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Opinion A question for Garland: Do you know how it feels for POTUS to target you?

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks to members of the news media at the Justice Department on Feb. 22. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
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Attorney General Merrick Garland is surely familiar with Republicans’ indifference to (if not encouragement of) threats of violence directed at government officials. When he vowed to investigate threats against local officials such as school board members, Senate Republicans harangued him, falsely accusing him of labeling parents as “domestic terrorists.” Republicans also objected when he vowed to look into passengers assailing airline personnel over mask rules.

So Garland could not have been entirely surprised by testimony before the House Jan. 6 committee on Tuesday detailing the threats, doxxing and violations of privacy brought upon public officials from MAGA zealots egged on by the “big lie.”

The targets of violence were not only politicians such as former vice president Mike Pence, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers. They also included election workers such as Ruby Freeman and her daughter Shaye Moss, who were harassed for nothing more than serving their country responsibly:

Moss’s testimony before the committee was transfixing: “It’s turned my life upside down. I no longer give out my business card. I don’t transfer calls. I don’t want anyone knowing my name.” She added: “I don’t go anywhere with my mom. I don’t go to the grocery store at all. I haven’t been anywhere at all. I’ve gained about 60 pounds.” And she testified: “I don’t do nothing anymore. I don’t want to go anywhere. I second-guess everything I do. It’s affected my life in a major way. In every way. All because of lies.”

As Freeman put it in her video testimony to the committee: “Do you know what it feels like to have the president of the United States target you?”

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Donald Trump and his thuggish supporters have ruined these women’s lives. The defeated former president’s attacks on them were also part of a broader campaign he initiated against election workers in many states to promote his lie that the election was stolen, prompting his supporters to increase the volume of their wrath against those who would determine his political future.

That orchestrated violence was the background for Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling to plead in a 2020 news conference: “Someone’s going to get hurt, someone’s going to get shot, someone’s going to get killed. ... Mr. President, you have not condemned these actions or this language. Senators, you have not condemned this language or these actions. This has to stop. We need you to step up. And if you take a position of leadership, show some.” Yet that same night, Trump was at it again, flogging the “big lie.”

The pleas from Sterling echo warnings from White House staff, Trump relatives and Fox News personalities who begged Trump on Jan. 6 to call off the mob. For hours, he did nothing. To the contrary, he tweeted out an incendiary message about Pence despite warnings of violence at the Capitol. Trump had become an expert at manipulating mobs and then sitting back to watch the chaos.

This is the stuff of a Russian thugocracy, not American democracy. As Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) spelled out in his closing remarks on Tuesday: “Other countries use violence to seize and hold power. Not in America.” Well, not until now.

When Trump used the powers of his office to target individuals, he became “dangerous,” Schiff observed. His full remarks are worth reiterating:

Garland would be wise to heed that warning. His prosecutors have gone after the foot soldiers who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, but those individuals likely would not have been in D.C. that day if not for Trump. Similarly, no one would have launched the deluge of threats and smears at Freeman and Moss if it weren’t for the former president’s lies.

Had Trump done what every other losing Republican presidential nominee to date has done — concede the election and wish his opponent well — none of this would have occurred. Imagine if he followed the example of John McCain, who pledged on election night in 2008 to “do all in my power to help [Barack Obama] lead us through the many challenges we face.”

And it was not just Trump who used mob violence to pursue his ends. Do not forget that Republican elected officials could see the MAGA crowd’s verbal attacks on social media and read about their threats to ordinary Americans. They could see the mobs at election sites where official recounts were ongoing. Yet, like Trump, the Kevin McCarthys and the Ted Cruzes of the GOP did not cease their attacks on the election or stop telling supporters they’d been robbed and cheated.

To this day, most Republicans remain attached at the hip to Trump and his cult of violence. (Imagine choosing the legacy of Trump over that of genuine patriots and honorable public servants such as Bowers, Sterling and Raffensperger.) Unless the primacy of the rule of law, the majesty of free elections and the peaceful transfer of power are reestablished, the GOP’s descent into thuggery will continue.

To ensure that our democracy survives and that violence is not regarded as an alternative to victory at the ballot box, Trump’s conduct must have consequences. Refusing to prosecute Trump and his inner circle would only encourage irreverence to democracy. What a monumental failure of leadership that would be.

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