The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s enablers must face consequences, too

President Donald Trump with then-House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) at the White House in September 2018. (Evan Vucci/AP)
5 min

There’s no doubt that Donald Trump was the instigator of the 2020 insurrection. But the former president’s schemes never would have gotten far (or even off the ground) without the participation of right-wing media executives, lawyers and pliant state officials. Without holding these enablers accountable, democracy and the rule of law will remain at risk.

At Fox News, for example, it was not simply the hosts who promulgated the “big lie” of a stolen election, according to the legal filing against the network by Dominion Voting Systems. (Disclaimer: I am an MSNBC contributor.) Former House speaker Paul D. Ryan, as a board member for Fox Corp., knew full well that the network was lying to viewers. Ryan even wrote to News Corp. head Rupert Murdoch to warn the network not to spread the election lie. Yet Ryan remained in his position, reaping the benefits of his position and lending his prestige to the network.

Ryan evidenced his stunning lack of self-awareness during a recent interview with Charlie Sykes, founder of the Bulwark. Sykes asked whether Ryan, as a Fox Corp. board member, bears responsibility for “a company that is pumping toxic sludge, racism, disinformation, and attacks on democracy”:

Paul Ryan: I do. I have a responsibility to offer my opinion and perspective and I do that, but I don’t go on TV and do it right. So I offer my perspective, my opinion, often. I’ll just leave it at that. Okay. …
Charlie Sykes: Is there a red line for you at any point where you said “I cannot be associated with a company that does this”?
Ryan: I want to see the conservative movement get through this moment. And I think Fox is a big part of the constellation of the conservative movement. [crosstalk]
Sykes: Is it the solution or the problem?
Ryan: Oh, no, I think it’s gonna have to be a part of the solution if we’re going to solve the problem in the conservative movement. Because there isn’t a bigger platform than this in America. So I think the conservative movement is going through a lot of churn and a lot of turmoil and I don’t like where it is right now. You know that. … So it’s a long process, a big institution, but I do want to make sure that we get the conservative movement in a good place in America again.

In the name of preserving a political movement, Ryan remained silent until a lawsuit forced him to testify. He continues serving as a board member to that organization masquerading as a news network. Even if only by public shaming, the former speaker should also be held accountable. Without figures like him enabling Fox News’s lies, the machinery of the “big lie” would have sputtered to a stop.

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The same is true for the many lawyers who played a part in the coup attempt. They filed more than 60 bogus challenges to the 2020 election on behalf of the Trump campaign; devised the phony elector scheme; and assisted Trump in attempting to strong-arm state election officials. For the sake of accountability and to deter other lawyers from similar efforts in the future, those involved must be disciplined. If they committed crimes, they must be prosecuted.

Progress has already been made: John Eastman, the architect of the coup plot, faces disciplinary charges from the California state bar. The D.C. bar has similarly filed ethics charges against Jeffrey Clark, the former Justice Department official whom Trump attempted to appoint as acting attorney general. And Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani has been suspended from the New York bar.

In addition, CNN reported last week: “The disciplinary office that regulates attorney conduct in Colorado is taking steps toward potentially bringing an ethics complaint against Jenna Ellis, the lawyer who played a prominent role in former President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election.” Project 65, the nonprofit group that filed complaints against Ellis and others involved in the coup attempt, have also filed complaints against the Arizona lawyers who filed bogus fraud claims on behalf of former gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake.

All criminal litigants deserve a vigorous defense, but lawyers have no obligation to represent those who raise meritless claims. They cannot conspire with clients to undermine the Constitution. Just as the Justice Department must prosecute the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol, so, too, must lawyers, who are officers of the court, be held accountable for their role carrying out Trump’s schemes. This is the essence of the rule of law.

That brings us to another category of enablers: the state Republican officials who signed on as phony electors. As the House Jan. 6 select committee reported: "In five of these States — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin — the certificates they signed used the language that falsely declared themselves to be ‘the duly elected and qualified Electors’ from their State. This declaration was false because none of the signatories had been granted that official status by their State government in the form of a certificate of ascertainment.”

Some of these individuals raised concerns, but eventually went along. They, too, were part and parcel of the scheme to defraud the American people. Simply because they did not initiate the plot does not excuse their participation in it.

State prosecutors such as Fani Willis, the district attorney in Fulton County, Ga., as well as special counsel Jack Smith, cannot look the other way simply because these individuals did not physically enter the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. These officials still did violence to the Constitution and cannot walk away scot-free. If they are not held accountable, what message would that send to the next group of lawmakers who participate in future coups?

Again, none of these enablers is the worst malefactor in the assault on our democracy. But just as the Magnitsky Act holds responsible the foot soldiers in foreign governments who commit human rights violations as a means of disabling the regimes that rely upon them, so too must our system hold responsible those who took part in Trump’s schemes. Until we do, the threat to democracy will persist.