WASHINGTON — At the last Jan. 6 committee hearing, Representative Liz Cheney opened with a stark declaration: “President Trump is a 76-year-old man; he is not an impressionable child.”
It would seem to be an obvious observation considering Trump’s age and resume. And yet Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, felt it needed saying.
The moment spoke to a central tension facing the committee investigating the Jan 6, 2021, insurrection as it holds the final scheduled hearing in prime time Thursday evening. The committee has portrayed Trump as a calculating mastermind of an elaborate plot to overturn the 2020 election and keep himself in power, whatever it took.
And yet, the often-shocking testimony its members have unearthed often paints a picture of a man “detached from reality,” as his own attorney general put it, and prone to outbursts, including launching his lunch at a wall.
Trump’s frame of mind — whether rational or raving — and culpability will be a central component of the hearing Thursday. The committee says it will delve into what the president was doing, and thinking, during the hours that a mob of his supporters deluged the Capitol and interrupted the counting of electoral votes, threatened his vice president, and forced members of Congress to flee for their lives. It was 187 minutes of mayhem before Trump finally issued a tweet urging them to leave.
Ultimately, the hearings are not a criminal proceeding and there’s no jury to convince — even if there are signs the committee is hoping the Justice Department will follow its breadcrumbs and bring charges. But the Jan. 6 panel’s work will likely shape the public’s view of the former president as he weighs another run for office in 2024. The committee also faces a delicate balance in convincing Americans that he attempted to overturn an election he knew was legitimate even while some of his associates describe him as living in a fantasy world.
Cheney emphasized Trump’s age in last week’s hearing to rebut the suggestion the former president was not responsible for his actions, after taking bad advice from the outside group of lawyers who some referred to as “the crazies.”
“Just like everyone else in this country, he is responsible for his own actions and his own choices,” she said, noting that Trump was told over and over by his top officials there was no evidence of fraud that would have changed the election results. “No rational or sane man in his position could disregard that information and reach the opposite conclusion. And Donald Trump cannot escape responsibility by being willfully blind.”
Yet in the same hearing, one witness, a member of the White House staff, used the word “unhinged” to describe a fateful December meeting in the Oval Office, detailing how members of Trump’s family and inner circle continuously tried to manage his whims and outbursts.
In the December meeting, which carried on for hours past midnight, a band of outside Trump advisers including Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell had been talking with the president about their theories of election fraud unbeknownst to his official legal team, who raced into the room to bat down the already-debunked conspiracies being proposed to Trump. For hours, the two sides engaged in shouting matches, trading expletives and threats of resorting to physical confrontation while Trump stoked the flames.
Finally, at 1:42 a.m., Trump chose his side with a tweet to his followers that read, in part, “Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
“The west wing is UNHINGED,” Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, texted a colleague from the periphery of the meeting.
And the testimony included examples of members of Trump’s orbit trying to manage his emotions. In one clip the committee has played twice, former attorney general William Barr described leaving the Oval Office after one of the conversations he had with the president about far-fetched conspiracy theories regarding election fraud that Barr dismissed with colorful language.
“I said, ‘How long is he going to carry on with this stolen election stuff? Where is this going to go?’” Barr recounted. “Jared (Kushner) said, ‘Yeah we’re working on this, we’re working on it.’”
At other times, Barr testified that he thought Trump was increasingly “detached from reality. ... that before the election it was possible to talk sense to the president. ... After the election, he didn’t seem to be listening.”
In another clip, the president’s daughter Ivanka was said to have wanted to go with Trump to the rally on Jan. 6 to try to calm him down, though Ivanka denied it.
“She shared that he had called the vice president an expletive word,” Ivanka Trump’s former chief of staff, Julie Radford, testified. “I think that she could tell ... that he was angry and upset and people were providing misinformation, and she felt like she might be able to help calm the situation down, at least before he went onto stage.”
Earlier testimony described the former president in a volatile state. Hutchinson described seeing “ketchup dripping down the wall and ... a shattered porcelain plate on the floor” after Trump threw his lunch upon reading an interview with Barr debunking election fraud claims. “There were several times throughout my tenure with the chief of staff that I was aware of him either throwing dishes or flipping the tablecloth to let all of the contents of the table go onto the floor,” she testified.
Hutchinson also described a bombshell episode on Jan. 6 in which Trump was so “irate” that Secret Service would not take him to the Capitol with the rally-goers that he tried to grab the steering wheel and lunged toward his top agent as if to grab him around the neck. Hutchinson testified that the story was relayed to her in the presence of the agent, who did not deny it. The Secret Service disputes her account, but has provided just a single text exchange from the time period to the panel, saying others had been deleted and were unrecoverable.
Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio said the former president’s behavior, however, is often misinterpreted by the public.
“I never thought he was merely deluded,” D’Antonio said. “He’s more complex and actually brilliant than people assume. His blowups may even be strategic. And even if they aren’t, he recovers quickly.”
Moreover, Trump’s volatile behavior likely would not matter if he were criminally charged, according to Martín Sabelli, a veteran criminal defense attorney. Irrationality is not a defense that would disprove criminal intent, barring a psychiatric condition.
“It’s like saying Macbeth couldn’t have intent because he was angry at the king,” Sabelli said. “There’s no contradiction between intent and bad judgment or intent and anger. And in fact, much of Trump’s anger is because his intent is being thwarted.”
Members of the committee say they don’t see a contradiction in placing blame on Trump while also featuring testimony depicting his erratic behavior.
“I think it’s pretty clear from the testimony that we’ve heard that he’s a pretty volatile person and very much wanted a singular result on Jan. 6,” said Representative Pete Aguilar, a Democrat from California. “His own volatility doesn’t excuse anything that he said or anything that he incited or did.”
Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren of California emphasized that the committee’s task is to lay out the facts as they are.
“The question is, what did he do? And what did he know?” Lofgren said. “He’s the president. As President Truman said, ‘The buck stops here.’”