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When it comes to Trump’s conduct on the afternoon of January 6, as the Capitol was under attack, “dereliction of duty” is one of those phrases that just tends to catch on: descriptive, alliterative, punchy.
Google “Trump dereliction of duty January 6” and you’ll get pages upon pages of results. Powerful Republicans have used the phrase to call out Trump for his conspicuous inaction that day, including Senator Mitch McConnell (“disgraceful dereliction of duty”) and Representative Liz Cheney (“supreme dereliction of duty”). Democrats have eagerly embraced the same verbiage.
Indeed, during the fateful three-plus hours while pro-Trump maniacs stormed the Capitol, Trump did nothing to stop them – despite a slew of text messages to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows from MAGA heavy-hitters ranging from Sean Hannity to Reince Priebus to Donald Trump, Jr., begging the then-President to call off the rioters who were acting in his name. In fact, it seems Trump was quite enthralled with the Capitol attackers. Former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham has said publicly that Trump watched the insurrection attempt on television “gleefully,” and Republican Senator Ben Sasse claimed that senior White House officials told him Trump was “excited” and “delighted” by reports of the escalating riot that day.
But that’s where the concept of “dereliction of duty” reaches its limit. Yes, the term properly conveys a president utterly unconcerned – or even happy – at the unfolding riot, and unwilling to act to stop it. But Trump’s conduct, writ large, is so much more, and so much worse, than mere benign neglect, or paralysis during a fast-developing crisis.
The term “dereliction of duty” is accurate, as far as it goes, but incomplete – and, in that sense, misleading. It brings to mind a person watching a building burn down and doing nothing about it. But the phraseology obscures the fact that Trump lit the fire in the first place, and then did nothing while he watched it burn, in celebratory fashion.
We’re all familiar by now with the months-long effort by Trump and his enablers to steal the election and to whip up his most loyal fanatics: the creation and dissemination of the Big Lie of election fraud, the efforts to steal electoral votes through bogus lawsuits and slates of fake electors, the pressure applied to state election officials and legislatures, and the campaign to convince Mike Pence to abuse his power as Vice President and unilaterally toss out valid, certified electoral votes. Trump and his supporters hyped up the “Stop the Steal” rally near the White House on the morning of January 6 – a day selected specifically to coincide with the congressional tabulation of electoral votes, which would seal Trump’s defeat. Trump’s words now ring in infamy: “Be there, will be wild!” and “you have to show strength” and “fight like hell” and “we won’t have a country” anymore if things don’t go our way.
That afternoon,Trump tweeted to his 80 million-plus followers: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!” Timing is crucial here. Trump sent that tweet at 2:24 Eastern time – after the security barriers at the Capitol had already been breached by a crowd chanting, among other things, “Hang Mike Pence!” Forget about “dereliction of duty” – this was an affirmative act, Trump squirting lighter fluid on the fire he had already ignited.
A few hours later, shortly after the violence ended, Trump again hopped on Twitter and, again, made things worse. He asked his supporters who had just attacked the Capitol to “go home with love & in peace.” But in the same tweet, he praised the rioters, calling them “great patriots” and urging them to “Remember this day forever!” If there ever was any question about Trump’s intent, his state of mind as to the Capitol attack – that tweet, sent in the afterglow of the moment, says it all.
We still don’t have a full picture of what Trump did and said during those 187 minutes inside the White House while the attack raged down Pennsylvania Avenue at the Capitol. This is one of the most important gaps that the Committee will aim to fill during its ongoing public hearings. They may never get the full picture, due largely to the obstructive reticence of key players around Trump that day, including Meadows, Dan Scavino, Kevin McCarthy, and others. (We now know that Meadows and Scavino will not be charged with criminal contempt by DOJ, and will suffer no meaningful consequences for their defiance of the Committee.) Conspicuous gaps in normal White House phone logs and other records don’t help either.
But we already know a lot: Trump did nothing, sure, but he also lit the fuse, fanned the flames, and then pumped his fist in celebration as the Capitol came under attack. This is dereliction of duty, no doubt. But it’s also so much more than that.