Mounting evidence emerging as former president Donald Trump’s impeachment trial unfolds in the Senate this week indicates Mr Trump may have been personally informed that Vice President Mike Pence was in physical danger during the 6 January Capitol siege, just moments before denigrating him on Twitter.
Mr Trump’s decision to tweet that Mr Pence lacked “courage,” a missive sent shortly after the vice president had been rushed off the Senate floor, underscores how he delayed taking action to stop his supporters as they ransacked the Capitol.
Many of them were intent on doing harm to Mr Pence, whom Mr Trump had singled out at a rally earlier in the day, falsely claiming the vice president had the power to stop Congress from formalising Joe Biden’s electoral college victory.
Mr Trump’s tweet came at 2:24 pm that day. This was only 11 minutes after live television coverage showed Mr Pence being hustled from the Senate floor because rioters were streaming into the building one floor below. The Senate then abruptly went into recess.
Mr Trump was watching news coverage of the session after he returned from his rally at the Ellipse, according to a person familiar with the events of the day who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe what was happening behind the scenes.
The White House typically would have been immediately informed by Mr Pence’s Secret Service detail when he was evacuated from a location, according to another person with knowledge of the security protocols.
In addition, Mr Trump heard directly about the vice president’s movements from a GOP senator. Shortly after Mr Pence was rushed out of the Senate, Senator Tommy Tuberville, spoke to Mr Trump on the phone and told him about Mr Pence’s hasty exit, MrTuberville told reporters Thursday.
“I said, ‘Mr President, they just took our vice president out, they’re getting ready to drag me out of here. I got to go,’ “ Mr Tuberville said he told Mr Trump during the brief call.
The exact time of their conversation is unknown, but Mr Pence was pulled from the room by the Secret Service at 2.13pm and senators had fully evacuated the chamber by around 2.30pm.
A Trump spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr Trump had spent days leading up to 6 January publicly and privately pressuring Mr Pence to use his ceremonial role as the presiding officer of the joint session of Congress to overturn the election results. Mr Pence had warned Mr Trump that he did not believe the Constitution gave him that power.
Former administration officials have said Mr Trump was enraged early that day when Mr Pence privately informed the president that he had made a final decision: He would not interfere with the process.
Still, Mr Trump attacked Mr Pence repeatedly in his speech to thousands of supporters gathered at the Ellipse midday. Though Mr Trump knew of Mr Pence’s plans, he led the crowd to believe that the vice president’s actions remained an open question, elevating the suspense and eventual shock among his supporters at Mr Pence’s perceived betrayal when the session opened.
“Mike Pence, I hope you’re going to stand up for the good of our Constitution and for the good of our country,” Mr Trump said. “And if you’re not, I’m going to be very disappointed in you.”
Before Mr Trump finished speaking, Mr Pence issued a lengthy statement announcing publicly that he would not reject Mr Biden’s electoral college votes.
People familiar with Mr Trump’s activities said he returned to The White House seething with anger at his vice president. One said Mr Trump had considered tweeting about his anger earlier in the day, but decided to hold off until after Mr Pence had formally opened the proceedings at 1pm.
During this week’s Senate trial, House impeachment managers have zeroed in on Mr Trump’s treatment of his vice president, showing how the mob specifically targeted Mr Pence, hunting him in the Capitol, chanting “Hang Mike Pence” and calling him a “traitor.”
The Trump tweet about Mr Pence came more than an hour after police reported that metal barricades outside the Capitol had been overwhelmed by the angry mob and about 12 minutes after the rioters had made it inside the building.
“Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution . . . USA demands the truth!” Mr Trump tweeted.
On Thursday, House impeachment manager Representative Joe Neguse, emphasised that Mr Trump did nothing to try to stop the mob as rioters stormed the building, hunting for Mr Pence.
“What did President Trump do?” he asked. “He attacked him more. He singled him out by name. It’s honestly hard to fathom.”
A group of rioters had quickly made its way upstairs to the Senate chamber, looking for a way in.
Security footage released by the House impeachment managers Wednesday showed that just two minutes later, Mr Pence’s security detail was moving him through the building and to a secure location.
Leaving his hideaway near the Senate chamber, Mr Pence and his family dashed about 20 steps to a stairwell through an open area. Had he followed that route just 12 or so minutes earlier, he would have been in view of rioters who were in a confrontation with Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman.
Some rioters quickly learned of Mr Trump’s tweet. A video clip aired by House impeachment managers Wednesday showed a rioter with a bullhorn on the steps of the Capitol, reading Mr Trump’s words aloud to the crowd.
GOP Representative Liz Cheney, who voted to impeach Mr Trump, questioned earlier this week whether the tweet was “a premeditated effort to provoke violence.”
The mounting signs that Mr Trump knew about the risks facing Mr Pence when he sent the tweet deepens questions about his delayed efforts to rein in the violence.
Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, one of a only a handful of Republican senators who has indicated he might be persuaded by the Democrats’ arguments for Mr Trump’s conviction, told reporters after Thursday’s session that he wanted to hear an explanation from Mr Trump’s lawyers for his actions that afternoon when they present their case Friday.
He noted that while police officers were under attack, “The president was calling to try and get more senators to decertify the election. Now, presumably, since we were at that point being evacuated and I think he was told that, there was some awareness of the events. So what I hope the defense does is explain that.”
That afternoon, Mr Trump was determined to do “whatever it took” to stop the certification, according to a former senior administration official, and encouraged his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to also call senators. “He was happy the results had been stopped,” the official said.
People familiar with Mr Trump’s call to Mr Tuberville have told news organisations that the president was calling to urge the newly elected senator from Alabama to issue further objections to the electoral count. A former Auburn football coach, Mr Tuberville was the first senator to announce in the days leading up to 6 January that he would consider objecting to the counting of some Biden electoral votes as Mr Trump wished.
“It shows that his singular focus that day, the day we were attacked, was not protecting us. It was not protecting you, is not protecting the Capitol. It was stopping the certification of the election results,” Representative David Cicilline, one of the House impeachment managers, told the Senate.
The fact that Mr Tuberville alerted Mr Trump to Mr Pence’s evacuation emerged after his GOP colleague, Senator Mike Lee, objected to the account of the episode by the impeachment managers on Wednesday.
Mr Trump had actually initially called Mr Lee, apparently believing he was calling Mr Tuberville’s phone. Mr Lee told the Utah newspaper the Deseret News last month that when he realised the confusion, he handed his phone to Mr Tuberville and watched as he and the president spoke for five to 10 minutes. He then retrieved his phone, telling Mr Tuberville, “I don’t want to interrupt your call with the president, but we’re being evacuated and I need my phone.”
During the impeachment proceedings, Mr Lee objected to how House Democrats had characterised the episode and asked that their comments about it be removed from the record. “I’m the witness, I’m the only witness. Those statements are not true. And I ask that you strike them,” he said.
His objection highlighted the awkward reality that senators serving as Mr Trump’s jury are also witnesses to his actions that day. Confusion about the call could be cleared up if Mr Lee and Mr Tuberville both provided detailed firsthand accounts of the episode. Senators in both parties, however, had said they do not expect witnesses to be called during the trial.
A spokesman for Mr Lee said Thursday that the log of the senator’s cellphone does not go back to 6 January, and that he does not remember exactly what time he received the call from Mr Trump.
However, a voice mail that Mr Guiliani intended for Mr Tuberville later in the day made clear what Mr Trump had been hoping to accomplish.
Like Mr Trump, Mr Giuliani was apparently confused about Mr Tuberville’s phone number and left the message for Mr Lee instead, according to the conservative publication The Dispatch, which later published the voice mail.
The message was left around 7 pm on the night of 6 January, by which time law enforcement had cleared rioters from the building and congressional leaders were discussing returning to the floor to complete the counting of the electoral college votes.
“I want to discuss with you how they’re trying to rush this hearing and how we need you, our Republican friends, to try to just slow it down so we can get these legislatures to get more information to you,” Mr Giuliani said in the message.
He added that he knew Congress was planning to go back into session, but “the only strategy we can follow is to object to numerous states.”
Mr Giuliani did not respond to requests for comment.
In the message, rather than expressing concern that the process had been halted by a violent mob, Mr Giuliani complained that Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was planning to restart the process. Mr McConnell, he alleged, was “doing everything he can to rush it, which is kind of a kick in the head.”
The Washington Post
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