Monday, December 4, 2023

The Undermining of America

Was the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, a Donald Trump political rally that slipped out of control, or a complicated, badly planned coup to overturn a constitutional democracy? In the final TV hearing before the summer recess, the House Committee suggested exactly where Trump’s idea of a procedural coup merged into a violent desperate coup

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By Kenneth Tiven in Washington

In a televised 8-part political reality series, the House Investigating Committee concludes that former President Donald Trump committed a seditious crime by forming a coup against the US Constitution at the Capitol to prevent him leaving office despite losing an election. House Committee’s role—discover Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How the January 6 coup in Washington was planned. It cannot prosecute, just investigate. In the final TV hearing before the summer recess, the House Committee suggested exactly where Trump’s idea of a procedural coup merged into a violent desperate coup. 

Watching it on television in the Oval Office, Trump sent a vicious tweet at 2:34 pm against Vice-President Mike Pence. The mob had broken into the Capitol minutes before. Their anger now included chants of “Hang Mike Pence”. Wounded police officers and politicians raced to safe rooms in the basement. The Department of Justice role: investigation focused on finding criminal behaviour where successful prosecution is likely. While the Committee’s language may be equivocal, its intent is not, telling Attorney General Merrick Garland here’s the crime, now prosecute them all.

A year’s research presented as nearly 20 hours of insurrection video and sworn testimony clarifies the facts and actions behind Trump’s avoidance of reality. Testimony from Republicans in and out of the administration revealed the frantic efforts Trump rationalized would keep him from being the loser. The irony is palpable. Trump’s old apprentice TV reality-style show was a masterful confection, where editing and manipulation made Revised ready for publication 2 Page 1 of 9 contestants into caricatures he called “losers.” All the original material is under lock and key to avoid revealing both the host and contestants as fakes. This time, the reality is on record under oath to explain that the “Big Lie” of a rigged election was fake and that a “peaceful” Washington rally was an organized terrorist attack.

Does the Oath of Office matter anymore?

Every president takes this Oath: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” A great deal of prima facie evidence suggests that oath was violated. For 187 minutes on January 6, Trump did nothing, but watch TV as his supporters ransacked the Capitol and looked for Vice President Pence to kill him. In government, as in sports, intense pressure creates situations where an unforced error decides an outcome. This describes Trump’s fraud allegations and coup planning role. Similarly, many of Trump’s business bankruptcies came from his undisciplined approach and narcissistic belief that he can get away with anything. 

This Special Committee of seven Democrats and two Republicans operated collectively for nearly a year, using legal and research staffers, to correlate huge amounts of video, text messages and communications among politicians and the paramilitary units that attacked the Capitol. The televised hearings were not the usual partisan wrangling we’ve seen for several decades, but a visual report to the nation produced with help from television veterans. Much of the script was written for the TV presentation for precision integrating visual elements. This is far more dramatic than whatever detailed written report will be produced. 

The hearings were carefully organized to build a foundation for understanding what happened between November’s election and the January assault on the nation’s Capitol complex. The House Committee acted as a grand jury, seeking answers in order to legislate against a recurrence. 

Multiple witnesses said that Trump was told numerous times that the Justice Department could find no substantive voting fraud anywhere. With no apparent sense of irony, Trump, in a conversation recorded, threatened the state of Georgia’s election chief to “find 11,780 votes” needed for Trump to win. A mob style “or else something will happen” was clear. Insiders explained that in a chaotic and haphazard manner, the Trump White House sought any theory from right-wing lawyers on how to get the electoral vote sent back to the states where Trump lost but had expected to win—Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. Vice-President Mike Pence refused to go along with that in his role as presiding officer of the joint session affirming Joe Biden’s electoral college victory. 

Elected Republicans seemed to forget that their oath requires defending the Constitution, not the president or political parties which do not exist in the Constitution. Cognitive dissonance affects politicians and voters who don’t want to believe what they are seeing because their brains are resistant to the information. At the state level, many Republican-controlled legislatures have rewritten election laws to give themselves more power than the voters when it comes to determining winners.

Fear and Loathing in the Basement 

Ultimately after two and half hours of rampage as federal troops arrived on the scene, Trump recorded a video message telling the demonstrators he loved them and to go home which they did. Exiting safe rooms to finish confirming Joseph Biden as the 46th president, both Democrats and most Republicans excoriated President Trump, with demands for a full and fair investigation. What a difference a day can make! 

Within days, almost all the 250 Republican senators and Congresspersons described their impression of the attack as a “nothing burger”. They knew, or felt emotionally, that the “boss” was deeply involved along with several Congressmen. Party loyalty trumped their oath of office. Republicans had measured their future careers in a political party now controlled by Trump supporters. 

For obvious reasons, Trump didn’t want a probe, but agreed to a committee if it contained the most loyal and noisy Republican house members he trusted to disrupt it. Without them, he opposed any Republican cooperation. This is his unforced error because he didn’t know that House rules allowed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, to appoint anyone she desired without balancing political affiliations. Pelosi with decades of political experience formed a special committee heavy with politicians who are lawyers and added two Republicans who understood their oath to defend the US Constitution. 

The most fearsome is Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice-President Richard Cheney with inside awareness how a White House operates. A devout conservative thinker, she is also a woman who understands her oath of office. She became Vice-Chairperson of the Special Committee along with a virtually unknown Congressman from Illinois. Adam Kinzinger, is not running for re-election, making him free to channel the intensity of the most famous politician from Illinois—Abraham Lincoln. 

In the American system, two main political parties have taken control of the Congress and make its internal rules. The typical work is partisan, especially on committees that usually fail to improve legislation or accountability. Because this Committee chose visual theatre, a review of the episodes follows the story telling idea of Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. This way blockbusters are built on top of the first four which set the stage. Episode 7 had Pat Cipollone as a principal witness. As White House counsel, Cipollone’s job is similar to a cricket umpire: to make sure, the rules of the presidency are followed. He does not act as the President’s personal lawyer.

Revealing Oval Office plotters

When Cassidy Hutchinson, a former White House aide, delivered explosive testimony saying that the president knew the crowd on January 6 was armed, but wanted to loosen security. Cipollone described her boss, Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, as disinterested as rioters approached the Capitol. In a measured and confident manner, she explained discovering how a furious Trump behaved when learning that his Attorney General in December said there was no major fraud involved in the election. Visiting the Oval dining room looking for Meadows, she saw a mess on the wall and floor. Trump had thrown his lunch plate against the wall, then pushed the table cloth to the floor with other dishes. The valet cleaning it up explained it to her. 

In his videotaped appearance Cipollone, low key and precise, acknowledged what Hutchinson had said about Trump on January 5th and 6th. Cipollone described “rushing” to intervene as Trump was taking an unscheduled meeting in December, with outside advisors urging the White House to seize state-owned voting machines. Hutchinson described that meeting as “unhinged,” with profanity and a near physical fight between the professional staff and the outside right-wing lawyers over loyalty and options.

Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, who was at that meeting, later reminded the Committee that he told Trump’s real advisers that day: “I’m going to categorically describe it as, ‘You guys are not tough enough.’ Or maybe I put it another way, ‘You’re a bunch of pussises’.” 

Nothing was decided, yet hours after the meeting ended, Trump, apparently on his own, issued a fateful tweet inviting supporters to a rally: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild! Witnesses made it clear, the nationalist right-wing took it as a presidential demand to be there, armed and ready. 

What the Committee has stressed through eight hearings is that the Trump administration was aware from November voting that Trump underperformed expectations. The electoral college votes confirmed Joseph Biden was the next president. Trump liked to claim he won 2016 in a landslide, but for historical accuracy in 2016, he barely squeaked into office with narrow wins in just three swing states. For decades, Trump has used the word “loser” as an epithet directed at others. The Committee says evidence and testimony indicates he refused to accept this description.

Squeezing Justice Department

Senior leadership of the Department of Justice testified to a wide-ranging and relentless scheme to misuse the Justice Department to stay in office. Evidence demonstrated that at least half a dozen Republican members of the Congress sought pre-emptive pardons. You don’t ask for a pardon unless you are willing to admit guilt. 

Sworn testimony from multiple people showed how after court efforts failed to help him, Trump was personally involved in a scheme to put forward fake electors. The panel also presented fresh details on how the former president demanded state officials in Georgia invalidate his defeat, opening them up to violent threats when they refused.

Illegal response to election loss

Focused on how Trump pressured Vice-President Mike Pence to throw out some state votes, although Trump was told this was illegal. It included how the violent demonstrators wanted to hang Pence if they caught him at the Capitol, and how Pence did not trust going back to the White House. 

Rep. Cheney has shown acumen and personal bravery, best summed this up with a carefully calibrated quote: “This is nonsense. Trump is a 76-year-old man. He is not an impressionable child. Just like everyone else in this country, he is responsible for his own actions. He cannot escape responsibility by being willfully blind.” 

The Committee showed how Trump ignored aides and advisers as he declared victory prematurely and relentlessly pressed claims of fraud he was told were wrong. “He’s become detached from reality if he really believes this stuff,” said William Barr, the former Attorney General, using the profanity “bulls*it” to describe Trump’s position.

Events of January 6, 2021

Using video from news organizations and social media proudly posted by the rioters, the Committee relived the intensity of the violence especially for police officers severely wounded by the right-wing nationalist militias. Thousands at a Trump rally were urged to “fight like hell” by the president who told them to march to the capitol. The Investigating Committee broadly detailed an attempted coup orchestrated by the former president that culminated in the assault on the Capitol. 

At the heart of the gripping story were three main players—Trump, the Proud Boys and a Capitol Police officer. We learned the decision to march to the Capitol was planned, but made to appear as a spontaneous request. 

The pre-planing may make the president criminally liable for deaths at the Capitol. The Justice Department has brought serious criminal charges against several hundred people who invaded the Capitol. 

What has not yet gotten much attention is how and why intelligence reports did not motivate law enforcement at every level to the dangers the Trump rally suggested. The role and behaviour of the Secret Service protection force is under examination, especially since their phone messages from January 5 & 6 appear to have been deleted. Now, nearly 18 months later, Trump and Republican candidates continue to claim it was a stolen election. Trump talks about running again for president.

There are several additional hot button Supreme Court issues in play for the upcoming November mid-term elections, including: 

  • Erasing the federal right to an abortion, basically making women in America second-class citizens.
  • Allowing religious involvement in public spaces previously prohibited by the Constitution.
  • Neutering the ability of federal agencies to issue certain rules, especially in climate cases.
  • Allowing guns virtually everywhere in a ruling that harkens back to 1776 rather than 2022 with the USA in the grip of mass shootings mania. 

Voting may define the impact of truth on political behaviour, Was the insurrection a Trump political rally that slipped out of control, or a complicated, badly planned coup to overturn a Constitutional democracy? Committee Vice-Chairperson Liz Cheney, herself a Republican, doesn’t hesitate to answer. She says the former president and many in his administration should face criminal trials.

—The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels

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