Donald Trump: A President Untethered
WASHINGTON – He threw his lunch across the room and smashed the plate in a fit of rage as ketchup dripped down the wall. He appeared to support supporters who wanted to hang his own vice president. And in a scene set up by a former assistant who looked more out of a movie than real life, he tried to wrestle the wheel of his presidential vehicle and attacked his own Secret Service agent.
Former President Donald J. Trump has never been seen by almost no one but himself as the most stable resident of the Oval Office, but the breathtaking testimony his former aide, Cassidy Hutchinson, gave at the House Select Committee hearing on Tuesday, portrayed an unhinged commander in chief ran wildly out of control as he desperately tried to cling to power and urged armed supporters to make it happen.
The president who emerged from her report was volatile, violent and vicious, determined in his quest to undo an election he lost no matter what anyone told him, eager to go to the Capitol to personally review the constitutional disrupt the process that would end his defeat, ignored warnings that his actions could lead to disaster, and were totally unencumbered by the prospect of sending to Congress a mob of supporters who he knew were those armed with deadly weapons .
A president who liked to describe himself as a “very stable genius” was anything but, as Ms. Hutchinson noted in those last, frenzied days of his term. Her description didn’t surprise many of those who worked for Mr. Trump and had seen him up close for the past four years, or for that matter, many who had known him in the decades preceding his life in politics. But when she heard her tell it all under oath, on live television, I realized how much Mr. Trump and his White House rose in his perilous final chapter.
“This is insane,” said Pat A. Cipollone, his attorney at the White House, at one point on Jan. 6, 2021, as Ms. Hutchinson recalled, as Mr. Trump was busy reprimanding Vice President Mike Pence instead. of trying to call off the attack on the Capitol.
Mr Cipollone was not the only one to think so. According to Ms. Hutchinson’s report, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other cabinet members were so concerned about Mr Trump’s behavior that they discussed invoking the 25th Amendment, which was used to remove a president who was not. deemed capable of performing its duties.
Mr. Trump, who regularly accuses his critics of being “crazy” and “psycho,” bombarded his new social media site during Tuesday’s hearing with reports of attacking Ms Hutchinson and the most sensational anecdote she had to the committee. provided was denied.
“Her fake story that I tried to grab the wheel of the White House Limousine to send it to the Capitol is ‘sick’ and fraudulent, as is the Unselect Committee itself,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social website. “Her story that I throw food is not true either.”
A Secret Service spokesman said in a statement that the agency would officially respond to the House committee on Ms. Hutchinson’s report on what happened in the armored car.
Secret Service officials who requested anonymity to discuss the possible testimony said that both Robert Engel, the head of Mr. Trump’s protective department, and the driver of Mr. Trump’s SUV were willing to swear under oath that neither man by the former president and that he didn’t reach for the wheel. The officials said the two men would not dispute the claim that Mr. Trump wanted to go to the Capitol.
Ms. Hutchinson did not witness the scene in the vehicle herself, but said she was briefed about it moments later by Anthony Ornato, the president’s deputy chief of staff and a former Secret Service agent, while Mr. Engel was in the room. was present and did not dispute it .
Regardless, other Trump White House veterans who have broken with the former president said Ms. Hutchinson’s testimony resonated with their own experiences. Mr. Trump was prone to throwing tantrums, slamming his hands on his desk and yelling at advisers he deemed insufficiently loyal. As Ms. Hutchinson said, his destruction of crockery in a post-election blowout wasn’t the first time he’s expressed his anger at White House china.
“His temper was terrifying. And fast,” said Stephanie Grisham, who served as his White House press secretary and communications director and as Melania Trump’s chief of staff, Tuesday after the hearing. “He would break down and almost lose control.”
She recounted a number of examples in her comprehensive book published after she left office, noting that when Mr. Trump descended into anger, his staff resorted to summoning an assistant, nicknamed the Music Man, to call upon favorite play show tunes they knew would calm him down, including “Memory” from the Broadway musical “Cats.”
Other presidents have exhibited erratic behavior behind the scenes, from Andrew Jackson to Lyndon B. Johnson. Richard M. Nixon threw an ashtray across the room when he learned of the Watergate break-in, and was seen on another occasion pushing his own press secretary† In the days of the scandal that led to his resignation, Nixon drank, talked to the paintings of past presidents, and seemed so unstable that his secretary of defense ordered generals not to carry out orders he issued without checking with him or the to consult the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Still, it’s hard to imagine any other president addressing his own Secret Service agent, in a futile attempt to send his vehicle to the Capitol so he could march into the chamber of the House to object to his own election defeat.
“We never know everything that goes on behind closed doors in the White House, and presidential history is full of rude behavior,” said Jeffrey A. Engel, founder and director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. “But it’s hard to think of a previous case where a president physically assaulted or even threatened someone charged with protecting them.”
Mark K. Updegrove, president of the LBJ Foundation and author of “Incomparable Grace,” a new book on John F. Kennedy, said he couldn’t make a historical comparison. Johnson and Nixon “can be emotionally volatile, but nothing approaching physical violence,” he said. “Like almost everything else with Trump, this is completely unprecedented.”
One who might know is John Dean, White House counsel whose own testimony during the Watergate era toppled Nixon. “Cassidy’s testimony makes it clear that Trump is prone to throwing tantrums, like an undisciplined child,” he said after the hearing. “I can’t tell from her testimony whether they are monitored or unchecked. I suspect they are controlled tantrums at his age.”
Trump’s mental state was a regular problem during his four years in office, and the idea of declaring him unfit to serve under the application of the 25th Amendment even surfaced in his own administration in the early months.
Bookshelves were full of books speculating about his mental health. His speech patterns were analyzed for signs of dementia. His own niece, Mary L. Trump, a clinical psychologist, stated that he had “so many pathologies” and “displays sociopathic tendencies.” At one point during the 2020 campaign, he took a cognitive test to prove his mental acuity, reciting in order: “Person. Female. Man. Camera. TV.”
Key Revelations from the January 6 Hearings
Some advisers concluded that Mr. Trump was in decline after losing the election to Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Nov 3. Former Attorney General William P. Barr, whose Dec. 1 public statement that there was no evidence the election had been stolen prompted Mr Trump to attack his luncheon, told the House committee that the president seemed increasingly unbalanced.
“I thought, boy, if he really believes this stuff, he’s lost touch with — he’s disconnected from reality,” Mr Barr testified.
The reality conveyed by Ms. Hutchinson, a top aide to Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, became more troubling the day Congress met to count the electoral college votes confirming Mr Trump’s defeat. He lashed out, giving every indication that he knew that the crowd of supporters he gathered on the Ellipse also included some violent people. When he told that some who tried to attend his rally were armed, he snapped that the Secret Service should remove his magnetometers and let them in.
“You know, I don’t care if they have guns,” Mr. Trump said in Ms. Hutchinson’s narration of the episode. “They’re not here to hurt me. Remove the f-ing magazines. Let my people in. They can march to the Capitol from here. Let the people in. Take the f-ing mags away.”
The fact that he then told them to march to the Capitol, knowing they were armed, did not discourage him in the least, as far as she could see.
He wanted to go with them and told the crowd he would, although advisers thought it was a phenomenally bad idea. “We’ll be charged with every crime imaginable” if he went to the Capitol, Mr. Cipollone had warned a few days earlier.
When Mr. Trump climbed into the armored presidential SUV vehicle after his speech at the Ellipse, the Secret Service began taking him back to the White House, prompting him to explode. “I’m the f-ing president. Take me to the Capitol now,” he ordered.
Robert Engel, the senior officer, told him to return to the West Wing. At that point, according to the report Ms. Hutchinson heard later, the president reached for the front of the vehicle to grab the steering wheel. Mr. Engel grabbed his arm. “Sir, you need to take your hand off the wheel,” the officer said. “We’re going back to the West Wing. We’re not going to the Capitol.’
According to the version passed to Ms. Hutchinson, Mr. Trump then used his free hand to lunge at the officer by his collarbone. But it made no difference.
The president was returned to the White House, where he spent the rest of the day watching the action of the day on television — upset not by the violence unleashed in his name, but because it hadn’t changed the election results.
Zolan Kanno Youngs contributed reporting.