WASHINGTON ― The Jan. 6 House select committee investigating Donald Trump’s coup attempt used Republicans to lay out the case against him, and the biggest beneficiaries of its work likely will be, perhaps ironically, other Republicans ― specifically those who seek the 2024 presidential nomination that Trump covets for himself.
In a tightly choreographed production spanning 20 hours over six weeks, the committee showed tens of millions of Americans how the former president, having lost his reelection, ultimately tried to use violence and the threat of violence to remain in power ― the very definition of a coup d’etat, or, more technically, a self-coup.
“Jan. 6 corresponds in every way to the definition and unfolding of a coup,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor and expert on authoritarianism at New York University, who added that crucial to this was the support from numerous leaders in the Republican Party. “You need buy-in from those elites so that your illegitimate government will be accepted as legitimate once the coup has happened.”
This summer’s presentation culminated Thursday night with testimony from Trump’s own White House officials narrating how the then-president refused to tell the armed mob tha the had unleashed on the U.S. Capitol to stop their attack and to go home until after police had turned the tide and had begun retaking control of the building.
The panel had in previous hearings established that Trump knew full well that he had lost the election to Democrat Joe Biden but continued pushing his lies about voter fraud and a “stolen” election. That he and his campaign almost immediately began working to have their supporters in states narrowly won by Biden send slates of fake Electoral College voters to Washington. That Vice President Mike Pence would, upon seeing the “competing” slates from seven states, have the excuse he needed to declare Trump the winner. And that, enraged when Pence refused to go along with the illegal and unconstitutional scheme, Trump lashed out with an angry Twitter post ― while Congress was conducting the certification ceremony ― that further inflamed his mob and put Pence’s life in jeopardy.
The testimony revealed a president with no regard for laws or the Constitution or the idea of democracy itself, committee members argued, and shredded any notion that the Jan. 6, 2021, assault was merely a protest that got out of hand.
“For the people who cared to watch, there was a lot of damning information. Viewers were able to clearly understand that Trump was not the commander in chief sworn to protect the government but instead was the commander in chief of the insurrectionists,” said Rick Tyler, a Republican consultant who worked for Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign. “He disgraced himself, dishonored the men and women in law enforcement, showed a disregard for human life and himself as a small, cowardly person.”
What effect the hearings will have, though, is unclear. Many if not most Republican officeholders and candidates remain fearful of Trump because of his willingness to lash out and turn his supporters against them, and most have adopted his claims that the committee is unfairly targeting him.
Polling shows that, as result of the hearings, most Americans again believe that Trump was personally responsible for the Jan. 6 assault and should be charged criminally for his actions. But the surveys also show that Americans do not believe that Jan. 6 is a particularly important issue compared with inflation.
One Trump adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said only 18% of Americans see the Capitol attack as a top issue. “Polling shows that Trump dipped early in the hearings but has bounced back and even risen in the face of Biden’s cratering numbers from skyrocketing inflation,” he said.
Yet polls are also starting to show that while most Republicans continue to say that they believe Trump did nothing wrong and that he is being unfairly hounded by Democrats and the news media, many are using that argument as a rationale for backing other candidates in the 2024 primaries.
In a recent New York Times survey, Republican support for Trump as the 2024 nominee fell below 50%. An earlier New Hampshire poll found that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had overtaken Trump in that crucial early primary state, 39% to 37%.
Those numbers found voice at the Family Leader Summit, a gathering of Christian conservatives in Des Moines, Iowa, last week. Attendees, while mostly acknowledging they liked Trump and what he had accomplished, nevertheless said that DeSantis would probably be a smarter choice going forward.
Doug Ohlfest, a 71-year-old retired construction contractor, said the media had “destroyed” Trump and that he would have a tough time winning the general election. “I think DeSantis would be a better option. I’ve followed what he did in Florida.”
David Kochel, a longtime Iowa GOP consultant, said that is a sentiment he is hearing more and more frequently. “I think there’s a fatigue setting in with a lot of rank-and-file activists. They’re done with the drama and ready for a candidate with a clean slate.”
Trump’s desire to return to the White House, meanwhile, has become entangled with Republicans’ more immediate goal of winning back control of the House and Senate. Biden’s low approval ratings and the high inflation rate have created a favorable environment for the GOP, but Trump’s need to scare off rivals is almost certain to hurt the party, should he declare prior to the November midterms, by giving Democrats an easy target to fire up their base of voters.
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, for instance, has reminded Trump that the day he becomes a candidate is the day the party will stop picking up the legal bills it has been paying since the summer of 2021, because of a rule that requires it to remain neutral in the 2024 contests.
Other Republicans, though, point out that Trump’s coup-plotting baggage on top of all his other negatives make him a foolish choice for president.
“Everyone other than the gnarliest of the MAGA nuts realizes or at least senses that Trump is poison at the polls for a majority of Americans. People eligible to vote will return from Swiss chalets, ashrams in India and Amazon villages just to vote again him regardless of who the Democrat nominee is,” said Mac Stipanovich, a Republican consultant in Florida who advised Jeb Bush’s first campaign for governor. “The juice is not worth the squeeze, particularly with DeSantis, who is Trump without all of the boogers, waiting stage right to make his entrance.”
Added Tyler: “The Republican Party now has to make a choice of a party with Trump or a party without him. Given his record of losing the House, Senate and White House all within two years, that should not be a hard decision.”
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