What did Trump know, and when did he lie about it? How did his Big Lie lead to specific actions to overturn and election and bring down the American system? What did the coup attempt of 2020-2021 look like from within the Trump administration itself?
Thanks to the excellent "Final Report of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol," we now know the answers to these and many other questions. I provide here just the briefest of summaries of the report’s recounting of the events of November 2020-January 2021.
It is very easy, when a long report is released, to underplay its basic findings. There is a temptation to act as if something is not shocking if we have heard part of it before, as though this were a mark of political sophistication. The American tendency to normalize threats to democracy is also present in retrospect.
What is described in palpable and convincing detail in the Final Report is indeed profoundly shocking: a planned and coordinated attempt by the president of the United States and his allies to carry out regime change in the United States of America on the basis of a Big Lie.
Here is my very brief summary of the factual part of the report, in fifteen quick points. I am deliberately understating here; the evidence, in the Final Report itself, permits much broader conclusions.
1. Trump knew that he was likely to lose the 3 November 2020 election, and planned in advance to declare victory (to tell a Big Lie) if he lost.
2. On 3 November 2020, Trump knew that he was very unlikely to have won the election of that day, and declared victory anyway. In the days following, aware that he had lost, he continued to declare victory.
3. Over and over again in November, December, and January, Trump publicized specific claims of electoral fraud shortly after being informed that they were false.
4. Aware that his advisors, campaign officials, and cabinet knew his claims of fraud to be false, Trump promoted people, such as Rudolph Giuliani, who would lie for him in public.
5. In the full knowledge that he had lost the election and that his claims of fraud were false, Trump made several deliberate efforts to overturn the election results and thus American democracy.
6. In states he had lost, Trump personally pressured state officials to fraudulently and illegally alter the electoral outcome.
7. Informed that the Department of Justice had investigated and found no evidence of fraud, Trump nevertheless sought to use its powers, via Jeffrey Clark, to intimidate state officials to change electoral outcomes.
8. Knowing that he had lost the electoral college vote, Trump oversaw an effort to create fake slates of electors. These entirely bogus documents were then sent to the vice-president (who refused them).
9. Though aware that it was the vice-president's role only to count the electoral votes, Trump pressured the vice-president not to do so, on the theory that the vice-president could, in effect, choose the president.
10. Even the person who devised the plan regarding the vice-president, John Eastman, knew it to be illegal.
11. Knowing by January 6th that all that remained was the formality of certifying Biden's victory, Trump encouraged supporters he knew to be armed and angry to halt this procedure and violently overthrow our form of government.
12. Trump's call to violence was successful because enough of his supporters believed his lies and understood what he wanted them to do: prevent a peaceful transition of power.
13. At a time when the Capitol was under attack, the vice-president was in flight, and the members of the vice-president's security detail feared for their lives, Trump urged his supporters on to further violence.
14. After the failed coup attempt, a number of Republican legislators sought presidential pardons, thereby acknowledging their fears that they had acted illegally.
15. Even had Trump believed that he had won the 2020 election, which he did not, his coup attempt would remain a coup attempt, and his crimes would remain crimes.
These are some of the simple facts, as we now know them, two years on.
Two years ago, I wrote a long essay about the January 6 insurrection, entitled "American Abyss." It could be published right after Trump's supporters stormed the Capitol, because I had written it beforehand, as a study of the Big Lie and its consequences. Thanks to the work of some excellent reporters and editors, I could add details from the horrors of the day before the final text went to press in The New York Times Magazine.
Trump's coup attempt itself was predictable, and I had been predicting it throughout the autumn of 2020. Indeed, since the publication of On Tyranny in early 2017, I had been trying to make the case that something like this could happen in the United States, and in late 2020 I spent a lot of time saying that it would happen. I like to think that this helped to prepare some of us for the coup attempt when it did come.
Trump is obviously personally responsible. But the techniques he used are not unique to him, and could be perfected by others. The weaknesses he exploited are structural. Now that a coup attempt has taken place, and we know a great deal about how it happened, it is important for us to ask some of the deeper questions about why it could have happened, not least to make sure that nothing similar takes place in the future. In posts to come, I will be interpreting the report, returning to some of the themes I established these last few years, such as the Big Lie.
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As an onlooker in the UK, as someone with American kin, friends, as someone who knows we owe to America that we are not nazi slaves, that my Jewish father lived to father me, as someone who see that if America is lost, freedom everywhere is lost: I do not understand, I cannot understand, I shall be never understand, WHY you did not prosecute Trump for treason or insurrection, immediately after his coup failed. Instead you leave him, and his supporters, to organise better, and have another go . America has a death wish.
Thank you for your concise distillation of the January 6 report. It’s stark telling is more disturbing in its simplicity.
Your book, On Tyranny, was a book I bought by the dozen. I carried them with me and gave them to friends, neighbors, family, elected leaders, then buying more, and repeating. I have begged for accountability from elected leaders, and ran for office myself and was elected, thinking i could make a difference.
I was at work watching the coup happen. I listened to a client cheer the insurrectionists efforts. I had recently been to DC and spent time in the Capitol and was sickened listening and watching the violence.
All of this has happened in plain sight. Prosecuting the ring leaders must happen. Accountability.
I’ll buy more copies of On Tyranny. People have short attention spans and need reminding.