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Trump’s Attempted Coup Failed, But at What Cost?

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Defenders of former President Donald Trump’s attempted coup have deployed many smokescreens to distract the public and help him avoid accountability. The 2020 presidential election really was rigged, they say. Vote-counting was flawed, and most likely fraudulent. Trump’s repeated efforts to strongarm individuals and institutions to do his bidding were just responses to corruption. And so on.

Witnesses to Trump’s corruption, by contrast, have a far simpler job: They only have to recite the facts. But as the fourth day of testimony overseen by the bipartisan congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol made clear, doing so can come with enormous personal sacrifice.

A series of witnesses, most of them Republicans, testified Tuesday about why they chose to follow the law rather than disenfranchise voters. Asked to commit crimes to demonstrate their loyalty to Trump and the Republican Party, they responded by variously saying that their allegiance was to the rule of law, the US Constitution and their states. They showed in vivid and poignant detail that the fate of America’s democratic institutions hung on the integrity of individuals — and it was a slender thread.

When one of Trump’s hatchet men, Rudolph Giuliani, asked Arizona House Speaker Russell “Rusty” Bowers to find ways of replacing Joe Biden’s electors with Trump’s after the 2020 election, Bowers refused. “You are asking me to do something that is counter to my oath, when I swore to the Constitution to uphold it,” he said. He repeatedly asked Giuliani for proof of electoral fraud. “We have lots of theories,” Bowers said Giuliani responded. “We just don’t have the evidence.”

Bowers, a Republican, wanted Trump to win the election but as he noted in his journal at the time, “I do not want to be a winner by cheating.” It’s not a sentiment that the former president shares, based on his track record and  evidence from the hearings that he was directly involved in some of the scheming. (“Hmm,” I can imagine Trump thinking. “I’ve always been OK with cheating.”)

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who got a call from Trump himself, also offered testimony that demonstrated the gulf between people like him and the former president. Trump famously phoned Raffensperger days before Congress was to certify the election results on Jan. 6, 2021, begging him to manufacture the 11,779 votes he needed to surmount Biden’s victory margin in Georgia. Raffensperger, a conservative Republican, refused. And he did so with a clear conscience.

“I knew that we had followed the law and we had followed the Constitution,” Raffensperger testified on Tuesday. “And I think sometimes moments require you to stand up and just take the shots. You’re doing your job. And that’s all we did.”

Trump, meanwhile, came across as a corrupt, 19th-century ward heeler in his phone call to Raffensperger, which was recorded. “So what are we going to do here folks?” Trump asked during the one-hour call. “I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes.”

It’s not hard to envision how the Republican Party would have reacted if former President Barack Obama tried to corrupt a secretary of state to sabotage the results of a presidential election he had lost. Yet when confronted with the reality of Trump’s scheming and thuggery, most of the GOP’s leadership has been mute.

Public servants such as Bowers and Raffensperger, by contrast, did the right thing and paid enormous costs. Bowers testified that his office was swamped by tens of thousands of hostile phone calls, texts and e-mail messages from Trump supporters. One person accused him of being a pedophile; another approached him armed with a gun. Raffensperger said he was doxed, making it easier for Trump supporters to harass him. His wife received lewd “sexualized texts” and his daughter-in-law’s home was burglarized.

Such attacks were widespread. Egged on by the former president, Trump supporters routinely threatened local officials and electoral workers in swing states with violence, as videos and other evidence presented at the hearing showed. Trump loyalists also attacked their targets’ reputations, with Trump himself indifferent to the fallout.

Some of the most jarring testimony came from Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, a former election worker in Georgia whom Trump supporters falsely accused of engaging in electoral fraud. She, her mother and her grandmother were all victimized. Moss, who is Black, said she received racist messages “wishing death upon me, telling me that you know, I’ll be in jail with my mother, and saying things like, ‘Be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920.’”

For his part, Giuliani publicly likened Moss and her mother to drug dealers and called on Georgia’s state legislators to have the Moss’s workplaces and homes searched. Moss said the various threats she received upended her entire life, and she continues to fear for her safety. “I don’t want anyone knowing my name,” she testified. “I don’t want to go anywhere. I second-guess everything that I do…. All because of lies.”

If the president of the United States sees fit to bring the weight of his office to bear on vulnerable individuals such as Moss and her mother, asked Representative Adam Schiff, “Who among us is safe?”

The Jan. 6 hearings have to ensure that partisan animus and violence don’t compromise personal safety and democracy ever again. It would be a travesty to squander the courage of anyone who put their well-being and livelihoods at stake protecting the right to vote.

As Representative Liz Cheney, a Republican, noted at the hearing: “Our institutions do not defend themselves. Individuals do that.”

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• The Plot Darkens in the Jan. 6 Hearings: 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.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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