The system worked; the guardrails held. Except they almost didn’t. But thanks to a cadre of white Republican men, we still live in a free country. That was the ultimate message of the first three days of the January 6 Committee hearings. I know: The decision to rely on former Trump Republicans was a calculated one. And I am vastly underselling these hearings, on one level. We got photos, videos, and devastating testimony we hadn’t seen or heard before.
Clearly, the guardrails almost failed. The testimony of Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards—“I was slipping in people’s blood”—will stay with me forever. President Donald Trump, who would soon be impeached for the second time, “summoned the mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack,” in the words of the committee’s vice chair, Republican Liz Cheney. “Donald Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy,” the archconservative lawyer J. Michael Luttig told the committee in the third hearing.
The real takeaway from the hearings so far is this: For at least two months, the “good” Trump staffers—lawyers and others in the inner circle, the so-called Team Normal—spent all their time fighting implausible theories about nonexistent voter fraud and nonexistent (at least legally) ways to overturn the Electoral College vote and hand the election to Trump. Yet none of them came to the American public and screamed, “Look at what’s happening here!” And given what we’ve learned in the hearings, everyone who testified absolutely should have.
Day 3 laid that out most clearly. It focused on how Trump and his allies tried to bludgeon Vice President Mike Pence into using his supposed power to somehow thwart what is historically the ceremonial counting of Electoral College votes, which would certify Joe Biden’s victory, on January 6. The hearing’s revelations were supposed to be shocking, but except for some new (and truly chilling) video footage of insurrectionists calling for Pence to be brought out and strung up, the effect was oddly numbing.
We learned how much time Pence staffers spent talking to John Eastman, a law professor at Chapman University with a couple of nothing ideas about how to overturn Biden’s election. The committee heard about day after day of meetings in which Pence and/or staffers listened to ideas that Eastman himself would, at times, disown. But why were so many of the people around Pence and Trump, even those on Team Normal, meeting with Eastman constantly? Hint: to appease Trump, their deranged boss.
And it wasn’t just Eastman. Trump’s and Pence’s staffers had to deal daily with the obviously lame claims of voter fraud from Rudy Giuliani and his band of should-be inmates. They’d shoot them down and come back to work the next day and do it again.
We’re supposed to be grateful that these staffers thwarted Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and hold on to power. And, I guess, I am. But none of them went public. Sure, we remember the leaks to favored reporters at The Washington Post and The New York Times, some of whom undersold what they were told and saved the gory details for their books. We got leaks, but leaks are easily undermined. We needed whistleblowers, and we never got them.
If we’d seen a name and a face for one of these Republican heroes, the violence of January 6 might have been averted. Take Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short. He said he alerted his boss’s Secret Service detail to the possibility that Trump’s escalating attacks on Pence, for refusing to reject Biden’s electoral vote majority on January 6, might put his boss in danger. But why not warn the whole country? Or at least the whole Capitol?
And then there’s Pence himself. Like so many other Republican men who were paraded before us as heroes at the hearings, Pence did, ultimately, act to save democracy. His counsel, Greg Jacob, insisted that his boss’s first impulse was to resist the efforts, especially by the farcical Eastman, to get him to reject the electoral votes he was supposed to preside over counting. But that doesn’t ring true: Pence ran around to various friends and advisers, including Luttig and former vice president Dan Quayle, among others, to see if he could find a way to follow Trump’s orders.
In the end, he did not. At his last meeting with Trump, where he rejected Trump’s efforts to blame voter fraud and find a way to overturn Biden’s election, Pence still tried to endorse Trump’s delusional views. “I’ve done everything I could” to back up his boss’s efforts to hold on to the White House, he reportedly told Trump. Let’s remember: They all did. Until they couldn’t anymore.