INTERVIEW

Guardian reporter Hugo Lowell: What we still don't know about Jan. 6 and Trump's "full-blown coup"

Going deep with Hugo Lowell: What was Mike Flynn's plan? How much did Meadows and Giuliani know? What happens next?

Published July 7, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

A video of former President Donald Trump is played as Cassidy Hutchinson, a top former aide to Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, testifies during the sixth hearing by the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol in the Cannon House Office Building on June 28, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
A video of former President Donald Trump is played as Cassidy Hutchinson, a top former aide to Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, testifies during the sixth hearing by the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol in the Cannon House Office Building on June 28, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

The House select committee investigating the events of Jan. 6, 2021, has collected more than 140,000 documents and interviewed at least 1,000 people. It has held six televised public hearings so far (with another scheduled for July 12) which have been viewed by tens of millions of people in America and around the world.

A veritable legion of reporters, filmmakers, legal scholars, historians and other researchers have also been doggedly pursuing the truth about Jan. 6 and its larger implications. In a very real sense, the Capitol attack was the most documented crime scene in American history.

great deal of information is already known about Donald Trump and his confederates' coup attempt, and about their escalating campaign to end American democracy. Nonetheless, there remain many unconfirmed rumors, unanswered questions, unexplained details and a variety of secrets not yet forced out into the light.

During the committee's hearing last Tuesday, Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, gave testimony making clear that Trump and his closest advisers anticipated and welcomed the violence on Jan. 6. Trump was told by the Secret Service that his followers were armed with pistols, assault rifles, and other lethal weapons. Trump ordered that they be allowed to gather by the thousands on the Ellipse anyway. It appears highly likely that Trump intended to go the Capitol himself. Following the pattern of coups that have occurred in other countries, after his followers attacked the Capitol and disrupted the certification of the 2020 Election, Donald Trump would have announced himself as "president" for some indefinite time in the future because of a "national emergency" -- one that he and his confederates actually created.  

RELATED: What Cassidy Hutchinson told us — and why we should have known it already

So the question now is not whether Donald Trump and his confederates committed high crimes against American democracy and the rule of law, but whether they will ever be prosecuted by the Department of Justice.

To discuss that possibility and many other matters related to Jan. 6, I recently spoke with Hugo Lowell. He is a congressional reporter for the Guardian, and one of the sharpest observers of the House select committee's investigation. In this conversation, Lowell reflects on what it was like to hear Cassidy Hutchinson's testimony in person, and whether that marked a turning point in the Jan. 6 hearings and the country's possible reckoning with Donald Trump and his legacy.

Lowell says the committee has conclusively demonstrated that Donald Trump was (and remains) at the center of a violent plot to end American democracy and that he is responsible for his own actions and behavior. He also suggests that the Department of Justice may ultimately prosecute Donald Trump for financial crimes, just as the FBI often targets organized-crime figures for tax evasion. 

Lowell also discusses how close Trump actually came to declaring martial law, and says many questions remain about the role of retired Gen. Michael Flynn and various right-wing paramilitary groups in the events of Jan. 6 and beyond.

Toward the end of this conversation Lowell ponders the questions that the House select committee has not yet addressed, most notably about the relationship between militia groups, Donald Trump and the members of Trump's inner circle who met in the "war room" at the Willard hotel on the eve of the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

As someone who is reporting on the Jan. 6 hearings and related matters, how are you managing it all? How did you feel after last week's hearing and the testimony by Cassidy Hutchinson?

The testimony that Cassidy Hutchinson gave was truly extraordinary from a legal perspective, and for what it showed about potential criminal exposure on the part of Trump. But also think her testimony was extraordinary from an emotional perspective.

It was very powerful for me to hear Cassidy talk about how she felt that what Donald Trump was doing was unpatriotic and un-American, and how it saddened her. I thought to myself that it saddens me too, a great nation like the United States being reduced to talking about a president who is throwing dishes, sending armed people to the Capitol and trying to attack a Secret Service agent because he wouldn't drive him there. It was all actually quite sad. I just sat there for a minute contemplating what Cassidy was saying. As extraordinary as it was, it was also very disappointing. It really felt like America has regressed.

What does it feel like to see America brought so low by Jan. 6 and the Age of Trump more generally? And specifically, by what is being revealed by the House Jan. 6 hearings?

I disagree with your premise a little bit. I recently went to a British embassy event, a Jubilee celebration. I asked a senior person there, "What do you make of all this? Isn't this all crazy?" And she said, "Well, if I look at it from a God's-eye perspective, America's not even 300 years old and it has done so many amazing things. But there are obviously going to be some blips along the way."

Donald Trump and Jan. 6 were a blip in the lifespan of a nation. I think about where the U.K. was, 200 or 300 years after its founding: Civil wars, people getting decapitated. This was transient. It's temporary.

Jan. 6 and Trump was a blip in the lifespan of a nation. I think about where the U.K. was, 200 or 300 years after its founding. There were civil wars. People were getting decapitated. What happened with respect to the Capitol attack and Trump and the division of America was transient, in this person's opinion. It was temporary. It's just that America has condensed its history into a much shorter span than other countries. She was very optimistic about America.

The tired phrase "history was made" has been summoned up by many in the news media to describe Hutchinson's testimony. What history is really being made? And what does it mean, in the long term, in terms of Trump and his confederates being punished for Jan. 6?

The effect of that hearing was to jolt the American public, to wake them back up to the gravity and seriousness of Jan. 6. In my opinion, a type of collective fatigue had set in over the Capitol attack during these last 10 or so months. There's been a drip, drip, drip of news and some little investigative findings. We have heard some things from the House committee, but not much. People who are focused on what happened on Jan. 6 already knew a lot about Donald Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election and how it all culminated with the Capitol attack. In the broadest terms, most people know that Trump was responsible to some degree for inciting the Capitol attack. The Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Oversight Committee already uncovered most of what the Jan. 6 committee covered about how Trump tried to pressure the Department of Justice into overturning the election.


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Hutchinson's testimony was like an electric shock to the collective public consciousness because the testimony was so riveting and so extraordinary and so appalling, and because what Trump did was so unbecoming of a president.

Yes, there were the tabloid dimensions, with the accounts of Trump throwing his lunch at the wall in anger and throttling a Secret Service agent. But the testimony was still so riveting because you can picture in your mind's eye Trump doing these things. What Trump did on Jan. 6 is objectively bad. Hearing Hutchinson explain what Trump did was a seminal moment for a lot of people. The committee was able to use her testimony to get the public focused back on Trump's conduct on Jan. 6 — what Trump was doing and what he wasn't doing and these questions of his criminal exposure.

What was it like to witness Hutchinson's testimony in person? How would you assess that moment as storytelling and theater?

The atmosphere before the hearing was unlike what it felt like before for any of the previous hearings, it was markedly different. You could sense this was a big deal. Through my reporting, even though we didn't know what Cassidy was going to say, we knew it was going to be bad.

Members of Congress went into a secure briefing room that's normally reserved for the House Intelligence Committee. They were in that room for hours before the hearing started. Everyone's very tightlipped about it. I got the sense that there were more Capitol police officers there as well. Everyone was on a higher stage of alert. It felt like the stakes were suddenly very, very high.

Hutchinson was sworn in, and she sat down and then she started talking. Almost every single sentence she said was new and it was riveting. The atmosphere in the room was very sharp, that is the best way to describe it. It wasn't like a thriller or a novel. There was a sense of anxiety and trepidation. It was almost like watching a horror film. You want to know what's about to happen. You know it's going to be bad, because the music is getting ominous and you want to look away, but you can't look away. That was how I felt in the room watching Cassidy Hutchinson's testimony.

Who is the main audience for the Jan. 6 hearings? Are observers such as myself just too cynical? To my eyes, we are learning new details, but the broad strokes of the Trump plot have been known for some time. What am I getting wrong with such an assessment?

These hearings are for the public — independent voters and suburban voters, especially — who might not already have a concrete idea in their minds about what happened on Jan. 6 and who was responsible for it. The salacious stuff about Trump is for the public audience as well.

The other audience is the Justice Department. The committee is presenting the evidence to them in great detail, so that the DOJ knows what evidence it will have when matters are turned over to them. Trump's response, when he was told that the crowd outside the Ellipse didn't want to go into the secure rally area because they didn't want to give up their weapons — he responded, "I don't fucking care. They're not here to hurt me. They can march to the Capitol from here." That was really revealing, from a potential criminal exposure standpoint. Not only does it show that Trump knew the crowd was armed, but that he knew they were armed to cause harm to someone, just not him.

He knowingly sent them to the Capitol. He encouraged the crowd to go to the Capitol, knowing full well before he took the stage that they were armed. In terms of incitement to violence and obstruction of congressional business, that was very significant.

The final audience for Hutchinson's testimony was the reporters. The reporters and the news media more broadly have been very cynical about these hearings and whether much of what is being presented is new information. Last Tuesday's hearing was very different. It spoke to me in a different way, and I thought I'd lost the ability to be shocked.

What is the relatively simple and direct story about Jan. 6 so far? How do we connect the dots for the American people, especially those who have not been following these matters closely?

We have now learned for the first time that Donald Trump incited armed people to go to the Capitol. We learned that Rudy Giuliani and Mark Meadows may have criminal exposure.

That the Capitol attack was the combination of this multi-pronged, multi-month effort by Donald Trump and his allies to overturn the election. It was just one part of a multi-pronged strategy. But last week we learned for the first time how directly Trump was involved. We also learned more about how his top aides were involved in the plan. We always knew that Trump knew about the plans to overturn the election and how he was pressuring Mike Pence to be part of that plan.

But we have now learned for the first time, and under oath, that Donald Trump incited armed people to go to the Capitol. We also learned that Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, and Mark Meadows, his White House chief of staff, may have criminal exposure themselves. They were asking for pardons, which shows a consciousness of guilt. They were also in communication with Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, John Eastman and other high-ranking figures.

All of the pieces came together. We can now connect Trump and Meadows at the White House to Roger Stone and Michael Flynn and Rudy Giuliani at the Willard war room, and then we also tied it all to the rally. That was particularly significant.

Michael Flynn is central to the events of Jan. 6, both the coup plot and attack on the Capitol. What role did he play?

The short answer is, we don't know. The long answer is that a number of reporters, investigators and the Department of Justice are trying very hard to understand what Mike Flynn was doing in the weeks between Dec. 18, 2020, when his idea to seize the voting machines was discussed and not taken up at the White House, and Jan. 6. Flynn does not go away.

After he and Sidney Powell get thrown out of the White House, they don't go away. They hang around. The way I've been looking at Flynn and his involvement with Jan. 6 is how he pops up at key moments in the timeline. The first major point with Flynn is that he is present on Dec. 12 at a rally in Washington, the Jericho March. Flynn makes a speech in front of the Supreme Court. He is seen with the Oath Keepers and the 1st Amendment Praetorian, his personal protective security detail. These are volunteers, ex-military. That's the first time we see Flynn interact with the Oath Keepers. The leaders of the Oath Keepers have been indicted by the DOJ for seditious conspiracy.

We fast-forward to Dec. 18 where Flynn is pitching the idea of using Executive Order 13848, that would give the president effectively broad authority to use emergency laws in order to seize voting machines. We then fast-forward through to early January. Mike Flynn is at the Willard hotel, the same venue as Roger Stone and Rudy Giuliani. He has no obvious connection to Jan. 6, but he is at the Willard, and he is at the center of everything. It's almost like Flynn is gathering intelligence for his own purposes.

Cassidy's testimony revealed that on Jan. 5, Donald Trump told Meadows to call Flynn. On Jan. 6, Flynn's 1st Amendment Praetorian are seen around the Capitol. They don't really break into the Capitol, which is why they've not been charged. One of Flynn's operatives has been tracked at key events. Independent journalists have been doing this work.

Mike Flynn pops up at key moments in the timeline. He has no obvious connection to Jan. 6, but he is at the center of everything. He was there for something — we just don't know what.

The person in question was at the Dec. 12 rally, and then he's at the Capitol grounds on Jan. 6. He never goes inside, but he's got an earpiece in his ear and he's walking around the Capitol. You see him on the East Front earlier in the day. You see him on the West Front when the Capitol is actually being stormed by Trump's followers. You see him at various points. It's almost like he's gathering intelligence or is directing people somehow.

It's very difficult to figure out what Flynn wanted to do on Jan. 6, but he pops up at all these key moments. It is very strange. He was there for something. We just don't know what it is yet.

What do we know about Ginni Thomas, the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas?

Internally, the committee for the longest time was not interested in Ginni Thomas. They do not believe that she played an active role in organizing the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. They also don't believe that she played an active role in the legal memos that form the underlying basis for Trump's strategy to have Pence throw the election in his favor. They also don't believe that she was actively involved in writing the Georgia "proof of concept" letter that Jeff Clark wanted to use to weaponize the Justice Department. The committee has always seen her as a political activist. She would try to get herself involved in this because that is what she does. She's a right winger. She's offering help if it can be used.

Recently, the House committee got ahold of the final set of John Eastman emails and other communications. And according to one source — and this is why I've not reported it — but one source tells me that the text messages between Ginni Thomas and John Eastman are potentially incriminating, to the degree to which she ended up inserting herself into efforts to overturn the election. I think it's clear Ginni Thomas is not a key player. She might have had some involvement, but the committee is not focused on her is because she wasn't seen as a key player.

I think she's interesting. Her involvement is something for the Senate or House Judiciary Committee to investigate, because the wife of a Supreme Court justice is getting involved in election litigation. That's bad. But that does not necessarily mean that Ginni Thomas was a ringleader in organizing the Capitol attack, based on what we know so far.

Where is the committee in terms of holding the Republicans in Congress who appear to have been involved in the coup plot responsible? We now know that several Republicans actually requested pardons from Donald Trump for their role in the events of Jan. 6 and the larger attempt to nullify the 2020 election.

They're pending subpoena. Initially there was not much discussion about forcing subpoenas for Republican members of Congress. Some of the committee members were quite content for the Republicans to just ignore the subpoenas. In theory this would mean that if Republicans tried to subpoena Democrats in the next Congress, they could respond, "Well, you guys set our precedent and if you guys didn't have to appear for our subpoenas, then we're not going to appear for yours." That was the strategy at one point, at least among some members. That has changed. There's a real appetite now to try and get these Republicans before the committee. The committee members and the investigative counsel have had enough.

The email they obtained about Rep. Mo Brooks asking for pardons was part of that change. It's one thing to get testimony to say Republicans are seeking pardons. It's another completely different thing when you have the email that shows that Mo Brooks was asking for pardons on behalf of hundreds on them. The committee really wants to get to the bottom of why they were seeking pardons.

Were they seeking pardons just because Trump was hinting that he was going to give them out like candy, and therefore the Republicans thought it would be useful to have a pocket pardon? In and of itself, that is not a great explanation anyway.

Anytime you're asking for a pardon, it almost always shows some consciousness of guilt. But if it was because they genuinely thought they'd committed a crime and they needed protection, then for what crime? Was it for obstruction? Were these Republicans involved in some sort of seditious conspiracy? Was it because they had contacts with people who they thought might have criminal exposure? There are so many questions.

Based on the available evidence, what can we reasonably conclude about the role of violence and the attack on the Capitol in the overall coup plot?

It was the last-chance opportunity for Donald Trump to remain president, by hook or crook. He knew, and every one of his advisers knew, that the moment Congress certified the presidential election on the 6th, that was it. No more post-election litigation is possible after that, because Congress has certified it. They already blew through the "safe harbor" day, the Electoral Count Act deadline by which point post-election litigation is normally supposed to stop, but then they pushed it all way to Jan. 6. It was the last chance Trump had to make sure the certification didn't happen.

The Capitol attack was a Hail Mary play, a last chance for Trump to remain president, or at least kick it into the House. It was like, let's throw everything we have at the wall and see if it sticks.

The attack on the Capitol was a type of desperate ploy, a Hail Mary-type play, a last chance for Trump to remain president, or at least have the matter kicked to the House in a contingent election so the Republicans could return him to the presidency. Everyone in Trump World thought this was the final opportunity he had to get back to the White House for a second term, and so they threw everything at it. This is why you had Eastman admitting in emails that his whole strategy for Jan. 6 was unlawful: "But let's do it anyway, because we have no other choice and we have no other strategy left." It was like, let's throw everything we have at the wall and see if anything will stick.

How close did Donald Trump come to declaring martial law in order to remain in power?

We obviously know that people were in Trump's ear talking about it. We know for a fact that Mike Flynn and Sidney Powell were talking about martial law at the Dec. 18 meeting at the White House, where Powell was trying to become special counsel and get Trump to sign the document that said we can seize voting machines.

According to one of my sources, and again this is only one source, there was a discussion late in January, a few days before Inauguration Day, where another of his aides asked Donald Trump if he was going to declare martial law. In each case Trump demurred.

I don't think we will ever know how close Trump came, inside his own mind, to actually declaring martial law. Trump doesn't like to make big decisions. But he was certainly being told about it and being urged to do it by at least some people all the way from Dec. 18 through close to Inauguration Day. On the one hand, he thought martial law would be a very straightforward way to just get what he wanted. On the other hand, I think Trump knew deep down the implications of declaring martial law and that there was potential for it not to end up the way that he wanted.

At some prominent places in the news media we are still seeing questions such as "How much did Trump actually know? Did he ever explicitly give commands or orders? Was he really responsible?" You've seen all those qualifiers from the usual suspects. How do you put such claims to rest? It is clear that Donald Trump was at the center of the whole damn scheme.

My approach with all of this has been that you do not actually have to prove what Donald Trump knew. All you have to show is what a reasonable person could have known. Would a reasonable person have believed that the election was stolen if your attorney general says it wasn't? If your own campaign data experts say the numbers aren't there? If your own advisers are saying the evidence for fraud claims never materialized? The "earnest belief" defense flies out the window because Trump is being willfully blind to the fact that the election was not stolen.

The committee has done a very good job in laying that out, in terms of charges such as obstruction of an official proceeding or conspiracy to defraud the United States. We have also recently learned about fundraising fraud. Real, genuine fraud, with Trump trying to get people to donate to a fund that doesn't exist, and that Trump knew did not exist.

There are straightforward charges that carry heavy sentences that could potentially apply in Trump's case. One might never be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Trump engaged in seditious conspiracy. Even if he had, for the sake of argument, the bar to prove it is so high that the DOJ may not want to bring that type of charge. But the DOJ can bring charges against Trump that have severe penalties but are not as sexy. You get the mafia boss on financial crimes and on fraud and RICO. The DOJ does not have to get Trump on seditious conspiracy.

I actually think there is a very good chance, especially with the testimony from Hutchinson, that the DOJ considers bringing indictments against Trump personally, but not for a big headline-grabbing crime such as treason. The penalties for fraud and other such crimes are very severe as well.

Here is my summary based on what we know about the attack on the Capitol. Please intervene if need be. Violence was a central part of the coup plot. Trump wanted to go to the Capitol. He unleashed his armed supporters. There were right-wing paramilitaries who actually breached the Capitol before the main attack force appeared. The ultimate plan was to disrupt the certification of the election.

In keeping with what authoritarians and demagogues do, it was political theater, a banana-republic moment. Donald Trump wanted to be at the Capitol, if not on the floor of Congress, to take over and declare the election null and void, whatever verbiage he wanted to use. The violence and mayhem by his followers were a means for Trump to declare himself president during a time of national emergency. Trump was enraged because the plan was disrupted and he wasn't allowed to go to the Capitol for the victorious moment.

I believe that you are correct. Trump knew that his supporters were armed. He knew they were likely to cause harm — just not to him. He knowingly sent them to the Capitol with the biggest incentive he could give, which is, "I'm going to be there with you." If he had gone to the Capitol and wasn't stopped by Secret Service and, let's say, had given a speech outside Congress, that would have incentivized his followers even further.

Donald Trump was not going to the Capitol to pontificate. His intentions were to go to Congress and forcefully stop that certification from taking place. That is the definition of a coup.

The fact that Trump did not go to the Capitol insulated him, in Pat Cipollone's words, from "being charged with every crime imaginable," because then you are actually at the scene of the crime. If Trump had gone into the House chamber, that would have almost certainly been a crime. He is obstructing Congress, and he is also at the place of the crime. The fact that he was stopped protected him from that. But in his mind, Donald Trump's intentions on Jan. 6 were to go to Congress and forcefully stop that certification from taking place.  

Donald Trump was not going there to pontificate and make general remarks about how the election was stolen from him. Everything in Trump's conduct on the 6th was about sending his supporters to somehow make sure that certification didn't happen and that Biden wasn't certified as the next president by Congress. Trump had exactly the same conversation with his lawyers at the Willard hotel on the night of Jan. 5. If you put everything together, the picture you get is a president who should know he lost the election and trying to weaponize his supporters to forcefully stop the certification. That is the definition of a coup. Trump knew his followers were armed. That makes it a full-blown coup.

There are a lot of secrets still out there about Jan. 6, even after Cassidy Hutchinson's testimony. What questions do you want to see answered? 

I'm fixated on the nexus of the militia groups, the White House and the Willard hotel figures. This is directly out of Cassidy Hutchinson's testimony. I want to know why Mark Meadows believed that the 6th was going to be, "I don't know, Cass, real bad." I want to know why Giuliani told her, "Things are going to be bad on the 6th." I want to know why the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys were being mentioned around the White House when Giuliani was there. I want to know why Trump directed Meadows to talk to Roger Stone and Mike Flynn on the night of the 5th. I want to know why Meadows desired so desperately to go to the Willard, but then instead just connected via a conference call.

What was it that compelled Trump to get Meadows to talk to his operatives at the Willard? What was it that compelled Rudy to discuss the militia groups at the White House? What was it that gave Meadows so much pause days before the insurrection? What was it that gave Rudy the excitement that something bad was going to happen? I think the Cassidy Hutchinson hearing posed brand new questions and gave us more questions than answers.

Read more on the Jan. 6 committee and Trump's coup attempt:


By 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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Cassidy Hutchinson Coup Donald Trump Fascism Ginni Thomas Hugo Lowell Interview Jan. 6 Committee Michael Flynn