Michael Luttig is a highly regarded former federal judge with rock-solid conservative bona fides. Appointed by former President George H.W. Bush, his former clerks include Senator Ted Cruz and John Eastman, the lawyer who helped former President Donald Trump try to stage a coup after the 2020 election. He was also an adviser to former Vice President Mike Pence.
And at the end of the third day of testimony overseen by the bipartisan congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol, Luttig issued a warning: “Donald Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy.”
“That’s not because of what happened on Jan. 6,” he added. “It’s because to this very day the former president, his allies and supporters pledge that in the presidential election of 2024 — if the former president or his anointed successor as the Republican Party presidential candidate were to lose that election — that they would attempt to overturn that 2024 election in the same way that they attempted to overturn the 2020 election. But succeed.”
“I don’t speak those words lightly,” Luttig said. “Except that’s what the former president and his allies are telling us.”
Indeed. They have taken their messages to social media and to political rallies, memorializing their priorities in speeches, e-mail, interviews and other communiques. They want power for power’s sake, and they are willing to disenfranchise voters to acquire and keep it.
Luttig, who has watched all of this up close, knows that Trump and his team are coming back for more.
Those who say Trump is not anti-democratic, or ignore the ongoing dangers he poses, are in denial. After all, Trump’s preference for rule-breaking and law-breaking, along with his thirst for attention and attachment to power, have been evident for decades. The idea that Trump could become president without breaking things — such as the norms, institutions and laws of American government — has been proved deeply wrong.
The testimony and evidence presented in Thursday’s hearing laid it all bare. The theme wasn’t new. Trump, who was trying to corrupt federal agencies, the court system and the executive branch to stay in office after he lost the 2020 election, tried to force Pence to help him corrupt the electoral process as well. Pence, to his everlasting credit, refused.
But new details from the hearing about Pence’s travails were harrowing. Representative Peter Aguilar, a Democrat, revealed that a confidential informant told the Federal Bureau of Investigation that the far-right militia group, the Proud Boys, would have killed Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Jan. 6 if they had found them. A Pence aide, Greg Jacob, testified that he read from the Bible while he and his boss hid inside the Capitol that day, uncertain if they would be assaulted and unaware that a mob armed with baseball bats and other weapons came within 40 feet of their location at one point. Trump was indifferent to Pence’s safety, taunting him in a speech he gave on the Ellipse before the Capitol siege began and then tweeting criticisms of him that stoked the mob’s fury.
“It felt like he was pouring gasoline on the fire by tweeting that,” testified Sarah Matthews, a Trump deputy press secretary working at the White House during the siege. One rioter complained in a video taken that day that Pence might have “caved,” and said that if that turned out to be true the mob would drag “politicians through the streets.”
The hearings also made clear Trump’s state of mind before, during and after Jan. 6. Although Eastman had been told by many in the White House that his plan to overthrow the results of the election was “nutty,” “crazy” or illegal, he and Trump kept pushing. Even after Eastman conceded in front of Trump, Pence and Jacob on Jan. 4 that the plan was illegal, and later sought a criminal pardon from Trump, he and Trump kept pushing. Trump, frustrated by Pence’s unwillingness to go along, condemned him as a “pussy” in an Oval Office phone call with the vice president on the morning of Jan. 6 that was overheard by his daughter, Ivanka, and several other advisers.
Jason Miller, another Trump adviser, testified that the former president dictated most of a statement given to the New York Times on Jan. 5, 2021, that falsely claimed he and Pence were in agreement about the vice president’s ability to block certification of election results the following day. Trump knew at that point that his plan was illegal and that Pence didn’t agree with him — but still he lied about it.
All of this helps establish what lawyers call criminal intent, and will be useful evidence to the Justice Department if it chooses to prosecute Trump. There were already signs yesterday that federal prosecutors had begun targeting high-profile participants in the coup attempt. The New York Times reported that Eastman and Rudolph Giuliani, along with other members of Trump’s legal team, are subjects of a Justice Department probe of efforts to create alternate slates of pro-Trump electors in order to overturn the 2020 election results. The department has also contacted the Jan. 6 committee, seeking transcripts of witness testimony.
So America’s political representatives are doing their jobs, and law enforcement appears to be stepping up as well. US institutions appear to be holding their ground — proof, some say, that concerns about Trump’s attempted coup are overblown. It’s not like Trump got away with it, right?
In 1993, as a reporter covering the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, I took a tour of the underground parking garage below the North Tower. Standing over a deep crater left from a bomb blast that upended cars, shredded concrete blocks and turned rebar into pretzel strands, an engineer told me how proud he was that the skyscraper was still standing.
Two years later, when an FBI agent transported one of the bombers to prison on a helicopter that flew past the buildings, he lifted the terrorist’s blindfold and told him to take a look — the World Trade Center was still standing. The terrorist responded that it wouldn’t be if his network had had more money. Terrorists took the buildings down six years later.
Threats to freedom and democracy don’t simply fade away. And avoiding one disaster doesn’t mean you’ve prevented the next one. Just ask Judge Michael Luttig.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
• Don’t Ever Get Used to Trump’s Contempt for the Law: Jonathan Bernstein
• The Jan. 6 Committee Should Finish Its Job — Quickly: The Editors
• Will Jan. 6 Be a Factor on Nov. 8?: Julianna Goldman
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O’Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering U.S. business and politics. A former editor and reporter for the New York Times, he is author of “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald.”
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