During an hours-long meeting at the White House on Dec. 18, 2020, White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson fired off a text: “The west wing is UNHINGED” — emphasis hers.
The meeting Hutchinson was referring to that night involved then-President Donald Trump, White House attorneys and a coterie of outside influencers assisting in a crusade to overturn the election. At the meeting, voices grew so loud that staffers could hear shouting from down the hall. Eric Herschmann, then a senior adviser to Trump, nearly got in a fist fight with Michael Flynn, the retired general and former national security adviser. And Rudy Giuliani may or may not have called Trump’s White House advisers “a bunch of pussies.”
Some details of this meeting had already leaked, but the full scope of the tense evening was outlined in testimony during the Tuesday hearing held by the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Unsurprisingly, these salacious details dominated the reactions following the hearings, both online and in media reports.
But the true lurid details of the hearings are in the whole trying-to-overturn-democracy thing. Trump’s White House staff, his campaign and his own Justice Department made clear to him there was no evidence of election fraud, but he continued to claim there was anyway. He continued to pressure election officials and then-Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the results. Trump knew many of his supporters were armed that day when he spoke to them, but he encouraged them to go to the Capitol anyway. He knew they had breached the Capitol, yet he waited hours to call off his supporters.
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The Dec. 18 meeting, then, is important in how it augments those events. The committee took care to emphasize the timing: The meeting took place four days after the Electoral College vote, a deadline after which many in Trump’s inner circle believed (and logic would dictate) the fight over the results should have ended. This was made clear through testimony from former Attorney General Bill Barr, who said, “In my mind that was the end of the matter,” and former press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who said once the litigation had concluded she started to plan for “life after the administration.” Even Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, when asked whether she thought the Electoral College vote marked the end of the administration, said, “I think so, I think it was my sentiment probably prior as well.” Yet just days later, here was Trump hosting individuals who continued to claim there was a path to overturning the results.
The tension itself that night was also part of the broader story of Trump’s election fraud claims. Members of both the election-denying crew who visited the White House that night — which included Giuliani, Flynn, lawyer Sidney Powell and Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne — and members of Trump’s staff testified in recorded depositions that the evening became heated because the outsiders continued to push the election fraud theory while the staffers reminded them that there was no evidence. Both sides said the animosity that night was because Trump’s closest advisers were pushing back against the baseless claims of fraud, yet in the wee hours of the next morning, Trump sent out a now-infamous tweet announcing the rally on Jan. 6 to his followers: “Be there, will be wild!”
Tuesday’s hearing wasn’t the first time titillating details were included in the testimony — sprinkled throughout the hearings were allegations such as Giuliani getting hammered on election night (a claim Giuliani has denied) and Trump hurling a plate of ketchup at the wall of the White House dining room (a claim Trump has denied). But while it’s easy to get distracted by these moments, the committee has kept its eye on the ball, unveiling exactly what the president knew and when he knew it. It’s not a crime to host a heated meeting or to smash a plate of food against the wall. It is a crime to mount an insurrection. The committee is more focused on trying to figure out whether the latter than the former happened, even if the headlines suggest otherwise.