By Danny R. Johnson
WASHINGTON–Remember what Wednesday’s attempted coup was like. Very soon, someone might try to convince you that it was different. Maybe someone already has.
This has been a leitmotif of the Trump administration: Donald Trump does something outrageous and inappropriate, maybe even illegal. Immediately, there are horrified reactions from across the political spectrum, but pretty quickly, the anger fades. Republican officials test the political winds and decide to keep their heads down. Maybe they even say that what Trump did was just fine. Democratic officials rage but shrug and say there’s just not much they can do.
Don’t let the events of January 6 get memory-holed or excused in the same way. The health of the republic depends both on what swift consequences come—for Trump and for others—and also on how people remember the participants’ actions later on.
As horrifying as the insurrection was, the immediate response was heartening. Republicans who have consistently criticized Trump, such as Senator Mitt Romney and Representative Adam Kinzinger, were quick to pin responsibility on the president. But so were others who are usually more quiescent, like Senator Richard Burr. Several outlets reported that Cabinet-level officials were discussing the prospect of using the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to remove Trump from office. A handful of administration officials resigned. Some Democrats announced plans to introduce articles of impeachment right away, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that Congress should impeach Trump if Vice President Pence and others don’t invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.
But already, the moment to act could be slipping away. After all, Congress certified Joe Biden as president-elect early yesterday morning. Trump even issued a statement—through aide Dan Scavino on Twitter, after the president’s own account was locked—promising “an orderly transition on January 20th.” There are whispers of more resignations, but so far, few prominent officials have stepped down. (The most notable to do so are Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao; the first lady’s chief of staff, Stephanie Grisham; and Mick Mulvaney, an envoy to Northern Ireland who formerly served as acting White House chief of staff.) We’ve heard rumblings about the Twenty-Fifth Amendment before, and they’ve never resulted in anything.
As I wrote before, even before violence erupted, the Senate’s failure to convict Trump and remove him from office after his impeachment last year paved the way for the president to try to overturn the 2020 election. If the nation moves on without punishing Trump, he will have two more weeks to act with impunity.
Nothing indicates that Trump is chastened by the insurrection experience. He published both a video and a tweet Thursday in which he called on the mob to go home peacefully, but he did not condemn its actions, and he repeated the incitements that drove it to riot in the first place. Even his faux–concession statement falls well short. Its mention of a “first term” leaves space for him to continue to contest the race, and besides, we’re past the point of an “orderly transition.” A Trump-incited violent insurrection swept through the Capitol less than 48 hours ago!
Meanwhile, the least scrupulous Trump allies, like Representatives Matt Gaetz and Mo Brooks, are already trying to shift the blame for the riot, claiming that it was the work of left-wing provocateurs. This is preposterous—as the journalist Molly Ball points out, “Trump literally summoned these people to DC, spoke at their event, offered to walk them over to the Capitol and then praised them afterward.”
Others, like Senator Ted Cruz, are trying to split the baby. “The attack at the Capitol was a despicable act of terrorism and a shocking assault on our democratic system,” he said in a statement. “The Department of Justice should vigorously prosecute everyone who was involved in these brazen acts of violence.” If Cruz were serious, he might be calling for prosecution of the president and also himself—after all, as the mob approached the Capitol, Cruz was inside offering frivolous objections to the certification, after weeks of spreading the false rumors that incited the crowd. Cruz is, as usual, not serious. Democratic leaders are already flinching, too. There’s a clear course of action for Congress, as Representative Ilhan Omar understands: impeachment. Instead, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee wrote a letter calling on Mike Pence to invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment—trying to get someone else to deal with the problem using an unproven and dubious solution. (This places House Democratic leaders to the right of anti-Trump conservative commentators at publications such as National Review and The Bulwark.) The House has adjourned until after the inauguration.
That doesn’t absolve members of the administration of their own responsibility to act. If they truly believe that Trump has “lost it,” as one told the New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, they should do something about that, not wait a few days for things to blow over and hope he finds “it.” (Hint: He never had “it.”) The nation is now in the surreal position of having a president whom Twitter deems too dangerous to send messages, but who still is commander in chief and controls the nuclear codes.
Over and over again, we’ve seen political leaders downgrade the most horrifying episodes of Trump’s political career from crises to wacky and unfortunate moments. There are several points in time from which to begin tracing this history, including his June 2015 campaign launch or his suggestion of registering Muslims, but the ideal example is the October 2016 release of the Access Hollywood tape, in which he boasted about sexually assaulting women. The remarks were despicable, and many Republican rightly condemned them and said they would not vote for him. Then their resolve faded. By Election Day, a month later, some had already reverted to backing him. Once he’d won, others reasoned that he was the president and they might as well work with him. Despite having apologized, Trump later reportedly claimed that it wasn’t even him on the tape. When Senator Kelly Loeffler was asked about it on the campaign trail last year, she pretended not to know what the reporter was talking about.
The same pattern manifested after a white-supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Trump initially declined to condemn the marchers—after all, they supported him! When he finally did condemn the violence, he did so on both sides, and he said, “You also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” Republicans were horrified by his coddling of neo-Nazis. But within a few days, most of the controversy died down. It’s now common to hear people insist that Trump said something other than what he said.
A year later, Trump went to Helsinki, Finland, for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. During a press conference after the meeting, Trump said that despite a strong consensus among American intelligence agencies that Russia had hacked emails to interfere in the 2016 election, he believed Putin’s denials over the conclusions of his own government. Once again, Republicans were horrified and condemned Trump’s remarks. But the issue blew over, and no high-profile officials resigned from the administration.
The following year, Special Counsel Robert Mueller released his report on Russian interference in the election. Mueller declined to recommend prosecution, because of Justice Department guidance against indicting a president, and he declined to use the word collusion. Nonetheless, Mueller laid out extensive evidence that people close to Trump and members of his campaign had colluded with Russia. Yet Republican officials will routinely argue that there was no collusion, because Mueller said so. Democratic leaders declined to launch an impeachment inquiry against Trump.
A few months later, the revelation that Trump had tried to extort Ukraine for election assistance using congressionally appropriated funds created the biggest crisis of the presidency. This time, Democrats could not find any way to avoid impeachment. Republicans, however, went through the familiar process. First, they were appalled; then they were merely disappointed; by the end, some were agreeing with Trump’s insistence that his actions had been “perfect.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, said, “If you’re looking for a circumstance where the president of the United States was threatening the Ukraine with cutting off aid unless they investigated his political opponent, you’d be very disappointed. That does not exist.” Once testimony emerged showing that is precisely what happened, Graham demanded full transcripts. Once he got those, he announced that he would not read the transcripts and had “written the whole process off.”
Even after Trump rejected the results of the 2020 presidential election, making bogus claims of fraud, aides insisted that he knew he’d lost and just needed to process it.
Without real work to remember and focus on what happened yesterday, that could all happen again. If Trump is not impeached and barred from serving, he could run (and win) again in 2024. He’s already hinted that he might do so.
As for his aides, the administration resignations are too little and far too late. What happened yesterday was not a sudden anomaly—it was a natural and even likely capstone to Trump’s presidency, as Peter Wehner writes. Resigning now should not absolve anyone serving in the administration. Should they attempt to exercise moral authority, whether now or later, remember that they served a president who incited a violent insurrection.
Both Cruz and Senator Josh Hawley, another ringleader of objections to certifications, are younger men with great ambitions. When they run for president, remember that they worked for weeks to sow false doubts about the 2020 election, doing so not out of principled objection but out of opportunistic political maneuvering. They did so even after seeing an armed mob take over the Capitol.
With a little distance, January 6 could begin to seem like a bad dream or hallucination—or just another eye-roll-inducing weird moment in a weird presidency. It was not. It was an attempted coup, incited, encouraged, and condoned by the president of the United States and the blessings of the Republican Party leadership and its crazed minions. Don’t forget it.