The congressional hearings examining the Capitol rampage in January, 2021, have turned dramatically to a startling question:
Just how close did the United States come to a violent coup led by a president who wanted personally to join the rioters in their insurrection, who knew that his supporters were armed and was untroubled by that fact, who might have entered the besieged building himself, and who believed that the vice-president who defied him by refusing to alter the vote count deserved a public hanging?
The conclusion Tuesday afternoon: very close.
Indeed, the scene that emerged from the testimony of a 26-year-old witness to history – a woman who was “in the room” – was of a Washington noir, a bleak tale of cynicism and moral ambiguity. And the prospect that Donald Trump might himself storm the Capitol – his fondest and most fervent wish, foiled by the Secret Service and some White House aides – prompted images of mutinies and insurrections in Guinea and Yemen. It was not the stately limousine procession of U.S. presidents and the challengers who defeated them en route to an Inauguration Day ceremony at the Capitol, a setting that on Jan. 6, 2021, became a crime scene.
Of all the shocking news that has emerged from the Capitol riot, the notion that Mr. Trump physically tried to wrestle control of the presidential limousine from a Secret Service driver – and that he assaulted the agent – may be the most astonishing.
Of all the unsettling behaviour that Americans have learned about their presidents in the White House, the image of ketchup dripping from the wall of the executive mansion and shattered china on the floor of the personal dining room of the leader of the free world may be among the most vivid.
Of all the revelations about what occurred in the seat of the executive branch as members of the legislative branch were in protective hiding places, the paralysis of top presidential aides during the gravest constitutional crisis of the modern age may be the most staggering.
Of all the revelations made by White House aides during congressional investigations in the past half-century, the testimony of 26-year-old Cassidy Hutchinson, former aide to Mr. Trump’s White House chief of staff Mark Meadows – who in calm language and poised bearing, shared her horror at the episode – may have been the most affecting.
Of all the warnings that White House officials have given to the presidents they serve, the one from presidential counsel Pat Cipollone that presidential aides were “going to get charged with every crime imaginable,” if Mr. Trump did proceed to the Capitol, was the most striking.
Of all the reports about Mr. Trump’s apparent nonchalance about the fate of former vice-president Mike Pence, the testimony that the president believed that Mr. Pence deserved his fate and that those who threatened him were not doing anything wrong may be the most shocking.
Those shock waves stirred comparisons with earlier episodes in U.S. history. Ms. Hutchinson was bravely playing the role of John Dean III, who revealed the discussions inside Richard Nixon’s White House during Watergate. The shattered executive mansion dishes were an echo of how Mr. Nixon’s private language – conveyed in the White House tapes as “expletive deleted” – shattered public notions of proper presidential comportment. The general behaviour of how Mr. Trump debased the White House were reminiscent of how Warren G. Harding (in a closet), John F. Kennedy (in the swimming pool) and Bill Clinton (in an Oval Office anteroom) tarnished the building with extramarital sexual exploits.
The difference is that Mr. Trump’s equivalent of these sorts of degrading behaviours occurred in the White House in less than 24 hours.
Mr. Trump represented a departure from presidential norms in multiple ways – his personal attacks on rivals, his defiance of tradition and custom, his contempt for expertise and for the officials who populated his own government – and yet his treatment of Robert Engel, the head of his security detail, is the one likeliest to rock establishment Washington. Since the assassination of William McKinley in Buffalo in 1901, Secret Service agents have been tasked with protecting the president. With unanimity, the 18 presidents who followed have saluted the agents who have put their lives on the line to protect their lives, often with awe and extravagant praise.
The image of Mr. Trump lunging at Mr. Engel in an effort to take possession of the steering wheel of the presidential automobile – a tantrum that Ms. Hutchinson described, though secondhand and already challenged by Secret Service agents – will long tarnish the president’s image, for his intention clearly was to join rioters who he knew were armed and were determined to block the peaceful transfer of power that has been an American hallmark for more than two centuries.
Mr. Trump, on Tuesday, described Ms. Hutchinson as a “total phony and a leaker” and said he barely knew her. Now all of America knows her. And her story was chilling and, as history will show, unforgettable.
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