Trump is "A Clear and Present Danger" to Democracy—Day Three
Pressuring Pence and the Smoking Gun Tweet
As Conan O’Brien said of some other slowpoke, you could fry up a tuna melt in the time he paused between sentences. But while former federal judge J. Michael Luttig’s halting testimony about the 12th Amendment and the 1887 Electoral Count Act might have briefly bored the daytime audience on Day Three of the January 6th hearings, his conclusion—just before the end of the day—proved bone-chilling. It was not just that the rule of law—the “foundational” idea of the republic—had been “supremely violated.” Luttig broadened the threat beyond Donald Trump and projected the nightmare of January 6, 2021 into the future. He explained that Trump and his allies and supporters are “a clear and present danger to American democracy” in the 2024 presidential election.
When a revered conservative judge—short-listed by George W. Bush in 2005 for the Supreme Court—says a former president of the United States is a “clear and present danger,” it means something quite specific. It means that Luttig believes Trump and his followers pose an imminent threat of violence, in this case the violent overthrow of the United States government.
Beyond providing more evidence of criminal intent, Day Three was all about that threat of violence—most fatefully, Trump’s willingness to unleash it against his own vice president. But even if Trump’s pressure against Pence had worked and there had been no violence at the Capitol, it would likely have come later. Trump would have, in Luttig’s words, “plunged America into what I believe would be a revolution within a constitutional crisis.”
Luttig’s message to the GOP’s millions of Trump rationalizers, the ones who say they may not like the man but feel he’s still better than any Democrat, is, no, he’s not better. In fact, he’s Benedict Arnold.
After his efforts to overturn the election in court proved unsuccessful, the traitor got busy intimidating his vice president. We learned significant new details about Trump’s efforts to pressure Pence to do something—namely act on his own to overturn the election—that Pence himself later concluded would have been the most “un-American” act imaginable. Throughout the hearing, Pence was depicted as a hero, and it’s true, he saved the republic by not succumbing when Trump called him “a wimp” and “a pussy”. (That part was like a televised version of Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s book, Peril.) But as Lawrence O’Donnell rightly points out, if Pence knew from the start that intervening in the process was wrong, why didn’t he say so in December? If he had, the mob might have never come to Washington.
It’s not as if on January 6th there were two camps on what Pence should do. It was the vice president’s entire staff, the president’s chief of staff Mark Meadows, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, Dan Quayle, Judge Luttig and even and Sean Hannity against just two men: Trump and John Eastman, a pedantic law professor who specializes in outlandish and almost comically-partisan constitutional claims. His best-known gambit before the Pence coup plot was his sophistic argument in 2020 that Kamala Harris was not eligible to be vice president because her parents were not born in the United States.
Eastman himself knew the Pence plan was illegal and had no legal or historical precedent. (The Committee introduced a marked-up memo proving that). And he knew that what he proposed to Trump was actually a hypocritical political argument.
Pence’s counsel, Greg Jacob, testified in person that on January 5, he said to Eastman:
I mean, John, back in 2000, you weren't jumping up and saying Al Gore had this authority to do that. You would not want Kamala Harris to be able to exercise that kind of authority in 2024 when I hope Republicans will win the election. And I know you hope that too, John. And he said, absolutely. Al Gore did not have a basis to do it in 2000, Kamala Harris shouldn't be able to do it in 2024, but I think you should do it today.
It’s hardly a stop-the-presses story that both Trump and Eastman blatantly lied about the Pence plan. Trump tweeted that he and his vice president were in “total agreement” about the legality of his intervention on the day after Pence told him he rejected the idea. And Eastman in his January 6th speech on the Ellipse invoked a precedent involving Thomas Jefferson on the day after, in Jacob’s testimony, “he conceded that Jefferson did not at all support his position— that in the election of 1800 there had [merely] been some small technical defect with the certificate in Georgia.”
Eastman acknowledged to Jacob that there was no historical precedent from Jefferson, Adams or anyone else. He acknowledged that “Just between us Chicago chickens” (both were graduates of the University of Chicago Law School) “there was no there there” in terms of a legal basis for the vice president to either unilaterally declare Trump the winner or send the election back to the states. And he acknowledged that the Supreme Court would reject his claim 9-0 if it heard the case. But Eastman thought the high court would not hear the case because it fell under the “political question doctrine,” which stipulates such decisions should be left to the political process.
Eastman might have been right about that—Clarence Thomas (whose wife, Ginny, was peppering Eastman with emails and texts) might have helped keep the Court from short-circuiting the state re-certification process. And what then? This is where the monumental, catastrophic irresponsibility of the Trump-Eastman plan came into view in the hearing.
Eastman told Jacob that the states would “send back the Trump slates of electors and the people will be able to accept that.” Jacobs “vociferously” disagreed, noting that the country would then have a “unprecedented constitutional jump ball” that “might then have to be decided in the streets.” Eastman didn’t seem worried about the likelihood of that violence, and he was so unperturbed by the violence of January 6th that after the insurrectionists were finally removed from the Capitol he emailed Jacob that “the Electoral Count Act had been violated because the debate on Arizona had not been completed in two hours.” By that time, the architect of the coup was ready for “the rubber room,” as Pence put it later. But Eastman wasn’t too crazy to understand that his clear criminal intent exposed him legally. We learned on Day Three that he sought a pardon, which he did not receive. He later took the Fifth 100 times before the Committee.
While Eastman will be soon forgotten, Trump will never escape what may eventually be known as The Smoking Gun Tweet, which establishes that he continued his efforts to overthrow the constitutional order even after a violent rebellion had begun. At 2:24 p.m. on January 6th, the president tweeted:
What’s important to understand is that this was after Trump—who was watching events unfold on TV—was told explicitly by aides that rioters were inside the Capitol. Two minutes later, at 2:26PM, Pence and his family were hustled to a secure location. While Trump didn’t know exactly how close Pence had come to being killed—the mob got within 40 feet—he showed no interest in whether anyone was hurt. He was still obsessed with getting his fake electors counted.
“The situation was already bad,” Sarah Matthews, a White House press aide, testified. “It felt like he was pouring gasoline on the fire by tweeting that.”
The Committee showed video of rioters absorbing the news. “We just heard that Mike Pence is not going to reject any fraudulent electoral votes. Boo. You're a traitor.”
When Tucker Carlson suggests that the Deep State planned the whole thing as a false flag, he’s lying. But there were FBI informants in the crowd. One reported that members of the Proud Boys said if they found Pence and Nancy Pelosi, they would have been executed. “Hang Pence!” was more than just a chant.
For nearly eighteen months, we’ve known a lot of this in bits and pieces. And we know these hearings won’t do anything to change the minds of hardcore Trumpsters. But they are looking more impactful than almost anyone expected.
Despondent Democrats might not know it yet, but the steady stream of revelations and new video (like the Day Three shots of Pence in hiding) will help drive a wedge into the Republican Party that makes it significantly less likely that Trump will be nominated in 2024. Unfortunately, his poison has spread so far inside the party that any other nominee would also be backed by a Big Lie base conditioned to believe it should fight any election it loses.