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Hours before his first appearance in front of a congressional panel investigating the response to the Capitol riot, Donald Trump’s acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller was all set to revive his assessment that the former president “encouraged” his supporters that day.
“I stand by my prior observation that I personally believe his comments encouraged the protesters,” he planned to say, according to his prepared remarks.
But the line was not included in his opening statement to the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, as lawmakers sought to answer why and how the administration failed to stop hundreds of pro-Trump rioters from breaking into the Capitol in an attempt to disrupt the 2020 presidential election results.
Democratic US Rep Stephen Lynch asked Mr Miller directly whether the president’s remarks incited his supporters to march on the Capitol, a charge that got him impeached a second time in the House of Representatives.
“He clearly offered that they should march on the Capitol,” Mr Miller said.
Congressman Lynch then asked Mr Miller about his interview to Vice just two months ago in which he said: “The question is, would anybody have marched on the Capitol and tried to overrun the Capitol without the president’s speech? I think it’s pretty much definitive that wouldn’t have happened.”
Mr Miller said on Wednesday that he had “reassessed.”
“It seems clear there was an organised conspiracy with assault elements in place,” he said.
Mr Miller called congressman Lynch “ridiculous” after he accused Mr Miller of reversing his earlier statements.
“You’re ridiculous,” Mr Lynch said.
“Thank you for your thoughts,” Mr Miller responded.
The hearing marked the first time that Mr Miller and former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen appeared before members of Congress since the attack.
Mr Rosen did not answer whether he discussed Mr Trump’s efforts to overturn election results when he met with the former president on 3 January, days before lawmakers convened to certify Electoral College results and Joe Biden’s election win.
Mr Miller – who defended a limited troop deployment to avoid the optics of a military coup – did not appear to account for a crucial 90-minute gap between when the Department of Defence approved sending the National Guard to assist the Capitol, at 3pm, and when he gave the actual order, at 4.32pm.
“One of the things we’re really trying to do is nail down a basic timeline, which for whatever reason has been difficult,” said US Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who joined Democrats asking for corroborating documents and witnesses to get the story straight.
Within that window of time, Vice President Mike Pence called Mr Miller.
Mr Miller said his phone call with the former VP was “brief” but he did not reject earlier reporting that he was told to “clear the Capitol”, only that that the VP does not have authority to do so.
Mr Miller confirmed that, at 3pm, he “gave the order to mobilise the National Guard, and then the planning sequence went forward” – but not the actual deployment, despite urgent calls from congressional leadership, Washington DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and law enforcement for help that day.
Neither Mr Miller nor Mr Rosen said they spoke with Mr Trump on 6 January.
Committee chair Carolyn Maloney said that suggests the former president “refused to lift a finger” to stop the violence.
Asked whether he believed the former president’s election fraud lies compelled rioters, Mr Miller said the “entire entertainment, media complex” played a role.
In his opening remarks, he criticised “irresponsible commentary from the media” airing concerns that the former president could stage a military coup or impose martial law to block the certification of Electoral College results.
“No such thing was going to occur on my watch. These concerns and hysteria about them factored in my decision” to limit troop deployment at the Capitol complex on 6 January.
He also repeatedly said he believes that criticism of the Pentagon’s response is politically motivated or reflects their inexperience with the military.
“This isn’t a video game where you can move forces with the flick of a thumb,” he said. “It all takes time ... I stand by every decision I made on 6 January and in the following days.”
Ms Maloney said she was “disappointed” in the testimony from both men, whom she said “would have us believe [the departments of Defence and Justice] did everything right.”
“And that the horror that every American saw on television was not their problem,” she said.
Mr Miller was not the only one who has “reassessed” what happened on 6 January.
Republican lawmakers who amplified the former president’s “stolen election” myth and supported a “Stop the Steal” campaign denied what millions of Americans and their congressional colleagues saw that day, and sought to steer away from questions about the events surrounding and leading up to the riot to blame Democrats for protest violence during 2020 uprisings.
“There was no insurrection. To call it an insurrection is a bold-faced lie,” said US Rep Andrew Clyde of Georgia. “You would think it was a normal tourist visit.”
Texas US Rep Pat Fallon called it a “mob of misfits.” US Rep Ralph Norman doubted that the crowd that broke into the building and walked through the halls and offices of Congress were even Trump supporters.
Arizona US Rep Paul Gosar claimed that “outright propaganda and lies are being used to unleash the national security state against law abiding US citizens, especially Trump voters.”
He said that federal law enforcement is “harassing peaceful patriots across the country” following dozens of investigations into people who stormed the Capitol on 6 January.