Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Republican Rep. Liz Cheney made an intriguing observation Tuesday about the legal arguments made by Donald Trump’s team. During a meeting of the committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol, she implicitly reminded us of the most important aspect of the panel’s work, the part that must remain at the forefront of its efforts, and a key guide in the timing of its investigation.
Above all, the committee must try to determine precisely what role Trump played in the events of January 6, a violent assault on Congress on the day when it was certifying the 2020 election results. To many of us, it was a key moment in an unprecedented coup d’état attempt against the United States.
The committee met Tuesday night to discuss what to do about Steve Bannon – a Trump ally – and his refusal to testify despite a subpoena from the panel where Cheney serves as vice chair. (The committee approved a measure that seeks to hold Bannon in contempt of Congress.)
Here’s Cheney’s interesting point: Bannon and Trump are fighting the committee’s efforts to obtain documents and testimony by claiming executive privilege, the right of a president to maintain confidentiality despite Congress’ duty of oversight. That right has been used by previous presidents to shield themselves from accountability.
Bannon’s claim is absurd. He did not even work in the government. But, in Cheney’s analysis, the executive privilege claim by Bannon and Trump, “appear to reveal one thing: They suggest that President Trump was personally involved in the planning and execution of January 6th.”
Cheney’s piercing words – and she had some more for her Republican colleagues – are a reminder that it’s crucial to find out what exactly Trump’s role was during the events of that day. And Bannon very likely knows a lot about that.
That Trump has tried to overturn the result of a legal, valid election is beyond question. We’ve all heard him repeat ad nauseam the Big Lie, the claim that he won. We’ve heard the tapes where he pressures election officials in Georgia to contrive a victory where he lost, “All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have.”
We’ve even seen a copy of the memo by one of his lawyers, in which he lays out a six-step plan for stealing the election by having Vice President Mike Pence throw out the results in seven states, claiming there were “competing electors,” when there was no such thing. Pence didn’t do it, and Trump’s supporters erected a noose and gallows and shouted calls for Pence to be hanged as they rampaged through the Capitol on January 6, causing members of Congress to run for their lives and delay the certification until later that night.
That is all extraordinarily damning, but if Trump was actually involved in organizing an assault on the Capitol, if a sitting president coordinated an insurrection against the country, that’s an even greater crime.
Trump had summoned supporters to Washington – Big protests in DC on January 6th, he tweeted in December, “…will be wild.” At the rally that day, he sent their emotions to a boil with a fiery speech – “fight like hell” he told them – and then encouraged them to head to the Capitol.
As for Bannon’s involvement, the committee chair, Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, said he believed he had significant knowledge of the attack. Cheney said the committee’s investigation has found he had “substantial advanced knowledge of the plans for January 6th, and likely had an important role in formulating those plans.”
But what about Trump? What did he know?
In their book “Peril,” journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa reported that Bannon, who had once been Trump’s leading strategist, spoke with Trump ahead of January 6 and told him he should be in Washington that day. He told the then-president, “We are going to kill it in the crib. Kill the Biden presidency in the crib.” According to the authors, Bannon told Trump, “We’re going to bury Biden…f—ing bury him.”
Trump told his supporters he’d march with them to the Capitol, and then headed to the White House, to watch it all unfold on television. He saw the images of mayhem, his supporters clashing violently with police, smashing windows, breaking down doors; members of Congress cowering in fear as the mob shouted “Fight for Trump!” and “Hang Mike Pence.”
According to “Peril,” Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who served as a presidential adviser, and others urged him to call off his loyalists, but he refused. Retired Gen. Keith Kellogg told him, “this is out of control…once a mob starts turning like that, you’ve lost it,” advising, “You really should do a tweet.” Trump reportedly blinked and went back to watching television.
Eventually, hours after the insurgents had broken through the barricades and stormed the Capitol, Trump relented, posting a video where he told his supporters he understood their pain, again lying about the election being stolen, adding, “Go home, we love you, you’re very special.”
There’s much the select congressional committee on January 6 needs to establish. But as Cheney’s comment reminds us, nothing is more important than the precise actions of the then-commander-in-chief.
Knowing what part Trump played is crucial for dispensing justice and establishing the historical record, but even more than that – because this chapter is still not relegated to the pages of history. Trump is still denying that he was the loser in the 2020 election, and he seems prepared to run again for president, and potentially claim he won no matter what American voters decide.
The January 6 commission needs to step up the pace and sharpen its focus. Time is of the essence.