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American Democracy: A near death encounter

Congressional hearings into former US President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the election results which brought Joe Biden into power, now reveal a shocking inside story about the Trump-led conspiracy to derail and destroy American democracy.

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By Kenneth Tiven

The US Congressional probe into former US President Donald Trump’s coup against his own government is like the movie about the steamship Titanic hitting an iceberg. Despite knowing the ending—it sank—we remain fascinated with the story of exactly how it happened.  

A connect-the dots-puzzle created by the House Investigating Committee has created a compelling picture of how Donald Trump and his loyalists planned a coup. Insiders in the Trump Administration have given sworn testimony that Trump was told repeatedly there was no election fraud, that his plan to overturn Joe Biden’s victory was illegal.  

In America, all federal government officials swear an oath to defend the Constitution, not the president. Despite this, most of the witnesses explaining what Trump did or did not do failed their oath to protect the Constitution against the president. Most have spoken out now only because the Committee compelled testimony. Trump seems to have clearly violated his oath of office as well: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) 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.” The fourth federal law, 18 U.S.C. 1918 provides penalties for violation of oath office described in 5 U.S.C. 7311 which include: (1) removal from office and; (2) confinement or a fine, remedial and enforceability measures.

Several loyalists had asked the White House for pardons after January 6, which could be considered an admission of guilt. The first name revealed at the Third Hearing was John Eastman, a conservative lawyer who had clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Eastman offered Trump novel theories as to why Vice President Mike Pence could send the election back to the state legislatures to pick electors, hopefully to keep Democrat Joe Biden from taking office despite winning a majority of both popular and electoral votes. 

The Committee has found evidence that Trump’s Big Lie served a double purpose: a chance to maybe keep the White House and an opportunity to make at least $250 million dollars running a grift asking small donors for contributions to a fake legal fund. 

You almost have to admire the consistency of Trump’s mendacity, while accepting that the former president’s instincts and career were inherited from his father who was a ruthless builder and landlord in New York City. As a rich kid who inherited his father’s fortune and business, Trump has always said he hates being told no in a business deal. Equally obvious is that Trump has no experience or interest in consensus management.  

For Americans who have watched farcical partisan hearings for two decades, the House of Representatives special committee is unusual in many respects. It has spent a year interviewing witnesses and participants in the 2020 campaign, gathering evidence and video of every speech, rally, and tweet that the president produced in 2020 and after the election. The fact-finding phase is over. 

The televised hearing is essentially a police procedural crime series based on months of taking testimony and correlating everything minute by minute. Adding impact, the presentation has been anything but a traditional partisan charade. It is low-key without partisan members asking questions or badgering witnesses. The calm directness is a refreshing aspect of understanding what happened.

The Republican Party and news media aligned with it have treated the hearings as a non-event for the most part.  An email Thursday morning from House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy avoided the hearings  altogether, suggesting Americans should be concerned about  crime, inflation and high petrol prices.  He believes, “After more than a year with Joe Biden in office, our nation is in crisis.” 

Hearing Three 

This focused on the pressure exerted on Vice President Mike Pence, as presiding officer of the Senate, to not certify Biden’s election as President. Conservative California lawyer John Eastman had convinced Trump and lawyer Rudi Giuliani that his originalist reading of the Constitution empowered Pence to reject votes from certain states and to send the results back to those states in hopes of gaining electoral votes for Trump.

Eastman availed himself of the Fifth Amendment protection to not testify against himself when the Committee interviewed him under oath. He took it 100 times! Eastman had tried to enlist support before January 6 from a Justice Department lawyer. That lawyer told the House Committee he had advised  Eastman to get “the best criminal lawyer you can find,” because you will need one. Eastman asked Giuliani to put him on the pardons list, which nearly happened. 

The committee seems to be highlighting that Eastman has legal exposure for his activities: he privately asserted that there was no legal basis for the Pence plan even though he publicly promoted it as a lawful plan of action. Federal prosecutors could argue that he knew he was doing something wrong. 

Michael Luttig, a retired federal appeals court judge, testified forcefully that if Pence followed Trump’s directive it would have “plunged America into what I believe would have been tantamount to a revolution within a constitutional crisis.” Luttig is a widely respected judge who clerked for both former Chief Justice  Warren Burger and for Justice Antonin Scalia. He was appointed to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1991.

Luttig advised Pence, his lawyer, and his chief of staff  regarding the illegality of what Trump ordered his vice president to do. Trump’s rage against Pence was part of his speech before the insurrectionists marched on the Capitol. The televised hearing played video clips of the crowd chanting, “Hang Mike Pence,” moments after Trump ripped Pence to the crowd at the Ellipse. 

Congressional investigations have a way of stretching from months to years,  demonstrated by the House committee probe into 2012’s Benghazi Libya attack. This was a Republican effort to destroy the reputation of Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State. The Republicans controlled committees so they made it last two years. 

This session of Congress is equally divided between political parties with Democrats called the majority, because the president is a Democrat. When the Republican House leadership decided not to be a part of the committee in June 2021 it made what some then considered a catastrophic mistake. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, appointed two Republicans whom she felt were fair minded to sit with seven Democrats, making Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney vice chairman of the committee. Cheney is a conservative thinker but was always leery of Trump’s behavior. Now she is a pariah to Trump supporters. Unwilling to talk to the committee are several Republican representatives.  Some apparently were also active in encouraging the insurrection and have refused subpoenas to testify.

The people, places, actions and communications have been thoroughly analyzed as integral to the probe. So called “electronic fingerprints” were left by everyone sending texts and videos on all sides. Each hearing day had a clear and precise objective.

Hearing One 

This set the baseline for what the probe accomplished. Committee chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson kept it simple, saying Donald Trump organized a coup against his own government. For two hours on prime time television, the committee used video from the January 6 insurrection and interviews with key witnesses to remind millions of Americans of just how violent the day became. 

Democracy hung in the balance, said Thompson. Having sifted through so much evidence, the members of the committee could recognize that the central figure was an insecure president, filled with rage and grievances who found willing accomplices within the government and around the nation. Determined to maintain power they set off to undermine voting, the core aspect of democracy. America has a near mythical belief in the will of the people, all of the people, not just the rich and powerful. >

The planned tactics of two paramilitary groups, the Proud Boys and The Oath Keepers, were made clear from time-stamped video. They were marching to the Capital by 10:38 in the morning, well before Trump started speaking at noon to the rally at the open space on the national mall close to the White House. 

The committee with its videos and testimony made the explicit point that the violence was preplanned, not a spontaneous outburst from incendiary remarks made by the former president and some of his advisors. 

Testimony of many Trump insiders contrasts with their unwillingness to say anything about what was happening when it was happening. Commenting on this, Stephen Colbert, the late night TV host and avid observer of politicians, described them as “Trump’s spineless toadies.”

Most of the former Trump inner circle are telling their version of the truth now in hopes of salvaging their reputations. Lynn Cheney was having none of it when it came to political colleagues. “I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”

She is paying a price. Wyoming Republicans are doing everything they can to defeat her in the primary elections for Congress. Trump’s former campaign manager Bill Stepien claims to have been truthful in telling Trump he lost. Yet, now he’s the campaign manager for the woman running against Cheney in Wyoming. That candidate still claims the presidential election was stolen. What Americans are hearing from the Republican officials is obviously ”situational behavior” that might rehabilitate their reputations. 

Based on voting, past performance and parental DNA, it was laughable when Trump told Wyoming voters recently that Cheney had “thrown in her lot with the radical left.” Her dad is former Vice President Dick Cheney, the arch conservative who dominated the Administration of George Bush.

Frank Bruni, a New York Times columnist said, “She’s no doubt playing a long game, with its own wager: that somewhere downfield, Republicans will rediscover a semblance of sanity, and she’ll be rewarded for not having lost her marbles.” 

Hearing Two

If hearing one focused on the Capitol attack, the second was about the Big Lie that the election was stolen. Bill Barr, the US attorney general in former President Trump’s cabinet, testified that the real estate wheeler-dealer turned politician was “detached from reality” after losing the 2020 election for a second term.

The House Investigating Committee might have been scripting a Hollywood or Bollywood crime series. They mixed and matched each Trump insider’s recollection of telling Trump he lost to a Trump speech a day or so later claiming it was all stolen. Said Barr, “There was never an indication of interest in what the actual facts were.”

Barr’s languages was less than lawyer-like, using words like “rubbish, nonsense bullshit, garbage, crazy, annoying, idiotic, stupid” to describe, how fundamentally  silly Donald Trump’s claims about the 2020 election being stolen really were. Barr inferred he quit as the Attorney General, because at some point he realized that the former president was no longer reasonable. However, Barr had protected Trump ferociously for four years and could not have missed Trump’s behavioral style. Apparently the go-along attitude disappeared when the Nation’s Capitol was ransacked.

Trump spokeswoman Liz Harrington responded to this by accusing Barr of being a “cowardly RINO” and a “shill” for “Marxist Democrats” — a pretty remarkable allegation when you consider how much Barr bent over backward for Trump. If all of this never results in criminal prosecution of the former president, it has prompted an extraordinary round of sniping and infighting.

Testimony from campaign aides Bill Stepien and Jason Miller suggested Giuliani was drunk election night while urging Trump to declare victory before the vote counting was finished.  Rudy Giuliani reacted by accusing them of perjury. Giuliani also suggested they might have taken bribes for testifying to that effect. This and other tweets were deleted by Giuliani and another former White House aide, Alyssa Farah Griffin, confirmed this week that Giuliani “appeared inebriated” on election night.

More hearings are to come, focusing on a pressure campaign carried out by Trump’s allies to get state legislators and election officials to change the results of the vote, Cheney said. 

The committee is expected to reveal evidence showing how Trump asked Georgia election officials to find enough votes to allow him to win the state. The final hearings, Cheney said, will focus on the words Trump used to summon “a violent mob and directed them illegally to march on the U.S. Capitol.” There will be evidence of Trump refusing to speak with military leaders to try to control the violence, waiting several hours before calling on rioters to disperse.

The Trumps will be questioned under oath in mid-July by lawyers from the New York State attorney general’s office, unless the state’s highest court intervenes. The agreement in New York State Supreme Court, says that Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump have agreed to appear for testimony that will begin on Friday, July 15, and end the following week. 

The state attorney general, Letitia James, is close to the final phase of her investigation into Trump and the business practices of his company, The Trump Organization. This court appearance follows a number of legal setbacks for the former president, whose lawyers had fought the attorney general for months, hoping to avoid questioning. 

The Titanic disaster killed an estimated 1,517 people, about 68% percent of the people and crew aboard. The Trump presidency did not kill Democracy. It appears to have survived a near death experience.

-The writer is a former Vice President of CNN News and Foreign Editor of the Washington Post.

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