The Jan. 6 committee is making impressive progress — but it's also running a big risk
The House Select Committee investigating January 6 is finally getting traction. Revelations about former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows blowing off Fox News personalities begging Donald Trump to stop the Capitol siege are compelling. So is the text exchange in which Rep. Jim Jordan forwarded yet another coup suggestion to Meadows. But there’s a risk that in focusing on secrets brought to light, the public will lose sight of what’s been obvious all along.
The trouble with January 6 is that there’s too much evidence. It’s like a reverse iceberg: 90 percent of it is on the surface. We’re standing next to this skyscraper-sized chunk of ice, wishing we could just get a few ice cubes. But only by understanding what’s staring us in the face can we see the secret machinations the committee is bringing to light.
The insurrection of January 6 was just one part of a coup attempt that was planned out in the open. Its procedural component was widely reported in the weeks before the insurrection. We knew that Republican members of Congress were planning to challenge the election during the certification ceremony. Their objections to counting electoral votes were supposed to give Mike Pence an opening to steal the election from his perch as presiding officer of the Senate. Donald Trump publicly pressured Mike Pence to go along with the scheme. Trump also publicly pressured Republican legislators in the Biden swing states to declare their respective elections null and void, and send Trump electors instead of Biden ones. All these efforts have the same basic shape: Baseless conspiracy theories about election fraud justify disenfranchising voters in the Biden swing states.
Trump has always been a conspiracy theorist surrounded by conspiracy theorists. He was, after all, the King of the Birthers. He sent Rudy Giuliani traipsing through Ukraine in search of evidence for plots he read on social media. Meadows became Trump’s chief of staff partly because of his zeal for conspiracy theories. However, after Trump’s election loss in 2020, some of Trump’s more mainstream advisers had stepped back or moved on, and the cranks really got the upper hand.
During that interminable interregnum between E-Day and Inauguration Day, Trump and his cranks huddled in what the Post called a “flailing bid” to reverse the election: “Members of the group assembled in the Oval Office on Friday for a marathon meeting that lasted more than four hours and included discussion of tactics ranging from imposing martial law in swing states to seizing voting machines through executive fiat,” the Post reported on Dec. 21, 2020.
These are all ideas championed in the Powerpoint that Meadows turned over to the January 6 committee. In fairness, a lot of people, including Trump lawyers John Eastman, Jenna Ellis and Sidney Powell, were trying to sell the president and the public on similar crackpot legal theories. We don’t know if the Powerpoint was the Ur-text but it’s useful, because it distills the argument: Pence can short-circuit the election based on outlandish conspiracy theories about electoral fraud.
In late November, Trump publicly called upon state legislatures to overturn the election. Trump made a big show of summoning the Republican leaders of the Michigan state House and Senate to meet with him in the Oval Office. It didn’t work, but summoning them under the gaze of all MAGAland was a brazen attempt to pressure them.
As it turned out, Trump failed to get any state legislature to usurp the will of the people and swap in Trump electors for Biden ones. But Trump wasn’t done. The White House worked closely with GOP groups in several states, which, on no authority whatsoever, sent fake electors to DC. These are the fake electors that Pence would have counted instead of the real Biden electors if he’d gone along with the plot.
At the national level, the plans of Republican representatives and senators to challenge the election at the certification were widely reported in the runup to January 6, although they were depicted as a rift within the GOP caucus, rather than a coup in the making.
The January 6 committee revelations are exciting because they paint a picture of one of the president’s closest advisors on the day of the insurrection, someone who was with Trump and knew his thinking.
But there’s also a risk that in focusing exclusively on what Donald Trump intended, we overlook the complicity of a large number of Republican legislators who were prepared to aid and abet a coup.
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