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Robert Reich: Why The January 6 Hearings Aren’t Just About January 6 – OpEd

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Now is a good time to press the pause button and examine what the House Select Committee on the January 6 attack is accomplishing. 

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The committee is clearly building a criminal case against Trump and his closest enablers of seditious conspiracy, a crime defined as “conspiring to overthrow, put down, or destroy by force the government of the United States or to oppose by force the authority thereof.” I expect the committee will make a criminal referral to the Justice Department, handing over all its evidence. Ideally, Trump, along with Giuliani, Powell, Stone, Flynn, Navarro, Bannon, Meadows, and other co-conspirators, will be convicted and end up in jail. 

But the Committee has a second purpose — one that has received too little attention: to stop Trump’s continuing attack on American democracy. 

Even as the committee reveals Trump’s attempted coup in the months leading up to and during the January 6 attack, the attempted coup continues. Trump hasn’t stopped giving speeches to stir up angry mobs with his Big Lie — he’ll be giving another tomorrow in Arizona. He’s actively backing candidates who propound the Lie. Several prominent Republican candidates for the Senate and for governor — such as JD Vance in Ohio, Blake Masters in Arizona, and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania — are running on it. Republican candidates across America are using increasingly violent language. Republicans lawmakers in several states are enacting legislation to take over election machinery and ignore the popular vote. Meanwhile, the lives of committee members and their families have been threatened. Witnesses are receiving gangster-style warnings not to cooperate. 

The committee’s message to all of America, including Republicans: Stop supporting this treachery. 

In other words, the committee’s work is not just backward-looking — revealing Trump’s attempted coup. It is also forward-looking, appealing to Americans to reject his continuing attempted coup. 

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In order to accomplish this, the committee is doing six important things:

First, it’s making crystal clear that the continuing attempted coup is based on a lie — which is why the committee has repeatedly shown Trump’s Attorney General William Barr, saying:

I saw absolutely zero basis for the allegations [of voter fraud], but they were made in such a sensational way that they obviously were influencing a lot of people, members of the public, that there was this systemic corruption in the system and that their votes didn’t count and that these machines controlled by somebody else were actually determining it, which was complete nonsense. And it was being laid out there, and I told them that it was — that it was crazy stuff and they were wasting their time on that. And it was doing a grave disservice to the country. 

Second, the committee is showing that the battle between democracy and authoritarian is non-partisanNot only are the committee’s vice-chairman Liz Cheney and committee member Adam Kinzinger, Republican representatives, but most of the committee’s witnesses are Republicans who worked in the Trump White House or as Republican-elected state officials, or they staffed Republican legislators or served as judges appointed by Republican presidents. 

All appear before the committee as American citizens who are disgusted by and worried about Trump’s attempted coup. When Cheney displayed a message Trump tweeted after the assault on the Capitol began, in which he claimed Vice President Pence “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done,” Cheney asked former Trump White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson for her reaction. Hutchinson responded:

As a staffer that works to always represent the administration to the best of my ability, and to showcase the good things that he had done for the country, I remember feeling frustrated, disappointed, it felt personal, I was really sad. As an American, I was disgusted. It was unpatriotic, it was un-American. We were watching the Capitol building get defaced over a lie.

Third, the committee is appealing to Republican lawmakers to stop supporting Trump’s continuing attempted coup. During the first televised hearing, Liz Cheney issued an explicit warning: 

We take our oath to defend the United States constitution. And that oath must mean something. Tonight. 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. 

Fourth, the committee wants the public to see that average Americans have fallen for Trump’s treachery, with disastrous results. Witness Stephen Ayres, who described himself as “nothing but a family man and a working man” participated in the January 6 attack because Trump “basically put out, you know, come to the Stop the Steal rally, you know, and I felt like I needed to be down here. … I was, you know, I was very upset, as were most of his supporters.” When Liz Cheney asked Ayers, “Would it have made a difference to you to know that President Trump himself had no evidence of widespread fraud?” he replied, “Oh, definitely … I may not have come down here then.”

Fifth, the committee is reminding Americans of their duties to democracy. Committee chair Bennie Thompson, last week:

When I think about the most basic way to explain the importance of elections in the United States, there’s a phrase that always comes to mind. It may sound straightforward, but it’s meaningful. We settle our differences at the ballot box. Sometimes my choice prevails, sometimes yours does, but it’s that simple. We cast our votes. We count the votes. If something seems off with the results, we can challenge them in court, and then we accept the results. When you’re on the losing side, that doesn’t mean you have to be happy about it. And in the United States, there’s plenty you can do and say so. You can protest. You can organize. You can get ready for the next election to try to make sure your side has a better chance the next time the people settle their differences at the ballot box. But you can’t turn violent. You can’t try to achieve your desired outcome through force or harassment or intimidation. Any real leader who sees their supporters going down that path, approaching that line has a responsibility to say stop, we gave it our best, we came up short, we try again next time, because we settle our differences at the ballot box.

Others on the committee have spoken about the danger to democracy of mobs and demagogues. Here’s committee member Jamie Raskin: 

In 1837, a racist mob in Alton, Illinois broke into the offices of an abolitionist newspaper and killed its editor, Elijah Lovejoy. Lincoln wrote a speech in which he said that no transatlantic military giant could ever crush us as a nation, even with all of the fortunes in the world. But if downfall ever comes to America, he said, we ourselves would be its author and finisher. If racist mobs are encouraged by politicians to rampage and terrorize, Lincoln said, they will violate the rights of other citizens and quickly destroy the bonds of social trust necessary for democracy to work. Mobs and demagogues will put us on a path to political tyranny, Lincoln said. This very old problem has returned with new ferocity today, as a president who lost an election deployed a mob, which included dangerous extremists, to attack the constitutional system of election and the peaceful transfer of power. 

Finally, the committee is showing that Trump’s attempted coup is ongoing. Near the end of last week’s hearing, Cheney revealed that:

After our last hearing, President Trump tried to call a witness in our investigation. A witness you have not yet seen in these hearings. That person declined to answer or respond to President Trump’s call and instead alerted their lawyer to the call. Their lawyer alerted us and this committee has supplied that information to the Department of Justice. Let me say one more time, we will take any effort to influence witness testimony very seriously.

I have no idea whether the hearings will lead to criminal indictments and convictions of Trump and his enablers, but I do believe the hearings are finding their way into the public’s consciousness. This may prove to be as — if not more — valuable than a criminal proceeding. Not even a criminal conviction will change the minds of those who believe Trump’s Big Lie; to the contrary, it may make them even more suspicious or paranoid, possibly leading to further violence. But the hearings may begin to convince Trump supporters that he’s a dangerous charlatan. 

The hearings already appear to be having an effect. The percentage of Republicans who say Trump misled people about the 2020 election has ticked up since last month, while a majority of Americans say Trump committed a crime. At the same time, Trump’s enormous fundraising operation has slowed. A New York Times/Siena College poll last week that showed nearly half of Republican primary voters would rather vote for a Republican other than Trump in 2024. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who may run in 2024, has been gaining on Trump in some polls, including in New Hampshire, the first primary state, where one recent survey had DeSantis statistically tied with Trump among Republican primary voters. 

In 1954, I watched the Army-McCarthy hearings from our living room sofa — my father and I squinting into a tiny television screen (my father yelling “son-of-a-bitch!” every time McCarthy or his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, spoke). McCarthy had picked a fight with the U.S. Army, charging lax security at a top-secret army facility. The army hired Boston lawyer Joseph Welch to make its case. At a session on June 9, 1954, McCarthy charged that one of Welch’s young staff attorneys had ties to a Communist organization. As the television audience looked on, Welch responded with the lines that ultimately ended McCarthy’s career: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” When McCarthy tried to continue his attack, Welch angrily interrupted, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”

Almost overnight, McCarthy’s immense national popularity evaporated. Censured by his Senate colleagues, ostracized by his party, and ignored by the press, McCarthy died three years later, 48 years old and a broken man. 

Is there a lesson here?

Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and writes at robertreich.substack.com. Reich served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fifteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good," which is available in bookstores now. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism," which is streaming now.

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