WASHINGTON - Toward the end of 2020, then-President Donald Trump began raising a new idea with aides: that he would personally lead a march to the Capitol on the following Jan. 6.
Trump brought it up repeatedly with key advisers in the Oval Office, according to a person who talked with him about it. The president told others he wanted a dramatic, made-for-TV moment that could pressure Republican lawmakers to support his demand to throw out the electoral college results showing that Joe Biden had defeated him, the person said.
The excursion that almost happened came into clearer focus this week, as the House committee investigating the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 presented explosive testimony and records detailing Trump’s fervent demands to lead his supporters mobbing the seat of government. Though Trump’s trip was ultimately thwarted by his own security officers, the new evidence cuts closer to the critical question of what he knew about the violence in store for that day.
Trump has acknowledged his foiled effort to reach the Capitol. “Secret Service wouldn’t let me,” he told The Washington Post in April. “I wanted to go. I wanted to go so badly. Secret Service says you can’t go. I would have gone there in a minute.”
But as Trump repeatedly floated the idea in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6, several of his advisers doubted he meant it or didn’t take the suggestion seriously. One senior administration official said Trump raised the prospect repeatedly but in a “joking manner.”
As a result, the White House staff never turned Trump’s stated desires into concrete plans. Press officers made no preparations for a detour to the Capitol, such as scheduling an additional stop for the motorcade and the pool of reporters who follow the president’s movements. There was no operational advance plan drafted for the visit. No speech was written for him to deliver on the Hill, and it wasn’t clear exactly what Trump would do when he got there, said the person who talked with Trump about the idea.
This account of Trump’s ceaseless plotting to join the mob at the Capitol on Jan. 6 is based on committee testimony and evidence as well as 15 former officials, aides, law enforcement officials and others, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal details.
Aides did not know where Trump got the idea, this person said, but it wasn’t from inside the White House. The chief of staff, Mark Meadows, discussed plans to bring Trump to the Capitol with Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., and lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who was leading the campaign’s efforts to overturn the election results, according to testimony from Cassidy Hutchinson, a close aide to Meadows.
“I remember hearing a few different ideas discussed between Mark and Scott Perry, Mark and Rudy Giuliani,” Hutchinson said in videotaped testimony to the Jan. 6 committee played during Tuesday’s hearing. “I know that there were discussions about him having another speech outside of the Capitol before going in. I know that there is a conversation about him going into the House chamber at one point.”
Meadows declined to comment through his attorney. Giuliani and a spokeswoman for Perry did not respond to requests for comment.
Hutchinson’s attorneys said Wednesday that she “stands by all of the testimony she provided yesterday, under oath.”
Hutchinson’s account was supported by other testimony played at the hearing. “He brought it up, he said, ‘I want to go down to the Capitol,” Max Miller, a White House aide now running for Congress in Ohio, said in taped testimony. But Miller’s entire testimony wasn’t played, where he suggested it was a short-lived idea, according to people familiar with the matter.
Some White House officials were out of the loop. Ordinarily, the White House’s legislative affairs staffers would be involved in a visit to Capitol Hill, but they were not briefed on any plans for him to go on Jan. 6, according to two senior administration officials. Aides to Vice President Mike Pence heard secondhand from other White House advisers that Trump wanted to go to the Capitol, but they were never given a formal plan and did not expect him to follow through, according to a Pence adviser with direct knowledge of their plans.
“There was no plan for what to do if Trump showed up,” the Pence adviser said. “Frankly, we didn’t think it was going to happen.”
Some of his allies said Trump never brought up the idea of going to the Capitol with them, even as he bandied it about internally with his aides and Secret Service team. “Not to my knowledge was he ever coming up here,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who regularly talked with Trump in the days leading up to Jan. 6. “To me, I don’t see him going to a riot.”
On Jan. 4, Trump raised the issue with several White House aides again, but Secret Service and senior staff warned him it would be logistically impossible and dangerous, a person familiar with the discussion said. Another adviser said the Secret Service was particularly skittish about a trip to the Capitol because a trip in November - when Trump went into a crowd of election fraud protesters in Washington - was viewed as nightmarish and difficult to manage.
The next day, on the eve of the rally, Tony Ornato, the White House deputy chief of staff for operations, told a senior staffer there was no possibility they were going to the Capitol, saying, “That is not part of the plan,” the staffer recalled.
Trump, though, seemed to have other ideas. Just before he addressed the rally on the Ellipse, Trump gathered with family members and close aides in a tent backstage. As Trump looked at monitors showing a video feed of the crowd, Hutchinson testified that she overheard him complaining about unoccupied space in the shot and wanting more people to enter. According to her testimony, Ornato explained to Trump that some people in the crowd couldn’t go through the security screening because they had weapons.
“I overheard the president say something to the effect of, ‘I don’t care that they have weapons, they’re not here to hurt me,’” Hutchinson testified. She also recalled hearing Trump say, “Let my people in. They can march to the Capitol after the rally’s over.”
The moment was captured in photographs that the committee obtained from the National Archives and displayed during the hearing. The scene in the tent also appeared in a video recorded by Donald Trump Jr., showing the president looking at the screens and talking to Meadows and his daughter Ivanka while Kimberly Guilfoyle danced to Laura Branigan’s “Gloria.”
Other people in the tent at the time did not respond to requests for comment or declined to corroborate or dispute Hutchinson’s account on the record. Some Secret Service officials told the committee they did not recall Trump saying he wanted to admit more people despite being warned of weapons in the crowd, according to a person briefed on their testimony.
Trump denied wanting to let in people with guns. “Who would ever want that? Not me!” he posted on his Truth Social platform.
When Trump took the stage, he told the rally, “We’re going to walk down and I’ll be there with you.” The remark stunned staffers who didn’t understand that to be the plan.
“I told people we were not really going to the Capitol,” recalled the senior staffer who has spoken with Ornato. “It never crossed my mind that was legitimate.”
But as Trump left the stage, he made clear he was serious. That’s when his personal assistant, Nick Luna, first became aware of Trump’s desire to go to the Capitol, according to his taped testimony played at Tuesday’s hearing.
Hutchinson testified that she overheard Meadows tell the president he was still working on arranging the trip up Capitol Hill. According to Hutchinson, she told Meadows that Ornato said the movement wasn’t possible, and Meadows responded, “OK,” before getting into the motorcade.
“MOGUL’s going to the Capital [sic] . . . they are clearing a route now,” a National Security Council staffer posted to an internal chat obtained by the committee, using Trump’s Secret Service code name.
“They are begging him to reconsider,” another message said. When a planned route was posted to the chat, the log shows a staffer responding, “So this is happening.”
Inside the presidential SUV, Trump’s demands to go to the Capitol culminated in a dramatic showdown, according to Hutchinson, who said Ornato described the incident to her shortly afterward. By her account, Trump was under the impression from Meadows that his surprise trip to the Capitol was about to happen. In the car, Secret Service agent Bobby Engel told Trump the route to the Capitol could not be secured and they would return to the West Wing, Hutchinson said.
“The president had a very strong, very angry response to that,” she testified. “Tony described him as being irate. The president said something to the effect of, ‘I’m the f-ing president. Take me up to the Capitol now.’”
When Engel insisted that the car was instead bound for the White House, Hutchinson said Trump reached toward the steering wheel. Engel grabbed his arm, Hutchinson testified, and said, “Sir, you need to take your hand off the steering wheel. We’re going back to the West Wing. We’re not going to the Capitol.”
According to Hutchinson’s testimony about Ornato’s account to her, Trump used his other hand to lunge toward Engel. When Ornato told this story to Hutchinson, with Engel in the room, she said, he gestured toward his collarbones. When Hutchinson recounted this at the hearing, she placed a hand at the base of her neck.
Trump denied trying to grab the steering wheel, calling Hutchinson’s testimony “‘sick’ and fraudulent.” Ornato and Engel were not asked about the incident when they testified to the committee, the person briefed on the Secret Service testimony said.
Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich dismissed Hutchinson’s testimony in a statement Thursday: “The fact that The Washington Post is still trying to peddle testimony from a witness who has been widely discredited, and who many believe perjured herself - which is a felony - is an absolute embarrassment.”
Three agents who accompanied Trump on Jan. 6 are disputing that Trump assaulted or grabbed at Engel and/or the steering wheel, according to one current and one former law enforcement official familiar with their accounts. The three agents, Engle and Ornato are also willing to testify under oath to the committee about their recollection of events on Jan. 6 in the Secret Service vehicle, the two people said. The three agents do not dispute that Trump was furious that the agents would not take him to the Capitol.
Even after the car returned Trump to the West Wing, he still wouldn’t let go of wanting to reach the Capitol.
“When we got back to the White House, he said he wanted to physically walk with the marchers, and according to my notes, he then said he’d be fine with just riding the Beast,” former press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in videotaped testimony to the committee, referring to the nickname for the fortified presidential limo. “He wanted to be a part of the march in some fashion.”
Trump was furious with Meadows for failing to make the trip happen, Hutchinson testified that Meadows told her. By the time they were back in the West Wing, the televisions were showing live coverage of the rioters overpowering police and getting closer to the Capitol’s doors and windows. Hutchinson testified that she entered Meadows’s office and asked him if he was watching.
“The rioters are getting really close,” she recalled asking the chief of staff. “Have you talked to the president?”
“No,” Meadows answered, while scrolling and texting on his phone, according to Hutchinson’s testimony, “he wants to be alone right now.”