June 13, 2022
Today was the second hearing of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol. The day began with chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS) laying out clearly and simply that what Trump and his minions did was to try to steal from Americans our right to vote for the leaders we want. That’s the heart of our system of government and central to the rule of law. The investigation of what happened in the last months of the Trump administration isn’t some abstract debate about a short riot, deadly though it was; it is an examination of an attack on the American people and an attempt to destroy our democracy.
Once again, as it did last Thursday, the committee relied entirely on senior Republican officials and on members of Trump’s own inner circle to tell the story of how Trump tried to overthrow our government. This undercuts accusations that the committee is engaging in a “partisan witch hunt.” Notably, the committee itself is measured, polite, and serious, demonstrating to viewers what hearings used to be before they became ways to produce sound bites for right-wing media.
Observers have commented that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) made a bad mistake in pulling his Republican nominees off the committee. He likely expected that such a move would discredit the committee, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) inclusion of Republicans Liz Cheney (R-WY) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) made the committee bipartisan anyway, and subsequent judicial decisions have concluded that the committee was constituted legally. What McCarthy really lost in pulling Republicans was not the ability to sway the story—the evidence is so clear that no one is challenging it—but the ability to create chaos and make it impossible for people to figure out what was happening, as Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) did at the first impeachment hearings for Trump by yelling over witnesses, badgering, and bullying.
Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) directed today’s hearing as the committee laid out proof that Trump had seeded the argument that the election was fraudulent for months before November 2020. As expected, election night showed the so-called red mirage, which Chris Stirewalt, the Fox News Channel’s elections expert during the 2020 election, explained meant that they expected in-person voting to favor Republicans, while mail-in voting would favor Democrats. That meant that early returns would make it look like Trump was winning, but the later returns would swing to Biden. That’s exactly what happened.
Trump’s advisors, including his campaign manager Bill Stepien, told Trump not to claim victory the night of the election, saying the numbers were still far too preliminary to call a victor. Trump ignored them and instead listened to “an apparently inebriated Rudy Giuliani,” who told him to declare victory. That’s what he did, claiming that he had won and election officials needed to stop counting the remaining ballots, which he insisted were fraudulent. Stepien testified that Trump had no evidence at all to make that claim. “We want all voting to stop,” Trump told the American people. “We don't want them to find any ballots at 4:00 in the morning and add them to the list.”
Trump’s most senior advisors repeatedly told the former president that he had lost the election and that the many examples of fraud he kept citing were “wild,” “bullsh*t,” “bogus and silly and usually based on complete misinformation,” “debunked,” “incorrect,” and “bad information,” and yet Trump continued to emphasize those same theories and insist publicly that he had won.
On November 29, after Trump suggested that the FBI and others were involved in the fraud and that the Department of Justice wasn’t investigating, Attorney General Bill Barr told an AP reporter that there was “no evidence” of voter fraud that would have changed the outcome of the election. Called to the White House, Barr said he had never seen Trump so angry, but “the stuff his people were shoveling out to the public was bullsh*t.” Barr said he continually told Trump his claims about voting machines and so on were bogus. Barr actually laughed when mentioning and then debunking right-wing operative Dinesh D’Souza’s recent film “2000 Mules,” which purports to show how the election was stolen.
There was a suggestion on the part of the witnesses that Trump was being played by his disreputable associates—Barr said “if [Trump] really believes this stuff, he has become detached from reality”—but sports writer Jeff Pearlman pointed out that Trump was following an old pattern. Seeding and insisting on a particular story contrary to all evidence, just to be able to set up a personal win, was the same playbook Trump used when he bankrupted the United States Football League in order to get himself an NFL franchise.
The committee did, though, suggest that the aim of the Big Lie was not just keeping Trump in power. It established that the Trump campaign sent millions of fundraising emails based on the promise to fight to challenge the election results, ultimately raising $250 million from small donors.
But get this: the so-called Election Defense Fund was never real.
According to witnesses, the claim to have such a fund was a “marketing tactic.” The money went to Trump’s own political action committee, the Save America PAC, which used the funds to pay off people in Trump’s orbit (more than $200,000 went to Trump’s hotels, and Don Jr.’s girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, was paid $60,000 for her two-and-a-half-minute introduction at the January 6 rally). Legal observers quickly pointed out that this sounds like wire fraud, which is illegal. The Guardian reporter Hugo Lowell reported that Attorney General Merrick Garland said he is watching the hearings and added, “I can assure you the January 6 prosecutors are watching the hearings as well.”
The committee established that Trump invented out of whole cloth the argument that he had won the election and had done so against the advice and evidence of his advisors. It concluded today’s hearing with video of the January 6th attackers using exactly Trump’s argument and even his words to justify their storming of the U.S. Capitol.
One of the key points the hearings raise is that all these senior officials who, now under oath, are saying that Trump lied and attacked our democracy against their advice and evidence, kept their mouths shut until forced to speak. They could—and should—have spoken up before January 6. And yet, Barr, for example, spent much of the summer reinforcing Trump’s lies about election integrity, and when he resigned on December 14, he wrote a congratulatory letter to Trump, defending most of his presidential policies. Even his reference to their recent argument could be read as supporting Trump’s lies: “it is incumbent on all levels of government…to do all we can to assure the integrity of elections and promote public confidence in their outcome,” he wrote.
Even more revealing is the case of Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager, who now admits that there was never any evidence that Trump won the election or that the vote was fraudulent. Stepien is currently working with the campaign of hard-right, Trump-endorsed Republican Harriet Hageman, who is trying to unseat Cheney in Wyoming. Part of Hageman’s platform is her insistence that “[o]ver the past two years we’ve seen Democrats chip away at…[f]ree and fair elections…the foundation of our Republic.”
Across the country, Republicans have rewritten election laws to prevent another “stolen” election, even though they know there was no such thing. As leading Republican election lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg said today, “The 2020 election was not close.” Nonetheless, leading Republicans are willing to embrace the Big Lie in order to skew our election system to keep those like Trump in power.
It all comes down to who is welcome to participate in self-government in the United States, and we have been here before. In our nation’s first famous political coup in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, about 2000 armed white Democrats overthrew a government of Black Republicans and white Populists. The Democrats agreed that the election had been fair, but they rejected its outcome nonetheless, saying they refused to live under the government voters had elected. They accused white men who had worked with the Republicans of tricking Black voters “so they can dominate the intelligent and thrifty element in the community.” They killed as many as 300 Black Americans in this “reform” of the city government.
The committee’s next public hearing will be on Wednesday at 10:00 a.m., Eastern time.