With the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol recommending criminal charges against former President Donald Trump, we speak with Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a scholar of fascism and authoritarianism, and Robert Weissman, president of the advocacy group Public Citizen. They say the committee has left no doubt that the insurrection was part of a larger plot to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 election and that the Department of Justice must act soon if it intends to follow through on the referral. “The most important thing to prevent this kind of coup from ever taking place again is accountability for the people at the top,” says Weissman.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at the House January 6th committee’s vote to refer President Donald Trump to the Justice Department to face criminal charges for attempting to overturn the 2020 election.
During its final hearing Monday, the committee aired what could be called an insurrection mixtape of excerpts from previous hearings, that includes footage of the attack on the Capitol, depositions, mainly Republican voices, Trump lawyers, assistants and family members. This excerpt begins with U.S. Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards.
AMY GOODMAN: Part of a 10-minute insurrection mixtape that the House select committee on the attack on the Capitol played at the beginning of their final hearing on Monday.
We’re are joined now by two guests. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of history at New York University, author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, also publishes Lucid, a newsletter on threats to democracy. And joining us from Washington, D.C., Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen.
Before we go to the technical aspects of what this means for a House select committee to refer criminal charges, first time ever, against a former president, Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat, I want to talk about the significance of that moment and what this means for today, what you took from what happened yesterday — before Wednesday, they’ll release their report — but yesterday, the referral of criminal charges against a president.
RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Well, first of all, I felt profoundly grateful that we still live in a democracy, where this investigation and this committee could even exist, and that, the second, that I felt how important it is to assert accountability, to assert the rule of law, and to say that no one is above the law, because, you know, Trump, like other authoritarians, spent a lot of effort creating a personality cult and a devoted mass of followers who think he is untouchable and also admire him because he transgresses. The essence of authoritarianism is getting away with it. And this is the glamor of the strongman. So, this criminal referral says, “No, you are a mortal like everyone else, and you can be held accountable.”
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Weissman, head of Public Citizen, if you can talk about these four criminal charges: obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the United States, false statements to the federal government, and inciting or assisting an insurrection? These are the criminal charges that the House select committee is referring to the Justice Department.
ROBERT WEISSMAN: Yeah, I think what’s important about them is maybe two things. One, you know, for those who of us who were watching January 6 unfold in real time, it sort of seemed as a rally that sort of spun out of control. And what the January 6 committee has shown beyond any doubt, and has now referenced in their referral to the Justice Department, is that the insurrection was planned and intentional. In fact, we have reason to believe that Trump actually hoped to be at the Capitol leading the physical insurrection. So it wasn’t something that was an accident or a spur-of-the-moment thing; it was part of an overall scheme. That’s, I think, the first point.
The second thing that the committee has shown, and is, again, reflected in the referral, is that the insurrection itself was part of a broader scheme to overthrow the election. Again, in real time, I think a lot of us seeing what happened after the election in November of 2020 thought this stuff was just sort of child’s play and kind of Trump sort of working out his own psychodrama, claiming there was a fraud and a lie when — a fraud with the election when there never had been. But what we now know is that there was an actual, orchestrated, significant scheme that could have succeeded to overthrow the election.
And so, the four charges together reflect both those things: the intentionality behind the insurrection and the multifaceted overall scheme that Trump led, masterminded, orchestrated and nearly succeeded in carrying out.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about technically what this means, that this House select committee is referring criminal charges to the Justice Department. The Justice Department is investigating separately. They don’t need this to indict the president. But so, what does it mean?
ROBERT WEISSMAN: Well, that’s right. The Justice Department is going to make its own determination. They’re free to ignore, if they choose, what the House committee has now referred to them. But I think they’re not going to ignore it. For one thing, the committee has generated a lot of evidence, that’s now going to be made available to the Justice Department, and that should inform the decision that the Justice Department takes.
I think what’s going to be really important, for the reasons that Chairman Thompson laid out at the beginning, and as Ruth just said, that the Justice Department proceed with a prosecution. There are going to be a lot of reforms proposed. The House Republicans are not likely to move forward with them. One significant reform is going to probably be achieved in legislation in the next couple days to deal with the mechanism of counting electoral votes. But at the end of the day, the most important thing to prevent this kind of coup from ever taking place again is accountability for the people at the top, and most importantly for the single person who masterminded it, Donald Trump.
Now, whether the Justice Department proceeds with this, that decision has now been kicked over, at least in the first instance, away from the actual leadership of the Justice Department to a special prosecutor, Jack Smith. Hopefully, he’s going to make the decision soon to proceed with an investigation and have the Attorney General Merrick Garland agree that that should take place. The longer they wait, the harder it’s going to be politically to proceed with a prosecution.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Jack Smith, Professor Ben-Ghiat, is an interesting guy. He served as head of the Justice Department Public Integrity Unit in 2010. He served in The Hague prosecuting war crimes. He was also involved in New York City in the prosecution of a group of New York City police officers involved in the 1997 attack on Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant who was raped, sodomized and attacked by New York City police. Can you talk about Jack Smith and, more significantly, also what that history means, from police corruption and violence to The Hague?
RUTH BEN-GHIAT: [inaudible] set to assess the activities of — just keeping to Trump for the moment — of somebody like Trump, who has such a broad range of criminality. You know, there is no one else in America — I can think of Berlusconi in Italy as a partial equivalent — who is criminal in so many ways as Trump. So, the fact that Jack Smith has prosecuted a sitting politician, he’s done corruption cases — because, of course, we heard, you know, that one of the charges is that Trump was trying to defraud the U.S. government, and fraud is what he does, right? Let’s remember that when Trump ran for office in 2016, he was under investigation for fraud for Trump University.
And then, of course, the prosecuting in The Hague is extremely important, because, you know, this has never happened before, but Donald Trump is somebody who’s different than any president we’ve ever had, Republican or Democrat, because he is an autocratic individual. The people he admires, the leaders he admires are autocrats. And he has no regard for human life whatsoever. And so, he would commit war crimes if he could. Indeed, we heard from John Kelly, in Peter Baker and Susan Glasser’s book, hat he wanted — he was disappointed that his generals were not acting like Hitler’s generals. So, Jack Smith, with his range of experience, seems to be the perfect person that we have been sent at this moment in time.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Professor Ben-Ghiat, it’s not only President Trump who’s got these criminal charges referred against him, also his lawyer, John Eastman. Can you talk about the significance of this?
RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Yeah. There’s a little subtheme in authoritarian history of the lawyers of authoritarians, and many of them go to jail. Berlusconi’s lawyer is only one of many who went to jail. We have also Michael Cohen. But it’s very important, you know, this — they chose not to investigate the role of institutions, the FBI, the Secret Service, derelictions of duty. But it’s very important to have broadened the scope, because this was, again, not just a violent insurrection, but an elite — elites are very important to pulling off coups. And Eastman was kind of one of the minds of the coup and connected to the Claremont Institute. And when you look back in history, you need this kind of buy-in from elites who have these theories and come up with plans that then get implemented by the chief instigator. And so I was very pleased to see the name of Eastman there.
AMY GOODMAN: Rob Weissman, also referring to the Ethics Committee those congressmembers, this bipartisan committee’s colleagues, who refuse to participate in what so many others — Republican advisers, lawyers, even family members — did in terms of cooperating with the committee, and this includes the man who’s running to be House speaker, Kevin McCarthy.
ROBERT WEISSMAN: Yeah, Kevin McCarthy is fascinating. I think that, you know, the information that McCarthy didn’t want to share is that he actually was very upset, felt personally physically threatened the day of the January 6th coup attempt, insurrection, and called the president, called the chief of staff and made that clear. He didn’t want to be on the record about that, because he knew what that might mean for his efforts now to become speaker of the House.
The other three, and especially two of them, seem to be pretty actively involved in carrying out the conspiracy. That’s information we don’t quite know, exactly what their individual roles were. We may learn quite a bit more about that in the final report coming out from the committee tomorrow.
AMY GOODMAN: And we’ll talk more about that in the coming days on Democracy Now! Finally, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, again, President Trump has not been charged. The House will now switch to be Republican-led, but the Justice Department doesn’t change. Can you explain what happens next?
RUTH BEN-GHIAT: I’m not a legal expert, but, you know, one thing that came out yesterday, which is so important for democracy prevention, is that the only reason that Jeffrey Clark was not appointed — and this is what autocrats do, they politicize justice, they put loyalists in there — was that there was mass resignations threatened by DOJ employees. And this assertion of professional ethics is itself a form of democracy prevention. And so, civil service — some people think, “Oh, it’s boring,” the civil service. But it’s absolutely essential, because these are the people whose individual actions add up to — in this case, added up to — a block on an autocratic move. So, the culture of the DOJ is very important, and so we’ll see what they choose to do.
AMY GOODMAN: Ruth Ben-Ghiat, we want to thank you for being with us, historian, professor of history at New York University, author of the book Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, and Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen.
That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.
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