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What Trump Knew: How the Jan. 6 Committee Is Building a Case Against a Former President

14 minute read

On the night of Jan. 2, 2021, Cassidy Hutchinson escorted President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, out of the West Wing to a car waiting to drive him off the White House grounds. The former New York City mayor had just finished a meeting with Hutchinson’s boss, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. “Cass, are you excited for the 6th?” Giuliani said, according to Hutchinson’s recent testimony at a congressional hearing. “It’s going to be a great day.”

The remarks threw the young aide off guard. “Rudy, could you explain what’s happening on the 6th?” she asked him.

His answer wasn’t entirely clarifying. “We’re going to the Capitol. It’s going to be great. The president is going to be there. He’s going to look powerful,” Giuliani told her. “Talk to the chief about it. He knows about it.'”

Hutchinson walked back to Meadows’ office. He was sitting on the couch scrolling through his phone. “It sounds like we’re going to the Capitol,” she told him. Meadows didn’t look up from his phone. “There’s a lot going on, Cass, but I don’t know,” he said. “Things might get real, real bad on Jan. 6.”

For the last 18 months, Trump and his allies have adamantly stressed that the deadly Capitol attack on Jan. 6, 2021, was as shocking to them as it was to everybody else. It was spontaneous, they said, a legitimate political protest. The president and his associates did nothing wrong before, during, or after the attack. One senator called it “a debate about election integrity” that simply got out of hand.

During a hastily scheduled hearing on June 28, 26-year-old Cassidy Hutchinson struck a mortal blow to that defense. Over two hours of dramatic live testimony before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, Hutchinson asserted that Trump was repeatedly warned about the legal and practical dangers of encouraging the march to the Capitol that day.

Not only did he urge his supporters to go to the Capitol, he knew the mob was heavily armed and dangerous, according to Hutchinson. Not only did he know they wanted to obstruct the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory, he tried to join them. And not only did he know his supporters posed grave danger to members of Congress and his own vice president, Mike Pence, he thought they “deserved it.”

Trump immediately denied the most explosive parts of Hutchinson’s testimony. In a dozen posts on his social media platform Truth Social, he called her a “total phony” and a “whacko.” Her body language, he fumed, was “that of a total bull…. Artist.” One allegation, in particular, he said was “fraudulent, very much like the Unselect Committee itself.”

But the panel’s sixth hearing demonstrated in graphic, new detail that the political and legal case is still being built against the former president. And the damning revelations from Hutchinson could ultimately help the Department of Justice charge the former President with crimes, such as attempt to obstruct an official act of Congress, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and even seditious conspiracy, according to Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney.

“I think he has gone into a whole different category of potential criminal liability,” Litman tells TIME. “The most serious charges to date have been against the Proud Boys and Three Percenters because they actually were using violence to try to harm a U.S. function. And that’s where Trump is now, too. He’s an absolute co-conspirator.”

January 6th Committee Holds Surprise Hearing During Congressional Break
Cassidy Hutchinson, a top former aide to Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, testifies during the sixth hearing by the House Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol in the Cannon House Office Building on June 28, 2022.Brandon Bell—Getty Images

“Every Crime Imaginable”

The Jan. 2 meeting between Giuliani and Meadows wasn’t an outlier. Planning around Jan. 6 had taken up an increasing amount of the administration’s time and resources. In the weeks after the election, Trump was prone to angry outbursts as lawsuit after lawsuit seeking to overturn election results in swing states failed. When Trump learned about then-Attorney General William Barr’s Dec. 1, 2020, interview with the Associated Press, in which he said that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove widespread fraud during the election, Trump flung a plate of food at the wall, Hutchinson testified, leaving “ketchup dripping down the wall.”

With his efforts to nullify Biden’s wins in six states going nowhere, he turned his attention to urging his supporters to “Stop the Steal,” suggesting that they could block Congress from formally certifying Biden’s victory. “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” Trump tweeted on Dec. 19. “Be there, will be wild!”

Already those around him were raising concerns about the potential for violence. John Ratcliffe, a former Texas Congressman who had become Trump’s Director of National Intelligence, told Hutchinson “he was concerned that it could spiral out of control and potentially be dangerous, either for our democracy or the way that things were going for the 6th,” she testified.

While Hutchinson wasn’t privy to substantive discussions about the extremist groups that would ultimately assault the Capitol, she recalled hearing the words “Oath Keepers” and “Proud Boys” in the West Wing in the days leading up to the attack.

Even from the outside, there were clear signs that Jan. 6 had a high potential for violence. Far-right groups had been openly preparing for weeks for the day they saw as a “final stand” to keep the President in power. Dozens of the MAGA faithful had already been arrested at precursor “Stop the Steal” rallies. As Trump “continues this incendiary rhetoric, he’s inciting his supporters and inflaming the situation,” Chuck Hagel, a Defense Secretary under President Obama and former Republican Senator from Nebraska, told TIME on Jan. 5, 2021. “I’m concerned about violence.”

Read More: Washington Braces for Chaos as Trump Supporters Descend for ‘Final Stand’

This was an assessment that was shared internally by national security and Secret Service officials, who warned senior White House staffers, including Meadows, about intelligence that indicated there was a likelihood of violence and armed protestors on Jan. 6, according to Hutchinson’s testimony, as well as concerns that Congress would be a target.

At the same time, Trump was trying to orchestrate a rare presidential visit to the Capitol to be with his supporters that day. On the morning of Jan. 6, White House Counsel Pat Cipplone made a desperate plea to Hutchinson as she was leaving for the rally planned for near the White House. “Please make sure we don’t go up to the Capitol, Cassidy,” he said. “Keep in touch with me. We’re going to get charged with every crime imaginable if we make that movement happen.”

Earlier that morning, she had witnessed White House Deputy Chief of Staff Tony Ornato warning Meadows of the wild array of weaponry the protestors were bringing, everything from knives, pistols, and rifles to bear spray and body armor. “These effing people are fastening spears onto the ends of flagpoles,” she recalled him saying. Ornato said he had told Trump the same thing, Hutchinson added.

But when she got to the rally, she overheard Trump concerned not about the potential for violence, but the crowd size. The rally space at the Ellipse was not full, the Secret Service told him, because many of his supporters were armed and didn’t want to go through the magnetometers, known as “mags,” to gain access. “I don’t effing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the effing mags away,” he said, according to Hutchinson. “Let my people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.”

The Secret Service did not comply with his request. Around noon, the President gave his address, one that the Jan. 6 committee has featured repeatedly during its hearings. Rep. Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming and the committee’s vice chair, said that Trump, who is known to ad-lib during public speeches, mostly stuck to the script. But as noteworthy as what was in the speech—dark warnings like “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore”—is what was left out.

Hutchinson testified that Trump wanted to include language promising to pardon his supporters who marched to the Capitol to thwart Biden’s election certification, but Cippolone convinced him to leave it out. “I understood, from White House Counsel’s Office coming into our office that morning, that they didn’t think it was a good idea to include that in the speech,” Hutchinson said in pre-taped video testimony.

When the speech ended, Trump got into a bulletproof presidential vehicle, and demanded his security detail take him to the Capitol. National security chat logs shared by the Jan. 6 committee showed that the Secret Service was at one point preparing to clear a route for the president to walk there. When Trump’s lead security detail, Robert Engel, conveyed to him that going to the Capitol was not secure and they had to return to the White House, the president was furious.

What happened next has become a matter of dispute since the June 28 hearing. Hutchinson testified that Ornato, with Engel in the room, told her that Trump said, “I’m the effing President, take me up to the Capitol now.” After he was rebuffed, Trump allegedly tried to grab the steering wheel. “Sir, you need to take your hand off the steering wheel,” Engel told him, while holding his arm. Trump then lunged toward the agent’s throat, Hutchinson said Ornato told her. Trump vehemently denied the incident ever happened.

A few hours later, Trump was back at the White House as protestors breached the Capitol. With the day growing increasingly violent, and Pence among those at risk, Cipollone implored Meadows to take action, Hutchinson testified. “Something needs to be done or people are going to die and the blood is going to be on your effing hands,” he said, according to Hutchinson’s account. “Mark, we need to do something more, they’re literally calling for the Vice President to be effing hung.” Meadows responded with “something to the effect of, you heard him, Pat. He thinks Mike deserves it,” Hutchinson told investigators.

Shortly thereafter, Trump tweeted, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.”

House January 6th Select Committee Holds Its Third Hearing
An image of former President Donald Trump is displayed during the third hearing of the House Select Committee in the Cannon House Office Building on June 16, 2022.Drew Angerer—Getty Images

“No More Credible Person Than That”

The new revelations from Hutchinson—someone who witnessed many of these conversations firsthand—is the most damning testimony to date.

While Trump and his allies tried to undermine her credibility, several former administration officials vouched for her character and trustworthiness. “I worked with her, I saw her every day in the West Wing. She was front and center, actively a major part of the West Wing operation,” Olivia Troye, a former homeland security and counterrorism adviser to Pence, told TIME. “They can try to discredit her,” she went on, “the reality is she was Mark Meadows’ right-hand person. There is no more credible person than that.”

Former White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, former White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Matthews, and former White House Director of Strategic Communications Alyssa Farah Griffin also defended Hutchinson on Twitter.

Even Fox News, perhaps Trump’s most influential defender, acknowledged that Hutchinson’s testimony was damaging.

While the some of the network’s most prominent personalities have painted the committee’s work as a “Stalinist” witch hunt, and it’s executives refused to preempt Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity on June 9 to carry the first hearing live, anchor Bret Baier didn’t hide his astonishment in response to the June 28 hearing. “I’ve covered politics a long time,” Baier said on air. “I don’t think there has been testimony like this—that is kind of jaw-dropping, in a way—on the inside workings of a White House … since Watergate.”

It’s a reality that is leading many legal experts to believe that what was once unthinkable is now entirely possible—a former president might be indicted. “I think her testimony makes it more likely that we’ll see criminal charges,” says Jennifer Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor and now a lecturer at Columbia Law School.

Before Hutchinson’s deposition, the committee had mostly depicted the different ways that White House advisers, Department of Justice and state election officials had repeatedly told the president that his claims of voter fraud were baseless—showing how Trump and his associates ignored them all, pressing on with his efforts to overturn the election anyway.

Hutchinson also testified that both Meadows and Giuliani requested presidential pardons for their actions leading up to Jan. 6, a move that committee members have said demonstrates a consciousness of guilt.

Legal experts said that all of that evidence, while potentially damaging for Trump, still gave him the wiggle room to say he was exercising his First Amendment right to express a conviction, even if it was flatly untrue. In other words, it’s the legal defense version of the George Costanza line, “It’s not a lie, if you believe it.”

But Hutchinson’s striking testimony, particularly about how Trump knew many of his supporters were armed and sent them to the Capitol anyway, has changed the equation.

“For the first time, this testimony tied him to advance knowledge of the violence. And that’s huge,” Rodgers tells TIME. “I thought that was a direct hit for him, understanding that there was a very strong potential for violence, and he didn’t care one bit.”

The evidence presented on June 28 actually went further than helping to build the case against Trump for attempting to obstruct a congressional proceeding and conspiracy to defraud the U.S. It opened up the possibility that the Justice Department could pursue other charges.

After Hutchinson finished testifying, the Jan. 6 committee revealed new evidence that unnamed Trump allies were trying to intimidate witnesses by sending messages before they testified. “He knows you’re loyal and you’re going to do the right thing when you go in,” one such message said. One of the messages was sent to Hutchinson herself, according to Punchbowl News.

“I think he has gone into a whole different category of potential criminal liability,” Litman says. “The big thing is that he’s now in the territory that he hasn’t been before of both seditious conspiracy and fomenting insurrection.”

To be sure, many are still skeptical that Attorney General Merrick Garland will ultimately indict Trump, or even appoint a special prosecutor to consider such a task. The Justice Department, after all, has never prosecuted a former president. But there’s a greater likelihood now than there has ever been.

“It’s a federal crime to intimidate or assault members of Congress,” former Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew McCarthy said on Fox News after the hearing. “What would the Capitol Police have done if the President of the United States was leading the mob? How could they conceivably have contained that?”

According to McCarthy and Litman, those revelations alone could implicate the President on criminal charges of conspiracy to impede or injure a government official. It’s a crime that carries up to six years in prison.

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Write to Vera Bergengruen at vera.bergengruen@time.com