American presidents, if they are remembered at all, are remembered for an iconic image or a quick fact that both serve as a shorthand and define them for history.
There is the tale of how Abraham Lincoln scratched out the Gettysburg Address. There’s the picture of F.D.R. smoking a cigar, wearing a top hat, and waving to supporters while sitting in a car. Howard Taft, above anything he did in office, is remembered for being so fat he got stuck in a bathtub.
Then there was Richard Nixon, flashing two peace signs as he was about to board Marine One while resigning the presidency. And Ronald Reagan standing before the Brandenburg Gate, while George W. Bush shouted from a bullhorn amid the rubble following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Barack Obama’s image was the moment he was sworn in as the first Black president.
Following Tuesday’s hearing of the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, a new image emerged of Donald Trump, one that may forever serve as the symbol of his chaotic and unprecedented presidency.
Under oath, Cassidy Hutchison, a top aide to the then-White House chief of staff, recalled in detail several meetings, text message conversations, and phone calls with which she was personally involved.
She said that after Trump returned to the White House from his Jan. 6 speech on the mall, she ran into a Secret Service agent who asked if she had heard what just happened moments earlier in the president’s vehicle. She said she had not.
He told her that the president got in the vehicle after his speech believing that there was a good chance he would be driven to the Capitol ahead of the mob. When agents said they were not going to do that because they had no way to keep him safe, the agent told Hutchinson that Trump grew irate. Hutchinson said the agent relayed that Trump yelled something to the effect of: “I’m the f-ing president, take me up to the Capitol now.” He then reached up towards the front seat to try and grab the steering wheel. When the agent in the limo, known as one who was particularly loyal to Trump, told the president to remove his hands from the wheel, Trump then lunged at the agent, apparently going for his neck, Hutchinson testified.
And there it was: an iconic story that will forever define the Trump presidency. Trump will be recalled as the president who attacked his own Secret Service agent in a brazen attempt to put even more pressure on Congress to overturn a election he rightfully lost. It was, of course, all based on a lie.
Before this moment, one could debate what stood out as the perfect historical image of the Trump presidency. Maybe it even took place before the presidency when he rode down the Trump Tower escalator to announce he was running in the first place. It could be of him with various A-listers in the Oval Office, as though he was on the latest season of Celebrity Apprentice. Maybe it was his response to the white supremacists in Charlottesville, or the image of him on the White House lawn walking to the helicopter that would take him to the hospital while he was ill with COVID.
But even such drastic moments don’t capture the arc of history the way Tuesday’s testimony did. The Jan. 6 insurrection had already cemented itself as the defining day of the Trump administration. But it was always a bit difficult to place Trump himself in the chaos of the day. After all, he wasn’t at the Capitol, amid the snapshots of violence and mayhem. On Tuesday though, Hutchinson’s testimony placed him squarely within the anger and the violence of that day. The image in our minds is now that of a vicious, angry president who wanted to join the mob, according to testimony.
Trump allies were quick to either downplay Hutchinson on Tuesday as a minor staffer or to dismiss her story as hearsay.
But as Sarah Matthews, a White House deputy press secretary to Trump, put it on Twitter: “Anyone downplaying Cassidy Hutchinson’s role or her access in the West Wing either doesn’t understand how the Trump WH worked or is attempting to discredit her because they’re scared of how damning this testimony is,” she wrote. “For those complaining of ‘hearsay,’ I imagine the Jan. 6 committee would welcome any of those involved to deny these allegations under oath.”
James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.