January 6: One Coup or Two?
A welter of new evidence strengthens the link between the insurrectionists and the Trump inner circle
America is facing a new cycle of insurrectionary violence, supported by sections of the Republican elite. That's the rational conclusion to draw from the evidence emerging from the January 6th Committee, and the refusal of key Republicans to testify before it.
Even as Congress and the courts dig through the evidence of the failed insurrection, Republicans are dismantling democracy at state level, seizing control of electoral bodies, further gerrymandering districts, and establishing new precedents for state-legislated infringements on human rights.
This avalanche of attacks on democracy prompted Atlantic writer Barton Gellman to warn that Trump's next coup has already begun:
"The prospect of this democratic collapse is not remote. People with the motive to make it happen are manufacturing the means. Given the opportunity, they will act. They are acting already."
Yet, for the most part, the US media, academia, business community and large parts of the electorate go on acting as if episode is over. Many seem resigned to the fact that an insurrection-curious Republican Party will win the mid-terms, and is decisively rigging the 2024 election process at state level.
So the legal processes initiated in the Federal Courts, and by the January 6th Commission will be critical for the survival of the Union and its democracy.
As we approach the first anniversary of 6 January 2021, a welter of new evidence is emerging. In this post I want to summarise the known facts, which make chilling reading, and draw conclusions relevant to progressive lawmakers both in the USA and beyond.
Ten facts about 6/1
1. The storming of the Capitol on 6 January was not spontaneous. Federal prosecutors have brought criminal conspiracy charges against members of both the Oathkeepers militia, and the Proud Boys. The organised far right brought weapons, pipe bombs and the means to take hostages to the event.
2. Trump incited the violence. He urged demonstrators to march on the Capitol, telling them "if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore". As commander in chief, he watched the riot unfold on TV without acting, for 187 minutes, resisting calls from Republican politicians (and some Fox News hosts) to intervene or call for the rioters to desist.
3. The Trump organisation substantially funded the 6 January mobilisation. Reports compiled by Open Secrets show a network of "dark money" operations raising more than $4.3 million for the organisers of the rally.
4. In the days before the insurrection, Trump's close political allies set up "command centre" at the historic Willard hotel. It hosted a team including Rudy Giuliani, Steve Bannon, former New York police chief Bernard Kerik and the law professor John Eastman. They pursued three lines of attack:
a) finding and publicising evidence of electoral fraud to undermine the result;
b) ringing Republican state lawmakers urging them to convene special sessions to investigate fraud, and to reassign the state's votes from Biden to Trump;
c) persuading Mike Pence that he had the power to refuse to certify the election result, and pressuring him to do so.
On the eve of the uprising, Bannon signed off a videocast with the words:
“I’ll tell you this. It’s not going to happen like you think it’s going to happen. Okay, it’s going to be quite extraordinarily different. All I can say is, strap in.”
Earlier he had predicted, “All hell is going to break loose tomorrow.”
5. Prior to 6 January Trump had followed three strategems to annul the election:
a) The Texas v Pennsylvania lawsuit, in which 18 Republican state attorneys general filed a suit to annul the election results in four Democratic states. When this was thrown out, on 11 December, Trump responded: "This is a great and disgraceful miscarriage of justice. The people of the United States were cheated, and our Country disgraced".
b) An attempt between 15 December and 3 January to force the Justice Department to void the election result. A Senate committee found Trump:
"repeatedly asked DOJ’s acting leadership to initiate investigations, file lawsuits on his behalf, and publicly declare the 2020 election “corrupt.”
During this time Meadows repeatedly violated rules banning White House political pressure on the DOJ.
c) An attempt on 2 January to pressure Georgia's Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to “find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have.” In a call reportedly joined by Giuliani and Eastman, among others, Trump told the Georgia official: “There’s nothing wrong with saying, you know, that you’ve recalculated.”
6. Though the Supreme Court, the DOJ and Georgia's secretary of state each stymied Trump's attempts to annul of the result, Trump's team were in receipt of two documents advocating a presidential coup on 6 January itself: a two-page memo drawn up by command centre attendee Eastman, and a Powerpoint presentation circulated by retired general Phil Waldron, who had met Trump’s team on numerous occasion after the election. Both were entitled "options for 6 Jan".
a) The Eastman Memo urged Pence to refuse to certify the electoral college members from seven pro-Biden states, handing Trump a majority of one. Amid the resulting protests, Pence would then ask both houses of Congress to vote "by state" - again giving Trump a majority.
b) The Waldron Powerpoint, dated 5 January, which was sent to Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, urged Trump to declare a state of emergency, citing electoral fraud, Chinese electoral manipulation and " riots, threats, censorship, looting"
7. In the run-up to the insurrection there was intensive contact between organisers of the mobilisation and a group of Republican Congresspeople who have since defended, minimised or refused to disavow the insurrectionary violence seen on 6 January. One, Paul Gosar, is alleged to have offered a “blanket pardon” to those planning to take part in the event, relating to previous allegations.
8. At 2.24pm on the day of the insurrection itself, as hundreds of rioters surged through the Capitol building chanting "Hang Mike Pence", an while Pence himself was under close protection from his security team in the building, Trump targeted Pence, Tweeting:
"Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!"
9. Even as late as 9pm, as Congress reconvened to certify the election result, and the riot had been clear, Eastman emailed Pence's legal team saying:
“The ‘siege’ is because YOU and your boss did not do what was necessary to allow this to be aired in a public way so that the American people can see for themselves what happened.”
10. Both Steve Bannon and Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows have defied the January 6 Committee's summons to testify, triggering proceedings to declare them in criminal contempt of Congress.
11. In almost twelve months since the insurrection, 19 Republican controlled states have passed a total of 33 laws aimed at making it harder for Americans to vote. The laws variously criminalise handing out water to peope in voting queues; criminalise assisting disabled or learning disabled voters to vote; ban electronic voting; and ban election officials from deterring harassment by "poll watchers". More than 20 states have laws currently in the system that would eliminate postal voting.
Analysis: What are we looking for?
All attempts to analyse what happened have to be interim, given the destruction of messages, smartphones, the refusal of key figures around Trump to comply with the Congressional investigation, the likelihood of further revelations, and the failure identify the RNC/DNC pipe bomb suspect.
Nevertheless the political conclusion should stare us in the face. The original framing narrative adopted by some left and many liberal commentators - that this was an accidental farce, led "from below" by radicalised Trump supporters - “vigilantes” exceeding the mandate of their leader, and never a serious threat to democracy, looks wrong.
From the moment he lost the election, Trump's strategy revolved around using spurious fraud allegations to force state and Federal institutions to overturn, or overrule, results in key states.
After SCOTUS refused to play ball, on 11 December, Trump's attention turned to pressuring the DOJ and individual states.
At a White House meeting on 18 December Trump rejected a call by disgraced former general Mike Flynn to impose marital law; a proposal by attorney Sydney Powell to appoint her as "special counsel" with powers to investigate electoral fraud; and a proposal by Rudy Giuliani for the DOJ to seize electronic voting machines.
It was after this decisive meeting that Trump tweeted out the call for people to attend the certification vote on 6 January, saying "Be there, will be wild".
In the Eastman memo (and a subsequent more elaborated memo) Trump had a clear, but risky, strategy to stop Biden becoming President. It relied on placing Mike Pence under so much pressure on the day that he would follow Eastman's suggestion, delaying ratification of votes where there were "alternate slates" of electors, and then - if necessary - handing the final decision to a state-by-state vote in Congress.
The obvious problem with this plan, beyond persuading Pence himself to do it, would be neutralising resistance within the Federal state machine to what would be perceived by everyone not involved with it (and the USA’s NATO allies) as an anti-constitutional, Presidential coup.
As we've seen, Trump tried, but failed, to completely take over the DOJ. But he had already purged the Department of Defense (DOD), in the days following his election defeat, replacing the defence secretary and three key officials with Trump loyalists.
In the days before 6 January, despite warnings from the FBI, the Capitol Police board refused a request from its police chief to declare a state of emergency and place the National Guard on standby - while encouraging informal contacts to facilitate the mobilisation of a National Guard "Quick Reaction Force" in case of trouble, and the deployment of DC National Guard (DCNG) members on traffic duty.
On 5 January, Christopher Miller, Trump's new Defence Secretary, sent a memo to the DC National Guard forbidding the deployment in support of Capitol police without reference to the DOD.
On the day itself, though several hundred DCNG were deployed on traffic duties in Washington, the Capitol Police board delays for an hour its police chief's request for DCNG assistance. Only at 3.03pm - two hours after the riot began - did Miller approve the deployment. The first National Guard personnel arrived at the Capitol at 5.40pm, after the violence had mostly subsided.
There was, throughout, no attempt by Trump, Pence or Miller to deploy counter-terror or other special forces in defence of either the building, its occupants or Pence himself.
The DCNG, together with the Capitol and Metropolitan police force, were the last line of defence for the rule of law.
The balance sheet of the crucial hours - 1pm to 5pm - shows that, wherever possible, Trump loyalists delayed or obstructed the DCNG’s deployment and that no other security agency of the state was mobilised to defend the legislature or its members.
In considering the significance of that, you have to weight three "counterfactuals". What if the pipe bombs left in the crowd had gone off? What if the Oathkeepers and other paramilitaries had managed to take Democratic congresspeople, or Pence himself, hostage? And what if "antifa" had mobilised, triggering street-fighting in DC itself.
The origin and purpose of the pipe bombs remains unexplained: the FBI has released numerous videos of a suspect placing the two bombs on the evening of 5 January, making numerous phone calls as they do so. The bombs contained “black powder”, not high explosives, and were placed near both the Republican and Democratic Party offices. The symbolism, had they gone off, was of an across the board attack on American democracy by unknown insurrectionary forces. That is, they would have fitted the narrative outlined in the Waldron Powerpoint.
However, the intent of the violent conspirators behind the Capitol invasion was clear, as cited in an FBI bulletin on 5 January. An anonymous bulletin board member had posted:
"Be ready to fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood from their BLM and Pantifa slave soldiers being spilled. Get violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal."
There are two possible interpretations of the hesitancy and division among police and defence forces on the day. Either there was serial incompetence, originating from the tendency in security circles to minimise far-right security threats and maximise those from black people, Muslims, refugees and the far left. Or there was a politicised “go-slow”, drawing in individuals from the Capitol Police Board to the Defence Secretary, prompted by a desire to "see what happens", and by pressure from within the Trump team or command centre.
If the bombs had gone off. If Pence or Pelosi had been taken hostage. If individual Capitol Police officers had shown less restraint, shooting more than the single intruder they did, what would Trump's narrative, and call to action have been then?
Since Eastman was trying as late as 9pm to halt the certification process, and Fox News hosts went immediately on air trying to accuse "antifa" of starting the riot, there is a non-negligible chance that the Waldron option - declare a state of emergency - might have been triggered.
However, despite the flurry of commentary about the Powerpoint, my provisional take is that the document could be a) a red herring dropped by Trump loyalists b) peripheral to the central project: by 5 January, when the pptx landed, Trump had known for three weeks that he needed to flip Pence on the issue of certification.
So while the Eastman memo looks like a plan of action, the Waldron Powerpoint looks more like a disinformation plan designed to justify it - and the China scare story, though in the mix on the alt right social media, never cut through.
The key question: two coups or one?
There is much more to come out, but given the evidence already available the only substantial question remains: was this one coup or two?
a) The accidental concatentation of a premeditated Presidential coup attempt with a premeditated violent insurrection by the organised far right, abetted by police, FBI and Defense Department incompetence; or
b) the result of purposeful collusion between those in the "command centre", and their allies in the DOD and the White House with the Oathkeepers, Proud Boys and others involved in the break-in?
Given the destruction of evidence and non-compliance, the answer may be hard to find; it may indeed be a mixture of both - most coups activate people who believe they are acting on commands; or who behave instinctively amid uncertainty, without direct orders.
Why this matters is not simply a question of seeing justice done in retrospect.
Today, some 19 Republican controlled states are involved in concerted attempts to rig the coming mid-terms and presidential election scheduled for 5 November 2024.
Whether it was triggered through collusion or concatenation, the 6 January insurrection, and the backroom manouvers that preceded it, provides the American conservative/far right alliance with both template and precedent for a future Presidential coup.
Polling evidence shows that insurrectionary politics continue to enjoy mass support: some 66% of Republican voters believe the 6 January insurrection was not an attack on the government. Meanwhile 9% of Americans believe that the "Use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency ". And while 9% sounds like a small number, it means that 22 million Americans are potential insurrectionists during the next constitutional crisis.
For the American far right, and its insurrectionary mass voter base, 6 January has become both an iconic event, and an act of incitement for future rebellions.
Defending the perpetrators, minimising the scale of the crime, and above all challenging the legitimacy of the courts and the legislature trying to investigate it are all part of the preparation for what the far right hopes will trigger the fragmentation of Federal institutions and the rule of law.
Stopping them does not simply require prosecutions and investigations. It requires a mass mobilisation in defence of democracy, and an end to both liberal and left complacency about the scale of the threat.
Above all it demands attention to the detail of what went on inside the machinery of state - something the January 6th Committee may find hard to pin down, but which the Presidency should be investigating with alacrity.
Coups take place through a mixture of purposive actions and inactions. Who, in control of the state’s coercive power, did what - and who did nothing - remain the unanswered questions.
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