In this age of political cowardice and self-dealing, it can be easy to forget that public service is supposed to be a noble calling — one that at times requires people to step up and do hard, scary things.
On Tuesday, a former White House aide named Cassidy Hutchinson reminded us what that looks like.
Hutchinson, who worked for the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, in the violent closing days of the Trump administration, was the surprise witness in a last-minute hearing of the Jan. 6 House committee. With intimate knowledge of what went down inside the Trump West Wing, Hutchinson shared what she saw and heard during the attack on the Capitol as the defeated president, drunk on disappointment and desperation, tried to cling to power.
She did so knowing full well the abuse and threats that those who cross Donald Trump on even minor matters often suffer. She did so because, unlike so many of the bootlickers with whom Trump surrounds himself, she still has a spine.
Meadows, a far more influential person than Hutchinson and a former congressman who has taken oaths to defend the Constitution, is among those Trump toadies who have refused to testify. Public service for him and Rudy Giuliani and their ilk is less about duty than about power and self-advancement.
For Hutchinson, part of public service is about answering questions from Congress. If not for her, we might never have learned just how out of control Trump appeared on Jan. 6: Following his incendiary speech at the Ellipse, she recalled being told by a security official, the president wanted so badly to join the angry mob that he hopped into the presidential limo and raged at the head of his security detail, "I'm the president, take me up to the Capitol now!" (He tossed in an expletive for good measure.)
When the agent, Robert Engel, declined because of security concerns, the president lunged for the steering wheel, she said. When asked to remove his hand from the wheel, Trump then lunged toward Engel, as the scene was later recounted to Hutchinson in Engel's presence. (The New York Times reported Tuesday night that Secret Service officials, speaking under condition of anonymity, said the agents in question were prepared to testify the president did not reach for the wheel of the vehicle and did not assault anyone.)
She also laid bare just how emphatically Meadows did not rise to meet the moment. Told of the weapons being carried by the crowd on Jan. 6, Meadows couldn't be bothered to look up from his mobile phone, she said. Again and again, as Hutchinson told it, the president's aides, family members and a slew of sycophants (including Fox News personalities Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham) sent texts and other entreaties for Trump to call off the mob. Meadows — more than once — noted that the president had made clear that he didn't want to calm the fury.
If Trump couldn't have his way, he was content to watch America burn.
One of the most breathtaking bits of Hutchinson's testimony was her recounting of what Meadows said when Pat Cipollone, then the White House counsel, expressed fear for the safety of Vice President Mike Pence, whom Trump had publicly castigated for not helping him overturn the vote. "I remember Pat saying something to the effect of: 'Mark, we need to do something more. They're literally calling for the vice president to be effing hung,'" Hutchinson said.
To which Meadows, she testified, responded along the lines of: "You heard him, Pat. He thinks Mike deserves it. He doesn't think they are doing anything wrong."
How ironic that so many public officials who fancy themselves patriotic warriors — folks like Meadows, Rep. Jim Jordan and Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader — have turned out to be so craven.
And yet, maybe it makes perfect sense when you consider just how desperate some of the Very Important People in question may be to keep their own sins hidden. Hutchinson testified that Meadows was among the lackeys who, post-Jan. 6, promptly sought a presidential pardon. Trump may not have thought the rioters did anything wrong, but Meadows, Giuliani and plenty of others apparently have grave concerns about their roles in the whole sordid affair.
At one point in Tuesday's hearing, Rep. Liz Cheney, the Republican vice chair of the committee, asked Hutchinson her reaction to the grotesque tweet that Trump issued at 2:24 p.m. ET on Jan. 6, as the mob was raging, in which he expressly blamed Pence for not having "the courage" to help him steal the election. As an administration staff member, Hutchinson said, she was "frustrated and disappointed."
Then she added: "As an American, I was disgusted. It was unpatriotic. It was un-American. We were watching the Capitol building get defaced over a lie."
A year and a half on, we are still watching American democracy get beaten down and defiled by that same lie. As for the dead-enders like Meadows who cower in the shadows and let people like his former aide bear the risks of speaking the truth, their continued complicity is disgraceful. Hutchinson's testimony stands in stark contrast with their betrayal of public service.
Michelle Cottle is a member of the New York Times Editorial Board.