By Robert Reich
The televised hearings of the House Select Committee on the January 6 insurrection, which begin Thursday, mark an historic milestone in the battle between democracy and autocracy. The events that culminated in the attack on the Capitol constitute the first attempted presidential coup in our nation’s 233-year history. The Select Committee’s inquiry is the most important congressional investigation of presidential wrongdoing since the Senate investigation of the Watergate scandals in the 1970s.
To a large degree, the success of those hearings will depend on the Wyoming Republican congresswoman and vice-chair of the committee, Liz Cheney. Although I have disagreed with almost every substantive position she has ever taken, I salute her courage and her patriotism. And I wish her success.
I vividly recall the televised hearings of the Senate Watergate committee, which began nearly a half-century ago, on May 17, 1973. More than a year later, on August 8, 1974 —knowing that he would be impeached in the House and convicted in the Senate — Nixon resigned.
I was just finishing law school when the Watergate hearings began. I was supposed to study for final exams but remained glued to my television. I remember the entire cast of characters as if the hearings occurred yesterday, and I’m sure many of you do, too — people such as North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin, a Democrat, who served as the committee’s co-chair; John Dean, the White House counsel who told the committee about Nixon’s attempted coverup; and Alexander Butterfield, Nixon’s deputy assistant, who revealed that Nixon had taped all conversations in the White House.
But to my young eyes, the hero of the Watergate hearings was the committee’s Republican co-chair, Tennessee Senator Howard Baker, Jr.
Baker had deep ties to the Republican Party. His father was a Republican Congressman and his father-in-law was Senate minority leader for a decade. Notwithstanding those ties, Baker put his loyalty to the Constitution and rule of law ahead of his loyalty to his party or the president. His steadiness and care, and the tenacity with which he questioned witnesses, helped America view the Watergate hearings as a search for truth rather than a partisan “witch hunt,” as Nixon described them.
It was Baker who famously asked Dean, “what did the president know and when did he know it?” And it was Baker who led all the other Republicans on the committee to join with Democrats in voting to subpoena the White House tapes — the first time a congressional committee had ever issued a subpoena to a President, and only the second time since 1807 that anyone had subpoenaed the chief executive.
Fast forward 49 years. This week, Baker’s role will be played by Cheney. Her Republican pedigree is no less impressive than Baker’s was: She is the elder daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney and Second Lady Lynne Cheney. She held several positions in the George W. Bush administration. She is a staunch conservative. And, before House Republicans ousted her, she chaired the House Republican Conference, the third-highest position in the House Republican leadership.
Cheney’s responsibility this week will be similar to Baker’s 49 years ago — to be the steady voice of non-partisan common sense, helping the nation view the hearings as a search for truth rather than a “witch hunt,” as Trump has characterized them.
In many ways, though, Cheney’s role will be far more challenging than Baker’s. Forty-nine years ago, American politics was a tame affair compared to the viciousness of today’s political culture. Republican senators didn’t threaten to take away Howard Baker’s seniority or his leadership position. The Tennessee Republican Party didn’t oust him. Nixon didn’t make threatening speeches about him. Baker received no death threats, as far as anyone knows.
It will be necessary for Cheney to show — as did Baker — more loyalty to the Constitution and the rule of law than to her party or the former president. But she also will have to cope with a nation more bitterly divided over Trump’s big lie than it ever was over Nixon and his coverup of the Watergate burglary. She will have to face a Republican Party that has largely caved in to Trump’s lie — enabling and encouraging it. Baker’s Republican Party never aligned itself with Nixon’s lies. Meanwhile, Cheney’s career has suffered and her life and the lives of her family have been threatened.
The criminal acts for which Richard Nixon was responsible — while serious enough to undermine the integrity of the White House and compromise our system of government — pale relative to Trump’s. Nixon tried to cover up a third-rate burglary. Trump tried to overthrow our system of government. The January 6 insurrection was not an isolated event. It was part of a concerted effort by Trump to use his lie that the 2020 election was stolen as a means to engineer a coup, while whipping up anger and distrust among his supporters toward our system of government. Yet not a shred of evidence has ever been presented to support Trump’s claim that voter fraud affected the outcome of the 2020 election.
Consider (to take but one example) Trump’ phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in which he pressured Raffensperger to change the presidential vote count in Georgia in order to give Trump more votes than Biden: “All I want to do is this,” Trump told Raffensperger in a recorded phone call. “I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have because we won the state.” Trump threatened Raffensperger with criminal liability if he did not do so. Trump’s actions appear to violate 18 U.S.C. § 371, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and 18 U.S.C. § 1512, obstruction of Congress.
The Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation into these activities. Attorney General Merrick Garland has said that the Justice Department will “follow the facts and the law wherever they may lead.” As with Watergate, the facts will almost certainly lead to the person who then occupied the Oval Office.
This week’s televised committee hearings are crucial to educating the public and setting the stage for the Justice Department’s prosecution. Federal district court Judge David Carter in a civil case brought against the Committee by John Eastman, Trump’s lawyer and adviser in the coup attempt, has set the framework for the hearings. Judge Carter found that it was
“more likely than not that President Trump corruptly attempted to obstruct the Joint Session of Congress on January 6, 2021,” and concluded that Trump and Eastman “launched a campaign to overturn a democratic election, an action unprecedented in American history […] The illegality of the plan was obvious.”
Those who claim that a president cannot be criminally liable for acts committed while in office apparently forget that Richard Nixon avoided prosecution only because he was pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford. Those who argue that Trump should not be criminally liable because no president in American history has been criminally liable, overlook the fact that no president in history has staged an attempted coup to change the outcome of an election. Without accountability for these acts, Trump’s criminality opens wide the door to future presidents and candidates disputing election outcomes and seeking to change them — along with ensuing public distrust, paranoia, and divisiveness.
Liz Cheney bears a burden far heavier than Howard Baker bore almost a half-century ago. Please watch this Thursday’s Jan. 6 Committee televised hearings. And please join me in appreciating the public service of Liz Cheney.