The congressional attempt to expose any direct role that Donald Trump and his top associates played in the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol is intensifying. This week, the House select committee investigating the attack issued subpoenas to sixteen former senior Trump Administration and campaign officials, including the former White House adviser Stephen Miller and the former press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. A federal judge roundly dismissed Trump’s effort to block his allies from having to testify before the committee, including his erstwhile strategist Steve Bannon. Legal experts suggested that the judge’s ruling could prompt Attorney General Merrick Garland to criminally prosecute Bannon for refusing to testify, a step that may induce others to coöperate. And, late on Thursday, the committee threatened to hold Trump’s former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who spent hours with Trump on January 6th, in contempt if he does not testify on Friday morning.
Meanwhile, in a speech in New Hampshire, Liz Cheney, the committee’s vice-chair and one of the few Republicans daring to challenge Trump while seeking reëlection, said that the nation is “confronting a domestic threat that we’ve never faced before: a former President who’s attempting to unravel the foundations of our constitutional republic, aided by political leaders who have made themselves willing hostages to this dangerous and irrational man.” She added, “Political leaders who sit silent in the face of these false and dangerous claims are aiding a former President who is at war with the rule of law and the Constitution.”
The political reality, though, is that Trump’s hold on the Republican Party remains iron. A recent Morning Consult / Politico poll found that sixty-seven per cent of Republicans want Trump to run for President in 2024, a slight increase from several months ago. Other surveys showed similar numbers. “The Republican nomination would likely be his for the taking,” Nathaniel Rakich and Mackenzie Wilkes wrote on FiveThirtyEight. “He remains extremely popular among Republicans.” And opinion polls suggest that three-quarters of Wyoming Republicans plan to oppose Cheney when a Trump-backed candidate challenges her in the 2022 primary. Hours after Cheney’s speech, Trump declared, in trademark Orwellian fashion, “She is a threat to Free and Fair elections,” adding that the 2020 election had been stolen from him in “the Crime of the Century.”
The situation is unprecedented. A former American President refuses to concede that he lost the election. He has launched a public effort to drive the state election officials who certified his defeat from office. He continues to employ the lies and rhetoric that helped incite violence on January 6th. And this week an independent review alleged that thirteen former Trump Administration officials—including Meadows and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner—campaigned illegally for him in the final weeks of the 2020 election. It’s increasingly clear to many observers that Trump plans to make every attempt to insure that he or an acolyte wins the 2024 election at any cost. On Wednesday, a hundred former national-security officials, Republicans and Democrats—including Christopher Krebs, the former director of the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity agency, who was hired and fired by the Trump Administration—published an open letter to Congress, warning that partisan interference, intimidation campaigns, and disinformation are rapidly undermining American democracy. “In the course of our careers, many of us have analyzed the threats posed by unstable democracies elsewhere, never imagining we would begin to see similar threats at home,” they wrote. “Sadly, that moment has arrived.”
Democrats focus on the fact that, among Americans as a whole, Trump remains broadly unpopular, with fifty-three per cent viewing him unfavorably and forty-one per cent seeing him favorably. Biden’s numbers, though, aren’t much better, with fifty-one per cent approving of his performance in office and forty-three per cent disapproving. While political analysts and legal experts lose sleep over Trump’s continued claims that he won in 2020, most Americans, according to Gallup polling, see COVID, the economy, and poor leadership as the country’s three most important problems. Only one per cent cited the need for election reform. If Republicans win control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections, they would almost certainly disband the January 6th committee and end its investigation.
Members of the committee vow to achieve results before then. The panel plans to produce a definitive account of Trump’s actions and to propose laws that will prevent future Presidents from interfering in the Electoral College vote count. In a court hearing last week, Douglas Letter, a lawyer for the committee, said that investigators are seeking White House documents dating back to April, 2020, to help determine whether Trump engaged in a months-long effort to discredit the results if he lost. “We think, maybe, this all ties in with . . . the fomenting of it, building a groundswell of feeling that this election was going to be tainted,” Letter said. Timothy Mulvey, the committee’s communications director, told me that most witnesses called are coöperating. “Even among former Administration officials,” he said, “very few have flatly refused to comply with a subpoena.” He added, about Trump’s legal attempts to block the investigation, “The former President’s aim is to delay and impede our probe, but the committee’s work will nonetheless continue to move forward quickly.”
Stephen Gillers, a professor of law at New York University, said that Attorney General Garland may wait for higher courts to rule on Trump’s legal claims, but he believes that Garland will eventually prosecute Bannon. Gillers pointed out that if Bannon is not charged, those who were subpoenaed this week might be encouraged to try waiting out the investigation. “Garland knows that,” Gillers said, adding, “Everything we know about his devotion to the rule of law makes me confident that he will not allow that to happen.”
Ilya Somin, a libertarian legal scholar at George Mason University, predicted that the higher courts will uphold the committee’s right to subpoena individuals significantly involved in the events leading up to January 6th. “It seems to me that it should be a no-brainer, that Congress should be able to subpoena” witnesses, he said, particularly those who may have “played a role in an attack on Congress.” Somin doubts that the committee’s investigation will produce conclusive evidence of seditious acts by Trump. “I think sedition is a high hill to climb, unless the committee uncovers some dramatic new information,” he said. The broader political challenge is the country’s seemingly intractable polarization. Like the two impeachment trials of Trump, the January 6th probe may simply harden existing divisions rather than ease them. “Barring some dramatic revelation, I’m not sure it will fundamentally change anything,” he said.
Cheney, in her speech, said that the country is in “a time of testing” and implored political leaders to recognize the fragility of American democracy. “Will we defend our Constitution? Will we stand for truth? Will we put duty to our oath above partisan politics?” she asked. “Or will we look away from the danger, ignore the threat, embrace the lies and enable the liar? There is no gray area when it comes to that question. When it comes to this moment, there is no middle ground.” She is right that America’s drift toward authoritarianism continues, but it is not inevitable.
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