"People were very angry": Did Trump defend the rioters who chanted "Hang Mike Pence"?

AP Photo/Jason Behnken

This news reminds me of something Anthony Scaramucci said a few years ago. Scaramucci has known Trump personally for years, of course; he was his communications director for about eight seconds before later turning on him. Here was his assessment of the man we’ve all observed since 2015:

He can say that he’s not a racist, and I agree with him, okay? And let me explain to you why he’s not a racist, ’cause this is very important. He’s actually worse than a racist. He is so narcissistic, he doesn’t see people as people. He sees them as objects in his field of vision. And so therefore, that’s why he has no empathy. That’s why he’s got his thumb up in the air when he’s taking a picture with an orphan. That’s why when someone’s leaning over the desk and asks [Nobel Prize–winning human rights activist Nadia Murad], “Well, what happened to your family members?”—they were murdered—he just looks at her and says, “Okay, when are we getting coffee here?”

You know, he doesn’t look at people—and by the way, if you and I were in his field of vision and he had a cold and the two of us had to die for him to get a Kleenex, you’re f***ing dead. I mean, there’s no chance. You understand that, right?

Mike Pence denied him something far more precious than a Kleenex. Why wouldn’t Trump think Pence deserved whatever he ended up getting as a result?

Here’s the transcript from an interview he did with Jonathan Karl for Karl’s new book. You’re better off listening to the audio at Axios as there’s a dispute over whether Trump was actually responding to a question about the chants in the Capitol on January 6 or just riffing about the election.

Jonathan Karl: “Were you worried about him during that siege? Were you worried about his safety?”

Trump: “No, I thought he was well-protected, and I had heard that he was in good shape. No. Because I had heard he was in very good shape. But, but, no, I think — ”

Karl: “Because you heard those chants — that was terrible. I mean — ”

Trump: “He could have — well, the people were very angry.”

Karl: “They were saying ‘hang Mike Pence.'”

Trump: “Because it’s common sense, Jon. It’s common sense that you’re supposed to protect. How can you — if you know a vote is fraudulent, right? — how can you pass on a fraudulent vote to Congress? How can you do that? And I’m telling you: 50/50, it’s right down the middle for the top constitutional scholars when I speak to them. Anybody I spoke to — almost all of them at least pretty much agree, and some very much agree with me — because he’s passing on a vote that he knows is fraudulent. How can you pass a vote that you know is fraudulent? Now, when I spoke to him, I really talked about all of the fraudulent things that happened during the election. I didn’t talk about the main point, which is the legislatures did not approve — five states. The legislatures did not approve all of those changes that made the difference between a very easy win for me in the states, or a loss that was very close, because the losses were all very close.”

Phil Klein thinks Trump was off on a tangent, not really engaged with the point Karl was making:

That’s not how I hear it. When Trump pauses and says, “Well, the people were very angry,” he does seem to be replying to Karl about the chants.

And that’s in keeping with other comments he’s made about the threat to Pence and members of Congress during the riot, including while it was happening. Remember?

According to Karl, Pence saw that tweet while he was in hiding in the Capitol’s loading dock. Kevin McCarthy allegedly phoned Trump around the same time, while the mob was in the building, begging him to do something to call them off. According to multiple Republicans who spoke to CNN, Trump replied, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”

The day after the insurrection, WaPo published a story quoting numerous sources about how Trump reacted while the riot was happening. “Though not necessarily enjoying himself, he was ‘bemused’ by the spectacle because he thought his supporters were literally fighting for him, according to a close adviser,” the paper reported. Another administration official speaking on the evening of January 6 said, “He was a total monster today.”

Two days after the insurrection, Ben Sasse told Hugh Hewitt that he’d heard Trump was “delighted” by the spectacle of his supporters battling to keep him in power. And why not? The most sacred virtue of Trumpy populism is a willingness to fight for Trump and his agenda; on a day when Republicans in Congress were resolved to validate Biden’s victory, the insurrectionists took the imperative to “fight” literally.

The most charitable one can plausibly be in assessing Trump’s motives is that he didn’t necessarily want anyone hurt. He wanted to stay in power. If that could have been achieved without violence, so much the better. But the exchange with Karl demonstrates, as so many of his previous comments have, his impulse to justify the insurrectionists’ actions morally. He’d been cheated, or so he says, and his fans were angry. If they had caught up to Pence or Nancy Pelosi or AOC and murdered one or all of them, the most empathy one could have reasonably expected from him in the aftermath would have been a concession that the mob had gone too far but — but, but — of course their grievance was justified. Their rage was righteous.

As the leftist writer Freddie deBoer wrote this week in a very different context, when you condone chaos, you condone the consequences of chaos. Trump spent two months before January 6 seeding legal and political chaos to try to engineer a second term for himself. Naturally, he condones the consequences of that chaos as well. There was and is no scenario, no matter how bad things might have gotten, in which he would have said, “Violence is never the answer. I regret pushing my ‘stop the steal’ message so far that it came to this.” He wanted his Kleenex. Everything else was secondary.

I end with a reminder that, despite all of this being in the public record and with more to come from the January 6 committee, he remains the prohibitive frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination.