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A President Asking for Civil War

A President Asking for Civil War

Donald Trump’s advisers have proved to be the strongest witnesses against him. In the course of seven hearings over the past five weeks, the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol has presented a parade of loyalists from Trump’s inner circle eviscerating Trump’s excuses. On Tuesday, those offering scorching testimony about the President they served included his Attorney General, his campaign manager, his lawyers, his press secretary, two of his deputy press secretaries, his daughter, and, notably, his White House counsel, Pat Cipollone.

They knew—they all knew—that Trump’s lies about the “rigged election” were, as former Attorney General William Barr so memorably put it, in a deposition shown at an earlier hearing, “bullshit” and “complete nonsense.” They testified that they told Trump so, too. And they were under no illusions about the damage the President was wreaking in disregarding the evidence, the courts, the Electoral College, and the Constitution itself to pursue his quest to overturn the 2020 election and remain in power.

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On Tuesday, the committee released a text message from Trump’s former campaign manager Brad Parscale, which he sent to another adviser, Katrina Pierson, after watching the President’s inflammatory speech on January 6th: it was, Parscale wrote, nothing less than “a sitting president asking for civil war.” In another text to Pierson on that awful day, Parscale wrote, “I feel guilty for helping him win.” But not too guilty, apparently. Not only has Parscale not broken publicly with Trump; since January 6th, his firm has received a hundred and fifty thousand dollars in payment from Trump’s PAC.

If there was any doubt about the goal of the hearings, it’s now become all too clear: to put the blame for January 6th squarely on Trump. Liz Cheney, the Republican vice-chair of the panel whose apostasy regarding the former President has made her an outcast in her own party, offered a lacerating tirade on the subject. After noting that “virtually everyone close to Trump” had “told him the 2020 election was not stolen,” Cheney mocked the idea that he had been misled or poorly advised or had somehow blundered into supporting a coup against the U.S. government. He is a seventy-six-year-old man, Cheney said, not “an impressionable child.” If Trump let “the crazies” into the Oval Office and cheered at what they told him, it was a folly that “no rational or sane man in his position” had the right to indulge. Trump, she concluded, “cannot escape responsibility by being willfully blind.”

At the hearing on Tuesday, the committee offered important new information to the end of proving Trump’s culpability, including that he’d personally insisted on attacking Vice-President Mike Pence during his January 6th speech, even ordering his criticism to be reinserted after it was taken out. The panel also showed that Trump planned for days to disregard Park Police permits for a January 6th rally solely at the Ellipse and to urge his followers to march on the Capitol in the explicit effort to stop Pence and Congress from counting the electoral votes. “The evidence confirms this was not a spontaneous call to action but, rather, was a deliberate strategy decided upon in advance by the President,” Representative Stephanie Murphy, a Florida Democrat who was one of the panel’s presenters on Tuesday, said. Cheney unveiled the committee’s biggest new accusation against Trump in the closing moments of the three-hour hearing. She announced that Trump had personally tried to contact a committee witness following the damaging public hearing involving the former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, and that the committee had referred the matter to the Justice Department.

Tuesday’s hearing centered on a key moment in America’s post-election unravelling: the period, in mid-December of 2020, when Trump, having been rebuffed by the courts and rejected in the states in his effort to stop the certification of his defeat, decided to proceed with his effort to overturn the election and remain in power anyway. On December 14th, in keeping with the Constitution and federal law, the Electoral College met. This was supposed to be the end of the road for Trump. Instead, testimony showed, he rebuffed Cipollone and other advisers and contemplated an array of last-ditch schemes. Four days later, on December 18th, Trump held what Jamie Raskin, the Maryland Democrat who led much of the hearing, called “the craziest meeting of the Trump Presidency,” inviting a rogues’ gallery of conspiracy theorists and plotters into the Oval Office.

The panel presented a dramatic rendering of that hours-long meeting, which featured shouting, cursing, finger-pointing, and the spectre of a President actively considering using the United States military to seize voting machines, for the first time in American history. Cipollone testified that he was “vehemently opposed” to what Trump was contemplating and that it was a “terrible idea.” The former White House counsel evidently “set a new land speed record” racing to the Oval Office to try to stop Trump from appointing Sidney Powell, a lawyer who has recklessly advanced patently false claims about nefarious international plots to hack American voting machines, as a special counsel to investigate the election. When the meeting ended, inconclusively, Trump stayed up late and tweeted, at 1: 42 A.M., a now infamous call to his supporters to come to Washington for a “big protest” on January 6th. He said to “be there, will be wild.”

Whether the committee has so far definitively proved the case against Trump, the hearings have offered a portrait of his White House in the grips of an almost unimaginable insanity in the weeks leading up to January 6th. How off the rails was Trump, and how warped was his world? What struck me most on Tuesday was Cipollone’s unintentionally revealing statement about Pence. Cipollone testified that Trump had subjected his Vice-President to such unrelenting pressure that the White House counsel told someone Pence should receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom for resisting it. Imagine thinking that just doing the self-evident, and declaring Trump the loser of the 2020 election, was such an act of bravery that it should be rewarded with one of the nation’s highest honors. What choice did Pence really have in the matter? It was his job, just as for every Vice-President who came before him in the previous two hundred and twenty years. Cipollone, it was clear, has been living in a very dark place, indeed.

Perhaps the most trenchant line of the day came once again from Hutchinson, a twenty-six-year-old former Trump White House aide whose testimony to the committee showed the country that she had much better sense than so many of her elders. “The west wing is UNHINGED,” she texted Trump White House deputy chief of staff Tony Ornato, during the insane, late-night December 18th meeting. Yes, Cassidy Hutchinson. Yes, it was.

These hearings are not just a matter of score-settling for history’s sake. As Raskin pointed out, in his closing statement, America’s ongoing political crisis has only got worse, and Trump’s Big Lie has only grown and metastasized in the past year and a half. It’s so bad, Raskin said, that Watergate looked like a “Cub Scout meeting” in comparison. He warned that Trump’s unchecked January 6th revisionism now “threatens to take one of America’s two major political parties with him down the road to authoritarianism.”

If anything, Raskin understated the threat. In fact, the Trumpified Republican Party has already gone far down that road. According to a Times survey published on Tuesday, seventy-five per cent of G.O.P. primary voters said the former President bore no blame for the violent events of January 6th and was “just exercising his right to contest the election.” The paper touted that nineteen per cent of respondents said his actions “went so far that he threatened American democracy” as a sign of weakening support for Trump among his Republican base. But that seems an awful lot like wishful thinking. Only nineteen per cent thought an attack on the United States Capitol with the explicit goal of shutting down the electoral count was a threat to democracy? What better proof could there be of Trump successfully insuring that going along with his election lies remains a central tenet of the Party dogma? The other day, Adam Kinzinger, one of two Republicans on the panel, told a television interviewer that a decade from now Trump would be remembered in history as fully disgraced, that he would be a pariah to all Republicans who would conveniently pretend they had never supported him. And perhaps he will be right. But that future still seems a long way off. For now, Trump remains not only the front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2024 but an even bet to return to the White House if he runs. The committee has Trump in its sights. Will it matter? ♦

A President Asking for Civil War