The House of Representatives select committee hearings on last year’s January 6 insurrection were already among the most momentous in US political history. But no one, apparently including the committee itself, anticipated the smoking gun it produced last week linking former president Donald Trump directly and personally to the armed assault on Congress.
The brilliantly composed hearings have each focused on one aspect of the seven-phase offensive the committee says Mr Trump instigated to remain in office despite having lost the election to US President Joe Biden.
However, last week their meticulous and cautious planning was suddenly abandoned. On Monday, committee leaders told surprised staffers to announce a hearing the next day with no additional information provided to anyone.
Tuesday’s testimony by former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson left no doubt why the committee scrambled so uncharacteristically. She had already testified on video, and was anticipated to join a final hearing focused on the personal conduct of Mr Trump, tentatively scheduled for July 11.
But a dramatic development had quietly occurred. Ms Hutchinson abruptly fired the attorney Mr Trump's camp had arranged and paid for her. By hiring her own counsel, responsible exclusively to her and with no conflicting interests, she effectively announced her independence from his orbit to both the former president and the committee.
Moreover, she told the committee she was willing to tell the full, unvarnished truth about the former president's conduct during, and indeed role in, the insurrection. Given the American climate of violent political fury, this young woman’s personal and physical bravery is impressive and even moving. She has nothing to gain and is only imperilled by her honesty, which seems genuinely motivated by patriotism.
The smoking gun was her testimony that Mr Trump, as ever wanting a larger crowd for the cameras, ordered the removal of metal detectors at his rally before the march that turned into the insurrection. "I don't care that they have weapons – they're not here to hurt me," Ms Hutchinson recounted him ordering his staff, "Take the [magnetometers] away and let my people in."
On June 20, in these pages, I explained how Mr Trump was vulnerable to major criminal charges regarding post-election intrigues, but not seditious conspiracy. That is the peace-time equivalent of treason and, perhaps along with espionage, the most terrible of US political crimes. Although five leaders of pro-Trump white supremacist gangs have been indicted for seditious conspiracy, I strongly doubted evidence would emerge to unambiguously tie the former president to a deliberate effort to use violence to prevent Congress from confirming Mr Biden's victory. Mr Trump might well, I therefore argued, politically survive even this "tsunami of unheard-of ignominy".
Yet that's exactly what Ms Hutchinson’s testimony unequivocally does. It establishes that Mr Trump knew his supporters were armed and bent on violence before he and his confederates whipped them into an even deeper frenzy with incendiary speeches at the rally, and that he clearly had no objection to them marching on Congress with weapons because they were, as he reportedly said, "not here to hurt me”.
All evidence suggests that chief among those he did not mind might indeed get "hurt" was his own vice president, Mike Pence, held guilty of refusing to misuse his role as President of the Senate, to reject certified electors from key states and generate a constitutional crisis Mr Trump hoped to use to stay in office despite his defeat.
Mr Trump not only knew imminent violence was likely, he appears to have sought to facilitate it by ordering the removal of magnetometers. His culpability in a deliberate attempt to use force to overturn the election and constitutional order can be therefore firmly established.
That will intensify pressure on the Justice Department to pursue criminal charges against the former president. And it significantly decreases chances Mr Trump will be the Republican nominee in 2024.
He is reportedly considering the early announcement of another run, despite long-standing entreaties from Republican Party leaders not to do that before the November midterms. Mr Trump knows he’s in massive trouble and may calculate that only the announcement of another campaign, complete with raucous, attention-getting and news-generating rallies, will galvanise his supporters and offset the impressions that he is either fatally tainted or yesterday's news, or both. A political revival could also spook the Justice Department, which is allergic to appearances of political bias.
Yet it is increasingly probable that he will announce a campaign, hold rallies, and, above all, raise money, but ultimately stand down, especially if he thinks he has a good chance of losing. Many Republicans won’t just want their most viable presidential candidate, but also one who can serve a full eight, and not a mere four, years and won’t enter office as a lame duck.
Ms Hutchinson's testimony also painted a devastating portrait of her former immediate superior, then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, as detached and disengaged, seemingly either overwhelmed or bored by the insurrection. The White House was doing nothing to defend Congress because, he told her, the president "doesn't want to do anything” to stop the violence and "he thinks Mike [Pence] deserves" a rampaging mob chasing him down and vowing to "hang" him.
Her testimony included a secondhand account, that reportedly may be contradicted by the Secret Service, of Mr Trump supposedly lunging at the driver of his car to try to join the rioters. She reported what she was told by superiors. Accurate or not it is a minor footnote, as is her testimony he flung plates of food in a rage at the walls of the White House.
The committee wisely calculated that rushing Ms Hutchinson’s testimony onto television before details leaked or she changed her mind was necessary because her account of Mr Trump’s overt acts of support for the armed rebellion changes everything legally and politically.
Many Republicans have tried their best to ignore the hearings, dismiss or downplay the evidence, or pretend it's not a big deal. None of that is working. The truth is starting to sink in and it is decisive that no one, other than him, has contradicted her account that Mr Trump ordered the removal of metal detectors that would help his armed supporters attack Congress.
So, a soft-spoken, remarkably composed and brave 25-year-old appears to have struck a blow from which, finally, the heretofore invulnerable former president may not recover and has probably put an end to the Donald Trump era in US politics.