Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author, with Peter Eisner, of the book “High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, a Democrat who is a member of the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack, accused former President Donald Trump of tampering with witnesses by floating the possibility of pardoning those who took part in the insurrection.
Trump, who spoke of the potential pardons during a rally in Texas on Saturday, sank to new lows by dangling the promise of impunity and calling for massive protests if prosecutors investigating him and his business “do anything wrong or illegal.”
It’s clear that Trump is trying to rile up his followers while threatening to unleash them on anyone who stands in his way. His comments also reinforce his false narrative that those who took part in the January 6 attack were patriots who acted righteously to defend American democracy, rather than insurrectionists who sought to destroy it.
The House select committee, which is moving swiftly to obtain documents and testimony from members of Trump’s inner circle, could also be looking into possible witness tampering elsewhere. Last month, the House committee chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson issued a letter to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy requesting more information about his communications with Trump, noting the representative’s changing comments on January 6 over time. (McCarthy said he would not cooperate with the request.)
While Trump may be lashing out in response to mounting pressure from the House select committee and the criminal investigations into him and his business, his comments follow a long pattern of behavior. Trump has frequently cast himself as a victim and resorted to incendiary rhetoric. And in an age where media attention and online clicks can yield wealth and power, Trump stands as the ultimate example of someone who broke rules and norms to benefit from both.
That Trump would now float the possibility of pardoning those who were involved in the January 6 attack is not so surprising.
For one, it strengthens his relationship with his followers and ties his fate with many of theirs. If the arrests of more than 700 people who took part in January 6 led any of his supporters to think twice about following his lead, Trump’s statements about issuing pardons was an assurance not to worry – if they vote him into office once again in 2024. Indeed, Trump’s rhetoric in Texas was met with approval from his supporters, who cheered him on as he pledged to “take back the White House.”
But his recent comments are a new low – even for him. Trump saw how his previous call to action led to violence and death at the Capitol. On January 7, 2021, Trump had the sense to condemn the “violence, lawlessness and mayhem.” Now, in calling for more mass protests, Trump is showing that he knows what could happen – and doesn’t care.
Upping the ante has always been Trump’s method. With Trump indicating that he will run for president again in two years, there’s no question our democracy is under threat.
“All of this is in keeping with authoritarian tradition,” noted Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor at New York University and an expert on authoritarian leaders. In The New York Times, Jeffrey Engel, the director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, echoed the alarm. “I actually think the American public is dramatically underplaying how significant and dangerous this is, because we cannot process the basic truth of what we are learning about President Trump’s efforts – which is we’ve never had a president before who fundamentally placed his own personal interests above the nation’s.”
The basic truths include the discovery that Trump played an active role in discussions about seizing voting machines in key swing states, the New York Times reported. It is also clear that Trump pressured former Vice President Mike Pence to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s election victory on January 6, 2021.
Now, Trump is building on the big lie that there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 elections and saying “our country and our elections are corrupt” – words no previous president, or former president, has likely ever uttered. It seems Trump’s lust for power has no bounds – and despite his failure to overturn the 2020 election results, he seems hellbent on damaging the foundations of our country in order to avoid accountability and seize power once again.
By calling for mass protests , Trump is giving his followers a directive in an attempt to intimidate authorities. This display of recklessness may also serve to intimidate potential Republican opponents. The enthusiasm of his base, not to mention the havoc they can unleash, is likely to give pause to those like Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley who might have presidential aspirations of their own.
Where is all this leading? We’ve already seen it lead to years of political strife, two impeachments and a bloody attack at the Capitol. Since these consequences weren’t enough to stop Trump, we might conclude that legal prosecution is necessary. How he and his followers may respond is awful to contemplate.