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Trump’s ‘call to arms’ in an ‘unhinged’ West Wing

The buck stops there. House investigators held their seventh hearing on the insurrection Tuesday, arguing that the mob that invaded the Capitol were galvanized by the then-president's lies and his tweet that Jan. 6 would “be wild.”

WASHINGTON (CN) — At a hearing that ended with a new witness tampering allegation against Donald Trump, the select House committee on Jan. 6 probed the role of violent extremist groups in the deadly attack on the Capitol and Trump's plans to march with them.

“Basically the president got everybody riled up and told everybody to head on down,” Stephen Ayres, a rioter who pleaded guilty for his role in breaching the Capitol on Jan. 6, testified to the committee this afternoon. “We basically just followed what he said.”

The committee showed how Trump's messaging became more explicit as the odds grew longer on his legal challenges to the 2020 presidential election results.

“President Trump is a 76-year-old man, he is not an impressionable child. Just like everyone else in our country, he is responsible for his own actions and his own choices,” Representative Liz Cheney said Tuesday. “No rational or sane man in his position could disregard that info and reach the opposite conclusion, and Donald Trump cannot escape responsibility by being willfully blind.”

Cheney went on to drop a bombshell at the close of Tuesday's hearing, noting that Trump made a call last week to a committee witness who has not yet appeared publicly. The witness did not answer the phone, and the information has been referred to the Department of Justice.

Among videotaped testimony made public Tuesday, the panel shared statements from a group of Trump officials including White House counsel Pat Cipollone, former Attorney General William Barr, former press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and Ivanka Trump, the former president's eldest daughter, saying they believed Trump had lost the 2020 election when the Electoral College met on Dec. 14.

Trump meanwhile continued his efforts to stay in power.

Cipollone spoke in particular about a "terrible idea" for an executive order that would have directed the military to immediately seize voting machines.

“To have the federal government seize voting machines, that’s a terrible idea for the country. That’s not how we do things in the United States. There’s no legal authority to do that,” Cipollone testified. 

Trump purportedly discussed the order on Dec. 18 at a meeting with his criminally indicted former national security adviser Michael Flynn, lawyer and conspiracy theorist Sidney Powell, and Patrick Byrne, a businessman who provided financial backing for several challenges to the 2020 election results.

The group gained access to the Oval Office that night, despite having no appointment with the president. Members of the White House staff were not present at the start of the meeting, which ultimately went on for six hours.

The executive order being discussed would have given Trump the authority to appoint a special counsel to seize machines and prosecute so-called election fraud. Powell was the prospective special counsel.

“I was vehemently opposed. I didn’t think she should be appointed to anything,” Cipollone said in recorded testimony. 

Witnesses described the Dec. 18 meeting as a rowdy affair with screaming and heated exchanges between the visitors and White House staff.

“West wing is UNHINGED," Cassidy Hutchinson, then an aide to Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows, texted Trump’s deputy chief of staff Anthony Ornato after the meeting.

Rudy Giuliani testified in recorded testimony that the group argued White House attorneys were “pussies" for not backing the executive order.

The tweet heard ‘round the far right

Hours after the meeting, where the executive order was eventually shut down, Trump posted a tweet on Dec. 19 that House investigators say far-right groups such as the Proud Boys took as a direct order for the Jan. 6 attack.

“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” Trump wrote, encouraging his supporters to head to Washington on the same day Congress was set to certify the results of the Electoral College.

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Trump supporters began organizing online shortly thereafter.

“This tweet served as a call to action, and in some cases as a call to arms,” Representative Stephanie Murphy, a Democrat from Florida, said.

Jim Watkins, founder and owner of the online forum 8kun, a favorite platform of Qanon conspiracy theorists and white supremacists, told the committee that he bought a ticket to the nation's capitol after Trump’s tweet.

Testifying before the committee anonymously, a former Twitter employee who worked in content moderation shared how worries spread through Twitter offices after Dec. 19 that Trump was radicalizing people online and organizing a mob.

"My concern was that the former president, for seemingly the first time, was speaking directly to extremist organizations and giving them directives. We had not seen that sort of direct communication before and that concerned me,” the employee said, in an anonymous recording that obscured their voice. “A mob was being organized and they were gathering together their weaponry and their logic and their reasoning behind why they were prepared to fight.”

The employee said they repeatedly warned Twitter staff that, “if we made no intervention into what I saw, people were going to die.”

Donell Harvin, former chief of homeland security for D.C., testified in recorded testimony he grew concerned as they began to see “these nonaligned groups were aligning — all the red flags went up at that point.”

Plans to march

A draft Trump tweet obtained by the committee from the National Archives shows that Trump planned to directly call for a march to the Capitol before this speech at the Ellipse. The tweet, which was labeled “President has seen," was never sent.

“I will be making a Big Speech at 10AM on January 6th at the Ellipse (South of the White House). Please arrive early, massive crowds expected. March to the Capitol after. Stop the Steal!!!,” the draft tweet said. 

Insiders indicated that Trump still planned to call for his supporters to march to the Capitol after his speech but chose to keep the strategy under wraps.

Ali Alexander, who organized the Stop the Steal rally, wrote in a text that “Trump is supposed to order us to the Capitol at the end of the speech but we will see.”

Hutchinson previously testified that Cipollone told her to keep Trump away from the Capitol on Jan. 6, expressing concern about potential criminal charges if he did.

“Please make sure we don’t go up to the Capitol, Cassidy. We’re going to get charged with every crime imaginable,” Hutchinson said Cipollone told her.

Ayres testified he left the Capitol after Trump sent out a tweet late in the day asking rioters to go home.

“If he had done that earlier in the day… we wouldn’t be in this situation,” Ayres said.

As the riot turned deadly, Trump aide Brad Parscale texted national Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson the evening of Jan. 6: “If I was trump and I knew my rhetoric killed someone.”

“It wasn’t the rhetoric,” Pierson responded.

“Katrina. Yes it was,” Parscale wrote.

Ties that bind

The panel emphasized that close allies of Trump also had direct ties to militia groups that were some of the first people to breach the Capitol on Jan. 6.

On the day before the insurrection and the day of, several Oath Keepers served as the personal security detail for longtime Trump ally Roger Stone. Some of the individuals were later criminally charged for entering the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Stone, "Stop the Steal" organizer Ali Alexander, former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio and Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes were part of a group chat called “F.O.S.," meaning “friends of Stone,” according to the committee.

In the chat, they spoke about pro-Trump events and encouraged supporters who could not make it to Washington to go to their state capitals on Jan. 6.

Representative Jamie Raskin said the panel has encrypted messages from extremist groups communicating with Stone and Flynn. 

Hutchinson testified in a previous hearing that she heard references to both the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys during conversations involving Trump ally Giuliani in the days leading up to Jan. 6.

Rhodes and a handful of other militia members are facing seditious conspiracy charges for conspiring to intervene in Congress’ certification of the 2020 presidential election results.

Tarrio is among five members of the Proud Boys also facing seditious conspiracy charges related to the attack.

The committee’s next hearing was originally set for Thursday in prime time. That hearing will instead be held next week. It is expected to showcase the committee’s closing argument, focused on Trump’s 187 minutes of inaction as his supporters broke into the Capitol building; threatened the lives of the vice president, members of Congress and police officers; and delayed the certification of the Electoral College's count.

"The Watergate break-in was like a Cub Scout meeting compared to this assault on our people and institutions," Raskin said. 

Alluding to next week's hearing, the Democrat predicted that it "will be a moment of reckoning" for the country.

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