The surprise witness shared intimate details of Trump’s conduct on Jan. 6 — and might have just changed everything.
When news broke Monday that the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot was adding a surprise hearing for Tuesday, it instantly generated a lot of intrigue. Pundits and plugged-in observers were reminded of 1973, when a sudden new witness was added to the schedule of an ongoing congressional investigation: Alex Butterfield, a deputy assistant to then-President Richard Nixon, who told the world about the paranoid president’s secret taping system. Casual newswatchers were simply curious what else might be revealed by the hearings, already playing out much more like a prestige drama than a congressional panel. Teasing tweets ensued, as they always do, with people guessing who might emerge from the shadows of the Donald Trump White House.
The answer was Cassidy Hutchinson, a 25-year-old former aide to Trump’s Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. CNN Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins described Hutchinson as being so close to Meadows that Collins “once saw [Hutchinson] lint roll his jacket,” adding that Hutchinson often sat in on meetings and was typically the go-between for people looking to get in touch with Meadows or the president himself. A former aide to former House Speaker Paul Ryan told The Washington Post that Hutchinson was “always by [Meadows’s] side,” nothing that Meadows often requested for her to sit in on meetings — even ones that “you’d expect to be principal-level or very small, senior staff-level,” which gave her “unusual” access for someone at her level, the aide said.
But how much could a junior aide, in her early 20s at the time, really be privy to when it comes to presidential machinations and attempted coups? Turns out, a whole lot. Hutchinson’s testimony was painstaking in its revelations, with her detailing just how much Trump knew about the dangerous, riotous mob he’d incited to overtake the Capitol, how badly he himself wanted to be there, and how much legal jeopardy aides understood themselves to be in. According to Hutchinson:
- Meadows knew how volatile Trump’s Stop the Steal rally, which preceded the mobbing of the Capitol, could become even before it happened. On Jan. 2, he told Hutchinson, “Things might get real, real bad on Jan. 6.”
- Both Meadows and Trump knew the crowd heading to the Capitol on Jan. 6 was armed with serious weaponry, including AR-15s and bear spray. They knew this because Meadows received a briefing from his deputy chief of staff Tony Ornato on how militarized the mob was — but Meadows didn’t even look up from his phone while Ornato was speaking.
- In fact, Trump was angry the Secret Service was even checking people for weapons at the Stop the Steal rally. He was fine with it, saying, “They’re not here to hurt me. Take the f--king [magnetometers, or security metal detectors] away. Let my people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.”
- Trump himself desperately wanted join the march to the Capitol. In his speech at the Stop the Steal rally, he said as much, telling his supporters, “We’re going to the Capitol, and we’re going to try.” He confirmed to The Washington Post as recently as this April that he wanted to go but was stopped by Secret Service. But now we know just how angry he was at being deterred: He tried to grab the steering wheel of the vehicle he was riding in, demanding, “I’m the f--king president, take me up to the Capitol now,” and physically fought with the Secret Service officer driving him.
- Trump at one point leading up to the Jan. 6 rally had even expressed interest in speaking at the Capitol, or going into the House chamber as votes were being certified. Pat Cipollone, then the White House counsel, balked at the suggestions, telling Hutchinson, “We’re going to get charged with every crime imaginable.”
- When Trump heard that supporters were chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” outside the Capitol — where gallows were erected on the lawn — he was unfazed. Cipollone urged Meadows to get the president to do something, but Meadows told Cipollone that Trump “thinks Mike deserves it. He doesn’t think they’re doing anything wrong.”
- When then-Attorney General Bill Barr told the Associated Press on Dec. 1, 2020, that there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud, Trump was so angry that he threw his lunch plate against the wall. “I grabbed a towel and started wiping the ketchup off the wall to help the valet out,” Hutchinson said. This was not the first time Trump had chucked dishes at the wall in anger.
- Both Meadows and Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, asked for presidential pardons related to their involvement in Jan. 6.
In closing Tuesday’s hearing, Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the ranking Republican on the Jan. 6 commitee, showed texts that appeared to show attempted witness tampering. One witness provided a message to the committee that showed the sender letting the witness know an unnamed man was “thinking about you,” and that the man “knows you’re loyal, and you’re going to do the right thing when you go in for your deposition.”
All of this matters in a legal sense, because the key to successfully charging Trump with any crimes related to Jan. 6 may well be a legal doctrine known as “willful blindness.” As Lawfare explains, to convict Trump of charges like seditious conspiracy or obstruction of Congress, prosecutors would generally need to show that Trump knew he was doing something wrong, “or at least [had] knowledge of facts that make [his] conduct wrongful,” a legal definition known as “mens rea” or guilty mind. But if they could not provide ironclad proof of that, then the “willful blindness” doctrine might offer cover, as it holds that defendants “cannot escape criminal liability ‘by deliberately shielding themselves from clear evidence of critical facts that are strongly suggested by the circumstances,’” per Lawfare, quoting a 2011 Supreme Court decision.
But of course it matters in a much more immediate way too. According to Hutchinson, the man who was leading the free world, who had access to the nuclear codes and dictated social, political, and economic policy for nearly 330 million people, was so desperate to join an angry, seditious mob that he attacked his driver. He was so angry that his employee stated a fact to a news outlet that he tossed his lunch at the wall. He was so wounded at his loss of a free and fair election that he agreed his vice president should endure threats to his life.
Former Trumpworld figures attested to Hutchinson’s credibility and access. But it remains to be seen whether Trump, or any of his aiders and abetters, will face criminal consequences for their actions. The Jan. 6 committee has said it will hold a final two hearings next month; perhaps Hutchinson’s testimony will inspire other inner-circle figures to speak out too. But even if they don’t, it’s pretty clear that despite what we already thought happened on Jan. 6, the reality might be even darker.