INTERVIEW

"Trump knew exactly what was going on": Inside the thinking of the Jan. 6 committee

Guardian reporter Hugo Lowell says Jan. 6 committee is close to understanding what Donald Trump knew, and when

By Chauncey DeVega

Published April 11, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

US President Donald Trump waits to speak on the phone with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar to congratulate him on his recent election victory in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, on June 27, 2017. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump waits to speak on the phone with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar to congratulate him on his recent election victory in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, on June 27, 2017. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

The House select committee investigating the events of Jan. 6, 2021, was convened more than a year ago. Between the work of that committee, the FBI, various criminal and civil investigations, media interviews, books and other reporting, a great deal of information is now known about what happened that day and how.  

Basic facts suggest that Donald Trump, his inner circle, senior members of the Republican Party and various other right-wing operatives worked together as part of a plan to nullify the results of the 2020 presidential election and keep Trump in power -- in defiance of the popular will of the American people and in violation of the law.

As reported last Friday by CNN, this plot to keep Trump in power began months before that day in January. Donald Trump Jr. reportedly told White House chief of staff Mark Meadows on Nov. 5, 2020 — two days after the presidential election, which was still officially undecided — "We have operational control Total leverage.…Moral High Ground POTUS must start 2nd term now."

Here are further details from CNN's report:

Immediately before his text to Meadows describing multiple paths for challenging the election, Trump Jr. texted Meadows the following: "This is what we need to do please read it and please get it to everyone that needs to see it because I'm not sure we're doing it."

The November 5 text message outlines a strategy that is nearly identical to what allies of the former President attempted to carry out in the months that followed. Trump Jr. makes specific reference to filing lawsuits and advocating recounts to prevent certain swing states from certifying their results, as well as having a handful of Republican state houses put forward slates of fake "Trump electors."…

Trump Jr. also texts Meadows that Congress could intervene on January 6 and overturn the will of voters if, for some reason, they were unable to secure enough electoral votes to tip the outcome in Trump's favor using the state-based strategy.

That option, according to Trump Jr.'s text, involves a scenario where neither Biden nor Trump have enough electoral votes to be declared a winner, prompting the House of Representatives to vote by state party delegation, with each state getting one vote.

"Republicans control 28 states Democrats 22 states," Trump Jr. texts. "Once again Trump wins."

"We either have a vote WE control and WE win OR it gets kicked to Congress 6 January 2021," he texts Meadows.

Trump Jr. ends his November 5 text by calling for a litany of personnel moves to solidify his father's control over the government by putting loyalists in key jobs and initiate investigations into the Biden family.

The attack on the Capitol by thousands of Trump's followers on Jan. 6, 2021, was not a spontaneous or random event. We now know from Department of Justice filings and other evidence — and what may be the most documented crime scene in American history — that the attack was wholly predictable if not premeditated, and that the goal of Trump's followers, which included various right-wing paramilitary groups, was to stop the certification of the election in Joe Biden's favor. In total, the Capitol assault was an integral part of the plot to keep Trump in power.

RELATED: How democracy dies: When it comes to Jan. 6, the American people can't handle the truth

At this point in the House select committee's investigation into the events of Jan. 6, the questions are not focused on "unknown unknowns." Instead, the focus is clear: To paraphrase a famous line from the Watergate investigation of the 1970s, what did Donald Trump know and when did he know it?

Once that question is finally answered, a larger and more important one will need to be resolved if American democracy is to survive neofascism, the Trump regime and the lawlessness of the current Republican Party. That question is whether there is any room for justice in America, under the conditions we now face. Will Donald Trump and the other members of the coup cabal be criminally indicted and then face prosecution for their evident crimes against American democracy and the rule of law?

To gain some insight into that question, I recently spoke with Hugo Lowell, congressional reporter for the Guardian, who has been closely following the House select committee's investigation. In this conversation, Lowell provides an overview of the committee's many months of work and what its members appear to have concluded to this point.

He also shares what he sees as the consensus of the available facts about the events of Jan. 6, and says it is increasingly clear that Trump knew about the plot to keep him in power and was an integral part of it.

Lowell also offers details about the logic behind the House committee's decision not to hold televised hearings (so far), and why the committee is unlikely to subpoena congressional Republicans who may have been involved in the events of Jan. 6. Toward the end of this conversation, Lowell shares his worries that however damning the conclusions reached by the Jan. 6 committee may be about Trump's coup attempt, it ultimately may not matter in terms of shaping American public opinion about that day's events.

What is the tone of the committee? What does it feel like to be there monitoring these developments?

It feels like you are on the edge of history, and I don't say that lightly. It feels like that because, especially in the last couple of weeks, you can tell that there's an urgency in the air. I believe that the committee knows that time is not on their side, and they now have had about eight months of solid investigative work behind them. They know a great deal about the Jan. 6 attack, the events that led up to it, and the genesis of the events. They're really getting towards the end now.

There's an urgency in the air. I believe the committee knows that time is not on their side — but they're really getting towards the end now.

When you talk to members of the committee and people on the staff, it feels like they are getting close to the end. There is an energy to the way that the investigation is being described now that was not there when it began. The dots are starting to be connected now. It feels palpable, especially when you're around the members and you're around the actual work that's being done.

What was the logic behind the decision not to hold televised hearings, at least to this point? That seems like a huge missed opportunity.

The public hearings are likely going to happen in May. The crux of the committee's decision-making is that the investigation has never been a made-for-TV process. The investigation is really complicated. There are about half a dozen teams and they are separated by specialty. They're looking at different things. The teams are working separately but also together when needed. Untangling all of the events from the November election through to Jan. 6 and past that day is very complicated. In my opinion, the approach taken by the committee to make sense of all this is probably the smartest way they could have done it. Ultimately, there are so many moving parts, and it wasn't the kind of investigation that was suited to daily television or having people testify in open hearings.

Much of how the Jan. 6 committee's report is going to get put together is by threading together the different pieces of evidence, what the investigation has revealed and how it all comes together. What one of my sources has indicated to me is that the committee and staff have been working really hard. They work from 8 in the morning through to midnight some nights. It just hasn't been the kind of investigation that is suited to constant public testimony and hearings. But I think that phase is coming, and in that phase they're going to show how all the pieces link together.

What is the overall narrative so far in terms of the investigation? If you were to present this for television, what would the broad strokes of the story be?

I would highlight two aspects. The evidence so far points to the fact that Donald Trump knew and oversaw what happened on Jan. 6. Trump knew in advance about these different elements that came together to form both the political element of his plan, which was to have Pence throw the election, and the violence that took place on Jan. 6. They haven't got all the evidence yet.

The evidence points to the fact that Donald Trump knew and oversaw what happened. He knew about the political element of the plan, and also about the violence on Jan. 6.

The reason why the American people should care about the events of Jan. 6 is because it was systematic, it was all encompassing and it increasingly feels like a corruption of the entire federal government. Donald Trump laid the groundwork for that to happen over his four years in office, and that should serve as a warning both to the American people and for democracy at large.

What are the remaining unknowns in this investigation?

There are still questions about the plan that Peter Navarro, the former Trump adviser, referred to as the "Green Bay Sweep." Where did this plan originate? When did it start? Who came up with it? These are key questions if we want to understand how Jan. 6 and that plan came together. The Green Bay Sweep was a plan that involved having Pence stop or delay the certification on Jan. 6, which would have thrown the country into a constitutional crisis. There is no doubt about that outcome. If that plan had come to pass, there probably would have been civil disorder across the country. The ramifications of the Green Bay Sweep are that huge.

There are counter-narratives being offered in some circles that 1) the events of Jan. 6 were not really a coup because there were no guns involved and 2) that this was a "mob" and not coordinated. Based on the hearings and the evidence, what is your response to such claims?

There are Justice Department indictments for malicious conspiracy in part because these militia groups brought weapons with them to Washington, D.C., with the intent to use them. The DOJ would not be moving ahead with those indictments if there was not overwhelming evidence. Moreover, the Capitol police found pipe bombs on the campus on Jan. 6. Capitol police and other law enforcement also found additional weapons.

RELATED: The DOJ is prosecuting Capitol insurrectionists — and dismantling GOP lies about Jan. 6

We know for a fact that there were weapons on Jan. 6. We know some of the Capitol rioters had weapons on them, including guns. In fact, we know this because one of the rioters dropped his gun on the floor and reached down to pick it up again. That was captured by the security cameras. The idea that the events of Jan. 6 were just a bunch of hooligans who came with baseballs bats or something is nonsense.

As to the claim that Jan. 6 was just a whole bunch of lone actors and these events were uncoordinated, the committee increasingly has evidence to disprove that. The committee is not at a point yet where it can overwhelmingly prove a conspiracy. They may never get to that point. However, the way that the events of Jan. 6 unfolded and the communications that took place between the militia groups and the Willard Hotel suggest that these happenings were not spontaneous.

What do we know about the actual right-wing paramilitaries, and in particular the group who appeared to be highly organized and came with zip ties to "arrest" members of Congress?

The Department of Justice indictments reveal that the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys went to the Capitol with a plan. Even if you do not believe what the DOJ is saying for whatever reason, then the way those men were operating — and in fact some of the people on those teams were ex-military — shows that they knew what they were doing on Jan. 6.

Why is the committee not calling Mike Pence to testify?

Much of this comes down to the political realities of the Jan. 6 committee. This investigation is not happening in a vacuum. There are political considerations they have to take into account. What would it mean to subpoena Republican members of Congress? Or a former vice president?

For several weeks the committee has been trying to decide what to do about Mike Pence. They want Pence to come in. They've made that clear to his lawyers, and they've made that clear to his aides. If Pence is not willing to testify, the only other option left is to subpoena him. I do not believe the committee thinks it's worth taking that step. They already have a lot of evidence from Pence's aides, whether that's Greg Jacob or Keith Kellogg, about what went down that day.

The only thing they can't get without talking to Pence are his own conversations with Trump. But I think the committee has gotten to the point now where they don't need the actual substance or the word-by-word play of all those conversations. The committee knows the general summary, because the aides know to a large degree what was being said.

For several weeks, the committee has been trying to decide what to do about Mike Pence. They do not want the inevitable political circus that comes with subpoenaing a former vice president.

For the committee's purposes, it sounds like that is going to be sufficient. What the committee does not want is the inevitable political circus that comes with subpoenaing a former vice president. And of course Trump would characterize that as a political witch hunt, and it would indeed become a circus. The Jan. 6 committee has really tried to avoid that outcome from the very beginning, because it would undercut the legitimacy of what they are doing.

Why is the committee not making a criminal referral to the Department of Justice? These are exceptional circumstances and demand such a response.

The committee has not taken a formal decision on what to do yet. In fact, they are months from making that decision. In my opinion, it is premature to conclude that the committee is definitely not going to do criminal referrals. There are several open questions before the committee, of which this is one. I think if they have information that warrants a criminal referral, they will definitely do it. The chairman has been quite clear about that.

How is the judge's decision in California that Donald Trump more likely than not committed crimes in connection with the events of Jan. 6 impacting the committee's work and energy?

That decision has been one of the biggest boosts to the investigation to date. It helps the committee get witnesses to come in to talk and it enforces other decisions. The judge's decision also really helped the committee to push back against lawsuits from those individuals who did not their records turned over to the committee. That ruling in and of itself was a victory for the committee.

Another narrative about Jan. 6 is that these events were really not that serious because Donald Trump is a hapless idiot who didn't really know what was happening, and that these concerns about a coup or conspiracy are much exaggerated because of that. What do we actually know?

Trump knew exactly what was going on. In the book "Peril," it was reported that Trump called Bannon the night before the insurrection. I reported separately for The Guardian that Trump, that same night, also called the lawyers at the Willard Hotel and Rudy Giuliani and Boris Epshteyn, and had separate conversations with them. We know that these are separate conversations because Giuliani made such a big deal about only having lawyers on legal calls to protect attorney-client privilege. We know that Trump was in direct contact with the Willard Hotel. I know the general substance of that call with the lawyers, which was that we need to find a way to stop the certification from taking place the following day.


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That came about because Mike Pence had already communicated to Trump the night before the Capitol attack that he wasn't going to play ball. He wasn't going to follow through with Eastman's plan to effectively either throw the election to the House under the 12th Amendment, or unilaterally declare votes for Biden invalid and decertify the results of a certain state by himself.

Because Pence had already communicated that to Trump the night before, Trump then goes and calls up the Willard, which is where all the action was. Donald Trump knew exactly who to call up to complain. He knew exactly who to call to say, "What are we going to do next? What is our fallback plan?" So the idea that Trump had no idea what was going on, it's frankly nonsense.

Where are we with the phone log story and the missing seven hours?

We are closer to establishing where those phone call records went than we were when the records were first released. Those seven hours are the most crucial time. It is quite interesting: The gap in the presidential call logs start when Donald Trump leaves the president's residence in the morning and goes to the Oval Office. The calls resume again when he returns to the residence.

RELATED: Raskin says Trump call log gap "suspiciously tailored" as Jan. 6 panel weighs "criminal referral"

I believe we can see those presidential call logs from Jan. 6 as reflecting the calls he made in the residence. We don't know what Trump was doing and what his actions were in those seven hours as the Capitol was being overrun, the most crucial time. We know that he made several calls in that period that are not reflected on the call log. We know that he called Kevin McCarthy. We know he called Sen. Mike Lee by mistake, when trying to get to Sen. Tommy Tuberville. The call to Mike Lee was done on a White House number.

It is a central question as to what was taking place on Jan. 6, whether the Trump administration had bad intent and deliberately tried to hide those records, or whether they were just poor record keepers. But either way, that gap in the phone logs increasingly appears to be a crucial part of this puzzle.

Will Republican members of Congress who may have been involved in the Jan. 6 events be called to testify before the committee?

I reported back in January that the select committee was reluctant to subpoena Republican members of Congress — for the same reason, incidentally, that former Congressman Trey Gowdy didn't want to subpoena Democrats when he led the Benghazi committee. The reality is that Congress is hyper-partisan. Everything's political. The committee seems to think if it starts subpoenaing Republican members of Congress there will be intense blowback in the next Congress, particularly if the Democrats lose the majority.

Republicans are already talking about impeaching Biden. They're already talking about launching investigations into Hunter Biden. It's going to be Republican investigation central into the Biden administration. One might argue that the Republicans are going to do all these investigations anyway. But I think the committee doesn't want to provoke it any more than it has to. Therefore, if the committee can learn about what really happened on Jan. 6 through other means than calling Republican members of Congress to testify, they don't want to have to go there.

I do get the sense that if they feel like they have no other choice, they will take that route. But for the moment, at least, there does not seem to be much enthusiasm to subpoena Republican members of Congress.

A basic question: How do we explain to the American people whether this was a coup or not? How is the Jan. 6 committee approaching this question? Is there a possibility it was somehow something else?

If you ask Rep. Jamie Raskin, a committee member, what happened on Jan. 6 was a "self-coup." This was the existing government of the United States trying to take down, in many respects, the existing government of the United States, in order to make themselves the next government of the United States. I agree with Raskin's definition. These events were internal White House political operatives going out of their way to return Donald Trump to the presidency, using unlawful means that connected to both a) a political scheme, and b) violence.

What everyone has to remember is that Trump lost the election, but wanted to return to office at any cost. If it meant the end of democracy, that's small change. He doesn't care.

We like to get caught up in definitions. We like to talk about whether this was a coup or not — what everyone has to remember is that Trump lost the election. Trump wanted to return to office at any cost. If it meant the end of democracy, it meant the end of democracy. That's small change to Trump. He doesn't care. If Trump got back into the Oval Office through a successful coup, even if it meant the end of American democracy, he would not have cared. That is the main takeaway here.

It has been reported that the Oath Keepers had stockpiled weapons at a hotel near the Capitol and were preparing for a days-long battle. Some members of these right-wing groups were apparently under the impression that they would not be punished. Where are we with that story?

There are two parallel investigations happening at the same time. There is a congressional investigation through the Jan. 6 committee, and there is also the investigation that encompasses the FBI and Department of Justice. They are sometimes uncovering information that the other investigation is not. I am focused on the Jan. 6 committee. I have seen that the FBI has made these allegations in the court filings.

I have no reason to believe it's not true. I don't personally have reporting on those matters, but I do believe that it speaks to the fact that these events were coordinated. Clearly one does not simply believe that one is going to get pardoned or somehow let off the hook after staging a quick reaction force across the river from the nation's capital — what they were calling "1776," as in another American revolution — to overthrow the seat of American government to return their preferred candidate to office even though he lost.

It just speaks to the coordination. These filings speak to intent as well. There was an intent on Jan. 6 to have some type of coordinated attack. You don't wake up in the morning and think, "Oh, I'm just going to carry weapons with me, drive all the way down to the Capitol, and stash them in case they're going to have a gun battle." There were also pipe bombs. The fact that there were weapons around and the fact that weapons were stashed, to me, screams conspiracy from the start. One does not just prepare with no reason for a battle or some sort of war and crazy protest.

Is the committee investigating the role of Mike Flynn, Steve Bannon and others in Trump's inner circle?

The committee is definitely looking at them. They are looking at everything which leads up to Jan. 6. For my own reporting purposes, I focus very much on: What did Trump know and when did he know it? But the committee, with all of its resources and all of its expansive investigative powers, is looking at every single facet related to Jan. 6. That does include the rhetoric and the genesis of the claims which propelled the entire "Stop the Steal" movement, Trump's speech on Jan. 6 and the actual storming of the Capitol in itself.

Mike Flynn was at the center of all of that, but we are not sure if Flynn was at the center of the Willard Hotel plan. We're not sure if Flynn knew about that plan. Steve Bannon did appear to know about this. In fact, Bannon has talked openly about the plan. He and Navarro have both credited each other as knowing in advance what would happen with the "Green Bay Sweep." Both say they were intimately involved. The committee now has to tie all these threads together and construct a picture of the events that led to the Capitol attack.

What does the public evidence suggest about what Trump knew and when he knew it?

I believe that Donald Trump knew by mid-December. His operatives were putting together a plan, or several plans, to put him back in office. He knew by the start of January about the plan to violate the Electoral Count Act, which was unlawful, and to have Pence insert himself into the certification process to return him the presidency. In total, Trump knew weeks before Jan. 6 the broad brushstrokes of what was going to happen. Closer to Jan. 6, I also believe that Donald Trump knew of the violence or the potential disruption by force of the certification. I do believe that the committee has reached that conclusion.

Once the committee issues its final report, will the American people even care about what happened on Jan. 6?

Half the population will care. The other half will not care.

Is there anything the committee could do, in terms of the framing and presentation of their findings, that could make more people care about this dire threat to the country?

I really don't know. I don't know because people who think Trump incited an insurrection already believe that. People who don't believe that already don't believe it. There is nothing the committee will do that is going to change their mind. If the committee comes out with evidence that suggests Trump was responsible for a criminal conspiracy of some sort, or perhaps even seditious conspiracy, the people who already love Trump are going to dismiss that as the results of a partisan witch hunt just like impeachment.

On the flip side, if the committee doesn't find enough evidence to make any sort of criminal referral or anything major that they can put in their report, people who think Trump already incited the attacks are still going to think Trump incited the attack, regardless of what the committee says.

This committee and the work they are doing, I think, is less about the here and now, and more about what they are leaving for posterity, to show that at least some people were determined to find the truth of what happened on Jan. 6, and the final report was the product of their work.

That is all a congressional committee can do. They don't have the power to prosecute. They don't have the power to convict people, or even to indict people. All they can do is lay what their investigation has uncovered out for the American people. Whether someone chooses to believe it or not — I don't know if people can overcome their political persuasions, especially in this day and age. Maybe in a different era. But as the last year and a half has shown, that's a very difficult task.

Read more on America's 45th president and his struggle:


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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