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The insurrection is only the tip of the iceberg

Behind the insurrection of 6 January was a coup plot that was months in the making, and which involved a dastardly cast of characters

‘The rally on 6 January was a last-ditch attempt to intimidate Pence with the threat of violence into fulfilling his role in the coup.’ Photograph: Jon Cherry/Getty Images

After thousands of posts appeared for weeks on a website called detailing plans for the 6 January attack on the Capitol, including how to form a “wall of death” to force police to abandon defensive positions; after Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, warned his senior aides of “a Reichstag moment” like the 1933 burning of the German parliament that Hitler used to seize dictatorial power; after insurrectionists smashed several ground floor windows of the Capitol, the only ones out of 658 they somehow knew were not reinforced, that allowed rioters to pour inside; after marching to the chamber of the House chanting “Hang Mike Pence!”; after pounding on the locked doors; and as the Capitol police led members in a run through the tunnels under the Capitol for safe passage to the Longworth Building, Congressman Jody Hice, a Republican of Georgia, raced by a Democratic colleague, who told me Hice was screaming into his phone: “You screwed it up, y’all screwed it all up!” (Hice has denied the incident occurred, but the Democratic congressman stands by his account.)

Hice, an evangelical minister, professor of preaching at a Southern Baptist seminary, and radio talkshow host before his election in 2014, has notably declared that freedom of religion should not apply to Muslims and that the Sandy Hook massacre of 26 people at an elementary school by a deranged shooter occurred because liberals were “kicking God out of the public square”.

He was tasked to present a challenge to Georgia’s electors before the joint congressional session convened on 6 January to certify the electoral college victory of Joe Biden. Hice performed his assignment as part of the far-rightwing Republican faction, the Freedom Caucus, directed by Congressman Jim Jordan, of Ohio, who was in constant touch that day with Mark Meadows, the Trump chief of staff and former Freedom Caucus member, and a watchful Trump himself. Just as the violent insurrection launched, and paramilitary groups spearheaded medieval style hand-to-hand combat against the police and burst into the Capitol, Hice posted on Instagram a photo of himself headed into the House chamber, with the caption, “This is our 1776 moment.”

To whom was Hice shouting that “y’all” had screwed it all up? It seems likely it was Meadows. And what had they screwed up? They had screwed up the coup that led to the insurrection.

The insurrection was not the coup itself. It was staged as the coup was failing. The insurrection and the coup were distinct, but the insurrection emerged from the coup. It has been a common conceptual error to consider the insurrection alone to be the coup. The coup, however, was an elaborate plot developed over months to claim that the votes in the key swing states were fraudulent, for Mike Pence as the presiding officer of the joint session of the Congress to declare on that basis that the certification of the presidential election on the constitutionally mandated date could not be done, to force that day to pass into a twilight zone of irresolution, for House Republicans to hold the floor brandishing the endless claims of fraud, to move the decision to the safe harbor of the House of Representatives, voting by states, with a majority of 26 controlled by the Republican party, to deny both the popular vote and the electoral college vote to retain Trump in office, for protests to breakout at federal buildings, and for the president to invoke the Insurrection Act to impose law and order.

Presumably, any gesture to forestall the coup by the joint chiefs would be communicated at once to Trump from his agent, Kash Patel, a former aide to far-right representative Devin Nunes), sworn enemy of the “Deep State”, embedded as chief of staff to the acting secretary of defense, and presidential orders would be issued to countermand. The rally on 6 January – “will be wild”, Trump promised – was a last-ditch attempt to intimidate the vice-president with the threat of violence into fulfilling his indispensable role in the coup, to lend support to the Republicans objecting to certification, and to delay the proceedings into a constitutional no man’s land.

Rioters storm the US Capitol on 6 January 2021. Photograph: John Minchillo/AP

The insurrection may also have been intended to provide a pretext for precipitating clashes with anti-Trump demonstrators, following the example of the street violence and multiple knife stabbings perpetrated in Washington by the neo-Nazi Proud Boys chanting “1776” on 12 December, and which would then be an excuse for invoking the Insurrection Act. In the criminal contempt citation of Meadows for his refusal to testify before the select committee investigating the US Capitol attack, the committee noted that Meadows sent an email the day before the assault to an unnamed individual “that the national guard would be present to ‘protect pro-Trump people’ and that many more would be available on standby”. From whom would “pro-Trump people” be protected?

In the midst of the attack, the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, managed to reach a preoccupied Trump, who was riveted viewing the unfolding chaos on television at the White House, closely monitoring whether the coup would finally succeed, taking phone calls from Jim Jordan and a host of collaborators, and fending off urgent pleas to call it off from his daughter Ivanka. Trump’s first reply to McCarthy was to repeat “the falsehood that it was antifa that had breached the Capitol”, according to the Republican representative Jaime Herrera Beutler.

McCarthy argued: “It’s not Antifa, it’s Maga. I know. I was there.” “Well, Kevin,” said Trump, “I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.” “Who the fuck do you think you are talking to?” McCarthy inquired in an uncharacteristic display of testosterone that soon was replaced with his regular order of servility before Trump and Jordan. The absence of antifa, and McCarthy’s refusal in the heat of the moment to lend credence to the phantom menace, may have condemned any false-flag thought of invoking the Insurrection Act. Meanwhile, the bayonet-ready national guard idly awaited orders for hours to quell the actual insurrection.

The coup was thwarted by the justice department’s rejection of Trump’s strong-arm tactics, the Pentagon’s denunciation of any hint of imposing martial law, the rebuff by state election officials to Trump’s claims of fraud, and, finally, Pence’s refusal to utter his scripted lines. At the 6 January rally, Trump said: “I hope Mike is going to do the right thing. I hope so. I hope so. Because if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election.” But Pence had already stated that he would do no such thing. Then, Trump said: “And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country any more … So, we’re going to, we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. I love Pennsylvania Avenue. And we’re going to the Capitol …” The insurrection was on.

The coup was hardly Trump’s full-blown brainchild. It was packaged for him. It was adapted, enhanced and intensified from longstanding Republican strategies for voter suppression. The coup was a variation on the theme from a well-worn playbook. Trump eagerly grasped for the plan handed to him.

More than a year before the election of 2020, in August 2019, conservative operatives in closely connected rightwing organizations began preparing a strategy for disputing election results. A “Political Process Working Group” focused on “election law and ballot integrity” was launched by Lisa Nelson, the CEO of the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec), heavily funded by the Koch brothers’ dark money syndicate, the Donors Trust.

Nelson is also a member of the secretive Council on National Policy (CNP), composed of more than 400 rightwing Republican leaders, a roster that includes Ginni Thomas, the ubiquitous rightwing zealot and wife of supreme court justice Clarence Thomas, and Leonard Leo, vice-president of the conservative Federalist Society and the Judicial Crisis Network, “a $250m dark money operation” to pack the federal courts and deny Democratic appointments to the bench, according to the Democratic senator Sheldon Whitehouse.

The investigative reporter Anne Nelson, in her book Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right, describes the CNP as a nexus of “the manpower and media of the Christian right with the finances of western plutocrats and the strategy of rightwing Republican political operatives”.

A board member of the CNP, Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer at the center of a host of rightwing groups, assumed control over the Alec-originated project and moved it forward. She is also a board member of the Bradley Foundation, which is a major funder of conservative organizations, including Alec and the CNP. Most importantly, she has directed the Bradley Foundation to serve as the chief funder of a group of which she is chairman, the Public Interest Legal Foundation (Pilf), a principal conservative organization seeking to purge voter rolls of minorities and immigrants, file suits that accuse local election officials of “fraud”, and attempt to overturn election results. At a February 2020 meeting of the CNP devoted to election tactics, the Pilf president, J Christian Adams, advised: “Be not afraid of the accusations that you’re a voter suppressor, you’re a racist and so forth.”

Mitchell was instrumental in devising the blueprint for the coup. On 10 December 2020, 65 leading members of the CNP signed a succinct step-by-step summary of the completely elaborated plot that went little noticed except on the coup-friendly rightwing website Gateway Pundit:

The evidence overwhelmingly shows officials in key battleground states – as the result of a coordinated pressure campaign by Democrats and allied groups – violated the constitution, state and federal law in changing mail-in voting rules that resulted in unlawful and invalid certifications of Biden victories. There is no doubt President Donald J Trump is the lawful winner of the presidential election. Joe Biden is not president-elect. Accordingly, state legislatures in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Nevada and Michigan should exercise their plenary power under the constitution and appoint clean slates of electors to the electoral college to support President Trump. Similarly, both the House and Senate should accept only these clean electoral college slates and object to and reject any competing slates in favor of Vice-President Biden from these states. Conservative leaders and groups should begin mobilizing immediately to contact their state legislators, as well as their representatives in the House and Senate, to demand that clean slates of electors be appointed in the manner laid out in the US constitution.”

Mitchell was by then a Trump campaign legal adviser, with direct access to Trump and working on the Georgia challenge to the results. The Trump campaign had filed a lawsuit a week earlier, on 4 December, claiming there were “literally tens of thousands of illegal votes”. On 30 December she sent the petition to Meadows with 1,800 pages of exhibits of supposed fraud, which Meadows promptly forwarded to the acting attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, who was under tremendous pressure from Trump to intervene on his behalf to throw out the election results.

“Pure insanity,” the acting deputy attorney general, Richard Donoghue, told Rosen. Meadows pressured Rosen again on 1 January. “Can you believe this?” Rosen wrote Donoghue. “I am not going to respond …” The next day, Trump called the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, to instruct him to “find 11,780 votes, which is one more than [the vote deficit] we have, because we won the state”. Cleta Mitchell was on the call with Trump. “Well, Cleta, how do you respond to that? Maybe you tell me?” asked Trump. She accused Raffensperger of withholding records that would prove there were more than 20,000 fraudulent votes and rigged voting machines. “All we have to do, Cleta, is find 11,000-plus votes,” said Trump.

On 4 January, Trump brought Pence to the Oval Office to be pressured not to certify the results by a former Chapman University law professor, John Eastman, who was also a director of the Pilf that Mitchell chaired, and had been recruited to play professor to the slow-learning Pence, the Pygmalion of the putsch. Eastman had written a memo, “January 6 scenario”, laying out precisely how Pence should conduct the stoppage of the electoral college count to “create a stalemate that would give the state legislatures more time to weigh in to formally support the alternate slate of electors …”

Eastman’s memo filled in stage directions for Pence that followed the well-developed coup plot. All Pence had to do was repeat the lines he was given: the rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain. His general counsel, Greg Jacob, however, informed him that if he obeyed Trump he would “betray his oath to uphold our laws and the constitution of the United States. That was a fool’s errand.”

Donald Trump on 6 January 2021. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Trump electors in the swing states had already met on 14 December to prepare to usurp the Biden ones. That day Trump summoned William Barr to the White House to demand his support for claims that the election returns in the swing states were fraudulent. Barr would have undoubtedly been aware of the meeting of the Trump electors rehearsing their part in the coup. Long having done Trump’s bidding from consciously lying about the Mueller report on Russian interference in the 2016 election to aid Trump onward, he now reached a line he would not cross and told Trump that his assertions of fraud were “bullshit”. And then he resigned. He would have no part of the coup. In came Rosen, who was subjected to rounds of coercion.

When Mitchell’s role was disclosed, the Washington law firm of Foley & Lardner where she was a partner forced her to resign on 5 January, the day before the insurrection. She had neglected to tell her partners of her work for Trump. The Senate judiciary committee, in its report, released on 7 October 2021, Subverting Justice: How the Former President and His Allies Pressured DoJ to Overturn the 2020 Election, recommended that Mitchell’s activities “warrant further investigation”.

The sweeping nature of the coup, involving Republican operatives, major Republican donors, organizations and members of the Congress is starkly laid out in documents the House investigating committee has obtained under subpoena.

The production of documents from Meadows revealed a 38-slide PowerPoint presentation entitled Options for 6 JAN, prepared by Phil Waldron, a retired army colonel expert in psychological warfare and proliferator of conspiracy theories who worked with Trump’s lawyers. Waldron said he spoke with Meadows “maybe eight to 10 times” and briefed members of Congress. Besides reiterating the basic elements of the coup – “VP Pence rejects the electors” – Waldron added that China and Venezuela had “INFLUENCE and CONTROL over US Voting infrastructure in at least 28 States”. He urged that all electronic ballots be declared “invalid” and that Trump should “Declare National Security Emergency”.

Bernard Kerik, working with Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani to spin fantasies of fraud, turned over to the House committee under subpoena a document, Strategic Communications Plan, “to educate the public on the fraud numbers” and “to disregard the fraudulent vote count and certify the duly-elected President Trump”. Replete with fallacious assertions (“Fulton County, GA, video of suitcases of fraudulent ballots”), it detailed the extensive reach of the “big lie” campaign, encompassing “Identified Legislative Leaders in each swing state”, legal teams in the key states, and ranked social media influencers to spread the message: “YOU CANNOT LET AMERICA ITSELF BE STOLEN BY CRIMINALS.” Kerik, a convicted felon, guilty of numerous crimes from tax fraud to lying under oath, rose from Giuliani’s driver to New York City police commissioner and incredibly the minister of the interior of Iraq, before serving a four-year sentence in Rikers Island jail. Like convicted felons Mike Flynn and Roger Stone – and Steve Bannon, whose trial for various felonies was ended with a preemptive pardon before a judgment – he was granted a pardon by Trump that allowed him to participate in the coup with impunity.

Though under subpoena, Kerik refused to turn over to the House committee a document entitled “DRAFT LETTER FROM POTUS TO SEIZE EVIDENCE IN THE INTEREST OF NATIONAL SECURITY FOR THE 2020 ELECTIONS”. The date on Kerik’s letter, 17 December 2020, was the day that former general Mike Flynn, Trump’s disgraced national security adviser, gave an interviewto the far-right Newsmax calling on Trump to “seize every single one” of the voting machines “around the country”, and “take military capabilities” in the key states to “basically rerun an election”. Flynn’s notions were echoed in the Waldron PowerPoint and in the Kerik letter.

On 18 December, Flynn met at the White House with Trump at which he proposed invoking the National Emergency Act. (Flynn had circulated a callfor “Limited Martial Law To Hold New Election” weeks earlier, on 1 December.) The army secretary, Ryan McCarthy, and the army chief of staff, Gen James McConville, issued a statement on the day Flynn met with Trump disavowing Flynn and any suggestion of martial law. “There is no role for the US military in determining the outcome of an American election,” they stated.

The criminal citation of Meadows for contempt from the House committee to the justice department notes that he was in “nonstop” communication “throughout the day of January 6” with Kash Patel at the Pentagon, and “among other things, Mr Meadows apparently knows if and when Mr Trump was engaged in discussions regarding the national guard’s response to the Capitol riot.” The House resolution also references Meadows’ contacts with Republican state legislators, “private individuals who planned and organized a January 6 rally”, and members of Congress prepared to object to the election certification – a panoply of people involved in the coup. The committee also released texts from Fox News personalities to Meadows on 6 January imploring him to get Trump to stop the insurrection. “This is hurting all of us. He is destroying his legacy,” wrote an anxious Laura Ingraham. The familiar relationship suggested the intertwining of Fox News as the chief outlet for Trump messaging about the “big lie” up to the insurrection. But the ties went further.

On 4 January 2022, the House committee requested the voluntary testimony of Sean Hannity as a “fact witness”. The committee wrote him that it had in its possession dozens of texts from Hannity to Meadows “indicating that you had advance knowledge regarding President Trump’s and his legal team’s planning for January 6th”, and “that you were expressing concerns and providing advice to the president and certain White House staff regarding that planning”. On the evening of 5 January, Hannity texted Meadows: “Pence pressure. WH counsel will leave.” He also appeared to have had “a conversation directly with president on the evening of January 5th(and perhaps at other times) regarding his planning for January 6th”. What did Sean Hannity know and when did he know it?

When the riot was finally subdued and the Congress reconvened to certify the election, the House Republicans still rose to object. Hice, with QAnon proponent representative Marjorie Taylor Greene standing at his side, declared: “Myself, members of the Georgia delegation and some 74 of my Republican colleagues object to the electoral votes from the state of Georgia on the grounds the election conducted on November 3 was faulty and fraudulent due to unilateral actions by the secretary of state to unlawfully change the state’s election process.”

A riot officer stands guard outside the US Capitol in September 2021. Photograph: Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters

Of the thousands involved in the Capitol riot, 725 so far have been charged with various crimes. But those sentenced, mostly true believer foot soldiers of the Trump mob, were not the originators of the coup, the most dangerous sedition against the constitutional order since secession. Nor were the leaders of the militias, of the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, present at the creation.

The 6 January attack was a spawn of the coup; it was its effect, not its alpha and omega. Only those incited to sacrifice themselves in the Pickett’s Charge of the insurrection have paid the price, but none of those who conceived the coup a year earlier have been brought before a federal grand jury, charged, or apparently are even being investigated by the Department of Justice.

It would be as if only the Watergate burglars were prosecuted and that was the end of the affair. All of the higher-ups involved in the scandal – chief of staff Bob Haldeman, his deputy John Ehrlichman, attorney general John Mitchell, the entire cast of complicit characters and President Richard Nixon – would have remained untouched in power.

There will be more to know about the coup from the House investigation. The committee has gathered more than 30,000 documents and interviewed more than 300 witnesses. Two, three, many John Deans may testify before the cameras. Criminal referrals will probably be made.

The coup of 2020 gestated within the central organizations of the Republican right, and it was a learning experiment for the Republican party as a whole. Hice has announced he will run in the Republican primary against Raffensperger for Georgia secretary of state. He is only one of the Republicans focused on taking over the states’ electoral apparatus to ensure that the next time there will be no obstacles. By December, Republicans had proposed 262 bills “to politicize, criminalize, or interfere with the non-partisan administration of elections”, with 32 becoming law in 17 states, according to the non-profit Protect Democracy group.

The threat of intimidation, coercion and intimidation hangs over American politics. The coup may have failed, but it rolls on.


(c) 2022, The Guardian



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