Jurisprudence

Ending the Jan. 6 Hearings With a Trump Subpoena Was a Mistake

The former president is the problem. Centering him is not the solution.

Trump frowning like a doofus.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally to support Republican candidates running for state and federal offices in the state at the Covelli Centre on September 17, 2022 in Youngstown, Ohio. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

In a perfect world, the Jan. 6 Committee, that concluded its final public presentation on Thursday with devastating evidence that Donald Trump in fact lit the match, started the fire, then poured oil, gas, and lighter fluid all over that fire, could have faced both forward and backward. The final hours of this committee’s presentation could have centered both the former president’s role in the violent attack on the Capitol, and also flagged the fact that the whole sordid episode was just a beta test for the next one.

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I’m afraid it didn’t do that. Am I also scared out of my mind about Trump evading accountability for his myriad crimes, running for office in 2024, and vaulting us all into what will doubtless be the end of the free world as we know it immediately thereafter? Why yes, yes I am. But am I fractionally even more terrified that in a few short weeks, a huge army of election deniers, corrupt secretaries of state, bullies and violent vigilantes will start laying down the tracks for the next coup? I am, indeed, just that much more terrified of them. Unfortunately, the committee, in its final presentation, opted to put this scarier and vastly more immediate threat on the backburner to focus on the scariness of one Donald J Trump, hapless, mindless, insurrectionist.

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The problem faced by American democracy is Trump, yes. But it’s also so very much bigger than Trump: an insurrection fomented by white supremacists, incels, and fake militias has now been taken up by sitting senators, state election officials, and tenured jurists. The next time someone calls Georgia’s Brad Raffensperger and asks him to kindly scare up 11,000 votes, or to submit a ballot of “contingent electors” it could happen with the blessing of a federal court and a tidy case citation. Nobody doubts that the reckoning over Jan. 6, 2021, is intended to forestall Jan 6, 2025, which is why Donald Trump is by necessity the story. But it’s also why Donald Trump should actually be ancient history.

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The Jan. 6 Committee made the decision to use the final hearing to hang Jan. 6 on the former president. He knew. He knew that he was going to lose the 2020 election. He knew that if he found himself losing the 2020 election he would say it was stolen. He knew that his assorted legal theories for setting aside the 2020 election results were addled with the brain worms of sycophants and nutjobs. He knew that people with guns were attending his Stop the Steal rally. He knew Mike Pence was in danger and that his words and actions were risking harm to the vice president and to members of Congress. Thursday’s hearing made plain that Donald J. Trump hella knew what he was putting in motion.

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So, we do have motive, as committee members on Thursday promised to lay out. Check. Of course, it’s establishing a motive for someone who has no discernible theory of mind. But whether the committee truly landed the plane rested on answering the questions of who else knew what, and also what they did with all their seemingly infinite units of knowledge. And the landing of that plane remains in doubt. After Thursday we know that the Secret Service knew. We know that Mark Meadows knew. We know Donald Trump’s lawyers knew. They all knew.

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As of today we know that a whole lot of people eventually came before the committee and shaved off the thinnest slice of patriotism they could scrape off from the big fat duty-to-country ham. They did and said as little as was humanly possible, after making meaningful eye contact with their attorneys, to establish that Jan. 6 was probably pretty bad, but also that they would like to be paid contributors to cable shows.

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We also know that some of those same low-carb patriots—Steve Scalise and Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell—knew precisely how dangerous Jan. 6 really was, and that in the months that followed, they walked back their horror and outrage. And we know that some of the most unrepentant coup enthusiasts simply took the fifth and moved on to planning bigger, future coups, including Steve Bannon, Roger Stone and Mike Flynn.

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And so we sit in the uncomfortable tension between relitigating what Donald Trump knew and understood on Jan, 6 and when he knew and understood it, and the grim possibility that virtually none of its enablers, plotters, boosters, and opportunists will suffer any consequences. There is a certain grim satisfaction in the fact that the former president is on the hook for yet one more thing. In addition to the Jan. 6 investigation, he may just take a turn in the barrel for one or more of: stealing classified national security documents, obstructing justice, grifting across New York, trying to pressure Georgia election officials into throwing the 2020 election, and defaming a sexual assault victim.

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But even as the walls close in on him for the thousandth time, it’s hard to feel wholly placated by the committee’s final presentation and its laser focus on the least important person on the planet: The guy who is neither interesting, nor terribly relevant to the imminent and exigent threat of the next coup or the coup after that. And while it’s hardly the mandate of the committee, it does feel that what was left on the table this afternoon was… everything. Donald Trump will never honor a subpoena, he will never turn over documents. If the point of this narrow focus on Donald Trump was to prevent him from running for office in 2024, my guess is they maybe found six more voters today.

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But my real worry, and the thing that keeps me up at night is the fact that the liars and the cheaters and the con men and the opportunists who allowed Jan. 6 to happen, and who minced their way into the Jan. 6 committee hearings two years later merely in order to exculpate themselves, will all roam free after today, with the slightly more burnished aura of statesmanship and patriotism, so they can lay down the tracks for the next attempt at a stolen election. And for the one that follows quick on its heels.

We should be talking about all that, and since we aren’t, the Jan. 6 Committee should have been talking about all that. And since they didn’t, it feels a tiny bit more likely than not to be the thing that we will someday talk about as ancient history—the coup that is coming faster than we could imagine—and we will talk about it long after the thing is already done.

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