january 6 hearings

What Exactly Did Trump Hope to Gain From the Capitol Riot?

Was there really a game plan other than mayhem? Photo: Jim Bourg/REUTERS

Through seven public hearings and a host of testimony, the House select committee on January 6 has painted a compelling portrait of a president who spent months trying a wild array of illegal and quasi-legal means to stay in office after losing his reelection bid. When one outrageous strategy failed, Trump found another, right down to those desperate hours when he tried to disrupt the electoral-vote count and then dispatched an angry mob toward the Capitol.

We have been told that the next (and possibly last) hearing of the committee will focus specifically on Trump’s behavior on January 6, though we know quite a bit already thanks to Cassidy Hutchinson’s gripping testimony. In particular, the committee is expected to highlight Trump’s failure to rein in his supporters after the “protest” turned violent.

In exploring this topic, we can only hope the committee will help answer one of the few true remaining mysteries about the insurrection Trump undoubtedly incited: What exactly did he expect it to accomplish?

From any rational point of view, Trump’s only hope for stopping the confirmation of Joe Biden’s victory on January 6 depended entirely on Mike Pence playing his assigned role in the plot by recognizing fake Trump electors or “sending it back to the states” by adjourning the joint session of Congress before it could count electoral votes. By the time Trump addressed his rally on January 6, he had heard personally from Pence that it just wasn’t going to happen. Even as Trump was haranguing the mob, Pence released a letter publicly announcing his position that anything other than a ceremonial role for him in the joint session is unconstitutional. Even if Trump somehow imagined Pence might yet flip when he sent the mob to the Capitol, he soon knew that hope was moot, as the vice-president convened the joint session without doing any of the outrageous things his boss had asked him to do.

So what was the idea? Trump knew the votes weren’t there for his backers in Congress to reject Biden electors (it would have required a majority vote in both Democratic-controlled chambers). Pence wouldn’t play ball. And even if the rioters temporarily halted the count of electoral votes (as they did), Trump knew they would soon resume (as they also did, that very evening).

That leaves two possibilities, both of them damning: (1) Trump planned to use the violence to assert some sort of emergency powers that would have more definitively halted the congressional proceedings and/or kept him in office past January 20, or (2) Trump simply incited violence for the sheer disruptive hell of it without a scintilla of a strategy.

To be clear, Trump’s intent on January 6 isn’t necessarily germane to the criminal charges that may be brought against him. He could face criminal charges for several incidents prior to the fatal days (e.g., his coercive call to Brad Raffensperger on January 2, which a grand jury in Georgia is exploring), and at least one federal judge has suggested that both Trump and John Eastman may be guilty of felony obstruction of Congress charges for their plot to get Pence to steal the election. I’d say sending a mob down Pennsylvania Avenue to disrupt a joint session of Congress could be criminally culpable even if Trump had no clear idea of what would happen.

It would be good to know for the record, though, if in that crucial moment when his supporters were sacking the Capitol, Trump was seeking something other than chaos.

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What Exactly Did Trump Hope to Gain From the Capitol Riot?