Trump Is Depicted as a Would-be Autocrat Willing to Hang Onto Power at All Costs

President Donald Trump arrives at the airport in New Windsor, NY, headed to the Army-Navy game, on Dec.  12, 2020 (Samuel Corum / The New York Times)

President Donald Trump arrives at the airport in New Windsor, NY, headed to the Army-Navy game, on Dec. 12, 2020 (Samuel Corum / The New York Times)

In the entire 246-year history of the United States, there was certainly never a damning indictment presented against an American president than outlined on Thursday night in a cavernous congressional hearing room, where the future of democracy felt on the line.

Other presidents have been accused of wrongdoing, even high crimes and misdemeanors, but the case against Donald Trump mounted by the bipartisan House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol described not just a rogue president but a would-be autocrat willing to shred the Constitution to hang on to power at all costs.

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As the committee portrayed it during its prime-time televised hearing, Trump executed a seven-part conspiracy to overturn a free and fair democratic election. According to the panel, he lied to the American people, ignored all evidence refuting his false fraud claims, pressured state and federal officials to throw out election results favoring his challenger, encouraged a violent mob to storm the Capitol, and even signaled support for the execution of his own vice president.

“Jan. 6 was the culmination of an attempted coup, a brazen attempt, as one rioter put it shortly after Jan. 6, to overthrow the government, ”said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., The chair of the select committee. “The violence was no accident. It represents Trump’s last stand, most desperate chance to halt the transfer of power. “

Most incriminating were the words of Trump’s own advisers and appointees, played over video on a giant screen above the committee dais and beamed out to a national television audience. There was his own attorney general who told him that his false election claims were “bullshit.” There was his own campaign lawyer who testified that there was no evidence of fraud sufficient to change the outcome. And there was his own daughter, Ivanka Trump, who acknowledged that she accepted the conclusion that the election was not, in fact, stolen as her father kept claiming.

Much of the evidence was outlined by the Republican lead on the committee, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who has been ostracized by Trump and much of his own party for consistently denouncing his actions after the election. Unwavering, she sketched out the case and then addressed her fellow Republicans who have chosen to stand by their defeated former president and excuse his actions.

“I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone but your dishonor will remain,” she said.

Many of the details were previously reported, and many questions about Trump’s actions were left unanswered for now, but Cheney pulled together the committee’s findings in relentless, prosecutorial fashion.

Some of the new revelations and confirmations of recent news reports were enough to prompt gasps in the room and, perhaps, in living rooms across the country. Told that the crowd on Jan. 6 was chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” the vice president who defied the president’s pressure to single-handedly block the transfer of power, Trump was quoted responding, “Maybe our supporters have the right idea.” Mike Pence, he added, “deserves it.”

Cheney, the panel’s vice chair, reported that in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack, members of Trump’s own Cabinet discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove the president from office. She disclosed that Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania and “multiple other Republican congressmen” involved in trying to overturn the election sought pardons from Trump in his final days in office.

She played a video clip of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser who absented himself after the election rather than fight the conspiracy theorists egging Trump on, cavalierly dismissing threats by Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, and other lawyers to resign in protest. “I took it up to just be whining, to be honest with you,” Kushner testified.

And she noted that while Pence repeatedly took action to summon help to stop the mob on Jan. 6, the president himself made no such effort. Instead, his White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, tried to convince Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to pretend that Trump was actively involved.

“He said,‘ We have to kill the narrative that the vice president is making all the decisions, ’” Milley said in a videotaped testimony. ” We need to establish the narrative that the president is still in charge, and that things are steady or stable, ‘or words to that effect. I immediately interpreted that as politics, politics, politics. ”

Trump had no allies on the nine-member House committee, and he and his supporters have dismissed the panel’s work as a partisan smear attempt. On Fox News, which opted not to show the hearing, Sean Hannity was busy changing the subject, attacking the committee for not focusing on the breakdown in security at the Capitol, which he mainly blamed on Speaker Nancy Pelosi even though Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, then the Republican majority leader, shared control of the building with her at the time.

Before the hearing, Trump tried again to rewrite history by casting the attack on the Capitol as a legitimate manifestation of public grievance against a stolen election. “January 6th was not simply a protest, it represented the greatest movement in the history of our Country to Make America Great Again,” he wrote on his new social media site.

Trump is hardly the first president reproached for misconduct, lawbreaking or even violating the Constitution. Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were both impeached by the House, although acquitted by the Senate. John Tyler sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Richard Nixon resigned under the threat of impeachment for abusing his power to cover up corrupt campaign activities. Warren Harding had the Teapot Dome scandal and Ronald Reagan the Iran-Contra affair.

But the crimes alleged in most of those cases paled in comparison to what Trump is accused of, and while Tyler turned on the country he once led, he died before he could be held accountable. Nixon faced hearings during Watergate not unlike those that began Thursday night and was involved in other scandals beyond the burglary that ultimately resulted in his downfall. But the brazen dishonesty and incitement of violence put on display Thursday eclipsed even his misdeeds, according to many scholars.

Trump, of course, was impeached twice already, and acquitted twice, the second time for his role in the Jan. 6 attack. But even so, the case against him now is far more extensive and expansive, after the committee conducted some 1,000 interviews and obtained more than 100,000 pages of documents.

What the committee was trying to prove was that this was not a president with reasonable concerns about fraud or a protest that got out of control. Instead, the panel was trying to build the case that Trump was involved in a criminal conspiracy against democracy – that he knew there was no widespread fraud because his own people told him that he intentionally summoned a mob to stop the transfer of power to Joe Biden and that he sat by and did virtually nothing once the attack commenced.

Whether the panel can change public views of those events remains unclear, but many political strategists and analysts consider it unlikely. With a more fragmented media and a more polarized society, most Americans have decided what they think of Jan. 6 and are only listening to those who share their attitudes.

Still, there was another audience for the hearings as they got underway, and that was Attorney General Merrick Garland. If the committee was laying out what it considered an indictment against the former president, it seemed to be inviting the Justice Department to pursue the real kind in a grand jury and court of law.

As she previewed the story that will be told in the weeks to come, Cheney all but wrote the script for Garland. “You will hear about plots to commit seditious conspiracy on Jan. 6, ”she said,“ a crime defined in our laws as conspiring to overthrow, put down or destroy by force the government of the United States or to oppose by force the authority thereof. ”

But if Garland disagrees and the hearings this month turn out to be the only trial Trump ever faces for his efforts to overturn the election, Cheney and her fellow committee members were resolved to make sure that they will at least win a conviction with the jury of history.

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