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On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump descended that famous golden escalator, unleashed a cacophonous presidential campaign by breaking every single rule of politics and barnstormed, welcome or not, into the soul and psyche of every American.
Exactly seven democracy-damaging years later, the now ex-President was still at it on Thursday, dominating the political stage, his wildness and extremism still threatening to tear the country apart.
Inside a Capitol Hill hearing room, the focus was not on the anniversary of the moment at Trump Tower that the then-property magnate and reality TV star set out to win power, but on the day on January 2021 when he almost brought the American political system down in a corrupt effort to cling to that power.
The House select committee investigating the insurrection laid out a staggering tale of Trump pressuring then-Vice President Mike Pence to illegally hand him a second term in defiance of an election he had lost. It revealed that members of a mob that vowed to hang Pence came within 40 feet of him during the attack on the US Capitol. And making an argument that appeared to bring Trump closer than ever before to legal consequences for his coup attempt, the panel made a case that he and the conservative lawyer advising him, John Eastman, had known what they planned was illegal but did it anyway.
In any normal political age, such testimony would traumatize the nation to its core, render the former President a national pariah and cause his party to disown him as a disgrace to the republic. It made the burglary at the Democratic National Committee 50 years ago today and subsequent cover-up that brought down President Richard Nixon in Watergate half a century ago look almost quaint by comparison.
Yet it is a measure of how Trump has destroyed political conventions, has carved rancorous divides and prospers in the discombobulation that he stirs up that the committee’s amazing revelations are unlikely to deal him a similar fate. It’s long been a cliche that nothing brings Trump down. Millions of Americans who believe his election fraud lies and prefer his version of history are likely ignoring the House committee’s televised hearings. Trump’s already the leading candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024. And after seven years of being pummeled by his outlandishness, the other half of the country may have long passed the point of being shocked.
As the committee puts together its damning case, it is already beginning to wrestle with a fundamental riddle that has long applied to Trump’s business and political career. How can this force of nature, who has defied accountability all his life by creating bigger and bigger infringements of accepted behavior and the rule of law, ever be made to pay a price for his actions?
There is a growing debate in Washington about whether the former President or acolytes could face a criminal investigation by the Justice Department for their role in the insurrection once the committee wraps up. But the history, however, of using constitutional means and the checks and balances of government to puncture Trump’s impunity has rarely been successful. The historic stain of two impeachments for gross abuses of power didn’t do it. Nor did his rejection by voters after a single term.
And while Trump is clearly fuming about the head-spinning account of his attempted coup being painted by the committee, his instinct, as always, is to fight back. Indeed, CNN’s Gabby Orr reported Thursday the striking news – given what is going on in Washington – that Trump is already agitating to announce his 2024 presidential campaign before November’s midterm elections. His revived political aspirations, and his undimmed popularity with grassroots conservative voters, are likely to be on display when he delivers a speech on Friday to the Faith and Freedom Coalition in Nashville.
The ex-President’s impatience to get back on the path to the White House lent the blunt warning of conservative retired Judge J. Michael Luttig at the witness table Thursday chilling resonance.
“Donald Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy,” Luttig said in the hushed hearing room.
One of the challenges for the select committee has been to find a fresh way to impress the horror and implications of the insurrection of January 6, 2021, on the minds of voters who watched much of it unfold live on television. It is piecing together a jigsaw of evidence that creates a fresh perspective on those events and is raising pressure on the Justice Department to consider criminal prosecutions.
In its first televised hearing last week, the committee re-created the terror and mayhem of the mob attack incited by Trump on the Capitol and showed that he had been repeatedly told that his claims of election fraud were false. But he pushed on, whipping up supporters who laid siege to the building as lawmakers met to certify President Joe Biden’s election victory. On Thursday, the committee added more pieces to a puzzle that exposed Trump’s malfeasance as never before.
- According to testimony from people around the then-vice president and elsewhere in Trump’s political and campaign machine, the then-President was told Eastman’s plan to have Pence simply declare he had won a second term or to accept alternative slates of electors from the states was illegal. Yet he tried to go ahead with it anyway. This surely ranks as one of the most audacious and damaging attempted presidential power grabs in US history.
- Former Trump White House attorney Eric Herschmann told the committee in video testimony that Eastman had told him he was willing to accept violence in order to overturn the election.
- After the insurrection, Eastman emailed Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and asked to be included on a list of potential recipients of presidential pardons. In his own testimony to the panel, he invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination 100 times, according to the committee.
- Pence, despite his four-year-record of genuflecting to Trump, never seriously considered following through on the then-President’s plan and emerged as something of a hero in the committee’s presentation. His defiance of his boss and the mob allowed America’s tradition of transfers of presidential power to remain unbroken, even if that process was not peaceful as it once had been.
The longer the committee hearings go on, the darker the picture of the attempt by Trump to cling to power gets.
In another extraordinary development on Thursday, committee Chair Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, said that the investigation had asked to speak to Ginni Thomas, a conservative activist who’s the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The panel’s request follows reports on Wednesday that the committee has email correspondence between Ginni Thomas and Eastman. Ginni Thomas has been criticized for her efforts to promote lies and conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and some Democrats have accused the couple of a conflict of interest given the implications of the justice’s responsibilities.
This latest twist in the story of January 6, 2021, highlights the unusual reality of a presidency still rocking Washington more than a year and a half after its incumbent lost reelection. And it underscores that attempts to insulate the democratic system from his threat are still urgent. While many observers in the aftermath of Biden’s inauguration expressed satisfaction that the political system’s insurance policies against extremism had held firm, Thompson is far more circumspect given subsequent events. He warned on Thursday that American constitutional governance “nearly failed” under Trump’s pressure.
While no one could have seen all this coming, the warning signs were flashing as soon as Trump burst onto the political scene. Back on June, 16, 2015, CNN political commentator S.E. Cupp reacted to Trump’s riotous campaign announcement by saying, “There is no way to describe what happened.”
Seven years on, and despite the committee’s efforts, there still isn’t.