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Unhinged meetings, tweets and conspiracy theories: Trump ‘incited the Capitol attack’

Washington: Donald Trump incited the US Capitol attack by fuelling conspiracy theories and posting messages that mobilised extremist groups outraged by the 2020 election result, a congressional probe has found.

The seventh session of the January 6 committee focused on alt-right groups that descended on the Capitol that day, and the role that Trump had in assembling them as he attempted to remain in power after losing the White House to Joe Biden.

Rioters stand outside the US Capitol in Washington on January 6, 2021.Credit:AP

It also revealed disturbing details of an “unhinged” meeting in the Oval Office a few weeks earlier, where “stop the steal” allies – including disgraced lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, along with QAnon supporter and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn – tried to convince Trump to use the military to seize voting machines.

But the plot sank after White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Eric Herschmann rejected it, resulting in Trump sending out an incendiary Tweet soon after the meeting ended in the early hours of December 19, 2020.

“Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 election. Big protest on January 6. Be there. Will be wild,” he wrote.

According to the committee, Trump supporters – including right-wing militia such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers – began organising themselves immediately after the “call to action”.

Members of the Oath Keepers on the East Front of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington. Credit:AP

One pro-Trump group, Women for America First, had previously applied for a permit to set up a rally in Washington in late January 2020, after inauguration day, but moved their permit to January 6 after Trump’s tweet, the committee found.

Alt-right media outlets and internet bloggers also began promoting the day as a call to arms, with one internet commentator telling his viewers: “It’s gonna be a red wedding day, b*tch” – a reference to the bloody massacre that took place on HBO series Game of Thrones.

Some supporters with no ties to extremist organisations also headed to Washington, incensed by Trump’s claim that the election was stolen. Among them was Ohio man Stephen Ayres, who drove there after seeing Trump’s message on social media.

Testifying under oath today, Ayres described himself to the committee as “basically just a family man” who believed the president’s claim of widespread fraud and was “very upset, as were most of his supporters”.

But he added that he only wanted to attend Trump’s rally on January 6 – and had no plan to march to the Capitol until Trump told supporters during his speech to “fight like hell” to stop Biden’s victory from being certified by Congress.

“The President got everybody riled up, and told everybody head on down. So we basically just followed what he said,” said Ayres, who has since pleaded guilty to illegally entering the building.

“I lost my job since this all happened, pretty much sold my house… It changed my life – and not for the good.”

Another key witness was former Oath Keepers spokesperson Jason Van Tatenhove, a former associate of the group’s founder, Stewart Rhodes. Rhodes is now in jail awaiting trial on seditious conspiracy charges for his role in the Capitol attack.

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes Credit:AP

He gave the hearing an insight into the dangers of the militia group, which the committee also revealed had ties to Flynn and another Trump ally and conspiracy theorist, Roger Stone.

“I think we need to quit mincing words and just talk about truth,” said Tatenhove of the Oath Keeper’s intentions for January 6.

“What it was gonna be was an armed revolution. I mean, people died that day. Law enforcement officers died. There was a gallows set up in front of the Capitol. This could have been the spark that started the new civil war. All I can do is thank the gods that things did not go any worse.”

“I do fear for this next election cycle because who knows what that might bring.”

Cassidy Hutchinson: “As an American, I was disgusted.”Credit:Washington Post

Today’s hearing follows in the footsteps of last month’s explosive testimony by former White House staffer Cassidy Hutchinson, who recounted how Trump urged his supporters to march to the Capitol despite knowing they were armed and threatening violence.

Hutchinson worked for Trump’s then chief of staff Mark Meadows and had a front-row seat to the then president and his key advisers.

Among those advisers was White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who finally agreed to be questioned by the committee last Friday about his concerns over the legality of Trump’s attempts to stay in power.

According to video testimony played today, Cipollone was present at the six-hour White House meeting of December 18, when Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani, Michael Flynn, and business executive Patrick Byrne tried to persuade Trump to use the US military to seize voting machines across different states and appoint Powell as a special counsel to oversee the election.

But Cipollone thought this was a “terrible idea for the country” and kept asking: “where is the evidence (that the election was stolen)?” None could be provided.

“There was a real question in my mind and a real concern – particularly after the attorney general had reached the conclusion that there wasn’t sufficient election fraud to change the outcome of the election – when other people kept suggesting there was,” Cipollone said. “At some point you have to put up or shut up.”

The committee also played an audio interview from a former Twitter employee who explained the effects that Trump had on the social media platform.

She testified that she had been urging the company to consider adopting stricter content moderation after the presidential debate of September 29 , 2020, in which Trump – while responding to a question about white supremacy – famously told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by”.

Asked about Trump’s December 19 “call to action” Tweet, the employee, whose face and voice was obscured, told the committee it elicited threatening responses from his followers that “felt as if a mob was being organised.”

The committee’s next public hearing is likely to take place at prime time next week, and will focus on the 187 minutes that the US Capitol was under siege and what Trump did – or failed to do – as the attack was unfolding.

In closing today’s session, committee vice-chair Liz Cheney, a Republican, said that Trump had called a witness after the previous hearing on June 28. She did not name the witness but said they declined to answer the call, and instead notified their lawyer.

“Let me say one more time: we will take any efforts to influence witness testimony very seriously,” Cheney warned.

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