US Capitol riot probe slams Trump inaction, urges accountability

Supporters of US president Donald Trump climb on walls at the US Capitol during a protest against the certification of the 2020 US presidential election results by the US Congress, in Washington, US, on 6 January 2021Reuters

The House committee probing the assault on the US Capitol laid out a searing, prime-time indictment on Thursday of Donald Trump’s refusal to halt or condemn the violence and insisted he should be held accountable for a gross dereliction of presidential duty.

Committee chairman Bennie Thompson, speaking at the televised finale of a series of public hearings, said Trump “recklessly blazed a path of lawlessness and corruption” as he sought to overturn the results of the 2020 US election.

The Mississippi congressman, addressing the committee virtually because he has Covid-19, said there must be “accountability” for what he called an attack on democracy.

During a two-and-a-half-hour hearing, lawmakers presented testimony from White House aides who said that Trump watched the Capitol attack unfold on television and ignored their repeated pleas to tell his supporters to leave.

“From the comfort of his dining room he watched on TV as the attack escalated,” said Adam Kinzinger, one of two Republicans on the panel.

“He sent tweets that inflamed,” Kinzinger said. “For three hours he refused to call off the attack.”

“Donald Trump’s conduct on 6 January was a supreme violation of his oath of office and a complete dereliction of his duty to our nation,” Kinzinger said. “It is a stain on our history.”

Former US president Donald Trump

Thompson said Trump “did everything in his power to overturn an election -- he lied, he bullied, he betrayed his oath.

“He tried to destroy our democratic institutions,” he said. “There needs to be accountability. Accountability under the law, accountability to the American people... all the way up to the Oval Office.”

With Trump mulling another White House run in 2024, Republican vice chair Liz Cheney said “Every American must consider this: ‘Can a president who is willing to make the choices Donald Trump made during the violence of 6 January ever be trusted with any position of authority in our great nation again?’”

Supporters of US president Donald Trump climb a wall during a protest against the certification of the 2020 presidential election results by the Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, US, on 6 January 2021

Lawmakers provided a minute-by-minute account of Trump’s actions between the time he gave a fiery speech to his supporters near the White House claiming the November 2020 election was stolen and extending until the moment when he finally told the rioters they were “very special” but should go home.

Outtakes were played from a message taped by Trump the next day, in which he refused to stick with a written script on a teleprompter. “I don’t want to say the election’s over,” he said, rejecting that phrase from the script.

‘One of the darkest days’

Two former White House officials -- deputy White House press secretary Sarah Matthews and Matthew Pottinger, who served on the National Security Council -- testified about their decision to resign on 6 January.

Matthews said it was “one of the darkest days in our nation’s history” and “President Trump was treating it as a celebratory occasion.”

“His refusal to act and call off the mob that day and his refusal to condemn the violence was indefensible,” she said.

Pottinger said a tweet sent by Trump attacking vice president Mike Pence for refusing Trump’s demand that he block congressional certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s victory was “like fuel being poured on the fire.”

“That was the moment that I decided that I was going to resign,” he said.

Thursday’s prime-time hearing was the eighth and final one in this series. Committee members said there would be further hearings in September.

Previous committee hearings focused on Trump’s attempt to sway election officials in swing states that Biden narrowly won and put pressure on Pence.

Former US president Donald Trump and his vice president Mike Pence

The committee also examined the impact of a tweet Trump sent in December urging his supporters to descend on Washington on 6 January.

Members of right-wing militia groups the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and other Trump supporters saw the tweet from the president as a “call to arms,” lawmakers said.

More than 850 people have been arrested in connection with the attack on Congress, which left at least five people dead and 140 police officers injured.

The 76-year-old Trump was impeached for a historic second time by the House after the Capitol riot but was acquitted by the Senate, where only a handful of Republicans voted to convict him.

The House committee is to submit a report to Congress this fall with its findings.

The committee may issue criminal referrals to the Justice Department, leaving it up to Attorney General Merrick Garland to decide whether Trump or others should be prosecuted for the attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Garland said Wednesday that the 6 January probe is the “most important” investigation the Justice Department has ever conducted and stressed that “no one is above the law in this country.”