December 19, 2022
Today the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol held its final public hearing.
It reviewed the material establishing how former president Donald Trump planned even before the 2020 election to declare he had won even if he actually lost, and how he executed that plan. It then laid out how he maintained he had won even as his own lawyers and campaign advisors repeatedly assured him that the conspiracy theories on which he was relying were false. It showed how he contested Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s victories in court—losing 61 times—and then pressured state governments to “find” the votes he needed to win.
When those attempts to hand him the election all failed, he turned to trying to steal the election through pressuring state officials to create false slates of electors that chose him, rather than Biden, and then pressured the Department of Justice to get states to turn to those electors by alleging—falsely—that the department thought the election was fraudulent (its leaders had said repeatedly, in no uncertain terms, that the election was not fraudulent). When Justice Department leaders refused, he tried to put a loyalist, Jeffrey Clark, at the head of the department to do as he wished. He was stopped only when the department leaders threatened to resign as a group.
That left him with a plan hatched by right-wing lawyer John Eastman. The plan hinged on the outrageous idea that the vice president, in his capacity as the person to oversee the counting of electoral ballots, could decide not to count the legitimate ballots for which Trump loyalists had submitted competing ballots, enabling him single-handedly to throw the election to Trump over the wishes of the American voters.
Eastman himself admitted this plan was illegal.
And yet it was Trump’s last hope to look like he was playing by the rules. When Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, refused to participate in the scheme, Trump went to his final card—his trump card, if you’ll forgive me—his base.
Exactly two years ago today, on December 19, 2020, when it became clear that his campaign lawyers had lost their legal challenges and the real electors had filed their electoral slates, Trump tweeted to his supporters to urge them to come to Washington, D.C., on January 6, the day those electoral votes would be counted and confirm Biden’s election to the White House. Falsely claiming what he knew to be untrue, that it was statistically impossible for him to have lost the election, he told his supporters: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild.”
The right-wing militias he had courted since the Charlottesville, Virginia, Unite the Right rally of August 2017 heard the message. Immediately, they interpreted his tweet as an order to come to Washington to keep him in office, with violence if necessary, and they planned accordingly. Trump appears to have seen their potential violence as a final way to force Pence to do as he wished. When the vice president continued to refuse, Trump whipped up the crowd against his vice president and sent them toward the Capitol, where both houses of Congress and the vice president were all, in an exceedingly rare occurrence, together.
For 187 minutes, as his supporters stormed the Capitol, Trump watched the chaos on television and did nothing to stop it, communicating only with those continuing to try to stop the counting of the electoral votes. Only when troops had been mobilized and it was clear the insurrection would not succeed did he tell his people that he loved them and they should go home. They promptly did, underscoring that he could have called them off whenever he wished.
He expressed no concern for those under siege that day, and he did nothing to stop the rioters.
After outlining the former president’s attempt to stay in power against the wishes of the American people, overturning the very foundation of our democracy, the committee members voted to refer Trump to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution for violating at least four laws:
The first law the committee says Trump broke was that he obstructed an official proceeding. Trump tried corruptly to stop the joint session of Congress counting electoral votes in a bunch of different ways, from gathering false electors, to trying to send a letter to state legislators from the Department of Justice lying that the department thought the election was suspect, to spurring on a mob. Under this charge, the committee also referred lawyer John Eastman “and certain other Trump associates.”
It noted that “multiple Republican Members of Congress, including Representative Scott Perry, likely have material facts regarding President Trump’s plans to overturn the election. For example, many Members of Congress attended a White House meeting on December 21, 2020, in which the plan to have the Vice President affect the outcome of the election was disclosed and discussed. Evidence indicates that certain of those Members unsuccessfully sought Presidential pardons from President Trump after January 6th…revealing their own clear consciousness of guilt.”
The second law Trump broke was conspiring to defraud the United States, in this case by stealing the election. Other conspirators the committee suggests the department should look at include Trump lawyers Kenneth Chesebro and Rudolph Giuliani, and Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows.
The third was conspiracy to make a false statement, which the committee said described the false elector scheme. This conspiracy, too, might involve others, including Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, who agreed to help Trump with the project.
The fourth law the committee says Trump broke was that he “Incited,” “Assisted,” or provided “Aid and Comfort” to an insurrection.
The committee suggested that this list was not exhaustive and that there might be other laws the former president has broken. Those included obstruction of justice, as the committee revealed that some of its witnesses suggested Trump loyalists had attempted to affect their testimony. The referrals create no legal obligation for the Justice Department to act but, along with the evidence the committee has compiled, will make it important for the department to explain why it disagrees that crimes have been committed if it decides not to charge the former president.
The committee also referred four members of the House to the House Ethics Committee for ignoring the committee’s subpoenas: Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Jim Jordan (R-OH), Scott Perry (R-PA), and Andy Biggs (R-AZ). The incoming Republican House will likely ignore this referral, but that will make it hard for its members to enforce subpoenas themselves.
Along with the hearing, the committee released an introduction to its forthcoming report. At only 104 pages, the report is worth reading: it’s very clear and very fast paced, reading more like a 1940s thriller than a government report. And like an old-time novel, it has in it some eye-popping facts just waiting for more development.
Trump raised “raised roughly one quarter of a billion dollars…between the election and January 6th” by falsely claiming election fraud. The “Trump Campaign, along with the Republican National Committee, sent millions of emails to their supporters, with messaging claiming that the election was ‘rigged,’ that their donations could stop Democrats from ‘trying to steal the election,’ and that Vice President Biden would be an ‘illegitimate president’ if he took office.” That’s a lot of money raised fraudulently, and the RNC was involved. The RNC shows up again when chair McDaniel agrees to help Trump with the fake elector scheme.
The committee establishes that Trump fully intended to go with his supporters to the Capitol. This is a very big deal indeed: the president traditionally cannot go to the chambers of Congress without a formal invitation. Trump confidant Rudy Giuliani told Cassidy Hutchinson, top aide to Mark Meadows, that Trump intended to be with the members of Congress and to “look powerful.” A White House security official said, “[W]e were all in a state of shock…we all knew what that implicated and what that meant, that this was no longer a rally, that this was going to move to something else…. I—I don’t know if you want to use the word “insurrection,” “coup,” whatever.”
The committee generously attributes this plan to be part of Trump’s hope to pressure Pence, but historian of authoritarians Ruth Ben-Ghiat noted that a leader launching a new regime needs to be present at the front of his cheering troops to mark his success.
Fittingly, on December 15, the Coup d’État Project of theCline Center for Advanced Social Research at the University of Illinois, which maintains the world’s largest registry of coups, attempted coups, and coup conspiracies since World War II, reclassified the events of January 6 as an attempted “auto-coup.” According to its director, Scott Althaus, an auto-coup occurs when “the incumbent chief executive uses illegal or extra-legal means to assume extraordinary powers, seize the power of other branches of government, or render powerless other components of the government such as the legislature or judiciary.”