Donald Trump always seems to get away with it. And he’s trying to do it again.
The ex-President and his Republican apologists in Congress are jump-starting a new effort to dampen the consequences of his crimes against democracy, burying the truth about what can now objectively be termed a coup attempt.
A flurry of new and shocking behind-the-scenes details of Trump’s multi-pronged attempts to steal last November’s election are showing just how perilously close the country came to a constitutional disaster in January.
- A new report from Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats on Thursday found that Trump tried a stunning nine times to get his Justice Department to undermine the election.
- The report also details an extraordinary three-hour meeting in the Oval Office in which Trump tried to win support for a plan to install as acting attorney general a loyalist, Jeffrey Clark, who he thought would help him overturn the 2020 election. In the end, the ex-President was talked out of the move after being told it would trigger mass Justice Department resignations.
- Trump indicated that he will try to assert executive privilege to prevent the House select committee probing the mob attack by his supporters on the US Capitol from getting information from certain witnesses.
- That panel sent two new subpoenas to two members of the “Stop the Steal” group, Ali Alexander and Nathan Martin, who were affiliated with the planning of the Washington rally that preceded the insurrection.
This rush of developments on just one day poses profound questions for Congress, the Biden administration and potentially the courts – and follows other new evidence of Trump’s anti-democratic conduct, including about a step-by-step plan drawn up by a conservative lawyer for how then-Vice President Mike Pence could subvert the constitutional process of certifying Biden’s election win.
One key issue concerns how far the select committee and the Justice Department are prepared to go to impose accountability on those involved, including the former President.
Does the panel have the power and the steel to do so quickly, to prevent Trump running out the clock for what could be a pliant GOP Congress after next fall’s midterm elections? Would, for example, President Joe Biden’s Attorney General Merrick Garland be ready to enforce any contempt referrals from Congress and bring the weight of the law against Trump allies who refuse to cooperate with the committee? It’s still unclear what, if any, response his subpoenaed allies have provided.
Ultimately, the issue is about whether there is any legal or political remedy equal to the scale of Trump’s transgressions – or, perhaps more importantly, that might deter his relentless attempts to destroy his successor’s legitimacy and faith in an electoral system that reflected the will of a nation that wanted him gone from the Oval Office.
Some might argue that an unprecedented two impeachments represent the ultimate sanction and historic stain. But Trump’s acquittal by Republicans in his first Senate trial only convinced him he could abuse power with impunity. And his second acquittal – once he was out of office – did nothing to temper his corrosive claims of electoral fraud, and is no deterrent as he builds an apparent new presidential campaign on the lie that the last election was corrupt.
Why Trump needs to be held to account
Accountability is critical for multiple reasons. The Capitol insurrection and Trump’s multiple attempts to subvert the election, in Washington and in the states, rank as the worst assault on the US electoral system in history. Inflicting a price for such behavior is vital to stop such abuses from happening again, and potentially could include new laws to bolster faith in elections. Recent escalations of Trump’s attacks on bedrock democratic values and signals that he is planning a new White House bid prove that his threat to democratic governance is far from elapsed and is getting worse.
The January 6 committee’s role is important in establishing a contemporary and historical record of what happened that day and Trump’s culpability amid efforts by his media propagandists and political allies to whitewash the truth and downplay an outrageous assault on the epicenter of US democracy.
An immediate question for the select committee will be how to counter any refusal to cooperate by Trump allies who received subpoenas, including former adviser Steve Bannon, former chief of staff Mark Meadows and ex-Defense official Kash Patel. The committee has failed to locate another subpoenaed Trump aide, former deputy chief of staff and social media guru Dan Scavino, multiple sources familiar with the effort told CNN.
“This is going to be the test for this January 6 committee,” said Carrie Cordero, a former senior Justice Department official and CNN legal and national security analyst, on “The Lead with Jake Tapper.”
“How far are they willing to go in order to enforce their authority and provide for the authority of Congress to conduct this investigation? Are they going to make criminal referrals to the Justice Department for contempt or even potentially for obstruction?”
Trump’s decision to put up roadblocks is no surprise given a lifetime of seeking to evade accountability for his actions in business and politics. He fought for months, for example, to stop his financial record from being obtained by investigators probing the Trump Organization in New York. The firm and its former chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, have been charged over an alleged tax scheme.
Trump’s ostensible justification for trying to evade accountability here is that he is trying to protect the integrity of his former office by upholding executive privilege – the ability of presidents to get confidential advice from subordinates. This is a predictable but hardly credible defense, at least outside the realms of a narrow legal argument.
After all, Trump spent four years destroying the standards and codes of conduct implied by his office and gave no indication that he was concerned about preserving its model of rectitude for future generations. And in this case, he appears to be seeking to assert privilege to cover up what multiple accounts and reports suggest is an attempt to mount a coup.
“Executive privilege will be defended, not just on behalf of President Trump and his administration, but also on behalf of the Office of the President of the United States and the future of our nation,” Taylor Budowich, director of communications for Save America and Trump, said in a statement.
Trump can try to uphold his executive privilege claims in court, in an attempt to further string out the business of the committee. But the Biden White House, the current guardian of executive privilege, could take a relaxed view of document requests in this area.
A source familiar with the former President’s legal strategy confirmed to CNN that an attorney for Trump sent letters to some of the subpoena targets, informing them of his plan to defend executive privilege. The letters were first reported by Politico. While the letter instructed the subpoena targets to not comply with congressional investigators, according to the Washington Post, which reviewed it, it is up to each witness to decide whether to follow Trump’s direction.
Republicans excuse Trump’s abuses of power again
At the same time that Trump was trying to escape accountability, the GOP response to Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee report from the majority Democrats again highlighted a trend that has enabled Trump’s past abuses of power and that ensures he remains a viable political figure. In a dueling document, Republicans on the committee presented a different interpretation of the facts contained in the majority report.
Their action was consistent with a party that blocked an independent 9/11-style commission into the January 6 insurrection on Trump’s command, and that has consistently prioritized its political priorities and the need to appeal to the ex-President’s supporters over its duty to democracy.
The GOP document essentially argued that since Trump was prevented by advisers from following through on many of his schemes to subvert democracy and steal power, there is no case to answer. For instance, the then-President didn’t actually carry out his plan to replace acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen with Clark – though not for the want of trying.
“The President rejected it. The President did the right thing,” Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said.
The argument that Trump’s nefarious plots failed so he is free of accountability is a familiar one. It was used by Republicans to excuse his abuses of power during his first impeachment on the grounds that Trump’s plan to withhold military aid to Ukraine in return for the announcement of a criminal probe into Biden did not actually come to fruition. This essentially boils down a case that a President who seeks to thwart the Constitution is only guilty if he succeeds. This discounts, for instance, strong evidence that Trump repeatedly pressured officials in the Justice Department and in states like Georgia to overturn the election – a clear and staggering abuse of power.
The courage and integrity of these officials was in the end all that stood between the United States and a lost democracy. But the near miss this time should not mean that officials subordinate to a President should be left exposed to such pressure in the future.
The threat has not passed. Trump is busily endorsing candidates for secretary of state positions in swing states Georgia, Michigan and Arizona who have supported his election lies. If they are elected, such officials could have huge influence over the 2024 election in which Trump could be a candidate amid growing fears that any Republican effort to illegitimately seize power next time could work.
All of this, and Trump’s refusal to cede to the reality of his election loss and his expanding efforts to plot a potentially fraudulent path back to power, helps explain why the work of the select committee is so crucial.
Katelyn Polantz, Evan Perez, Ryan Nobles, Pauk LeBlanc, Zachary Cohen and Annie Grayer contributed to this report.