U.S. President Donald Trump was so determined to join the armed crowd marching on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, that he grabbed for the steering wheel of The Beast – the presidential limousine – in an attempt to steer it toward the unfolding insurrection, according to a new account from a top White House aide.
The volatile Mr. Trump had been known to act out his anger, yanking a table cloth to shatter dishes and leaving the presidential dining room wall stained with ketchup after hurling a plate, Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, said Tuesday.
But on Jan. 6, his fury was provoked by his stymied attempt to join gun-wielding protesters, following a speech in which he told supporters: “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol.”
By that point, Mr. Trump had been informed that security services had observed men armed with Glock pistols and AR-15 assault rifles just outside The Ellipse, the park south of the White House where Mr. Trump delivered remarks, as Congress gathered to certify the election on Nov. 3, 2020, of Joe Biden as president, a vote whose result Mr. Trump disputed.
In the weeks after the insurrection, supporters of Mr. Trump said his statements about joining the Capitol protest were meant metaphorically.
Not so, said Ms. Hutchinson, who was within earshot of Mr. Trump at key moments on Jan. 6.
On Tuesday, Ms. Hutchinson, 26, described what she saw and heard that day to the U.S. House of Representatives committee that is investigating what happened and the threat it posed to the U.S. system of governance.
Her testimony gave new shape to the dalliance with anti-democratic rebellion that marked Mr. Trump’s final days in office, describing a chaos and fear inside the White House that mirrored the storming of barricades less than three kilometres away.
Ms. Hutchinson depicted Mr. Trump on Jan. 6 as a leader who, after losing in an election, wanted to join with the armed insurrectionists in their movement on the Capitol in an attempt to block the transfer of executive power. At several points, Mr. Trump overrode the protests of White House lawyers who sought to temper his language and urged him to condemn rioters who entered the Capitol and came within 15 metres of then-vice-president Mike Pence.
Instead, when the mob at the Capitol began chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” Mr. Trump told those with him in the Oval Office dining room that the vice-president “deserves it,” Ms. Hutchinson said. Rather than demanding calm, Mr. Trump wanted to publicly reassure protesters that he would potentially pardon them, she said. (Some of those closest to Mr. Trump, Ms. Hutchinson said, also sought pardons related to the events of Jan. 6, including Mr. Meadows and presidential lawyer Rudy Giuliani.)
Some parts of what Ms. Hutchinson described were based on second-hand accounts, others on her own conversations with Mr. Meadows, White House staff and members of Congress. Her recollections could not be immediately verified, and some contradict public statements made by others involved.
Mr. Meadows and Mr. Trump did not respond publicly.
Mick Mulvaney, who preceded Mr. Meadows as White House chief of staff, called Ms. Hutchinson’s descriptions “explosive,” saying on Twitter that others will need to respond: “If Cassidy is making this up, they will need to say that. If she isn’t they will have to corroborate. I know her. I don’t think she is lying.”
Key elements of Ms. Hutchinson’s recollections took place around the Jan. 6 speech at The Ellipse where, she said, Mr. Trump expressed displeasure at the small size of the crowd. He was told that many people had refused to join, because they did not want to pass through the magnetometers, or mags, used to screen for metal objects. Some were armed and did not want the Secret Service to seize their weapons.
The White House knew that protesters were carrying knives, guns, armour, bear spray and spears fastened to flag poles, Ms. Hutchinson said.
But Mr. Trump wanted to override security concerns to let more people join the crowd, she said.
“I overhead the president say something to the effect of: ‘I don’t effing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the effing mags away. Let my people in. They can march to the Capitol from here,’” she said.
After Mr. Trump’s speech, he entered The Beast, expecting to be driven to the Capitol. When he was told security concerns made that impossible, he grew angry, telling his head of security: “I’m the effing president. Take me up to the Capitol now,” Ms. Hutchinson said.
Mr. Trump then “reached up to toward the front of the vehicle to grab at the steering wheel,” she said, before lunging in the direction of his security chief’s neck.
Other White House staff have also said Mr. Trump wanted to join the protest, although their accounts are contradicted by Mr. Meadows, who in his book, The Chief’s Chief, calls the Jan. 6 insurrection the work of “a handful of fanatics.” Mr. Meadows writes that the thousands of people who descended on the Capitol “had absolutely no urging” from Mr. Trump, and that the then-president was “speaking metaphorically” when he mentioned going to the Capitol.
At 2:24 p.m. on Jan. 6, Mr. Trump tweeted that his vice-president “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done” – a message that caused some staff members to resign – before eventually releasing a video statement saying to those at the Capitol: “We have to have peace. So go home, we love you.”
But he made that statement reluctantly and under pressure from others, including his daughter, Ivanka Trump, a key adviser, Ms. Hutchinson said.
Earlier in the day, she said, White House counsel Pat Cipollone had urged Mr. Meadows to see the president after rioters reached the Capitol.
Mr. Meadows, she said, looked up from his phone to respond: “He doesn’t want to do anything, Pat.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.