Nero fiddled while Rome burned — Donald Trump watched TV

The last of the initial hearings conducted by the January 6 Committee concluded how the script to date led us to expect. Having failed in his multiple attempts to overturn the results of a free and fair election so he could retain power, Donald Trump unleashed a mob that actually did achieve his aim of disrupting the certification of Joe Biden’s win.

This is why he’d incited them and why he did nothing to stop them. As committee chairman Benny Thompson put it, “For the weeks between the November election and January 6, Donald Trump was a force to be reckoned with … He recklessly blazed a path of lawlessness and corruption the cost of which democracy be damned. And then he stopped. For 187 minutes, this man of unbridled destructive energy could not be moved … even though he was the only person in the world who could call off the mob.”

While Mike Pence, Trump’s beleaguered vice-president, requested to speak to or summon the Department of Defence, the DC Police Force, the Capitol Police Force, the Secret Service and the FBI, Trump instead was fully occupied — watching Fox News on the TV in his dining room, tweeting to senators about delaying the election certification, chatting with Rudy Giuliani, and, of course, tweeting in ways that further inflamed his already overwrought followers.

The advice of the White House counsel, and those of “team normal”, was that Trump must tweet to his followers in no uncertain terms that he condemned their violence and wanted them to immediately go home. Yet Trump refused. Instead, he sent his now infamous 2:24pm tweet about his disappointment with his besieged vice-president: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done.”

The impact of this tweet on the crowd was instant. Of all the committee’s footage, these images hit hardest: marauding rioters halting to scrutinise Trump’s latest text or video on their phone, or attending to its reading or interpretation through the bullhorn wielded by the mob’s inciters, reacting as ordered. Either, as per the Pence text, by pushing past the last barriers and into the Capitol, or, when they were finally handed their marching orders by the ex-president at 4:17pm, by departing immediately.

It is shocking to realise how well they understood what “their” president was really trying to say. For example, when Trump — under duress — tweets at 3:13pm for the rioters to “respect the law and our great men and women in blue”, the rioters are shown interpreting this tweet as explicitly not warning them of causing harm to members of Congress. This is accurate as within the White House, those of Trump’s entourage were pleading with him to unambiguously condemn his supporters’ violence. The resulting tweet, with its confusing injunction to “remain peaceful” at a time when Trump had known for hours that a full-scale riot was underway, was compromised wording brokered by Ivanka Trump.

What else did we learn that was new? That at around 2:24pm, when the Capitol had been violently breached and the rotunda was full of smoke, Capitol Police and Secret Service staff were so afraid for their lives that they were calling loved ones to say goodbye.

Far from remorseful, the president felt so justified in unleashing the rioters that day that when Kevin McCarthy called, telling him how his own staff were running for their lives and begging the president to call the mob off, Trump said he couldn’t because they were Antifa. When McCarthy insisted the mob was his people, Trump replied, “Well, Kevin, I guess they’re more upset about the election theft than you are.”

Finally, while the going-for-the-jugular move that had been told to Cassidy Hutchinson was not confirmed, a Secret Service agent did validate her story about Trump’s insistence on being taken to the Capitol from the White House Ellipse, and the “heated” discussion that ensued when he was driven to the White House instead. Indeed, so desperate was Trump to get that decision reversed that his motorcade was placed on standby near WestExec for 45 minutes before a final decision not to go was achieved.

Certainly, the committee’s conclusions are the same: the ex-president must be held accountable for his multiple crimes on that day, and all steps must be taken to ensure he never holds office again. The senior Republican men like McCarthy and Mitch McConnell, who so clearly recognised the threat he posed in the hours and days after the Capitol attack, need to show the same courage as Trump’s more junior staff and tell the committee what they know about who the president called, and what he said, during the calls missing from the official logbook that day.

In the words of vice-chair Liz Cheney, presumably spoken to the entire American populace but relevant to the people of every backsliding democratic country: “We cannot abandon the truth and remain a free nation.”

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