WASHINGTON (AP) — To understand how Donald Trump’s desperation and lies became a potent danger to democracy, consider the ginger mints.
Mints featured in one of the absurdist but toxic episodes fleshed out in the Jan. 6 hearings, which now pause even as the Justice Department presses ahead on a parallel criminal investigation that it calls the most important in its history.
Here’s how one conspiracy theory, in a dark sea of them, was born: A mother-daughter team at a Georgia elections center shared the treat during a long election night. Someone videotaped them and chose to believe the mint mother gave to the daughter was a USB port. Trump’s lawyer spread the accusation that the video caught the women using the device to try to corrupt the election against the president.
Frantic to stay in power, grasping at anything, Trump ran with the lie. He attacked the mother by name, branded her a “professional vote scammer,” and soon vigilantes showed up at a family home intending to execute a “citizens’ arrest,” the committee was told. For the love of mints.
The episode fed into a web of fabricated stories, melting under scrutiny like snowflakes in a Georgia summer. The hearings illustrated how those stories fueled the anger of Trump’s supporters across the US and especially those who stormed the Capitol, many armed and out for blood.
Long before the committee called its first witness, scenes of the rampage had been burned into the public consciousness. What new information could possibly come from it? Plenty, it turned out. And as the inquiry continues, with more hearings planned in September, still more evidence is being gathered.
With seven Democrats working with two Republicans on the outs with their party, the committee did what Trump’s two impeachment trials couldn’t — establish a coherent story out of the chaos instead of two partisan ones clawing at each other.
“American carnage,” Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, lead manager of the second Trump impeachment and a committee member on this inquiry, said of the latter’s bottom line. “That’s Donald Trump’s true legacy.” Not the carnage Trump spoke of in his inaugural address.
In a methodical, even mannerly process rarely seen from Congress, the panel exposed behind-the-scenes machinations laying bare the lengths Trump and his enablers went to keep him in power and the extent to which his inner circle knew his case about a stolen election was bogus. Some told him that to his face; others humored him.
At every turn the hearings made clear Trump was willing to see the legislative branch of government and democratic processes in state after state consumed in the bonfire of his vanities.
He was told the rioters were out to find his vice president, Mike Pence, at the Capitol and hang him.
Trump’s chief of staff related to another aide the president’s thoughts on the matter, that Pence “deserves it,” according to testimony.
Trump was told many of his supporters that day bore arms. He didn’t “effing care.”
“They’re not here to hurt ME,” he said, according to testimony. “Take the effing mags away. Let my people in, they can march to the Capitol from here. Let the people in, take the effing mags away.”
It is unlikely he said “effing.” He wanted the magnetometers, or metal detectors, removed from security lines so loyalists in town for his rally could pack the space, underscoring a Trump obsession with crowd size that was evident from the first day of his presidency.
The committee pinpointed a range of renegade if not criminal options that were floated in the White House, which taken together resembled a tin-pot coup in the country Ronald Reagan called democracy’s “shining city upon a hill.” A city, Reagan imagined, “built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.”
That bedrock convulsed as Trump and his allies contemplated an executive order to seize voting machines and other steps that democracies don’t take.
“The idea that the federal government could come in and seize election machines, no,” Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, said as he recounted a White House meeting that devolved into a screaming match. “That — that’s — I don’t understand why we even have to tell you why that’s a bad idea for the country.”
Trump leaned on Republican-led states to find more votes for him — 11,780 in Georgia would do it, he said. State Republicans were pressed to appoint fake electors. He hectored Pence to do what he didn’t have the power — or the will — to do, when called upon to certify the election.
When all else failed, Trump told his supporters to “fight like hell’ and encouraged them to march down to the Capitol, saying he’d be joining them.
Saying no to the boss is never easy. Saying no to the US president you work for is another thing altogether.
But Trump’s plotting was foiled by Republicans in the states that mattered, conservative aides, bureaucrats and loyalists-to-a-point who ultimately said no, no, no.
When Trump demanded to be taken to the Capitol on Jan. 6, the committee was told, his Secret Service detail said no.
When Trump pressed his vice president to derail the certification of Joe Biden’s election, four years of supplication and admiring glances by Pence came to an end. He said no.
The Republican election official in Georgia said no to cooking the results to deliver Trump the state, never losing his cool on the phone with the president. The Republican House speaker in Arizona, pressed to appoint fake electors, invoked his oath and said no way.
Two Justice Department leaders in succession said no to him. When he moved to appoint a compliant third, Justice Department officials told him in the Oval Office that if he did so, they would quit en masse and the new man would be left “leading a graveyard.”
All of that left the president with an inept cadre, mostly of outsiders, to tell him what he wanted to hear. One sells pillows.
Even Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, perhaps the most loyal of loyalists and a man who voiced plenty of delusional statements on behalf of his client, acknowledged at one point that there was nothing more to Trump’s accusations of a rigged election than speculation.
“We’ve got lots of theories,” he told Rusty Bowers, Arizona House speaker. “We just don’t have the evidence.”
Yet the comment — as related to the committee by Bowers — was made in the context of pressing him to appoint fake electors anyway, which Bowers refused to do. And it was Giuliani who stoked the USB conspiracy theory that prompted the FBI to direct the mother into hiding and made her daughter fearful of being out in public.
The Constitution demands that presidents “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Failure to do so can be a crime.
With the summer hearings over, attention now shifts to the Justice Department, where Attorney General Merrick Garland has vowed to hold wrongdoers “at any level” accountable, whether present at the Capitol or not, and said as recently as this week that “no person is above the law.”
He’s made no public statements as to whether the department might pursue a criminal case against Trump, noting that the agency does not conduct its investigations in public. Yet he said he regards this one as the “most important” and sweeping it’s ever undertaken.
Some legal experts have said the hearings identified a range of potential crimes for which the ex-president might conceivably be prosecuted. Corruptly obstructing an official proceeding. Conspiracy to defraud the US. Inciting a riot. Even seditious conspiracy.
But these crimes are easier to casually talk about than to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, especially against a former president and one who might run again.
As the hearings unfolded, Democrats were surprised to find themselves standing in admiration, if not awe, for the deeply conservative Rep. Liz Cheney, the poker-faced Republican on the committee who, despite her measured words, made clear her icy disdain for Trump and the many Republicans in Congress who appear to remain in thrall to him.
She did not countenance the Trump defenders who argued he was manipulated by outside “crazies.”
“President Trump is a 76-year-old man,” she said. “He is not an impressionable child. Just like everyone else in our country, he is responsible for his own actions and his own choices.”
Facing a Trump-backed primary opponent in August, her congressional seat in deep-red Wyoming in danger, she framed the stakes for fellow Republican lawmakers at the first hearing: “I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”
Democrats and liberals nationwide as well as many Republicans are pouring money into her race, which she well could lose.
From the first hearing, June 9, watched by an estimated 20 million people, to the eighth on Thursday night, the committee told a seamless story stitched from the testimony of sober and evocative witnesses.
The panel introduced to the nation the harassed and haunted election workers from Georgia, a young White House aide who saw and knew a lot, little-known Justice officials who proved to be a bulwark against Trump’s scheming, and more.
Her name is Ruby Freeman, but everyone in the Georgia community where she’s spent her whole life knows her as Lady Ruby, the words on the T-shirt she wore on Election Day.
She hasn’t worn that shirt since, says she never will. Her explanation for why not, broadcast to America, did more than make for captivating television. It put a human face on the impact of the pressure-and-smear campaigns wielded by the president and his allies.
For weeks, the country heard from lawyers at the highest echelons of government and campaign aides and White House workers present in the room with Trump for some of his more untethered moments.
Lady Ruby, and her daughter, Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, were none of those.
They were election workers in Fulton County, Georgia’s most populated, where Shaye Moss said she took particular pleasure in distributing absentee ballots to the elderly and disabled and helping residents navigate the voter registration page.
When Giuliani publicized the sham video about a USB handover and Trump jumped on it, the women’s lives took a sharp turn.
One day, Shaye Moss told the committee she got a call from her grandmother. She was “screaming at the top of her lungs” that strangers had shown at her door trying to force their way in to find her mother and her.
Since then, she said: “I don’t want anyone knowing my name. I don’t want to go anywhere with my mom because she might yell my name out over the grocery aisle or something. I don’t go to the grocery store at all. I haven’t been anywhere at all.
“I’ve gained about 60 pounds,” she said. “I second guess everything that I do. It’s affected my life in a — in a major way. In every way. All because of lies.” She spit out that last word.
Lady Ruby was in the committee room as her daughter spoke and at one point gently held her hand.
“Now I won’t even introduce myself by my name anymore,” Lady Ruby said in her earlier videotaped testimony. “I’m worried about who’s listening. I get nervous when I have to give my name for food orders. … I’ve lost my name, and I’ve lost my reputation.”
In 1973, the nation was riveted by a young White House lawyer, John Dean, a participant in the Watergate scandal who delivered hours of harmful testimony about the Nixon White House during congressional hearings while fielding the most memorable question of all: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”
The Jan. 6 hearings delivered another witness whose words will be long remembered even if they may not be as impactful as Dean’s were in the proceedings that helped force a sitting president out of office.
She was Cassidy Hutchinson, the mid-20s White House staffer and aide to chief of staff Mark Meadows whose age and anonymity were belied by the lasting damage of her fly-on-the-wall testimony June 28. She described witnessing a president unbound.
In her composed account, the president was prone to fits of rage, heaving a porcelain plate of food against a White House wall when he learned his attorney general had publicly contradicted his claims of vast voter fraud. (She grabbed a towel to help the valet clean up dripping ketchup.)
In her telling, the president was aware on the morning of Jan. 6 that loyalists in Washington were armed but was so determined to have their support at a rally that he demanded security be eased.
It was she who heard from her boss, Meadows, that Trump had brushed off the mob’s threat to hang Pence from the makeshift gallows the insurrectionists had erected outside the Capitol — that Trump thought the vice president deserved that fate.
It was she who was told by the White House counsel, Cipollone, that it was imperative to stay away from the Capitol despite Trump’s desire to go.
“Keep in touch with me,” Hutchinson quoted Cipollone as telling her. “We’re going to get charged with every crime imaginable if we make that movement happen.”
She had once recalled in an interview published on her college website being “brought to tears” when she learned she’d been selected for a White House internship.
Years later, though, she’d recall her disgust on Jan. 6 upon seeing a tweet from Trump saying Pence didn’t have the courage to do what needed to be done — reject electors from the battleground states and help overturn the results.
“As an American, I was disgusted,” she testified. “It was unpatriotic. It was un-American. We were watching the Capitol building get defaced over a lie.”
Fiona Hill, a leading witness in Trump’s first impeachment because of her insights as the president’s Russia adviser, said Hutchinson took all sorts of risks to step up and tell what she knew, so early in her career. Despite her junior position in the White House, she exercised the power of listening to the senior people around her, and so will shape history.
She understood, Hill told The Associated Press, that “the most powerful thing you can do is tell the truth. She will certainly be defined by that. It’s an extraordinarily brave act for her.”
Sunday night massacre?
The hearings laid bare how the Justice Department — if not democracy itself — was brought to the brink not only by Trump’s outside pressure but also by an accomplice from within.
Jeffrey Clark was a little-known lawyer who joined the department only in 2018, as its chief environmental enforcement official, and by 2020 was leading its civil division.
He was a prime cheerleader for Trump’s voter fraud claims and the president weighed making him acting attorney general, a position where he could have done real damage. Clark had been stealthily advancing plans to challenge the election results without telling his higher-ups.
Three senior Justice officials testified to the committee, among them the acting attorney general at the time, Jeffrey Rosen. The men described in granular detail how they presented a united front against Trump’s badgering.
“Just say that the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me and the R. Congressmen,” according to handwritten notes from Rosen’s deputy, Richard Donoghue, that conveyed what the president told the two men and that were shown at the hearing. “R.” was short for Republican.
It all culminated in an Oval Office meeting on the Sunday evening three days before the Capitol attack, when the question hanging over the session was whether Trump would fire Rosen and elevate Clark. The plan had already progressed to a point that White House call logs cited by the committee were, by that afternoon, referring to Clark as the acting attorney general.
The meeting opened, Rosen testified, with Trump telling the group, “One thing we know is you, Rosen, you aren’t going to do anything” to overturn the election.
You’re right, Mr. President, Rosen said he replied.
As the meeting continued, Trump was told the Justice officials in the room — except Clark — would resign if Rosen were fired. Potentially hundreds of federal prosecutors would walk out the door, too.
Such a crisis would eclipse the Saturday Night Massacre of 1973, when the attorney general and his deputy both resigned rather than execute Richard Nixon’s order to fire the Watergate prosecutor.
Trump backed down. Rosen would keep his job. But Trump had one last question for him: What happens to Clark now? Are you going to fire him?
No, Rosen said, he didn’t have the authority to — only Trump did. And that wasn’t going to happen.
“All right,” Rosen said. “Well, then we should all go back to work.”
The last scheduled hearing, in prime time like the first, examined 187 minutes from the time Trump left a rally stage sending his supporters to the Capitol to the time he ultimately appeared in a Rose Garden video to tell the insurrectionists “go home, we love you, you’re very special.”
Until then he had watched the melee on Fox News, tweeted his displeasure with Pence and resisted the entreaties of his horrified aides and even family members to say something to tamp down the violence. He even spent time calling senators asking them to block the certification of Biden’s election, the committee said.
The hearing crystallized the degree to which the insurrectionists on their smartphones were tuned into any words from Trump as they assaulted the complex.
Secret Service radio transmissions described to the committee revealed agents at the Capitol trying to get Pence to safety and passing goodbye messages to their own families. The mob came within 40 feet or 12 meters of Pence.
The panel made a detailed case that Trump had been derelict in his duties. He did not summon the military or Homeland Security or the FBI. Outtakes from a video Trump recorded Jan. 7 showed him resisting parts of the script prepared for him.
“I don’t want to say the election is over,” he said. He still doesn’t.
The hearings produced enough words for a classic novel of scheming and corruption, longer than George Orwell’s dystopian “1984,” far longer than Niccolò Machiavelli’s 16th century power study, “The Prince,” and in the ballpark of “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” Tom Wolfe’s take on greed and deception from the 1980s era of Trump the New York developer and man about town.
In that period, Reagan spoke often of America the shining city, a notion handed down from the Puritans, but perhaps most poignantly in his farewell address in 1989. “How stands the city?” he asked rhetorically.
These days, intact but endangered, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol found. Intact because enough of the president’s men and women, public servants and state officials said an emphatic, effing, no.
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