Donald Trump must have awoken on the morning of Jan. 6 last year with a terrible sense of foreboding. It was the day his nemesis, Joe Biden, was scheduled to be certified as the winner of the presidential election. He had spent two whole months, November and December, trying to forestall what was going to happen that day. We now know from reporting on the period after the election that he didn't do anything except play golf and talk to his outside lawyers, like Rudy Giuliani, and outside advisers, like Steve Bannon, about possible ways the results of the election could be overturned.
This article first appeared in Salon.
He spoke with Bannon on Dec. 29 from Mar-a-Lago. Bannon told Trump he had to return from Florida and be present in Washington to prepare the ground for what they had planned for Jan. 6. This meant he would have to skip his big annual New Year's Eve celebration at his club in Palm Beach, no small matter in the world of Donald Trump, who loves to be surrounded with adoring fans who have paid big money to be in his presence. But Bannon pushed him and pushed him hard. He had to work on Mike Pence. He had to pay attention to the memos written by another of his outside lawyers, John Eastman, laying out in two scenarios how Pence — who would preside over the joint session of Congress on Jan. 6 — could refuse to certify the electoral votes from battleground states and throw the election into the House of Representatives, where, as one memo delightedly declares, in all caps, "TRUMP WINS."
Trump had been after Pence to help him overturn the election for weeks. On Jan. 5, he cornered Pence in the Oval Office and called Eastman, who was in the "war room" in the Willard Hotel across the street, and the two of them pressured Pence to refuse to certify enough electoral ballots from states like Arizona and Pennsylvania and Michigan such that neither Trump nor Biden, would have achieved the 270 electoral votes necessary to win. Supposedly, in that scenario, the ballots would be returned to the states where the Republican-led legislatures would convene and appoint new slates of electors and, again in all caps, "TRUMP WINS."
According to Bob Woodward and Robert Costa's book "Peril," which uncovered the Eastman memos and provides the bulk of the reporting on what transpired between Trump and Pence, the vice president demurred during that Jan. 5 Oval Office meeting with Trump. The next morning, Pence spoke to the conservative retired judge J. Michael Luttig, who had been Eastman's boss in the Justice Department, about a letter he would release later that day. Following the legal advice of Luttig, as well as that of another conservative lawyer, John Yoo, Pence wrote that "my considered judgement [is] that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not."
According to "Peril," Pence remained at the vice president's residence in the Naval Observatory on the morning of the 6th and did not go to the White House. Trump had begun tweeting veiled threats directed at Pence at 1 a.m. and continued at 8:17 a.m. with this: "All Mike Pence has to do is send them back to the States, AND WE WIN. Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!" But Pence went straight from his home to the Capitol, leaving Trump in the Oval Office making his final preparations for the rally on the Ellipse, which he had advertised with a December tweet: "Be there. Will be wild!"
Woodward and Costa made a valedictory tour of the cable shows on Thursday, appearing on "Morning Joe" and later the same day on "The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell." Woodward displayed his own copy of the Eastman memos on the air and referred several times to another sheaf of papers he described as a file of research from the office of Sen. Lindsey Graham that showed no evidence whatsoever of election fraud. Liz Cheney appeared on CNN, telling Jake Tapper: "'The president of the United States is responsible for ensuring the laws are faithfully executed; he's responsible for the security of the branches. So for the president to, either through his action or inaction, for example, attempt to impede or obstruct the counting of electoral votes, which is an official function of Congress, the committee is looking at that, whether what he did constitutes that kind of a crime. But certainly it's dereliction of duty."
Cheney has talked about possible crimes committed by Trump on or around Jan. 6 before, but it was Woodward's appearance on MSNBC that really caught my attention. I've been a sort of Woodward tea-leaf reader since the Watergate days, throughout his various tomes on presidents as the years have passed. What has always amazed me about Woodward has been his almost congenital refusal to draw conclusions from the extensive reporting he's done on presidents and their administrations. He'll interview them and come up with extraordinary quotes and documentary evidence, but all he ever does is present it without comment. He has been called a "stenographer" for good reason, because of his reluctance or outright refusal to analyze or draw conclusions from some of the groundbreaking revelations he has reported over the years.
But not this week. Brandishing handfuls of documents and looking as animated as I've ever seen him, Woodward made repeated charges that what Trump had done in attempting to overthrow the election of 2020 was "a crime against the Constitution." I'm not going to review my Woodward library on a quote-hunt, but I'm pretty sure it's the first time I've ever heard him accuse a president or former president of a crime.
I'm dwelling on Woodward's recent appearances on television for a reason. Ever since his famous work on Watergate, he has made a point of not reporting anything unless he's confirmed it with multiple sources or has seen it written in a document he has in his possession. For that reason, Woodward has always known a lot more than he has written. He's not necessarily withholding information from his readers, he is simply meticulous about what he feels he can report as true and what he can't. In his appearances on television, he always seems beyond buttoned-up. He's clearly a guy who's not just careful about what he says, but obsessively so.
Not on the anniversary of Jan. 6. Bob Woodward looked like he was about to burst, holding out his sheafs of documents like they were tablets that had been passed down to him on a mountain. Woodward is reticent. He is careful. But he also reflects very accurately what the Washington establishment is thinking and talking about amongst themselves — the behind the scenes chatter of the "permanent government," if you will.
Watching him on TV and reading my Bob Woodward tea leaves, it looked to me on Thursday that he has heard talk from friends and sources amounting to more than rumor — that Trump is going to end up charged with a felony, or multiple felonies. He made clear that he thinks the House Jan. 6 committee is being thorough, almost to a fault, in the way they're going about their investigation of the events before, during and after the day itself. Woodward is a Washington Whisperer par excellence. He's been at it for almost 50 years. He is one of the least excitable guys I've ever met. But on Thursday, as he was being interviewed by Lawrence O'Donnell, he looked like he was about to levitate out of his chair.
That's why for Donald Trump, Jan. 6 this year was even worse than Jan. 6 last year. As Richard Nixon discovered, when Bob Woodward says you're in trouble, you've really got something to worry about.