by Michael Liss
Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog…
It could have worked. It almost did. It may in the future.
A lovely little coup attempt by Former President Trump and his posse. A little violence. A sprinkling of eager state and local “public servants” who planned to please the then-President by spinning gossamer tales of phantom voters and secret shredders. Brigades of lawyers, a few absolute kooks, but others both well-placed in government or in influential positions, and deadly serious. This last group included 17 State Attorneys General who looked in their mirrors each morning and saw “Future Really Important Republican Persons” staring back at them.
Let’s not back away from the obvious. January 6th wasn’t a single, isolated moment of acting-out by an angst-driven set of peaceful patriots driven mad by the loss of their idol. It was the punctuation mark on an intense stretch of unrelenting pressure by Trump and his allies to crush the democratic process. That the Ship of State eventually stayed afloat, that people, including many Republicans, pushed back enough to block Trump’s power grab, is to its and their credit. But, to quote Star Trek’s Scottie when the Enterprise was under assault, “I dannae if she can take any more, Captain!”
The more we learn, the worse it gets. Let’s start with 45. I don’t know whether Donald Trump actually believes much of what he says, but, late in life, he’s found a role he can play where accountability doesn’t exist. He knows his followers love a good show. He knows the media, even the so-called liberal media, would rather cover someone colorful and newsworthy than old, boring Joe Biden. And, through all of it, it doesn’t matter what the 1/6 Committee, or investigative reporters, or state prosecutors might find. He knows he’s untouchable. Others may pay a price, but not Trump.
The Trump cast of bad guys is extensive, but part of Trump’s genius has always been the ability to attract third- and fourth-rate talents, elevate them to positions of power, and encourage them to commit acts of vandalism. Most of these folks should never be let near any government role whatsoever, but they have one thing in common—they measure success by how loyal they are to Trump and how much damage they can do on his behalf. He values them based on the same criteria.
Of course, you can’t run a government just with malevolent yes men. Politics, at times, can resemble professional hockey. Goons are great for messing up the other team’s stars, but you need a few skill players as well. Another part of Trump’s talent, given far too little attention, is that he’s also always been able to hire competence. Those folks come in two flavors—the smart guys on the make who seek to use their positions with Trump as vehicles for their own priorities, and those who come on board out of a sense of duty to something higher (like the country and the Constitution). If left alone, they will make the trains run on time, while Trump is free to indulge himself elsewhere and provide the deliverables to his constituency.
For the latter group, which included people of real ability and prior accomplishment, they found their time on the inside particularly hard on their self-esteem. Trump detested each and every one of them and let them know it. Some of this sprang from his contempt for actual expertise. But more often than not, it was strictly of the moment: He hated being told no on anything, whether it was policy or politics. Those who wouldn’t bend to him were “weak,” where “weak” often meant lacking enough courage to obey, even if obeying meant doing something stupid or illegal.
Of all Trump’s servants, William Barr may have been the most useful, and Trump compensated him richly for his talents. In return for politicizing the office to a degree not seen since John Mitchell, Barr became Trump’s Oliver Cromwell. Both men agreed on a vision of a closed-fisted Imperial Presidency, backed by a raft of conservative “Trump Judges” who were energized to engage in some judicial activism. Barr made that happen.
What Barr accomplished in just a little under two years will influence policy for decades. Barr loved it. He enjoyed being lionized by conservatives and relished the “Liberal Tears.” What he wasn’t expecting was that serving Trump was an unlimited obligation, regardless of previous payments. Barr gave Trump something (he announced an investigation into possible election fraud on November 9th), but he didn’t deliver what the boss demanded—a result that would support reversing the election results.
We don’t know all of what went on between these two men behind closed doors, but we do know Trump was furious, just as he would be furious with Mike Pence a couple of weeks later. He owned these men; how could they not deliver? Barr, to his credit (and perhaps with an eye towards how history would view him if the coup failed) refused to budge, and instead announced his resignation on December 4th, effective December 23rd.
It was a real setback for Trump. The DOJ endorsement of fraud would have been a great get, providing more legal grounds for Trump judges to side with him, and help move some conservative heavyweights to get involved, when they were queasy about coups. Still, Trump was undeterred, and returned to his playbook: every person is susceptible to the choice (or threat) of pain and pleasure. With Barr leaving, It was the turn of Jeffrey Rosen (now elevated to Acting Attorney General) to occupy the hot seat.
The term “unenviable position” was probably invented for Rosen. A respected attorney with substantial prior government experience, he had also done a fair amount of working the phones for Trump’s benefit while Assistant Attorney General. Trump fell upon him immediately, even before Barr left, demanding loyalty, and insisting Rosen do what Barr had refused to do—claim fraud and deploy the DOJ to support Trump’s reelection. This was a bridge too far for Rosen, who must have felt the DOJ’s Barr-spurred prior investigation was dispositive. Rosen also had to be doing a little calculating as to his personal position. Barr could leave and be in demand, if he chose. Rosen had bounced back and forth between government work and his former law firm, Kirkland & Ellis. Would private practice still welcome him if he pushed unfounded claims of election fraud?
Rosen wasn’t Trump’s only iron (or person) in the fire. Trump had been pressuring and sweet-talking state and local officials since right after the election. It’s probably impossible to tabulate the number and nature of the attempts. What we do know of includes calls to Governors Kemp of Georgia and Ducey of Arizona; strategy sessions with Bryan Cutler, the Republican Speaker of the Pennsylvania House; and inviting Republicans leaders from Michigan’s State legislature to the White House for a little chat. Trump got a lot of lip service and he got recounts, but he didn’t get the movement he needed—one state of several to agree to ignore election results and try to put up Trump Electors. If one did, others would follow.
His problem was that, while Republicans were more than ready to suggest Democratic vote fraud, they hadn’t yet moved, as a group, to the idea they could just disregard the voters because they wanted to. And they were unable to buy into the wilder claims of fixed voting machines because those same machines had returned many of them to office and contributed to a good showing by House Republicans. Trump had miscalculated the incentives (at least to that point).
Procedural clocks were running down as well. Electors had to be certified by the states and sent to Congress by December 14th. In a Hail Mary, on December 11th, 16 State Attorneys General joined a suit by Texas AG Ken Paxton, trying to overturn election results in other states. Their bizarre logic was that their states had voted for Trump, so Biden states were unfairly depriving them of their choice. To Trump’s dismay, “his” Supreme Court failed to back him on this. The Electoral Votes were certified.
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like working for Trump at this point. He was consumed with retaining power by any means necessary. He surrounded himself with enablers and kooks. Rudy, Sidney Powell, and Mike Flynn floated both wild conspiracy theories and grotesque strategies, including declaring Martial Law and having the military seize voting machines.
In the last two weeks of December, new advisors led Trump to a new strategy. Trump would continue pressure on state and local officials (his Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, headed to Georgia on December 22nd to twist some arms), but, more importantly, the President himself would bear down on two men, the unlucky Jeffrey Rosen and the heretofore unfailingly loyal Mike Pence.
These new approaches arose, because, as always, Trump had been able to find the right, utterly unprincipled folks to benefit him. The Pence strategy—that the Vice-President had the authority under the 12th Amendment to select among competing slates of Electors, was the product of a spectacularly disingenuous memo by a conservative heavyweight, John Eastman. You could write volumes about Eastman, but his analysis, essentially a Rube Goldberg contraption that required a lot of coordination among Republicans at several levels, was just possible enough that it should make you lose a great deal of sleep.
The Rosen strategy amounted to either pushing him aside, or forcing him to do Trump’s bidding. This may have been possible because Trump had finally found his man at the DOJ, the then-acting head of the Civil Division, Jeffrey Clark. Clark was perfect for the job—he was an utter partisan devoid of any scruples, and he had a price that Trump would be all too happy to pay: Rosen’s job.
Clark went over Rosen’s head and started communicating with Trump, in one instance bringing in Congressman Scott Perry of Pennsylvania for a meeting. He also got busy drafting a letter to Georgia, indicating that the DOJ saw evidence of fraud, and urging the Georgia Legislature to hold a special session to pick a new slate of Electors.
But Rosen (and his Deputy, Richard Donoghue, who was also getting pressure) resisted this, and other schemes, including a proposed DOJ filing with the Supreme Court challenging the results in six swing states. Think about that for a second—a Department of Justice (any Department of Justice) mobilized to serve the purely political interests of the President, including making completely unfounded claims. Rosen said no.
The year was almost over, the January 6th counting of Electors was drawing nearer, and Trump’s people were getting more desperate. What might have been called pressure before were now morphing into naked threats. The message to Rosen and Donoghue was clear: the DOJ will do Trump’s bidding…or there will be consequences. Clark let it be known that Trump would replace Rosen with Clark himself in order to have the DOJ move forward on Trump’s allegations and prevent Biden from being Inaugurated. Meadows (who knew his time in power was drawing to a close) was advancing one bizarre theory after another to get Rosen to change his mind. And Trump, astoundingly, was still working the phones pressuring local officials (“just do it”)—and Mike Pence.
There is a lot we don’t know about the last week before the January 6th rally and riot. What we do know is that Trump went public with his frustration with Pence on January 5th (presumably hoping that Pence would hear the growls of Trump’s base and change his mind). We also know that Trump sent Clark to Rosen with a message—that Rosen would be out and Clark in as of January 4th, unless Rosen played ball and signed onto the letters and Supreme Court filing. For Rosen still said no, and Clark told him his last day would be January 3rd.
Rosen wouldn’t yield. First, he demanded to hear Trump’s message in person, and then he called in the cavalry. It was made clear to Trump that a Rosen firing would lead to mass resignations. This was buttressed by White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who told Trump the plan wouldn’t work. After what no doubt was a considerable amount of screaming, Trump relented. Rosen stayed, and, as a result, there would be no letter to Georgia or filing with SCOTUS.
Time was almost certainly up. There was yet another effort to convince Pence, but it was futile. Nonetheless, Trump was not done, and he was certainly not done testing people’s resolve. He still had muscle left. I am not going to replay the sacking of the Capitol by Trump loyalists on January 6th, because there is still far too much we don’t yet know, including the level of participation from the White House and from inside Congress itself. One thing seems clear—any White House hopes that the violence would give it more time to contest the election were dashed by Nancy Pelosi’s iron-spined ability to get the House to reconvene the same day. Despite the cravenness of many House Republicans, Joe Biden would be inaugurated two weeks later.
Was this all just a Beer Hall Putsch? Or was (and is) this just a failed precursor for the real thing three years from now? One thing we know for sure is that Republicans have been enacting a dizzying variety of voter-suppression laws. Another is that public-spirited election officials at the state and local level have been doxed and threatened, and many are leaving as a result. A phalanx of Trump acolytes, many of whom believe that a vote for a Democrat is essentially fraud to begin with, are running for the very offices that administer elections, including Secretaries of State. Some will be elected. Trump’s hold over the Republican Party remains tight and apostates are ruthlessly culled. The incentives that last time drove many to stick with their obligations to the voters and the law are being eroded, almost daily. It’s not hard to see a future where it’s just easier to flip the election to Trump, regardless of whatever the voters say. Eastman’s Rube Goldberg monster has moved from farfetched to plausible. To coup may no longer seem inexcusable in polite company.
None of this would be possible if the public were strongly to reject it, but, more and more, they seem to doubt the very foundations of government. I’m leery of polling results that seem outlandish, because respondents are not always answering the questions that the pollsters think they are asking, but clearly centrifugal forces are pulling the country apart. Trump’s core message of nihilism and anger resonates not just with Republican voters, but also incites an increasing number of Democrats, who are coming to believe that Republicans will do anything to win. In that kind of an atmosphere, people can convince themselves to go along with just about anything.
Democracies like ours rest on two things—the willingness of the public to accept the essential founding mythologies of a people united in at least a desire for the common good, and the certainty that, no matter how bad an election result might be, there’s always a next time.
I’m not getting warm fuzzies.