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Three Cheers for the January 6 Committee—Day One
Now look for Trump's 'Hang Pence' line to be hung around his neck
Richard Nixon always wanted to know how events were “playing in Peoria.” We don’t know yet how the first Jan. 6 hearing “played” in the short term. Americans are so divided and dug-in that it might not move the needle much. What’s ironic and different this time—highly unusual in the normal settling and sorting of history—is that we can already be certain of what the long-term conclusion will be, assuming historians are still at liberty to write the truth and have not had their books burned at midcentury by ransacking DeSantisians:
In late 2020 and early 2021, President Donald Trump attempted a violent coup that came close to succeeding.
We know that because Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and Liz Cheney (R-WY) delivered an utterly devastating indictment of Trump that offered surprises and scoops even to Jan. 6 obsessives like me. Instead of windy opening statements and meandering questions—standard fare in congressional hearings—we got a tight and powerful opening argument for a vast national (and international) jury.
So rather than wringing our hands over Fox News not airing the hearings, or Liz Cheney’s fate in her primary, or whether the hearings will help mobilize democracy-loving Democrats to work precincts in the midterms (I think they will), we should be grateful that at least some people in Washington can actually stand up for the Constitution and make good television at the same time.
I admired the whole thing from start to finish. Thompson opened with much-needed historical context, comparing the events of Jan. 6 to the “dark history” of his native Mississippi, where democracy was destroyed by slavery and lynch mobs. And he reminded us that Lincoln believed it was “exceedingly probable” that he would lose his 1864 reelection campaign and have to turn the presidency over to George McClellan, who was ready to “raise the white flag of surrender” in the Civil War. But even with those stakes, Lincoln was ready to “accept the will of the voters, come what may.”
Both Thompson and Cheney returned again and again to this most crucial of constitutional ideas—the peaceful transfer of power. I had always thought George Washington set the precedent by leaving the presidency voluntarily in 1797, his greatest gift to his country. But Cheney, whose mother, Lynne, is an historian, explained that Washington had actually begun this tradition—the core of what separates democracies from autocracies—when he resigned his commission as general of the Continental Army at the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783. This norm—which is still so taken for granted that children aren’t even explicitly taught about it in school— remained intact until Trump, the most criminally sore loser in American history.
I fretted for a moment that Thompson might linger too long on the history and context that excites me more than it does most people, but he did not. He used riveting video and sharp, terse language to put the lie to the notion that the insurrection was a “tourist visit” or “legitimate political discourse,” the latter being, quite literally, the official position of the Republican National Committee. (Thompson—trying to stay bipartisan—didn’t attribute this Orwellian idiocy to the GOP). Later, a wrenching video ended with Trump’s pathetic audio, “The love in the air, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Early on, I smacked my forehead and realized that all that highly-publicized squabbling over subpoenas turned out to be irrelevant. When denied witnesses, the Committee decided to just dip into the voluminous public record. Mike Pence won’t testify? No problem. Just go to video of him saying in a speech, “There’s no idea more unAmerican than that any one person can choose who is president.” It doesn’t matter much that Steve Bannon stiffed the committee (though it’s right that he was indicted for it); they played tape of him saying on January 5th on his podcast that “All hell is going to break loose tomorrow.” This was far more powerful than, say, watching Bannon plead the Fifth.
The Committee produced one especially effective witness—a man who provided peerless inoculation against the tired Trumpian idea that this is a “partisan witch hunt”: William Barr, Trump’s bootlicking attorney general. Thompson cued video of Barr at recounting how he told the president that the idea of the election having been stolen was “bullshit” (Like the promise of never-before-seen video, an obscenity in the opening few minutes is a good way to keep people watching). Barr also says on tape that there is ”zero basis for the allegations,” which are “crazy stuff” and a “grave disservice to the country.” He goes on to summarize the core of the Jan. 6 Committee’s argument, which is that Trump was required by law to give up his efforts to retain power when he lost in court: “In this country, that’s the end of the line.”
Barr is such a good witness for the prosecution that Cheney used him, too. And she topped it off with video of Ivanka Trump testifying, “I respected Attorney General Barr and I accepted what he had to say.”
On one level, Ivanka’s cameo was just another example of her six-year effort to have it both ways—loyal daughter still tethered to reality. But it raises a simple, potent political question: If Ivanka accepts that her father lost, why can’t tens of millions of Republicans? I loved watching that wedge being driven between Ivanka and the base—and seeing Jared Kushner finally exposed on camera as an arrogant snake when he called Trump’s White House Counsel, Patrick Cipollone, a “whiner” for not wanting to corrupt the president’s pardon power. We’ll soon find out whether Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) and “multiple other congressmen” whom Cheney says sought pardons were deeply involved in the coup plot. Why else would they need get-out-of-jail-free cards?
Cheney showed why she is a top-notch lawyer and now—even if she loses her seat—a figure of history. She previewed coming attractions by explaining that we will soon hear “more than half a dozen staffers testify that the president really didn’t want to put anything out” during the insurrection that would tell his supporters to leave the Capitol. Cheney even flashed a handwritten note from one of them—proof that Trump (who doesn’t use email) was told to take action to stop the violent assault but did nothing.
Then she dropped a bombshell by quoting Trump’s exact language on the prospect of his vice-president being executed. When television reports showed that insurrectionists had erected a gallows on the Capitol grounds and were chanting “Hang Pence,” the president—who had attacked Pence at the rally and in tweets—said: “Maybe our supporters have the right idea. Mike Pence deserves it.” To keep the headlines coming, we’ll presumably find out in an upcoming hearing which star witness heard Trump say that. When he or she details the circumstances, “Hang Pence” will be hung around Trump’s neck forever.
My guess is that if it comes off, this world-historical “Hang Pence” testimony will force Attorney General Merrick Garland to prosecute Trump if he hasn’t already decided to do so. But it also raises a challenge for the press. Will reporters push all Republican candidates on whether they will back a man who favored hanging his vice-president if he is the nominee of their party in 2024? The old “Trump was just joking” excuse doesn’t work here, when Capitol police officers were fighting for their lives. If Trump’s attorneys argue he was “joking” then, they would reinforce at least the emotional part of the prosecution’s dereliction of duty argument.
Cheney’s other central point was that the attack on the Capitol “was not a spontaneous riot.” This will move the government’s case away from Trump’s noon rally on the Ellipse and the incitement charge that was at the center of the second impeachment trial and toward a broader, deeper and earlier conspiracy.
A new key date to remember is December 19, when Trump met with Rudy Giuliani, Mike Flynn and Sidney Powell to discuss strategies for retaining power, then tweeted his invitation to come to Washington on January 6 (“Will be wild”). This was interpreted by the Proud Boys and others as a call to armed conflict. (Because their leader, Enrique Tarrio, was arrested on a gun charge, they brought lighter but still lethal weapons).
A witness to the plot, documentary filmmaker Nick Quested, testified that he filmed the Proud Boys casing the Capitol before Trump’s rally, after which they went and had tacos for lunch. This latter detail is the kind of thing that keeps the water cooler/social media conversation humming, as does the harrowing testimony of wounded Capitol Police Officer Carline Edwards that she found herself “slipping in people’s blood.”
Another critical dimension of the case is that Trump and his aides were clearly told that he had lost the election and that all of the fraud allegations were phony (“So there’s no there there,” Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said). This will help the DOJ and the Atlanta district attorney (in the case about Trump’s vote-stealing call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger seeking “just 11,780 votes”) prove criminal intent. I’ve heard well-informed speculation that Trump will be indicted in the Georgia case, which— after lengthy appeals— may be folded into the federal case against him.
Cheney said Trump had a “seven part plan to overturn the election”—a plan that (for my brain health) I’m trying to commit to memory:
1. Spread false information about the election being stolen.
2. Mobilize the federal government to embrace the Big Lie and cast doubt on the election returns.
3. Pressure state officials for new results that favor Trump.
4. Push supporters in the states to file false slates of electors.
5. Pressure the vice president—publicly and privately— not to certify the election.
6. Summon the Proud Boys and other violent supporters to Washington.
7. Refuse to make a single call to anyone to stop the insurrection.
Will any of this lead to Trump’s conviction? I’m increasingly confident that it will, and not just because U.S. District Court Judge David Carter advised the Committee that Trump has “more likely than not” committed two felonies in obstructing Congress.
Other verdicts are in the offing. “There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain,” Cheney told her gutless Republican colleagues toward the end of an historic evening. That much we know for sure.