In Trump’s White House, who exactly was in on the con?
The movement and business conservatives around him seemingly got what they wanted: cemented control over the federal judiciary, the Supreme Court for a generation, while scoring tax cuts and lax regulation in the short-term.
Trump himself spent four years in power, became possibly the most talked-about person on Earth, and fomented a personalist political movement around him to boot.
But over the past several weeks, through multiple hearings, the congressional Jan. 6 panel has shown how top conservatives got a front-row seat to the consequences of the bargain they struck with the former President and, crucially, how many of them continued to enable him even as he embarked on a campaign to subvert the results of the 2020 election and critically wound American democracy.
Now, as the committee approaches what might be its final hearing for some time, one throughline is coming into focus.
Senior Republicans working in the White House, the committee’s hearings have suggested, knew exactly who Trump was and clearly understood the nature of the movement he had created: a reckless, far-right political force hell-bent on power without democratic means.
Trump appears to have been in constant contact with a coterie of attorneys after the 2020 election — some worked for him personally, others in his capacity as president, and others had positions serving the U.S. government.
Some of those lawyers, like Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman, enabled Trump, telling the former President that they could hack out a path for him to stay in power.
Others, like Attorney General Bill Barr, were not duped by claims of supposed fraud: they knew the election was not stolen. And, in response, they walked a tightrope, recognizing internally that Trump had lost, while temporarily mollifying the former President’s by taking some steps to cast doubt on the certitude of the result.
Attorney General Bill Barr, for example, changed longstanding DOJ policy to permit criminal investigations into elections before the results were certified. That allowed him to order federal prosecutors to investigate allegations that Trump wanted probed — including a video that Giuliani falsely claimed showed poll workers stuffing ballots in Georgia.
Barr said that he brought the results to Trump, telling him that the DOJ had debunked the claims.
“I made it clear I did not agree with the idea of saying the election was stolen and putting out this stuff which I told the president was bullshit,” Barr recalled in a memorable quote. He told the AP on Dec. 1 that the DOJ had found no evidence of fraud that could change the outcome, prompting Trump’s fury.
Barr had started off at DOJ running interference for Trump, recently telling the Hoover Institution that he believed the Mueller investigation was treating Trump unfairly.
But by the end of Trump’s term, Barr was bearing witness to Trump’s attempt to overturn the result of the election. He announced his resignation from the DOJ on the day that Trump exhausted his legal options to fight the result: Dec. 14.
From there, the committee has suggested, the burden for witnessing and resisting Trump’s efforts to overturn the election result fell to Pat Cipollone, a former Barr aide who spent much of his early tenure as White House counsel stonewalling congressional attempts to investigate Trump.
Cipollone appeared in nearly all of what the committee identified as the critical meetings that took place in the White House from Dec. 14 — the day that legal remedies to resolve Trump’s election claims ended — to Jan. 6.
He was there for the Dec. 18 verbal brawl with Sidney Powell, Michael Flynn, and Patrick Byrne, he threatened to resign if Jeff Clark were to be appointed attorney general on Jan. 3, and he appears to have been in and around the White House in the immediate run-up to Jan. 6.
By that point, the vast majority of Trump officials appear to have understood that it was game over. Kayleigh McEnany, White House spokeswoman at the time, told the committee that after Dec. 14 she began to contemplate “life after” the Trump administration.
Trump’s personal behavior, committee witnesses have said, continued to sour over this period. Cassidy Hutchinson, the former Mark Meadows aide, recalled seeing ketchup dripping down a White House wall after Barr’s interview with the Associated Press.
In the days leading up to Jan. 6, Trump appears to have been fixated on the idea of personally marching up to the Capitol.
Nobody around him was deceived by this — the committee provided evidence of multiple people saying that this was a bad idea.
“We’re going to get charged with every crime imaginable,” Cipollone said, per Hutchinson.
House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) pushed to keep Trump away, for example.
“Figure it out,” Hutchinson recalled McCarthy telling her on the morning of January 6. “Do not come up here.”
Thursday’s hearing will show in more detail how Trump reacted — or did not react — on January 6 itself.
But the hearings so far have shown how the movement conservatives around Trump tolerated him, up to the breaking point: a cascade of violence on January 6 that, to the shock of observers of all political stripes, have failed to discredit the former President and his political movement.
And, it’s far from clear that the hearings, with the sunlight that they’ve brought to Trump’s attempts to hold onto power, will deliver the kind resounding defeat for Trump that his opponents seek.
But they have shown something very clearly: when things get bad, those around him are not fooled.