What did the president know and when did he know it? Those were key questions during the Watergate hearings 50 years ago when investigators were looking into a cover-up of the infamous hotel break-in. These questions were again relevant when Cassidy Hutchinson, an assistant to Mark Meadows, former President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, testified Tuesday on the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Hutchinson told members of the House Select Committee that Trump not only knew in advance that the crowd was armed and could turn violent but that he intended to participate in the attack.
Alexander Keyssar ’69, Ph.D. ’77, is the Matthew W. Stirling Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and author of “Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?” (Harvard Univ. Press, 2020). Keyssar spoke to the Gazette about what the former president and his inner circle allegedly knew and did in the run-up to and on the day of the attack. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
GAZETTE: Your reaction to what was revealed during Tuesday’s hearing — what stood out to you most?
KEYSSAR: There were several things that stood out to me. One was the revelation that there were a lot of people in the crowd who were armed, and the government knew that they were armed, and the White House knew that they were armed. That changes the complexion of the event. It doesn’t quite look like “peaceful protesters wandering around the Capitol but then it got out of hand.” I mean, that was always an implausible scenario anyway. But the people around the rally were armed and that was OK with the Trump administration. That was pretty striking.
I also found it striking and surprising that Trump wanted to go down to the Capitol. I think the image that most of us had [of him] until yesterday was, “Let me get these people stirred up and go down there and let them create havoc, but I’m going back home to be more comfortable and safe.” So, the notion that he wanted to go changes the complexion of the story. It’s very puzzling about what it was he thought he would do once he got there. I look forward to finding out, if we ever find out, which may be unlikely, what he thought he would do once he got there.
A lot of the rest struck me as filling in with some detail, and colorful details, things we knew or semi-knew or presumed were true. For example, that the White House was a cauldron of conflict and confusion and that the former president was in a rage. We have details about that now that make it vivid, but I don’t think that’s really new.
The last thing that I would say is that it focuses the spotlight on Mark Meadows. It’s not clear to what extent he was confused or playing a double game. He certainly seemed to be suggesting to people like White House counsel Pat Cipollone that he was doing his best to keep the president from escalating things. But then again, he called into the Willard Hotel meeting the night before and seems to be coordinating with the people who were trying to make it big. So, it focuses a spotlight on Meadows, but what we’re seeing is still a little blurry.