The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Cheney leaves Trump and his GOP apologists reeling

Former vice president Mike Pence is seen via video as the House Jan. 6 select committee holds its first public hearing on June 9. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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Constitutional democracies are rarely destroyed by a single blow. Their citizens often sleepwalk into catastrophe, discovering too late that a degree of timely vigilance could have preserved their system of self-rule.

This is why the work of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection is so important. Its public hearing Thursday was a red alert.

Using less than two hours of prime-time television, the committee issued an urgent plea: Americans must understand the violence they saw on that winter day in 2021 as nothing less than what Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), the committee chair, called “an attempted coup.”

Attempted coups have authors, and with a steely, matter-of-fact eloquence worthy of history’s most able prosecutors, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the vice chair, indicted Donald Trump in every sense but the formal one.

After watching Cheney pile fact upon fact and make connection after connection, the actual prosecutors in the Justice Department (and local prosecutors in Georgia) will have little choice but to issue the actual legal indictments that the treasonous conspiracy of Jan. 6 requires.

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The nation must be clear on this: Failing to achieve accountability for the Jan. 6 insurrection, in the courts and at the ballot boxes, will amount to issuing a license for the enemies of democracy to do this all over again.

Cheney’s standing as a loyal conservative Republican certainly added to her credibility and guarantees her a place on history’s honor roll. But even more critical to her success Thursday night was her understanding of the obstacles before her. She needed to overcome the temptation of the complacent to write off the desecration of our seat of government as the work of mad extremists disconnected from the broader political system.

No. Foes of democracy regularly use mobs for their purposes, and these criminals were acting in concert with the president of the United States. Cheney proved — yes, beyond a shadow of a doubt — that the assault on the counting of the electoral vote was planned, and that thuggish, far-right Proud Boys and Oath Keepers and the rest were part of something bigger. One man set this attempted putsch in motion.

“President Trump,” Cheney declared, “summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack.”

Speaking to the part of her audience made up of Justice Department lawyers, Cheney used the evidence the committee gathered to underscore that Trump knew his election-rigging claim was a gigantic inflammatory lie. It was devastating to see former attorney general William Barr on video calling Trump’s assertions “bulls---,” and to learn that the former president’s own data mavens told him they were false. Trump’s daughter Ivanka was on video saying she believed Barr, not her father.

Key to prosecuting Trump will be proving his corrupt intent. The liar will claim innocence by insisting he truly “believed” that the election was stolen. The more evidence there is that he knew perfectly well that he was peddling, well, “bulls---,” the harder it will be for him to evade the consequences of his actions. Even the most practiced con artists get caught out eventually.

Last, Cheney showed that the mayhem was part of a much broader effort to subvert a free election. She contrasted Trump’s unquenchable will to power with the loyalty of fellow Republicans — at the federal, state and local levels — to the Constitution and the democratic process. Again and again, Trump attacked then-Vice President Mike Pence’s refusal to throw out legitimately chosen electors, even at moments when Pence’s life was in danger.

Cheney did not just let this hang there. “Aware of the rioters’ chants to ‘hang Mike Pence,’” she said, “the president responded with this sentiment: ‘Maybe our supporters have the right idea,’ and Mike Pence ‘deserves’ it.” (Trump has denied saying that.)

If holding Trump accountable is “partisan,” that makes standing up for one of the most conservative Republican vice presidents in history “partisan,” too. And if the story being told is “partisan,” why are so many of the credible witnesses Republicans?

This goes to one other aspect of authoritarian practice that the committee is confronting: Abusers of power cultivate cynicism. Trump’s defenders do not want Americans to grapple with the facts. They want people to believe that there are no truths at all, just selfish interests. Let it go, they say, it’s old news.

In describing the “war scene,” “carnage” and “chaos” of Jan. 6, Caroline Edwards, a U.S. Capitol Police officer badly injured by the Trumpist mob, provided the antidote to this poisonous indifference.

To ignore the war on our Constitution that Trump unleashed is to break faith with Edwards and all the other guardians of our republican traditions. At the very least, Thursday’s hearing showed that defenders of democracy have a fighting chance to awaken a brooding and preoccupied nation.

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