Watching the long procession of pious Republican witnesses during Monday’s January 6 Committee hearing, I was abruptly flung back to Marc Antony’s famous line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “I have come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”
Bury him they did, shovelful by shovelful, throughout a day’s testimony that was not notably marred by the abrupt absence of former Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien. Clips of Stepien’s prior testimony were probably enough to send Trump up the walls of Mar-a-Lago like a parakeet trying to find an open window. The absence of the warm body was not, in the end, damaging to the case.
Bill Stepien. Bill Barr. Jason Miller. Chris Stirewalt. Matt Morgan. Eric Herschmann. Richard Donoghue. Al Schmidt. Byung Pak. Alex Cannon. Like Brutus and Cassius, these men came on Monday with knives drawn to carve down Caesar on national television. They were there — mostly under subpoena — to call The Big Lie a lie in broad daylight, to establish Trump knew it was a lie all along, and to speak of how they saw it all go down over a long run of dark days. They were all vital witnesses.
And there’s the rub… as the Bard’s Hamlet would say. Here’s the kind way The Washington Post said it: “One of the takeaways from this hearing is how many Trump advisers and government officials knew his voter fraud claims were false. From his attorney general to his campaign chairman to top DOJ officials, witness after witness destroyed his claims as farcical, and even detached from reality. But a lot of these officials did not say this publicly during the days leading up to Jan. 6, when it arguably would have mattered.” (Emphasis added)
Right. At the end of the day, the fact that all these Republicans kept this massive and incredibly dangerous nation-destabilizing crisis a secret for so long has no ultimate bearing on the committee’s mission. The committee intends to prove Trump acted with malice aforethought, and with profit in mind, when he went about salting the earth with his stolen election bullshit. That activity, the committee seeks to prove, led directly and inexorably to the sacking of the Capitol by Trump’s hardcore supporters and more than a few fascist militias (also Trump supporters but with better gear). Those honorable men are helping to make the case… 17 months late.
But I’m not bitter.
Speaking of quotes, a far less classical line came to mind as I watched the committee build its argument on Monday. “I watched a snail,” husks Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, “crawl along the edge of a straight razor.” That straight razor is where the January 6 committee finds its case regarding Trump’s ultimate intent.
There was a great deal of testimony hammering home the vast number of people who told Trump it was over and it was time to quit. There was damning testimony about the profit motive behind the elongated fight over the results, about who got paid and was still getting paid by plundering the good will of citizens who would quaff a glass of dust if Trump told them it was Mountain Dew.
The witnesses, all those honorable men, made it vividly clear they told Trump the enterprise was beyond hopeless, and the final task of the committee is to prove Trump went on to the 1/6 attack full in the knowledge that he was knowingly peddling that glass of dust for personal gain.
The razor comes in Barr quotes like this one:
I was somewhat demoralized because I thought, boy, if he really believes this stuff, he has become detached from reality if he really believes this stuff. On the other hand, you know, when I went into this and would, you know, tell them how crazy some of these allegations were, there was never an indication of interest in what the actual facts were.
One side of the blade: Trump is deluded. The other side? He knows and does not care. That does not nail down the case for intent. In point of fact, it gives Trump an out the size of the Lincoln Tunnel. Recall the warnings of Mary Trump from late November of 2020: “He’s the only person I’ve ever met who can gaslight himself. I don’t think he’s ever accepted the truth of the loss. I don’t think he’s psychologically or emotionally capable of that.”
If the committee does not establish beyond doubt that Trump knows it was all a scam, intent goes out the window like that Mar-a-Lago parakeet. Barr and the others calling Trump “detached from reality” serves that ultimate cause not one bit.
Yet Brutus and Cassius are honorable men, right? It would be right about par for these old-school schemers to play both sides and muddy the waters for yet another slick escape, and the committee on Monday appeared to walk right into it. Now there are two Trumps on trial — Trump the deliberate and Trump the deluded — which chops the chances for any actual justice neatly in half.
Let’s not overlook the fact that one of Monday’s expert witnesses was Benjamin Ginsberg, “a Republican lawyer who was one of the chief strategists behind the red-in-tooth-and-claw Bush game plan in 2000,” as Charles P. Pierce reminds us. That history-rending effort in Florida 22 years ago made this moment possible, and yet Ginsberg was invited to inveigh upon the present crisis with nary a mention of his gruesome past. It was a bit like asking Henry Kissinger to weigh in on the Ukraine war without first checking his pockets for bones.
If I sound overly negative, I make no apologies; it is hard-earned. Trump and his people are adept at seeking out the low places and the weak spots, and they slither through the cracks, if any are allowed to exist. And if I have learned anything in the 50 laps I’ve made around the sun, it is that Democrats will bollix the recipe for a bread sandwich if given half an opportunity.
Almost on cue, January 6 Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson — also an honorable man — told CNN on Monday night that “the panel will not make any criminal referral of former President Donald Trump or anyone else to the Justice Department.” Rep. Liz Cheney clapped back immediately, saying, “The January 6th Select Committee has not issued a conclusion regarding potential criminal referrals. We will announce a decision on that at an appropriate time.”
The most important person watching all of this — Attorney General Merrick Garland — got let off a very large hook if the chairman holds to this no-referral course. It is hard to imagine how the timing could be worse; Garland told reporters on Monday, “I can assure you that the January 6 prosecutors are watching all the hearings.”
On Tuesday morning, the committee announced that Wednesday’s hearing would be postponed until Thursday due to “technical difficulties.” What that really means is anyone’s guess, but I would bet the long green that there has been some tall shouting behind closed doors after Thompson made his proclamation. There is still time to salvage all this, but if the committee wants to make this case with enough vinegar to move Garland, those aforementioned cracks need some caulk. The word for the week is “seamless,” or else we all should have stayed in bed.
Bread sandwich, anyone?