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Our Opinion: Trump's misled followers are facing consequences — and so should he

Capitol Riot Investigation

A image of former President Donald Trump is displayed Tuesday as Cassidy Hutchinson, former aide to Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, testifies as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing at the Capitol in Washington.

Earlier this week, a Pittsfield man pleaded guilty to attacking multiple law enforcement officers while participating in the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot. Between the police assault and civil disorder charges, as well as a handful of related misdemeanors, Troy Sargent faces years in prison for his small but inexcusable role in a day of American infamy that dragged our highest democratic institutions to a dangerous brink.

But will justice ever come for those who played the biggest role in orchestrating the most devastating attack on the peaceful transfer of power in the nation’s history? To anyone who would still dispute former President Donald Trump’s responsibility for the events of Jan. 6, some other news out of D.C. this week makes it clearer than ever. During Tuesday’s House select committee hearing, Trump White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson told Congress that the country’s then-commander in chief not only knew of the carnage ready to boil over in the capital but approved of it and even tried to join in.

Ms. Hutchinson, who was assistant to Trump administration chief of staff Mark Meadows, testified that Mr. Trump and his inner circle were well aware of the high potential for violence stemming from his “Stop the Steal” rally, during which Mr. Trump platformed sore-loser falsehoods about the 2020 election’s integrity even as Congress certified the electoral count down the street. Further, Ms. Hutchinson testified, Mr. Trump tried to loosen security measures even as some advisers begged him to turn down the temperature. He even attempted to join his supporters as they ransacked the Capitol and chanted for the assassination of his own vice president for the offense of not playing along with the inane and autocratic plot.

While the bombshell revelations of Tuesday’s hearing were far from the first signs of Mr. Trump’s direct complicity in one of the darkest days in American history, Ms. Hutchinson’s testimony fills in those contours with blood-red detail.

When Mr. Trump learned on Jan. 6 that many of his supporters were being denied entry to the rally site because they were armed, he tried to have this basic part of presidential security put aside to feed his narcissism and make the crowd larger. He didn’t fear violence because those armed were “not here to hurt me,” Ms. Hutchinson recounted the former president saying.

Such blatant disregard for the potential of destruction, the fragility of democracy, and the lives of those in the Capitol and his supporters alike could only come from a pathologically unhinged person.

That those words came from a sitting U.S. president — and a figure whom millions still believe to be a viable leader — is nothing short of existentially frightening.

Mr. Trump issued wholesale, insult-laden denials of what Ms. Hutchinson related seeing and hearing first-hand. As usual, he did so behind a screen in the comfort of his social-media echo chamber. If the former president’s courage matched his bluster, he would testify publicly under oath — as Ms. Hutchinson did — to demonstrate that he takes seriously this critical fact-finding mission surrounding the dire events that unfolded that day.

We won’t hold our breath on that, but how long must an entire nation be forced to hold its breath on a full measure of justice that might meet the precarious moment conjured by Mr. Trump and his feckless enablers? Troy Sargent, of Pittsfield, is just one of more than 840 people who have been arrested in connection with their actions on in D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021. They are responsible for their own actions, and all who are convicted in a court of law should face steep consequences for those actions.

It must be noted, though, that it is impossible to imagine Mr. Sargent and countless others converging on and violently attacking the U.S. Capitol without a president abusing his bully pulpit in the worst possible way: filling their heads and hearts with fabrications and vitriol, aiming them toward the vulnerable heart of our democracy, and relishing the damage done. What consequences should that calamitous mendacity entail? If justice is to mean anything, it must not fall squarely on the pawns but apply to the king and his knights as well.

It can’t be ignored that the prospect of indicting a former president raises its own series of grave and novel issues that could further inflame the divisions of an already weary country. That Mr. Trump and his most fervent followers are not predisposed to such care for the health of our democracy ironically makes that clear-eyed consideration all the more important for those seeking to hold the former president accountable. Given just how murky and uncharted these waters are, we simply do not know if indicting Mr. Trump is the best tack.

There should be no such hesitation, however, about prosecuting to the full extent of the law all other Trump White House personnel who enabled and contributed to the chaos of Jan. 6. Meanwhile, even as these Jan. 6 hearings are likely being ignored by the people who truly need to see them, they are substantively making the case for Mr. Trump’s culpability in an assault on the very foundations of our republic and Constitution. Hopefully their final findings will clarify the appropriate consequences that Mr. Trump, like his misled followers, must face.

Whether that means legal charges, punishing political censures or some combination thereof, it will inevitably be a tough needle to thread. Still, it must be demonstrated that no official, even the president, is above responsibility for his or her actions — especially actions as heinous and harmful as those in question.

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