of fraud significant enough to overturn the election. All the conspiracy theories... corrupted voting machines, manipulation by foreign powers, fake suitcases of ballots, voting by dead people, etc., were evaluated by state election officials and the DOJ and were found to be, as Attorney General William Barr said to Trump, “nonsense.”

When the legal avenues challenging election results resoundingly showed that there was no fraud significant enough to overturn the election, Trump and his allies then pressured Republican state election officials in battleground states to switch their states’ votes to Trump. The committee’s investigation revealed that this pressure campaign included calling lawmakers, inviting them to the White House, and finally, threatening them over social media and sending protesters to their homes.

Republican state leaders such as Arizona House Speaker “Rusty” Bowers and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger testified to the extent of these efforts and how they rebuffed them in their states. State legislative leaders in other swing states also rebuffed Trump’s efforts.

When this didn’t work, Trump and his allies urged pro-Trump state politicians to produce alternative, false, slates of electors — a scheme concocted by a conservative lawyer, John Eastman. The idea was to send the fake electoral votes to Vice President Mike Pence so that “someone” in Congress could make an objection when the counting of votes began and argue that the fake votes should be counted. This could have created the pretext for Pence, in his capacity as president of the Senate, to block or delay congressional certification of the Electoral College results or even throw out both real and fake electoral votes and declare Trump the winner of the election.

Fake electors did ultimately meet on Dec. 14, 2020, in the battleground states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Nevada and Wisconsin. At the request of the Trump campaign, the electors signed documents falsely asserting that they were the “duly elected” electors, and these were then submitted to the National Archives and to the vice president.

Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-California, said that by January 4 Trump had “engaged in a multi-week campaign to pressure the vice president to decide the outcome of the election” despite being told many times by his WH counsel that this was illegal. In the end, Pence refused to delay the counting of electoral votes as he correctly understood that the vice president’s only role was to count lawfully submitted electoral votes.

The panel’s fifth hearing revealed that Trump sought to use the DOJ to create the illusion of a legitimate investigation into the validity of the 2020 election results. Between Election Day 2020 and Jan. 6, 2021, acting deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue testified that Trump implored Justice Department officials to “just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and Republican congressmen.”

Jeffrey Clark, a Trump-appointee in the DOJ, who inappropriately had been coordinating election strategy with Trump without his superiors’ knowledge, drafted a letter stating that the DOJ had significant concerns about the election and urging Georgia state officials to choose an alternate set of electors. But Rosen and Donoghue didn’t share Clark’s concerns and were alarmed by the letter’s implications. Donoghue told Clark that “it was not the department’s role to suggest or dictate to state legislatures how they should select their electors,” and that the letter was “not based on fact” and could have “spiraled us into constitutional crisis” if Clark proceeded with his plan.

Rosen and Donoghue refused to sign the letter. Furthermore, in a dramatic January 3 meeting at the White House, the two informed Trump that if he fired Rosen and promoted Clark to attorney general, most senior DOJ officials would resign and he would no longer have a functioning Justice Department. Ultimately, Trump did not fire Rosen and formally appoint Clark as his new attorney general, but he didn’t give up.

The eighth hearing sought to demonstrate what President Trump was doing on January 6 during the 187 minutes between 1:10 p.m., when he finished his speech at the Ellipse and told his supporters to march to the Capitol, and 4:17 p.m. when he posted a video on Twitter telling his supporters for the first time to leave the Capitol.

As Committee member Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Virginia, reported: “Within 15 minutes of leaving the stage, President Trump knew that the Capitol was besieged and under attack.”

At 1:25 p.m., President Trump went to his private dining room off the Oval Office where the television was on, and Fox News was covering the insurrection. He stayed there until 4 p.m.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone testified that all the White House staff wanted Trump to make a strong statement condemning violence and urging his supporters to go home. Trump’s family members and Fox News personalities urged the same course of action. But as Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told Cipollone, “Pat, he (Trump) doesn’t want to do anything.”

Trump did not intervene to stop the January 6 insurrection because Trump did not want to. He didn’t call his secretary of defense, secretary of homeland security or his attorney general during the siege because he wanted the rioters to stop the counting of electoral votes. It wasn’t until the rioters’ attempts to control the Capitol building were clearly being rebuffed that Trump put out a tweet telling the “beautiful and patriotic” rioters to go home.

No official White House record exists of what Trump was doing in the presidential dining room for over 2.5 hours while the Capitol was under attack. This doesn’t happen by accident. No photographs were taken. The Presidential Daily Diary is blank. The official White House record shows no calls were made by Trump between 11:06 a.m. and 6:54 p.m. Rudy Giuliani’s phone records, however, showed that Trump called him twice, at 1:39 p.m. and 2:03 p.m. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, also said he spoke with Trump during that time, just after Pence was evacuated from the Senate chamber at 2:13 p.m.

Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, testified that Trump wanted “a list of senators” (and presumably their phone numbers) and “I left him” alone in the dining room “at that point.” It’s not hard to connect the dots about what Trump was doing and why he didn’t want anyone to know about it.

Regardless of what is subsequently discovered, Trump’s failure to act while the Capitol was being attacked was a supreme dereliction of his duty as president and commander in chief and more generally, a betrayal of the American people.

At the eighth hearing, the committee showed a video of majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, speaking about the Jan 6 attack shortly after Trump was acquitted by the Senate in February 2021:

“There’s no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day. No question about it. The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their President. And having that belief was a foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories, and reckless hyperbole which the defeated President kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth.”

Cheney summarized the eighth hearing:

“In our hearing tonight you saw an American president faced with a stark and unmistakable choice between right and wrong. There was no ambiguity. No nuance. Donald Trump made a purposeful choice to violate his oath of office, to ignore the ongoing violence against law enforcement, to threaten our constitutional order. There is no way to excuse that behavior. It was indefensible.

And every American must consider this, can a president who is willing to make the choices Donald Trump made during the violence of January 6 ever be trusted with any position of authority in our great nation again?”

It’s long past time for denial. About 70% of Republicans still believe that Joe Biden didn’t win the 2020 election legitimately. While 80% of Democrats are paying at least some attention to the hearings, only 40% of Republicans are.

As Cheney noted, continued denial of truth will kill our democracy. Embracing the truth about Trump’s hub and spoke conspiracy, on the other hand, is the first step in protecting our democracy and helping our nation heal.

Inform yourself.

Justin F. Thulin is a retired physician who lives in Salt Lake City.

Justin F. Thulin is a retired physician who lives in Salt Lake City.