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Opinion
The Editors

Trump Knew Exactly What He Was Doing on Jan. 6

The president was inciting a mob to overturn an election. His actions will leave a permanent stain on American democracy.

Shocking. Not surprising.

Shocking. Not surprising.

Photographer: Brandon Bell/Getty

In broad outline, the events of Jan. 6 last year have been clear for some time. Yet every once in a while, a bracing new detail emerges. So it was Tuesday when Cassidy Hutchinson, formerly an assistant to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, testified before the House select committee investigating the riot.

Hutchinson described a president simmering with rage that day. The crowd surging outside the Capitol — protesting the certification of an election that Donald Trump falsely claimed to have won — looked too small for his liking. Informed by police that many would-be protesters had been stopped because they were carrying weapons, Trump exploded. He demanded that officials remove magnetometers at the security perimeter and let the armed mob in. “They aren’t here to hurt me,” Hutchinson recalled the president saying. “Let them march to the Capitol from here.”

No one who observed the four years of the Trump administration will be surprised by that perverse logic, in which satisfying the president’s vanities was worth potentially putting members of Congress in mortal danger. It’s remarkable all the same.

It was already clear that Trump had behaved appallingly that day. As Congress went through the pro forma process of certifying the election, Trump urged the assembled mob to “fight like hell.” He encouraged them to march on the Capitol and refused repeated entreaties to call them off as the situation spiraled violently out of control. At a crucial moment, he poured gasoline on the flames of protest by tweeting: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what was necessary” — that is, to unlawfully interfere in the certification process and declare Trump the winner. Chants of “Hang Mike Pence” soon echoed through the Capitol’s hallways.

In the end, the riot would result in at least $30 million in damages, leave more than 140 police officers injured — many seriously — and imprint a permanent stain on American democracy.

Some legal analysts have concluded that Trump’s actions that day meet the necessary elements of a criminal charge. Representative Liz Cheney, the select committee’s Republican vice chair, also suggested that Trump and his associates may have tampered with witnesses and otherwise obstructed the panel’s work. Whether Trump broke the law — and whether it would be prudent to indict a former president and likely nominee in the next election — will be a matter for the Justice Department.

For now, two points are worth emphasizing.

One is that Trump knew exactly what he was doing. For weeks after the election, he had been warned by a slew of lawyers, advisers and even family members that his attempts to reverse the outcome were destabilizing and potentially unlawful. On the day of the riot, numerous staffers said much the same. According to Hutchinson, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone warned her that if Trump joined the mob at the Capitol, as he wanted to, “We’re going to get charged with every crime imaginable.” The president did what he did deliberately, and in full knowledge of the likely consequences.

Second, it’s worth remembering those who acted with propriety in those crucial few months after the election, including on the day of the riot. At every level — from local lawmakers and election officials, to federal judges, to high-ranking members of the Justice Department, to Vice President Mike Pence himself — there were men and women in consequential positions who simply did the right thing. Many of them were, and remain, Trump supporters. But their commitment to democracy and common decency ensured that the system mostly held up in the end.

That’s a low bar, to be sure. But it’s nonetheless a fitting rejoinder to the most lawless and reckless presidency in memory.