The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Team Normal? Better to call them Team Silent.

Byung J. Pak, a former U.S. attorney, testifies on June 13 in the second hearing of the House Select Committee's investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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Byung J. Pak thought he was doing the right thing when he chose to resign quietly as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia in January 2021 instead of publicizing that his office found no evidence to substantiate President Donald Trump’s claims of election fraud in Atlanta.

Pak’s boss at the Justice Department, Richard P. Donoghue, said he’d understand if Pak held a news conference to “blow the whistle” after being forced to step down for what Trump viewed as insufficient loyalty but suggested a low-key departure would be best.

Pak bit his tongue. “You are a class act,” Donoghue said in a thank-you note on Jan. 4, 2021.

Silence, of course, is exactly what Trump & Co. wanted from Pak. Two days later, the “Stop the Steal” mob stormed the Capitol under the spell of what Pak and so many other officials in Trump’s administration and campaign knew to be lies but declined to denounce publicly.

Both Pak and Donoghue can be considered members of what Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien described during his deposition before the select House committee investigating Jan. 6 as the thin streak of “Team Normal” around Trump.

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But we could just as fairly describe them as “Team Silent.”

These gentlemen, including former attorney general William P. Barr, deserve a modicum of credit for not joining the plot to overturn the 2020 election results and for cooperating now with Congress. But they erred by mostly staying quiet when democracy itself was in its gravest hour of danger. They bear some degree of culpability for standing on the sidelines as the “big lie” metastasized into a cancer that continues to infect our politics.

As Pak slipped away, it fell to other Georgia Republicans to defend the integrity of the state’s elections, including Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp. Both won GOP primaries for reelection last month.

Pak, a former Republican state legislator in Georgia, said one reason he chose not to make a fuss was because he did not want to create drama that would affect the outcome of the two U.S. Senate runoffs on Jan. 5. He added that Donoghue, who was acting deputy attorney general, told him that he and a few others at the Justice Department were “trying to hold the ship together” through the inauguration and that it would be unhelpful to make waves.

That’s an artful reference to Jeffrey Clark, the assistant attorney general for the environment and natural resources division, who wanted Trump to put him in charge of the Justice Department. Clark offered to intervene in a Trump campaign civil suit and urge the Georgia legislature to call a special session, which could have enabled the state to send an alternate slate of electors to void Joe Biden's win and allow Trump to remain president. To their credit, Donoghue and acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen threatened to resign during an Oval Office meeting on Jan. 3 if Trump took that step.

The threat of widespread resignations appeared to deter Trump, who feared the embarrassment that would come with such a donnybrook. Everything — in Trump’s view — was best done quietly — even the resignations by the unwilling. That helps explain why none of this became public until after Biden’s inauguration.

Sadly, 17 months later, most congressional Republicans remain on Team Silent. Some might disapprove of Trump’s lies about the 2020 election but most fear saying so publicly. And it’s easy to understand why. Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.) was defeated Tuesday in a primary because he voted to impeach Trump for inciting the insurrection. Four of the nine other House Republicans who did so are retiring. Those running for reelection are mostly tight-lipped about Trump, with the glaring exception of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who co-chairs the select committee. Polls show her trailing pro-Trump rivals ahead of an August primary.

As Pak appeared before the committee, Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman testified at a federal courthouse a few blocks away in the trial of a father and son who are accused of being among the first 15 people to breach the building on Jan. 6. The father, Kevin Seefried of Delaware, was photographed parading a Confederate flag past a portrait of abolitionist Charles Sumner, who was caned by a proslavery congressman on the Senate floor in 1856.

Goodman, who is Black, testified that Seefried jabbed at him with the butt end of that flagpole as he sought to keep the mob out of the Senate chamber.

Seefried, who was found guilty on Wednesday, descended on Washington alongside thousands of others in part because Trump had urged them to — and in part because those who could have raised their voices about Trump’s plans to flout the results failed to do so.

Perhaps a crowd would not have gathered on the Ellipse — or maybe it would have been smaller and less angry — if people in Trump’s orbit had said publicly what they told Trump privately. The louder their chorus, the smaller the mob. Instead, when it counted, Team Normal was struck dumb — and let the country down.

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