Coup and collapse
Daniel Lazare looks at the damning made-for-TV congressional hearings on Trump’s coup attempt - and their ultimate futility
The Democrat’s approach to the Donald Trump problem has always been simple: laugh at him, sneer at him, mobilise the corporate media to throw everything at him except the kitchen sink, and then prosecute him to the hilt. The idea is to do anything and everything except defeat him politically - about which the corrupt elitists who run the party do not have a clue.
The strategy has reached new heights since June with a series of eight televised congressional hearings about Trump’s role in the January 6 2021 Capitol Hill insurrection. With the help of James Goldston, the Anglo-American ex-president of ABC News (brought in to give the hearings more pizzazz), they have certainly had their dramatic moments.
The first hearing, held on June 9, explored how top White House legal advisor John Eastman drafted a multi-point plan, in which Trump would pressure the department of justice to back up allegations that the 2020 election was rigged; vice-president Mike Pence would be called on to block certification of the Democratic victory in Congress; and Republicans in seven key states would then be urged to appoint alternate ‘electors’ committed to someone other than Joe Biden. The goal was to throw the election into the House, where Republicans enjoy a significant edge, thanks to arcane procedures dating from the early 19th century.
The second hearing - televised a week later - zeroed in on how Trump and his top aides tried to spread claims of voter fraud, while the third detailed the effort to force Pence to go along. The fourth described how Trump pleaded with a top Georgia election official named Brad Raffensperger to rustle up the extra votes needed to throw the state into the Republican column. “Fellas, I need 11,000 votes,” Trump told him over the phone. “Give me a break ...”
The fifth hearing provided more news about the pressure campaign, while the sixth featured a young ex‑White House staffer named Cassidy Hutchinson, who regaled viewers with inside details about the final days. When told that members of the January 6 mob were armed, she said she heard Trump say “something to the effect of ‘I don’t fucking care that they have weapons - they’re not here to hurt me’”. When attorney general William Barr told the Associated Press that there was no evidence of electoral fraud, she said a White House valet told her that a furious Trump responded by throwing a plate of food. “There was ketchup dripping down the wall, and there was a shattered porcelain plate on the floor,” she said.
Hutchinson said that Tony Ornato - an ex-secret service agent who had signed on as Trump’s deputy chief of staff - told her that Trump had tried to grab the steering wheel of the presidential SUV car on January 6, when a secret service agent refused to drive him to the Capitol to address the rioters and that he lunged at another agent as well. Finally, she testified about an exchange between White House counsel Pat Cipollone and chief of staff Mark Meadows. “Mark, we need to do something more,” Cipollone said. “They’re literally calling for the vice-president to be effing hung.” To which Meadows replied: “You heard him, Pat. He thinks Mike deserves it. He doesn’t think they’re doing anything wrong.”
The seventh hearing focused on pro-Trump efforts by neo-fascist street brawlers like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, while the eighth, held just last week, concentrated on Trump’s 187 minutes of silence, in which he refused repeated entreaties to call the violence off.
The effect was to flesh out what had happened in one of the most crucial periods in US presidential history. But there were problems - lots of them.
Apart from a few colourful details, for example, the hearings offered little that Americans had not heard before. A 12-minute video aired during the first hearing featured wild scenes of rioters battling with police, while chanting, “Hang Mike Pence”. While vivid and graphic, it was more than a bit old-hat, since YouTube has been overflowing with such images since the moment the uprising began. The same goes for Eastman’s advice about how to stage a rightwing coup in a few easy steps: the memo was all over the internet within days. As for Trump’s telephone chat with Raffensperger, a tape became public three days before.
Much of Hutchinson’s June 28 testimony was second-hand. Shortly after her appearance, the secret service issued a statement that Ornato and the two agents in the SUV were prepared to testify that her account of the incident in the car was wrong. Trump roundly denied the food-throwing story. “I don’t throw food in the White House. I don’t throw food anywhere,” he told a July 22 mass rally in Arizona. “I eat the food, which is a problem,” the corpulent real-estate mogul added.1 A Trump attorney named Pam Bondi further undermined Hutchinson’s testimony by reporting that she had applied for a job at Trump’s Florida retreat at Mar-a-Lago despite witnessing such allegedly shocking behaviour.
Her testimony was compelling for those who want to believe and less so for those not so inclined. A poll later found that the number of Republicans who describe the events of January 6 as an insurrection and a threat to democracy had risen by a paltry two points since last December, which is to say from 10 to 12 percent, while fewer than one Republican in five was willing to admit that Trump deserves a good or great deal of the blame.2
The meter had hardly budged. Another problem was format. Thanks to a Republican boycott, the nine-member January 6 committee includes just two members of the ‘Grand Old Party’ - Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Liz Cheney of Wyoming. Leftwingers were taken aback, to say the least, at how Democrats fawned over Cheney, the daughter of former vice-president Dick and a foreign-policy hawk in her own right. But the absence of dissent meant that there was no cross-examination of witnesses, no scepticism and no debate. Instead, there were nine faces expressing pro-forma shock and dismay at each new revelation.
Finally, there was no point. The purpose of a legislative committee is to propose legislation - a requirement admittedly subject to broad interpretation. But the January 6 committee is not proposing any congressional action at all. Its sole raison d’être, rather, is to gather so much evidence that attorney general Merrick Garland, a member of the executive branch, cannot avoid filing criminal charges.
After two failed impeachments and a three-year media campaign aimed at driving Trump out of office because of ‘collusion’ with Russia, Democrats are thus back again in full prosecutorial mode. Since they cannot defeat the Republicans at the polls, their aim is to defeat the Republican standard-bearer in the courts by finding a charge that will finally stick.
The effort seems doomed like all the rest. Garland - a former appellate-level federal judge known for caution and moderation - is the last person likely to take the extraordinary step of indicting a former president for acts committed while in office. Moreover, it is unclear what he would prosecute Trump for and whether he would be able to get a jury to unanimously agree.
As Jack Goldsmith - a Harvard law professor and an ex-legal counsel in the George W Bush administration - pointed out in The New York Times, “Trump can plausibly … argu[e] that he lacked criminal intent because he truly believed that massive voter fraud had taken place”; and that “key elements - his interpretations of the law, his pressure on Mr Pence, his delay in responding to the Capitol breach and more - were exercises of his constitutional prerogatives as chief executive”.3
If the judge or jury disagrees, Trump will then be in a position to appeal to a Supreme Court dominated by ultra-conservatives, three of whom he appointed himself. Democrats are big believers in the rule of law. But they may find that a far-right judiciary has a different understanding of what the concept means.
Finally, there are the political consequences. With Trump all but confirming that he will run in 2024, an indictment is an attempt to take the decision away from the voters and place it before unelected judges instead. If so, the consequences will undoubtedly be explosive. Observes Goldsmith:
Along the way, the prosecution would further inflame our already blazing partisan acrimony, consume the rest of Mr Biden’s term, embolden and possibly politically enhance Mr Trump, and threaten to set off tit-for-tat recriminations across presidential administrations. The prosecution thus might jeopardise Mr Garland’s cherished aim to restore norms of justice department ‘independence and integrity’, even if he prosecutes Mr Trump in the service of those norms. And, if the prosecution fails, many will conclude that the country and the rule of law suffered tremendous pain for naught.
Goldsmith is right - the result would be to push the US constitutional system to breaking point. Republicans moving in an increasingly anti-democratic direction would accuse the Biden administration of using undemocratic means to stop them, while Dems would no doubt reply that all is fair in the war against rightwing authoritarianism. More confusion would ensue, along with more anger and bitterness, more polarisation and more conspiracy-mongering. America would end up taking yet another step toward civil war - one even bigger than on January 6.
The hearings are thus more evidence that a constitutional system cannot cure itself when it is in the process of breaking down. Every action it takes ends up compounding the problem. Both parties are correct in their own limited way: Democrats that the Capitol Hill insurrection was not just a riot that got out of hand, but a full-fledged coup d’état; and Republicans that the three-year Democratic effort to use Russiagate to drive Trump out of office was an attempted coup as well. Both sides are equally duplicitous in denying their own role in the crisis.
The real problem is that January 6 was both a coup and a collapse. Congress has been gridlocked for a generation, and anger and disgust have mounted ever higher as a consequence. As a minority party that has lost the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections, Republicans have clawed their way back by making maximum use of every minority advantage that a decrepit 18th century constitution has to offer. Thanks to relentless gerrymandering, they have enjoyed a 12% advantage in House elections since 2010, meaning that they require 12% fewer votes to obtain each congressional seat. They represent 41 million fewer Americans in a grossly unrepresentative Senate that is ostensibly split 50-50. They enjoy a key advantage in an Electoral College that tilts heavily in favour of under-populated rural states like Wyoming and the Dakotas, which is why they have been able to steal the presidency twice since 2000. And now they have an iron grip on the Supreme Court that is likely to extend into the mid-2030s.
The more liberals squeal, the more the minority dictatorship tightens its grip. Yet all Democrats like House speaker Nancy Pelosi can do in response is offer encomiums to “the beautiful, exquisite, brilliant genius of the constitution”4 - the same constitution that is depriving millions of women of the right to an abortion and will undoubtedly take many more rights away before the Supreme Court is through.
Never have two more ignorant armies clashed by night.
Quote begins at 2:51:55: www.youtube.com/watch?v=RB0X9F_dDoE.↩︎
‘January 6 committee has done little to sway Republicans: poll’ Axios July 23 2022: www.axios.com/2022/07/23/jan-6-committee-republicans-poll.↩︎
Transcript of House impeachment managers announcement, January 15 2020: www.speaker.gov/newsroom/11520-0.↩︎