Special counsel Jack Smith’s team has uncovered previously undisclosed details about former President Donald Trump’s refusal to help stop the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol three years ago as he sat watching TV inside the White House, according to sources familiar with what Smith’s team has learned during its Jan. 6 probe.
Many of the exclusive details come from the questioning of Trump’s former deputy chief of staff, Dan Scavino, who first started working for Trump as a teenager three decades ago and is now a paid senior adviser to Trump’s reelection campaign. Scavino wouldn’t speak with the House select committee that conducted its own probe related to Jan. 6, but — after a judge overruled claims of executive privilege last year — he did speak with Smith’s team, and key portions of what he said were described to ABC News.
New details also come from the Smith team’s interviews with other White House advisers and top lawyers who — despite being deposed in the congressional probe — previously declined to answer questions about Trump’s own statements and demeanor on Jan. 6, 2021, according to publicly released transcripts of their interviews in that probe.
Sources said Scavino told Smith’s investigators that as the violence began to escalate that day, Trump “was just not interested” in doing more to stop it.
Sources also said former Trump aide Nick Luna told federal investigators that when Trump was informed that then-Vice President Mike Pence had to be rushed to a secure location, Trump responded, “So what?” — which sources said Luna saw as an unexpected willingness by Trump to let potential harm come to a longtime loyalist.
House Democrats and other critics have openly accused Trump of failing to do enough that day, with the Democrat-led House select committee accusing Trump of committing “an utter moral failure” and “a clear dereliction of duty.” But what sources now describe to ABC News are the assessments and first-hand accounts of several of Trump’s own advisers who stood by him for years — and were among the few to directly engage with him throughout that day.
Along with Scavino and Luna, that small group included then-Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, then-White House counsel Pat Cipollone, and Cipollone’s former deputy, Pat Philbin.
According to sources, when speaking with Smith’s team, Scavino recalled telling Trump in a phone call the night of Jan. 6: “This is all your legacy here, and there’s smoke coming out of the Capitol.”
Scavino hoped Trump would finally help facilitate a peaceful transfer of power, sources said.
In his wide-ranging indictment against Trump, announced this past August, Smith accuses the former president of trying to unlawfully retain power by, among other things, “spread[ing] lies” about the 2020 election and pressuring Pence to block Congress from certifying the results when it convened on Jan. 6. The former president has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
As the House investigation established, after Trump finished his remarks at the “Save America” rally early on Jan. 6, as protesters began making their way to the Capitol, Trump returned to the White House, where he and Meadows settled into chairs around a table in the Oval Office dining room to watch TV coverage of the event.
But, as also previously recounted in public reports, when Scavino and other White House officials learned that rioters had violently stormed the Capitol, they rushed into the dining room to urge Trump to help calm the situation.
Still, Trump didn’t do anything.
According to what sources said Scavino told Smith’s team, Trump was “very angry” that day — not angry at what his supporters were doing to a pillar of American democracy, but steaming that the election was allegedly stolen from him and his supporters, who were “angry on his behalf.” Scavino described it all as “very unsettling,” sources said.
At times, Trump just sat silently at the head of the table, with his arms folded and his eyes locked on the TV, Scavino recounted, sources said.
After unsuccessfully trying for up to 20 minutes to persuade Trump to release some sort of calming statement, Scavino and others walked out of the dining room, leaving Trump alone, sources said. That’s when, according to sources, Trump posted a message on his Twitter account saying that Pence “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done.”
Trump’s aides told investigators they were shocked by the post. Aside from Trump, Scavino was the only other person with access to Trump’s Twitter account, and he was often the one actually posting messages to it, so when the message about Pence popped up, Cipollone and another White House attorney raced to find Scavino, demanding to know why he would post that in the midst of such a precarious situation, sources said.
Scavino said he was as blindsided by the post as they were, insisting to them, “I didn’t do it,” according to the sources.
Some of Trump’s aides then returned to the dining room to explain to Trump that a public attack on Pence was “not what we need,” as Scavino put it to Smith’s team. “But it’s true,” Trump responded, sources told ABC News. Trump has publicly echoed that sentiment since then.
At about the same time Trump’s aides were again pushing him to do more, a White House security official heard reports over police radio that indicated Pence’s security detail believed “this was about to get very ugly,” according to the House committee’s report.
As Trump aide Luna recalled, according to sources, Trump didn’t seem to care that Pence had to be moved to a secure location. Trump showed he was “capable of allowing harm to come to one of his closest allies” at the time, Luna told investigators, the sources said.
With the chaos inside the Capitol continuing, Trump’s aides believed Trump still needed to do more. Sources said Cipollone recalled telling Trump that he needed to explicitly instruct rioters to leave the Capitol.
Scavino printed out proposed messages to post on Twitter, hoping that Trump would approve them despite his reluctance to write such posts himself, sources said. The congressional probe found that even Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, “rushed down to the Oval Office dining room” to convince her father that issuing a public message could “discourage violence,” as the congressional report put it.
More than a half-hour after Trump was first pressed to take some sort of action, Trump finally let Scavino post a message on Trump’s Twitter account telling supporters to support law enforcement and “stay peaceful.” It was 2:38 p.m.
Minutes later, Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt was fatally shot when she tried to break through a barricaded entrance near the House chamber.
And the violence at the Capitol continued to escalate.
At least six of Trump’s closest aides continued to push Trump to do something more forceful than posting what they saw as a weak message on Twitter, sources said.
Trump listened to the pleas, “but he was just not interested at that moment to put anything out,” Scavino told Smith’s team, according to the sources. Instead, Trump was focused on watching TV and taking in the chaotic scenes, Scavino said, the sources added.
Testifying before the House committee, an aide to Meadows similarly said she heard Meadows say of Trump that day, “He doesn’t want to do anything.”
As recounted in public reports, then-House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, other members of Congress, members of Trump’s family, and even Fox News personalities also tried to push Trump to take further action. But in response, Trump repeated to many of them that his supporters were simply angry about the election being stolen, sources said.
In his own closed-door interviews with federal investigators, Meadows confirmed previous media reports saying that when a desperate McCarthy called Trump, the then-president told him, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
Instead of taking action at that point, Trump allegedly continued to watch Fox News on TV.
“During this time, law enforcement agents were attacked and seriously injured, the Capitol was invaded, the electoral count was halted and the lives of those in the Capitol were put at risk,” the House committee said in its report.
‘Doesn’t justify this’
Sources said that eventually, at the urging of Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner, Trump agreed to record a video for release. The video, more than a minute long, was posted to Twitter at about 4:15 p.m.
“This was a fraudulent election,” Trump said. “[But] we have to have peace. So go home. We love you. You’re very special.”
Sources said that when investigators questioned him, Scavino told them he has yet to be shown any evidence of fraud that would have changed the outcome of the election. As ABC News has previously reported, sources said other loyal aides to Trump, including Meadows, allegedly provided similar statements about the 2020 election when speaking to Smith’s team.
According to the House panel’s report on Jan. 6, the video Trump released — several hours after the attack on the Capitol began — “immediately had the expected effect; the rioters began to disperse immediately and leave the Capitol.”
As for Trump, after the video was released, he returned to watching TV coverage of the day with Philbin and others, according to sources. And when clips of the riot were splashed across the screen, Trump declared something to the effect of, “This is what happens when they try to steal an election,” Philbin recalled to investigators, sources said.
According to the sources, Philbin said he responded: “Mr. President, it doesn’t justify this.”
As described by sources, it was a tense, uncomfortable evening for Trump. Sources said one close aide told Smith’s team that Trump was in “disbelief” that night, even as he showed no remorse.
None of the Trump aides who spoke with investigators said they heard Trump concede even in private that he lost the election, sources told ABC News.
According to the sources, shortly before 6 p.m. on Jan. 6, Trump showed Luna a draft of a Twitter message he was thinking about posting: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously and viciously stripped away from great patriots. … Remember this day for forever!” it read.
The message echoed what Trump had allegedly been saying privately all day.
Sources said Luna told Trump that it made him sound “culpable” for the violence, perhaps even as if he may have somehow been involved in “directing” it, sources said.
Still, at 6:01 p.m., Trump posted the message anyway.
About an hour later, Twitter suspended Trump’s account.
After that — but before Congress reconvened to finish its vote certifying the 2020 election — Cipollone called Trump, relaying what a “horrible day” it had been and urging Trump to tell Republican allies in Congress that they should withdraw any objections to the certification so the country could move on, sources said.
Instead, Trump again declined to act, telling Cipollone, “I don’t want to do that,” Cipollone recalled to investigators, according to sources.
Trump then had another strained phone conversation, when he called Scavino to ask for his take on how the public was digesting the day’s events, sources said.
“Not good,” Scavino told Trump, according to the sources.
Scavino had hoped Trump’s presidency would end on a better note, and he told investigators his conversation with Trump was not “comfortable,” sources said.
But Scavino also essentially told Trump that — despite how the media might portray Jan. 6 — his “legacy” could remain intact if he took the right steps moving forward, sources said.
As a longtime Trump associate, Scavino has been so supportive of Trump over the years that he was asked to speak at the Republican National Convention in 2020. At a campaign rally in Colorado a few months earlier, Trump joked that, as a close aide to the president, Scavino was “the most powerful man in politics.”
In April 2022, the House held Scavino in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with a subpoena seeking testimony in the congressional investigation, after Scavino cited executive privilege. The Justice Department ultimately declined to charge him in that matter, but last year — after a monthslong court battle — a federal judge ruled that Scavino had to comply with a grand jury subpoena from Smith’s team.
A federal judge similarly ruled that, despite any claims related to executive privilege, Meadows, Cipollone, Philbin and Luna also had to comply with Smith’s subpoenas for testimony.
When asked about what sources told ABC News regarding Scavino’s statements, including his comments to Smith’s team about “smoke coming out of the Capitol” and Trump’s “legacy,” a spokesperson for the Trump campaign said, “President Trump and Dan Scavino both agreed that it could be part of legacy but, regardless, wanted to get it done and did it. There is no dispute over that.”
“Media fascination with second-hand hearsay shows just how weak the Witch-Hunt against President Trump is,” the spokesperson added. “Dan Scavino is one of President Trump’s longest-serving, most loyal allies, and his actual testimony shows just how strong President Trump is positioned in this case.”
An attorney for Scavino, Stanley Woodward, declined to comment to ABC News, as did an attorney representing both Cipollone and Philbin, Michael Purpura. An attorney for Luna did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokesperson for the special counsel also declined to comment to ABC News.