If you want to know why I’m so alarmed about the current state of my former party, look at the dueling documents released last week by the Senate Judiciary Committee about President Donald Trump’s attempt to pressure the Justice Department into helping to overturn the 2020 election.
Committee Democrats issued a lengthy report documenting all of the pressure Trump applied to acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen to substantiate bogus claims of election fraud. Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Clark was nauseatingly eager to cooperate by sending a letter to Georgia’s governor and legislative leaders urging them to convene a special session to appoint pro-Trump electors in a state that Trump lost. When Rosen wouldn’t cooperate, Trump threatened to replace him with Clark.
Trump wasn’t subtle about what he wanted: “According to Rosen, Trump opened the [Jan. 3] meeting by saying, ‘One thing we know is you, Rosen, aren’t going to do anything to overturn the election.’ ” Trump was dissuaded from carrying out this scheme only by the threat that Justice Department leaders would resign in protest. “In attempting to enlist DOJ for personal, political purposes in an effort to maintain his hold on the White House,” the Democrats write, “Trump grossly abused the power of the presidency.”
Yet the committee Republicans issued their own report to whitewash the former president. They pretended that his refusal to accept the election results had nothing to do with his desire to stay in office. Heaven forbid! He was merely, selflessly “ensuring that . . . the American people would have confidence in the results.” (So, denying the results would raise confidence in them?) And he wasn’t pressuring Justice Department leaders to substantiate his outlandish allegations of fraud but merely making sure “that they were aware of allegations of election fraud . . . and that DOJ actually did their job by properly investigating them.”
Are the Judiciary Committee Republicans this gullible — or this cynical? Which would be worse?
The crux of their defense is that Trump ultimately did not order the Justice Department to send out the Clark letter and did not fire the acting attorney general, so he “did not abuse his constitutional authority.” That’s a bit like saying a defendant did nothing wrong because he never carried out his plan to tunnel into the bank’s safe — while ignoring the fact that he barged through the front door with a gun. Because, of course, Trump’s attempts to overturn the election were not limited to pressuring the Justice Department — or even to pressuring state-level Republican officials.
Trump repeatedly told Vice President Mike Pence not to certify the results. He evidently hoped to carry out the plan outlined in the infamous “coup memo” from his legal adviser John Eastman. Then, on Jan. 6, while Congress was meeting to certify the election, Trump incited a mob attack on the Capitol. To this day, Trump is still demanding that the election be overturned.
It is mind-boggling that a defeated president won’t accept the election outcome — the sine qua non of democracy. That has never happened in U.S. history. What is even more alarming is that more than 60 percent of Republicans agree with his preposterous assertion that the election was stolen and want him to remain as the party’s leader.
Most Republicans couldn’t care less about the latest revelations of Trump’s coup plots. There isn’t an iota of outrage on the right over the Eastman memo or the Judiciary Committee revelations. If Trump runs for president again — as he shows every sign of doing — he will be a shoo-in for the nomination.
We only narrowly defeated the Trump coup in 2020 — and his loyalists are now purging Republican officeholders who refused to cooperate with this assault on democracy. It would be foolhardy to imagine that Republican officeholders who go along with the “big lie” now — as almost all of them do — will resist it in 2024.
To prevent a successful coup in 2024, it is imperative to elect Democrats at every level of government in 2021 and 2022 — to state legislatures and governorships, as well as the House and Senate. Democrats should break a Senate filibuster to pass voting rights legislation that would help ensure free elections. But even if that doesn’t happen and Republicans rig the rules, small-D democrats can still prevail by turning out en masse to vote for Big-D Democrats.
It doesn’t matter if you think the Build Back Better bill is too small or too big. What matters now is preserving our endangered democracy. We must not get so distracted by relatively minor policy quibbles that we lose sight of the true stakes in 2021, 2022 and 2024.