The Democratic leaders of the House Oversight Committee, at least, get it: Any effort to hold Donald Trump accountable for his many crimes and attacks on our democratic system will reap political rewards. Their ongoing investigation into Trump's attempted coup after the 2020 election, which culminated in Trump supporters storming the Capitol on January 6, is paying off dividends by getting new information to the public and keeping Trump's seditious, authoritarian behavior in the public view.
This week, the committee, led by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, released Department of Justice documents to the Washington Post that detail the lengths Trump was willing to go in order to steal the 2020 election. "The endeavor involved the White House chief of staff and an outside attorney, who peppered department officials with requests that they said came on behalf of Trump himself to investigate baseless claims of election fraud," the Washington Post reported, noting that the DOJ resisted most of the pressure to appeal to the courts to overturn the election result. DOJ officials, undoubtedly aware that their correspondences would someday be made public, seemed annoyed that Trump's team was inundating them with conspiracy theories, which Trump clearly hoped would compel the DOJ to falsify evidence to support his coup.
"Pure insanity," one DOJ official griped in an email to then-acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen, in response to Trump's Chief of Staff Mark Meadows sharing "a YouTube video that described an outlandish plot in which the election had been stolen from Trump through the use of military satellites controlled in Italy."
It's fun to laugh at Trump's own appointees privately blasting his views as "insanity," but it's becoming clear that actually, there's a nefarious rationality to what Trump was — and is — doing.
It's unlikely that he or Meadows actually believe the nonsense they spout about stolen elections and Italian satellites. Indeed, Trump let it slip on Fox News this week that "we didn't win but let's see what happens on that," which is to say, he tacitly admitted that they are still trying to overturn a legitimate election. Instead, Trump and his people are betting that these conspiracy theories could be propped up as excuses for what was an open attempt to steal the 2020 election. Plenty of Republicans in both federal and state governments were, at the time, thrown by demands that they break the law on Trump's behalf. Since then, however, the "pure insanity" that is insurrection logic has completely colonized the GOP. The party has reorganized itself entirely around the goal of making sure that next time Trump tries to steal an election, he pulls it off.
The fake vote "audit" being conducted in Arizona is moving closer to the predetermined, fake outcome of declaring that Trump "really" won Arizona, even though he most definitely did not. CNN reports that the data is being taken to a remote "lab" in Montana, where the Trumpist conspiracy theorists will make a big show of "examining" it before releasing their inevitable and false conclusion. Republicans are so thrilled with the propaganda value of these fake audits that they're pushing to take them nationwide, even in states Trump won. It's all theater, meant to support false claims that Biden "stole" the 2020 election and to justify the push to "steal it back". That push is expansive, to the point of being all-encompassing of the Republican Party. Zack Beauchamp of Vox documents the frightening level of success the GOP has already had in pursuing their mission to turn the U.S. into a one-party authoritarian state like Hungary is now or Mexico was for most of the 20th century.
In 2021, the GOP has started subverting election agencies in earnest; a new report from three pro-democracy groups found that 14 Republican-controlled states have passed a total of 24 bills this year interfering with election administration. Georgia's SB 202 is perhaps the most egregious, allowing the Republican-dominated state legislature to take over the vote-counting process from county officials.So what are Democrats, who technically have a majority in both houses of Congress and control the White House, doing to stop Republicans from converting the U.S. to a one-party authoritarian state? Well, mostly a whole lot of nothing.
Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a plan for beefed-up enforcement of voting rights but admitted that without Congress passing new voting rights legislation, the power of the DOJ is sadly limited. He also acknowledged that many jurisdictions "have utilized abnormal post-election audit methodologies that may put the integrity of the voting process at risk," but it's not at all clear that the DOJ can do anything unless Congress empowers them to act with new legislation. And, of course, that's not happening, because — sing it with me now — a handful of Senate Democrats, most notably Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, refuse to end the filibuster and allow legislation to be brought to a vote on the Senate floor.
But hey, at least Democrats still have an opportunity to use congressional powers of subpoena and investigation to reveal the full extent of Trump's malfeasance in office and — maybe, just maybe — bring something like a consequence to bear on the 45th president for trying to end democracy, right?
Unfortunately, there are troubling signs that Democrats intend to fall short in that department, as well.
Even though there's absolutely zero chance that Republicans will stop filibustering efforts to establish a bipartisan committee to investigate Trump's January 6 insurrection, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has so far refused to move towards Democrats striking out on their own. She's said this week that she is still holding out for Republicans to change their minds, which will never, ever happen.
Then on Wednesday, Democrats admitted they've given up trying to discover the content of Trump's secret communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin. They even trotted out the dreaded "moving forward" language that suggests absolutely nothing was learned from the horrors of the Trump years. "The Biden administration is looking forward, not back," said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., in response to reporter questions.Advertisement:
So while the Oversight Committee members are doing their job, nearly everyone else that could hold Trump accountable appears to be looking for the exit door.
Barack Obama's administration used similar excuses to avoid dealing with the headaches of holding accountable those responsible for either the Iraq War or the financial crisis. But this refusal to deal with the past did not make moving forward easier, but actually made it impossible. Resentment and lack of trust in institutions has festered in the American public, and Trump was able to ride the rising tide of cynicism straight into office.
Now things are even worse, because the coup isn't even in the past, but ongoing. Trump didn't just try to steal the 2020 election, but, with the expansive help of the GOP, is setting things up to steal 2024 — and pull it off successfully. This "moving forward" language is a little like getting a cancer diagnosis and refusing to get chemo or radiation, on the grounds that the diagnosis was yesterday and today is a brand new day. But the authoritarian tumor is still there and growing. It must be dealt with or it will kill the body — our democracy — it has taken root in.