Few of The President's Men
A bitter irony of the January 6 Committee is that it's paving a road to rehab for Constitutional vandals like Bill Barr.
Edited by Sam Thielman
YOU CAN READ A MILLION evaluations of the January 6 Committee as a spectacle and as a political force. I want to focus on a dynamic that is coalescing within the committee's presentation of the coup: a path back to respectability for the former president's men.
Some of this is an inevitable result of the committee's investigation into the insurrection and the Stop The Steal swindle, and some of it is a political choice made by the committee. The committee was always going to speak with figures who had been in positions where they could observe or participate in the events and structures under inquiry. That's a matter of basic due diligence. It also presents a political opportunity to those interviewed by the committee: Disavow the event under inquiry, and gain credibility with the committee by aiding its investigation. That suits the interests of a committee whose legitimacy is not accepted by much of the right, since it allows the committee to say: Even top members of the Trump administration thought Stop The Steal was groundless and dangerous. Don't take it from us, take it from them.
First came Jared and Ivanka, unsurprisingly given their function as liaisons to everyone MAGA considers libs. But on the second day of the hearings, it was Bill Stepien, the 2020 campaign manager and, egregiously, Bill Barr. Stepien, who ran the campaign that established the lie that the election would be stolen, bragged about being on "Team Normal"—that is, the faction that wasn't Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, Mark Meadows, Mike Flynn and so on. Barr, as we already knew, found Stop The Steal to be a bridge too far. But in the context of these hearings, the committee is positioning Barr as a truth-teller, providing "some of the most riveting" testimony as if he's making assertions against his interest rather than jockeying for position in post-Trump professional life. Every single one of these people was with Trump, holding whatever peace they had for the ten or so weeks between the election and January 6 as Trump peddled his lie, to say nothing of the services they provided Trump during his presidency.
And thus the origins of January 6 became a story of, as Politico summarized, "Trump vs. Team Normal." The villains, accordingly, are only a few of the president's men—Meadows the crony, Powell the space cadet, Rudy the drunk, Eastman the Constitutional sapper, and so on. Betsy DeVos, meanwhile, thought about the 25th Amendment before quitting—after the insurrection—and currently has the temerity to retcon what, I repeat, was a resignation after the insurrection as "a line in the sand." USA Today, bless them, swallowed that and used it as a headline.
Jeet Heer's column this week noticed how Liz Cheney is draping the January 6 Committee in conservatism. Her role is to surgically remove Trump from the conservative infrastructure he captured and which to this day rides for him. She's offering an off-ramp back to the GOP of, say, Mike Pence, rather than the people who wanted to lynch him. Trump "ignored his own campaign leadership, his White House staff, many Republican state officials," went Cheney's line. A lot of people, in her telling, were on Team Normal. Today's hearing is going to focus on the Passion of Mike Pence, the Trump bootlicker now delicately attempting to position himself as what I guess you'd call a moderate Trumpist, which means a nationalist who’d prefer there be no coup. The committee gave a pass to Ginni Thomas, the wife of a Supreme Court justice who didn't recuse himself from a case concerning the committee's access to what we now know included communications from Ginni, and only now is reconsidering after discovering the extent of her contacts with Eastman.
Barr's example demonstrates the hollowness of what Cheney is offering. As attorney general, Barr's power depended on sparing Trump the consequences of his 2016 campaign's solicitation of aid from Russia. First Barr materially misrepresented the already-weak Mueller report. Then, in the first months of 2020, Barr abandoned the Mike Flynn prosecution after Flynn had pleaded guilty; he also undermined the Justice Department's sentencing recommendation for Trump crony Roger Stone. Along the way, he gave a speech accusing the non-religious of threatening not only the constitutional order but "our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system." That summer, Barr unleashed the Joint Terrorism Task Forces on people protesting racist policing. You could go on. After the election, Barr told the Justice Department to investigate "voting irregularities," exactly what Giuliani and Powell purported to do, only Barr recognized that the obvious bullshit they were peddling couldn't be something the department put forward in court. An attorney general who made the Justice Department a shield for the president and a sword against his enemies—and who resigned only after it was obvious both that Trump had lost the election and that he wasn’t going to concede—now postures as a defender of the Constitution. It suits the committee's interests to let him do so.
IN SEPTEMBER, I wrote that "eight months [after the insurrection,] there is no political response to the insurrection at all, only a security response aimed at its foot soldiers." The committee represents a belated political response.
A moment of political opportunity, likely never an enormous one, was wasted in the 18 months between January 6 and today. Back then, in perhaps the most important of the committee's findings, some of the Republican congressmen who voted against certifying the election result—an effort backed by about half the GOP House caucus—sought pardons from Trump for, in so many words, abetting the insurrection. They recognized after the coup failed that they were in deep shit. Remember Mitch McConnell's tortured attempt at damning the insurrection during Trump's second impeachment.
But the Democratic Congress, the White House and Justice Department didn't press their advantage, such as using the Fourteenth Amendment's powers to unseat congressional champions of the insurrectionists, against a demonstrated threat to the Constitution. No longer do the insurrection's elected allies feel any pressure. They rejected the results of the election without consequence and surprise, surprise, they reject the legitimacy of the January 6 Committee. In February, the Republican National Committee declared the insurrection "legitimate political discourse" and assailed the Justice Department for a "persecution of ordinary citizens." This week, according to the Washington Post's tally, over 100 candidates for state and federal office won primaries after embracing the lie that Biden stole the 2020 election. The committee is striking while the iron is cold.
In its big-tent definition of Team Normal, the January 6 Committee is obscuring something even more important. Having faced no consequences for insurrection, the erosion of American democracy—such as it is—is accelerating by other means. One element of it is the overwhelming assault on voting rights, which is to say access to the ballot for marginalized Americans, that is a priority of GOP governance in several statehouses. Another element is the renewed focus on taking control of elections-arbitrations positions at the county level. A third and admittedly more structural element of it is unlimited, untraceable campaign money permitted by the Supreme Court in Citizens United. This is democracy dying in broad daylight, through means far more durable—after all, Jim Crow lasted eighty years—than Proud Boys smashing through Capitol windows.
The insurrection, the Republicans' legal/political hollowing-out of democracy, and the insufficient consequences meted out by Democrats are in a dialectical relationship. They feed off each other. The social compromise sought by the January 6 Committee, like the one sought by President Joe Biden ("...you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends"), is to put as many of Trump's enablers and abetters, both personal and structural, on Team Normal as possible. Then they look up and ask Rorschach to save them.
It's not better if the coup takes place through the established legal/political processes. It's only more respectable. Frankly, both routes to stifling American democracy—the bullet and the lawsuit—are well rooted in the American political tradition. The pre-January 6 status quo, where we're always on the verge of a violent coup by reactionary street fighters, is not a status quo worth returning to, let alone entrenching. But the January 6 Committee was never going to be a forum interested in addressing the widespread complicity in and rotted structural bulwarks against January 6.
CAROL ROSENBERG reports that Hadi al-Iraqi is going to plead guilty to attacking protected targets as a commander in the Taliban insurgency, a move toward getting him out of Guantanamo Bay. Carol:
Gone from his case were allegations that he was part of the sweeping Qaeda conspiracy to rid the Arabian Peninsula of non-Muslims. Nor was there any claim of responsibility or knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks, which prompted the creation of the Guantánamo prison and the war court.
Don't miss Carol's successful FOIA to get photographs from the dawn of the Guantanamo Bay forever prison 20 years ago.
MAYOR ERIC ADAMS is cutting the budget for New York City’s public schools and denying he's doing anything of the sort. Adams' plan to increase the police budget didn't get through, however.
AL EWING AND STEFANO CASSELLI wrote and illustrated a classic Magneto issue in X-Men Red #3. If you're an Acolyte, buy this one immediately in a comic book store.
JORDAN UHL started a newsletter that I immediately paid $50 for:
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I'm somewhat heartened to see that the talking heads are pointing out that these Team Normal folks are not heroes, that it's good that they are finally telling their stories long after Jan. 6, but that true 'patriots' would have spoken up when they could have exposed the malfeasance in real time. This too little-too late criticism needs to be shouted from the rooftops. Okay, so you're not a total scumbag, but you're no hero either.