Under heavy pressure, Trump releases video condemning Capitol siege

Supporters hold up signs as President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Washington on Wednesday, Jan 6, 2021, protesting the presidential election results. The New York Times
Under heavy pressure from his advisers, President Donald Trump on Wednesday released a five-minute video recorded in the Oval Office condemning last week’s mob violence at the Capitol and urging his supporters to stand down from further rioting next week.

The video was made public hours after Trump was impeached a second time and was the result, advisers said, of Trump’s realisation of the catastrophic fallout from the deadly riot, which also left lawmakers fearing for their lives in the seat of American democracy.

The video was released on a White House Twitter account.

Trump offered no note of humility, regret or self-reflection about his two months of false claims that the election was stolen from him. But it was also a broader condemnation of the violence than he has offered so far.

A week ago, only hours after the rampage, Trump told his supporters who had rioted: “We love you. You’re very special.”

Trump’s aides have warned him that he faces potential legal exposure for the riot, which was committed by his supporters immediately after a speech in which the president urged them to “fight” the results of the election. The House impeached him on a single article, accusing him of “inciting violence against the government of the United States.”

The release of the video came after the president’s company, the Trump Organisation, faced cancelled contracts in New York, and after Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican majority leader, told allies he was pleased by the Democrats’ impeachment efforts and let it be known publicly that he was considering voting to convict the president in a Senate trial.

“As I have said, the incursion of the US Capitol struck at the very heart of our republic,” Trump said. “It angered and appalled millions of Americans across the political spectrum.”

“I want to be very clear: I unequivocally condemn the violence that we saw last week,” Trump said. “Violence and vandalism have absolutely no place in our country. And no place in our movement. Making America great again has always been about defending the rule of law” and supporting law enforcement officials.

“Mob violence goes against everything I believe in and everything our movement stands for. No true supporter of mine could ever endorse political violence,” he said.

“If you do any of these things, you are not supporting our movement. You are attacking it and you are attacking our country,” Trump said. “We cannot tolerate it.”

But Trump did not mention President-elect Joe Biden, he did not concede the election and he did not talk about Biden’s inauguration, which is to take place next week under extraordinary security because of the threats inspired by the Capitol riot. He also did not mention that he had just made history as the first president to be impeached twice.

He did, however, use the video to denounce what he called restrictions of free speech, referring not just to social media platforms that have banned him but alluding to the argument that Republican House members made to argue against his impeachment.

The aides most involved in the video were the White House counsel, Pat A Cipollone; his deputy, Pat Philbin; and Trump’s main speechwriter, Stephen Miller.

During the day, Trump watched the impeachment debate in the House at various points and told advisers he was furious with McConnell and felt blindsided by him.

Some advisers discussed the possibility of Trump resigning a few days early, in part because it would allow him to have the option of running again in 2024 and perhaps avoid the risk of being convicted and barred from future office by the Senate.

But the president has been dismissive of any suggestion that he leave the presidency early and told White House aides that President Richard Nixon, whose influence in the party ended when he resigned, did not have much to show for it.

Advisers said that Trump had to be dissuaded from going to the House floor to try to defend himself during Wednesday’s impeachment proceedings, something he wanted to do during his first impeachment in December 2019, advisers said.

Trump has also left open the possibility of pardoning himself, despite concern from Cipollone and warnings from outside advisers that he would inflame investigators who are already pursuing him.

Trump has never been more isolated than this week. The White House is sparsely staffed, according to people who went to work there Wednesday. Those who did go to work tried to avoid the Oval Office.

More and more staff members have quit, and the White House Counsel’s Office is not preparing to defend him in the Senate trial.

Plans to move Trump to another platform online after he was permanently suspended by Twitter have been halted. One option was the platform Gab, which has been a host for extremists and QAnon conspiracy followers. Gab was favoured by Trump’s adviser Johnny McEntee, but blocked by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Part of Kushner’s rationale was the anti-Semitic commentary that often plays out on Gab, according to the people familiar with the discussions, which were reported earlier by Bloomberg News.

Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, is also facing recriminations because of his involvement in inciting the mob that assaulted the Capitol. A group of former assistant US attorneys who worked with Giuliani when he served as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan sent him a letter Wednesday expressing dismay with his behaviour at the rally before the Capitol siege.

The group said that Giuliani’s comments, in which he urged Trump supporters to engage in “trial by combat” to stop the certification of the election results, contributed to the loss of life and damage done to the country, and stood in stark contrast to the values he had sought to uphold when he was a prosecutor.

“It was jarring and totally disheartening to have seen one of our former colleagues engage in that conduct,” the former prosecutors said in the letter, which was signed by many Giuliani colleagues, including Kenneth Feinberg, Ira Lee Sorkin, Elliot Sagor and Richard Ben-Veniste.

“We unequivocally repudiate and denounce what you said: It is utterly destructive of all that we value,” they wrote, urging him to do what Trump did in the video and explicitly call on the president’s supporters to “stand down.”

“It is important that you do so at this very moment not only because it would be the right thing to do,” they continued, “but also to mitigate the risk of greater violence and minimise further damage to our democratic institutions and our democracy.”

c.2021 The New York Times Company