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The Jan. 6 Committee’s Closing Argument Was About Trump’s Morality

As a violent mob of his supporters smashed through windows to enter the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021, then-President Donald Trump did nothing.

As members of Congress and his vice president, Mike Pence, were forced to flee for their safety, Trump did nothing.

As members of Pence’s security detail were telling colleagues over the radio to tell their families they loved them, Trump did nothing.

In the final summertime hearing from the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, the focus was on Trump’s inaction for more than three hours during the violence at the Capitol. After eight hearings detailing everything Trump had done that led to the attack, and framing it as potentially criminal, the committee spent this last hearing focused on what the former president didn’t do — and framed it as a moral failing.

It’s no secret that the Jan. 6 committee has been using the hearings, in part, to lay out an argument that Trump may be liable for criminal charges. In a court filing in March, the committee suggested it had sufficient evidence to conclude that “the President and members of his Campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States.” Committee members, including the vice chair, Rep. Liz Cheney, have said the Department of Justice should not shy away from prosecuting Trump if prosecution is warranted. And the hearings have prompted endless speculation over what crimes, if any, the former president could be charged with. Though it’s ultimately up to the Department of Justice (which is conducting its own investigation into Jan. 6) to decide whether charges are warranted, the committee has made its case over the past few months.

But it’s hard to prove that inaction constitutes a crime. And so on Thursday the committee tried to make a different case. The committee focused on evidence showing that everyone around Trump that day — his staffers, his attorneys and even his children — had urged him to speak out, to condemn the violence and to tell the rioters to go home. The committee shared an assortment of text messages sent to Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, from Republican members of Congress, Fox News hosts and Trump’s son Don Jr., all urging him to persuade the president to condemn the violence. Trump eventually did, putting out a public statement asking the rioters to go home peacefully, though he also added: “We love you. You’re very special.”

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There were repeated references to oaths throughout the hearing — Trump’s oath of office, the oath his Cabinet members take, the oaths members of law enforcement and Congress take — and the dereliction of duty that comes from not honoring those oaths. The committee juxtaposed Trump’s inaction with other leaders who, as Rep. Elaine Luria phrased it, “honored their oath” that day. Pence worked to try to get military and law enforcement mobilized to the Capitol. Senate leaders Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell, as revealed in a never-before-seen video, worked together on a call with acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller to determine how quickly they could resume the joint session and complete the vote count.

But in case the target of the committee’s criticism wasn’t obvious, committee members minced no words as the hearing drew to a close. Rep. Adam Kinzinger called Trump’s inaction on Jan. 6 “a dereliction of duty,” emphasizing why they were closing the summer hearings with a focus on this small chapter of the Jan. 6 saga.

“Oaths matter,” he said. “Character matters. Truth matters.”

CORRECTION (July 22, 2022, 11:40 a.m.): This article has been updated to correct Rep. Liz Cheney’s role in the House select committee. She is the vice chair, not the co-chair, of the committee.

Kaleigh Rogers is FiveThirtyEight’s technology and politics reporter.


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