Jan. 6 committee focuses on Trump’s actions as the mob attacked the Capitol

For a preview on the Jan. 6 hearings Thursday, we turn to two individuals who have been following the proceedings closely. Carol Leonnig, an investigative reporter at The Washington Post, and Jamil Jaffer, a law professor at George Mason University and former associate counsel to President George W. Bush, join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And for more of a preview of tonight's events, I'm joined now by Carol Leonnig. She is an investigative reporter at The Washington Post. And Jamil Jaffer, he's a law professor at George Mason University and former associate counsel to President George W. Bush.

    Welcome to both of you.

    Carol Leonnig, to you first.

    What in particular are you going to be watching for tonight, especially when it comes to the two witnesses we expect?

  • Carol Leonnig, The Washington Post:

    Yes, that's right, Judy.

    The two witnesses we know will testify are two people who really were rooting for Donald Trump's presidency, who served it from almost the start, and who followed him into that White House because they hoped to help accomplish some of the conservative agenda items that he had been pushing and promising to his supporters.

    That includes National Security Deputy Adviser Matt Pottinger at the time and an aide named Sarah Matthews. Both of them will testify that, despite their desire to see Donald Trump succeed, to serve his administration, the way he teed up a near coup, the way he enabled an attack on the Capitol, and did not call off his supporters when the vice president's life and other lawmakers' lives were in danger was the final straw for them.

    It broke their — it was a breach they could not endure. And both of them resigned within hours of those events. That is not new. I will emphasize to you, Judy, that's not new. We know that about both of them. But what's important about their testimony is, once again, the committee is focusing on what Republicans have to say and what Trump's own former cheerleaders and aides feel about what happened that day.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Jamil Jaffer, that's exactly what I wanted to ask you.

    What is the significance of hearing from these two individuals? We have been hearing from Republicans, from people in the White House who were working for President Trump. We're going to see that again tonight. Why does that matter?

  • Jamil Jaffer, Former Senior Counsel, House Intelligence Committee:

    Well Judy, the main point here is that what the president did, his behavior and his actions on that day (AUDIO GAP) contributed to what happened at Capitol, as we know from his speech on the Ellipse and the like, but they allowed the process to continue.

    His inaction for that 187 minutes as he sat in the White House watching what was happening on television, as his aides clamored, coming to him, saying, Mr. President, people are going to die, the capitol is under attack, you have to say something, and his decision to not act for that lengthy period is what's at the heart of what happened on that day.

    And that's intolerable for many Republicans. It was intolerable for Matt Pottinger and Sarah Matthews, who quit the day that happened. It was intolerable for a number of members of the Cabinet, including his education secretary and the like, his labor secretary, who quit on that day or in the immediate days afterwards.

    And it should be intolerable for all Republicans, including Republicans in the House who on that day and the day after, like Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, said it was intolerable, said it was unacceptable, and since then have backed off and backpedaled in ways that are hard to imagine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, in fact, in connection with that, Carol Leonnig, you were telling us what you are looking to see tonight is what you call the split-screen, where, on the one hand, we will see what the former president was doing at the very same moment mayhem, violence was unfolding at the Capitol.

  • Carol Leonnig:

    That's right, Judy.

    And I think the Congresswoman hints at that a little bit. You will see time stamps I believe, where, this is when the Capitol was breached. Listen, as, for example, one voice you can hear I think tonight will be Capitol Police Chief Sund essentially begging for reinforcements, reporting that there was a riot unfolding on the Capitol, declaring a riot, saying in fairly strident tones: I need backup. We now have people breaching the Capitol's windows and doors.

    And, at the same time, on the other side of that split-screen, Judy, you will see the president watching the television, watching the live coverage from various newscasts, and being, if not gleeful, close to gleeful that his supporters had done exactly what he asked them to do.

    You will see time stamps, I believe, where people are reading Donald Trump's — a specific individual, a rioter on the campus of the Capitol, is reading Donald Trump's text in which he calls — basically puts a target on Vice President Pence's back and says that he didn't have the courage.

  • That’s at 2:

    34, if memory serves. The Capitol has been breached. People are running through the hallways, and they are talking and chanting about hanging Mike Pence at that point. The overlap will, I think, be pretty startling.

    I think you will see on the other side Donald Trump describing in the aftermath, what did he want to happen? What did he hope to accomplish on January 6? And then you will see the view of what was wrought, what his wishes wrought.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Jamil Jaffer, I mean, just for purposes of contrast, comparison, you're a student of history, as well as being a lawyer.

    Are there any other examples you can think of presidents who have essentially laid back while the American democracy was under assault?

  • Jamil Jaffer:

    No, I can't, to be honest with you, Judy.

    And, to the contrary, when American democracy, the heart of our union has been challenged, American presidents like Abraham Lincoln have stepped up and done what it takes to respond to that and keep the union together.

    At times, presidents like Abraham Lincoln took extreme actions. Donald Trump did exactly the opposite. He stood by, watched, let it happen. And no amount of excusing that and saying, well, it was just a small protest, or it got a little out of hand, or whatever. We all saw what our eyes saw. Nobody can tell us what we didn't — what we saw on television.

    And the fact of the matter is, the president was watching it live in action as it happened and saying to his aides who were saying to him, Mr. President, you must do something — and we heard what his chief of staff and the White House counsel talked about. His chief of staff said, look, Pat, to the White House counsel, the president doesn't want to do anything. He thinks Mike deserves it. The vice president deserves the chants of "Hang Mike Pence."

    I mean, it's unimaginable that any president would say that about the vice president, much less as the Capitol is being attack. And he's tweeting about Mike Pence not being — not having the courage he needs to have. It's hard to imagine that happening. If you — if we hadn't all watched it happened, I would think you were telling me about a bad movie.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly, Carol Leonnig, you reminded us today, when you interviewed former President Trump for your book, and you asked him what he wanted to happen that — happen that day, what he said to you.

  • Carol Leonnig:

    For our book "I Alone Can Fix It," my colleague and I, Phil Rucker, sat down with the president for more — nearly three hours in Mar-a-Lago about two months after the attack on the Capitol.

    And one of my number one goals was to find out, what did he want? And what he said was: I wanted what my supporters wanted. I wanted what they wanted to happen.

    And I think it's clear from all sorts of television newscasts, live video, streaming, the traffic on the radios of the law enforcement, it's clear what those individuals wanted. And that was either to kill Mike Pence, kill Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, kidnap them, and, in other ways, by violence, to stop the certification of the proper election of Joe Biden and to block the peaceful transfer of power.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Still startling just to think of it.

    Carol Leonnig, Jamil Jaffer, we thank you both. We appreciate it.

  • Jamil Jaffer:

    Thanks, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And please tune in to PBS tonight for our special coverage of the House Select Committee public hearing on January 6.

    That is at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

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