After a ten-minute recess, the committee brought forth witnesses. The first one was Jason van Tatenhove, an artist and journalist and a former close associate of Elmer Stewart Rhodes (the founder and President of the Oath Keepers), who has been charged with seditious conspiracy in relation to the Capitol attack.
Van Tatenhove was a spokesman for the group The Oath Keepers from 2014 to 2018. When asked to describe the group, he said: “I spent a few years with The Oath Keepers, and I can tell you that they may not like to call themselves a militia, but they are. They’re a violent militia, and they are largely Stewart Rhodes. They, I think — rather than try to use words, I think the best illustration for what The Oath Keepers are happened January 6th when we saw that stacked military formation going up the stairs of our Capitol.”
Tatenhove, an artist and journalist, says he got “swept up” in the group and became its spokesman. He watched group drift further and further right, he said, from white nationalism to “straight up racist.” He said: “There were many red flags, and I probably should’ve broken with them much earlier than I did. But the straw that broke the camel’s back came when I waked into a grocery store when we were living up in the very remote town of Eureka, Montana, and it was a group of core members of the group […] talking about how the Holocaust was ‘not real’.
The second witness was Stephen Ayres, who was in the crowd on January 6th, but was not in an extremist group. He just followed Trump on every social media outlet and believed his claims. Ayres described himself as “a family man, a working man” and little more. He’d worked for a cabinet making company in Ohio and conveyed an image of an everyday average Joe. But today, he did something no one else has done. For the first time, a defendant who faced criminal charges for taking part in the attack on the Capitol testified live in front of the panel.
Ayres was part of the mob that entered the Capitol, though he was only there for about 10 minutes. Nonetheless, he was arrested in Ohio and pleaded guilty in June to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building. He is scheduled to be sentenced in September, according to the New York Times. Today he opened up about what made him go to the Capitol on January 6th and what made him go inside the building.
Ayres: We didn’t actually plan to go down there; we went basically to see the ‘Stop the Steal’ rally and that was it.
Cheney: So why’d you decide to march to the Capitol?
Ayres: The president basically got everybody riled up, told everybody to come on down. So we basically just followed what he said.
Cheney: Mr. Ayres, when you entered the Capitol the last year, did you believe that the election had been stolen?
Ayres: At that time, yeah. You know, everything that I was seeing online. I definitely believed that. exactly what that was the case.
Q: And when you heard from President Trump that the election was stolen, how did that make you feel?
A: I was very upset as were most of his supporters. You know, that’s basically what got me to come down here.
Q: And do you still think the election was stolen?
A: Not so much now. I got away from all the social media when January 6th happened. I basically deleted it all. I started doing my own research and everything, and for me — for something like that to be — for that to actually take place, it’s too big. There’s no way you can keep something like that quiet.
Ayres came to the Capitol at the behest of the president, and he left at the request of the president. What made him leave, Ayres said, was Trump’s belated tweet telling people to go home: “Basically, when President Trump put his tweet out. We literally left right after that come out. You know, to me if he would have done that earlier in the day, 1:30, I — you know, we wouldn’t be in this — maybe we wouldn’t be in this bad of a situation or something.”
The committee then turned to van Tatenhove, who had engaged in conversations with Rhodes about the “Insurrection Act”. When committee chair Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-South Carolina) asked why Rhodes was so fixated on that, van Tatenhove delivered a sobering response:
“Well, I think it gave him a sense of legitimacy, that it was a path forward to move forward with his goals and agendas. I think we need to quit mincing words and just talk about truths, and what it was going to be was an armed revolution. I mean, people died that day.”
Raskin confirmed that testimony, adding: “Last week, the Department of Justice indicated that it has evidence of the Oath Keepers bringing not just firearms but explosives to Washington ahead of January 6th. And the committee has also learned that Stewart Rhodes stopped to buy weapons on his way to Washington, and shipped roughly $7,000 worth of tactical gear to a January 6th rally planner in Virginia before the attack.”
He asked Tatenhove: “Did you ever hear Rhodes discuss committing violence against elected political leaders?” Tatenhove replied: “Yeah, I mean, that went back from the very beginning of my tenure.” He added: “I think we’ve gotten exceedingly lucky that more bloodshed did not happen, because the potential has been there from the start. And we got very lucky that the loss of life was — and as tragic as it is that we saw on January 6th, the potential was so much more.”
Tatenhove says he fears for what will happen in the next election cycle: “If — if a president that’s willing to try to instill and encourage to whip up a civil war amongst his followers using lies and deceit and snake oil, and regardless of the human impact, what else is he going to do if he gets elected again? All bets are off at that point, and that’s a scary notion. I have three daughters; I have a granddaughter. And I fear for the world that they will inherit if we do not start holding these — these people to account.”
Turning to Ayres, Rasking confirmed that he did, in fact, leave the Capitol building he’d illegally entered after Trump’s tweet. When Raskin asked how he felt about Trump still promoting ‘the big lie”, Ayres said it angered him: “I was hanging on every word he was saying,” said Ayres. “Everything he was putting out, I was following it. If I was doing it, hundreds of thousands or millions of other people were doing it, or maybe even still are doing it.”
Now charged with disorderly content and a potential sentence of one year of imprisonment and a fine of not more than $100,000, Ayres admitted today that the incident has changed his life — and not for the better. He’s lost his job and had to sell his home, he said. When asked what lesson he’s learned from the ordeal and what he’d tell people, Ayres replied:
“I consider myself a family man, and I love my country. I don’t think any one man is bigger than either one of those. I think that’s what needs to be taken. You know, people dive into the politics. And for me, I felt like I had, like, horse blinders on. I was locked in the whole time. The biggest thing for me is, take the blinders off. Make sure you step back and see what’s going on before it’s too late.”
In his closing statement, Rep. Raskin noted: “When Donald Trump sent out his tweet, he became the first President ever to call for a crowd to descend on the capital city to block the constitutional transfer of power […] You might imagine that our founders would have been shocked to learn that an American President would one day come to embrace and excuse political violence against our own institutions, or knowingly send an armed mob to attack the Capitol to usurp the will of the people.
But, you know, Mr. Chairman, the founders were pretty wise about certain things. And at the start of the republic, they actually warned everyone about Donald Trump. Not by name, of course, but in the course of advising about the certain prospect that ambitious politicians would try to mobilize violent mobs to tear down our own institutions in service of their insatiable ambitions.
In the very first Federalist Paper, Alexander Hamilton observed that history teaches that opportunistic politicians who desire to rule at all costs will begin first as demagogues, pandering to the angry and malignant passions of the crowd, but then end up as tyrants, trampling the freedoms and the rights of the people.”
Raskin concluded with a heartbreaking update about one of the Capitol Police injured on Jan. 6th:
“Sergeant Aquilino Gonell is an Army veteran who spent a year on active combat duty in the Iraq war and then 16 years on the Capitol force. Nothing he ever saw in combat in Iraq, he has said, prepared him for the insurrection where he was savagely beaten, punched, pushed, kicked, shoved, stomped, and sprayed with chemical irritants, along with other officers, by members of a mob carrying hammers, knives, batons, and police shields, taken by force and wielding the American flag against police officers as a dangerous weapon.
Last month on June 28th, Sergeant Gonell’s team of doctors told him that permanent injuries he has suffered to his left shoulder and right foot now make it impossible for him to continue as a police officer. He must leave policing for good and figure out the rest of his life.”
In her closing statement, Liz Cheney ended the proceedings with a bombshell: