Top White House aide testifies Trump knew some Jan. 6 protestors were armed

During the Jan. 6 committee hearing Tuesday, Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows presented the most compelling and detailed account yet of the actions of the former President Trump's inner circle. Andrea Bernstein, co-host of the “Will Be Wild” podcast, and Jamil Jaffer, a law professor at George Mason University, join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And joining me now to further unpack what we learned today are Andrea Bernstein. She is co-host of the "Will Be Wild" podcast examining the events leading up to and through January 6. She is also a regular NPR contributor.

    And Jamil Jaffer, he is a law professor at George Mason University and a former associate counsel to President George W. Bush.

    Welcome to both of you.

    There were so many disclosures and bits of new information today. It's hard to know even where to begin.

    But, as you look at it all, Andrea Bernstein, what is standing out the most to you?

  • Andrea Bernstein, Investigative Journalist:

    Well, I think what we began to see today was a connection between Trump and the violent activity that happened on January 6.

    So, what we have known so far is that he pressured his Justice Department to try to overturn state electors, that he pressured Mike Pence, that he pressured state legislators and state local officials.

    But what we heard today was a knowledge of President Trump that people in the crowd before him had weapons, flagpoles tipped with spear, body armor, pepper spray, bear spray, that they couldn't get in to see him because they didn't want to lay down their weapons, and that, even with that, he went up in front of them and said, fight like hell. We're going to go to the Capitol. I will be there with you.

    Now, one of the things we learned today is, at that time, he really did believe he was going to the Capitol, until his Secret Service team didn't let him go.

    But I think what's emerging is a sense that this violence was understood by the president. The White House had warnings of violence. Rudy Giuliani was saying as early as January 2 that something was going to happen on January 6.

    So what this does is, it moves us closer to the question of, was President Trump — what did he know about the planned violence? We don't know all of it, but we know that he knew that there was a weaponized, riled-up crowd, and that he himself was extremely riled up when he made that speech on the Ellipse on January 6.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Jamil Jaffer, what about for you? What is standing out the most for you?

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

    Yes, I think, Judy, Andrea is exactly right.

    The idea that the president knew the crowd was armed, was not worried that they were going to target him, that they were going to threaten him, but instead were actually going to threaten the Capitol and were planning on marching to the Capitol, and that he was supportive of that and called upon them to do that, I think, is pretty — pretty shocking direct evidence.

    And then, on top of that, you add the fact that, after the fact, when Pat Cipollone comes into the Oval Office with Mark Meadows, and they leave and they're discussing what happened in the oval, and Mark Meadows is saying to Cipollone, look, the president thinks Mike Pence deserves this with the chants of saying, "Hang Mike Pence."

    He thinks he deserves it, and that these people, all these — who have stormed the Capitol are doing nothing wrong.

    I mean, that is not the kind of behavior you expect from any president at all. And it's just shocking to me that you don't see more congressional Republicans today running fast away from Donald Trump, because it is just shocking and astounding, what we heard today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, speaking of that, Andrea Bernstein, how surprising is it that a number of White House key people, including Pat Cipollone, were concerned in the hours, in the days leading up to January 6 about what happened?

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    Well, I think we have had some inkling of this.

    We know, for example, that Pat Cipollone was one of the people who didn't want Trump to replace his acting attorney general with another acting attorney general. So, there's been an indication that there was concern around the White House.

    I think what was different today is, we had this direct testimony from a White House aide, a young woman coming before this committee. I mean, most of the witnesses have been older men. And there she is, and she is saying, under oath — and, obviously, lying to Congress is a felony.

    And she went up there and she spoke the truth. And we saw people like former General Mike Flynn, who had been convicted of lying to the FBI previously, before Trump pardoned him, taking the Fifth Amendment, and not even answering the question about whether he thought blocking the peaceful transfer of power was a crime.

    So, that contrast was stark today. And I think having that eyewitness testimony really took us further into understanding what was going on in the White House up to and on January 6.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was such a — such a sharp contrast. And you're absolutely right.

    Jamil Jaffer, what about in terms of evidence or information we heard today that is legally incriminating for the president, former president?

  • Jamil Jaffer:

    Well, look, I think that we have always long known that, as a legal matter, there are some real challenges of bringing a case against a former president, particularly about issues relating to politics and elections and the like.

    This would be a difficult case to make. It would run the Justice Department into the problems of being — accused of being political. So I think it's hard to do.

    I do think what's interesting is what happened right at the end of the hearing, where you had Trump world people calling a potential witnesses before Congress and saying, hey, look, the president knows you're loyal. He's thinking of you today.

    I mean, this is something you would see literally in "Goodfellas" or "Casino." It's straight out of a mafia don movie. And that actually may be actionable, right, maybe not the actions of the president, but potentially the actions of his aides who said these things, and maybe all the way up to the president, just like you would work up to a mafia boss.

    Threatening witnesses before Congress, that is a crime. And that is something a referral could be made on. And that may be the place that Congress goes. I think it's going to be a lot harder for them to get some these other charges they have been talking about against the president, these obstruction and these conspiracy charges, much more difficult to prove, particularly in the context of an ongoing election and a sitting president at the time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about that, Andrea Bernstein? I know you talk to a number of people around this. What are you hearing in terms of whether the president could now be in serious legal jeopardy, the former president could be in legal jeopardy.

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    Well, his own White House counsel thought he was going to be in serious legal jeopardy if he went to the Capitol.

    And he warned specifically, according to Cassidy Hutchinson, that the president could be charged with obstruction of a — obstruction of an official proceeding, fraud or inciting a riot. Now, that is if the president went to the Capitol.

    But it is quite stark that the White House lawyer told the president that, that the White House lawyer warned the chief of staff the president could have blood on his hands. So that isn't me speaking. That is the man who, in the president's first impeachment, essentially blocked all witness participation coming from the White House.

    So this is somebody who was very loyal to Trump who was saying these things at the end of the day. So I think that there is concern there. And then I think, at the very end of the hearing, the sort of dramatic finale was when Representative Cheney asked Cassidy Hutchinson whether Meadows asked for a pardon. And she said, yes, he did.

    And that was the sort of — then the curtain dropped on her testimony. And that leaves a very strong sense that he thought he had done something wrong. And I think now we have this break in the hearings, presumably, unless they call us back.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    And that is left ringing in the air for all of us to hear, but the Justice Department to think about as well, as they think whether to bring charges against the president and/or people around him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just a very quick answer from you, Jamil Jaffer, on the fact that some of what Cassidy Hutchinson testified today was hearsay. It was what she heard other people describing.

    Does that — how does that hold up, compared to what she personally witnessed?

  • Jamil Jaffer:

    I mean, look, certainly, it was hearsay. She was describing what other people said.

    But, at the end of the day, she was a fact witness to a lot of what happened. She saw what happened. She heard the president speak. At the end of the day, there are going to be other witnesses called. Unless they refute what Cassidy Hutchinson said, I think the story sticks.

    And it's a real, real problem for the president and for any Republicans that seek to back the president in a further election or the like.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jamil Jaffer, Andrea Bernstein, we thank you both.

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    Thank you.

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