(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Donald Trump may face the consequences of seeking to overthrow the federal government. There is pressure on him to resign and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is planning to formally call on Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment and strip the president of his office and powers. The House of Representatives is considering charging him with “incitement of insurrection,” according to a draft of impeachment papers circulating in Congress.
Good. That’s exactly what Trump did — in three recent phone calls to Georgia officials seeking to rig election results there and in the grotesque calamity he engineered last week that prompted seditionists to lay siege to the Capitol, leaving five people dead and the seat of the U.S. government seriously breached for the first time since the War of 1812.
What’s in store for everybody else who helped empower Trump or incite the insurrectionists? It will be easy to treat Trump like a piñata, penalizing a sole actor for an attempted coup and all the other damage he visited on the country over the past four years. But the likelihood that Trump’s demented, menacing behavior would generate street violence was foreseeable for years. Many of those closest to him either failed to put a stop to it or enabled it.
“I’d like to punch him in the face, I tell ya,” Trump advised a throng at one of his rallies in early 2016, after a protester disrupted his speech. “We’re not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.” At a different rally shortly after that, Trump said of another protester: “The next time we see him, we might have to kill him.” A 2017 lawsuit filed by protesters alleging that Trump incited supporters to attack them at yet another rally was later dismissed by a federal appellate court, which ruled that Trump’s words (“Get ‘em out of here”) were protected speech and didn’t specifically advocate violence.
Three years ago, after white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, sparked clashes and a woman was killed, Trump was initially unwilling to condemn the marchers. When pipe bombs were sent to prominent Democrats (including two former presidents), a TV network and others shortly before the 2018 midterm elections, Trump briefly condemned the anger he had stoked before blaming it all on the media. In White House meetings in 2019, he suggested shooting undocumented migrants crossing the U.S. border, which he also wanted protected by moats stocked with alligators. During a summer rally in 2019, he laughed along with an enthusiastic crowd about the virtues of shooting migrants he claimed were swarming the border.
Early last year, amid the Covid-19 outbreak, Trump encouraged protesters to march against state governments mandating lockdowns. "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!; LIBERATE MINNESOTA!; LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!" he tweeted in April. Armed protesters breached the state capitol building in Lansing, Michigan, later that month.
A June letter that Trump’s presidential campaign sent to potential supporters reminded them that they were his “fiercest and most loyal defenders” and would “make an excellent addition to the Trump Army.” For months prior to Election Day, Trump repeatedly lied about the election being rigged and called on an “army” of “poll watchers” to take to the streets on his behalf on Nov. 3. The violence that might have erupted that day was postponed to Jan. 6, when Trump’s mob took note of the president’s warning that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” and stormed the Capitol.
It was all right in front of our eyes.
Broader culpability for the current round of upheaval and lawlessness runs the gamut from those who spent years whitewashing and forgiving Trump’s behavior — which encouraged him to continue abusing the powers of his office — to those who directly fomented last week’s insurrection. Both these realities explain the wave of reputation-laundering that Republican politicians, White House staff members, Trump’s lawyers and children, like-minded media networks and other enablers have engaged in over the past several days.
“Orchestrating a mob to pressure Congress is inexcusable,” former Attorney General William Barr advised last week. “The president’s conduct yesterday was a betrayal of his office and supporters.” This is the same Barr who, before resigning from his Justice Department post, made a series of public statements supporting Trump’s claims that the presidential election might have been hobbled by fraud. Barr eventually reversed himself, asserting about a month after the election that there was no widespread fraud.
And he’s the same Barr who earlier gave Trump and his advisers legal cover and maneuvering room when they tried to poison the electoral process or obstruct justice. The first go-around involved former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of whether the president’s team colluded with Russia to sabotage the 2016 election, an investigation Barr undermined. The second involved Trump’s calls to Ukraine seeking dirt on a high-profile opponent in the 2020 election, Joe Biden. Democrats in Congress impeached Trump for that one, but Barr downplayed the severity of the Ukraine misdeeds when they were revealed to his prosecutors and gave every appearance of trying to bury the problem.
For Barr, Trump was a useful idiot, a vehicle for crafting an all-powerful executive branch. Trump was happy to test the limits of presidential authority, claiming incorrectly, shortly after Barr took office, that the Constitution gave him “the right to do whatever I want.” Barr, who prides himself on hewing to a clear moral code, was content to overlook Trump’s vices and predations. “I think all human beings have flaws. Everybody,” Barr told the Washington Post in an interview published in September. “And if we were to insist on perfection in our leaders, you wouldn’t really have leaders.”
While Barr may have been the most significant enabler in Trump’s cabinet, others in the White House also greased the wheels.
“Don’t avert your eyes & don’t excuse this,” Kellyanne Conway, a former Trump adviser, tweeted Saturday night, commenting on the insurrection. “The more we see & learn, the worse it is.” Conway, who spent years disseminating propaganda for Trump, and famously spun lies and disinformation as “alternative facts,” was part of a communications team stretching from Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders to Stephanie Grisham, Kayleigh McEnany and Alyssa Farah, that freely lied in Trump’s service.
Three days ago, Conway issued a statement condemning the Capitol assault and noting that she had never “beaten the drum” about election fraud — but added that Trump had every right to investigate “legitimate claims of malfeasance” in the election. McEnany and Farah, who both did beat the election-fraud drum, are now singing new tunes. Farah told Politico she quit her White House job because, in the wake of the insurrection, she suddenly discovered that “misleading the public has consequences.” In a recent press briefing, McEnany tried floating the idea that the seditionists were “the opposite of everything this administration stands for” and that she now understood it was “time for America to unite, to come together to reject the violence that we have seen.”
Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, an unwavering and incompetent yes-man, and senior trade adviser Peter Navarro fed Trump the kind of garbage about election fraud he wanted to hear. “It’s time to fight back,” Meadows tweeted on Jan. 2, encouraging members of Congress to vote against certification of the election. That was the same day he and Trump jumped on the phone to try bullying Georgia officials into overturning the election results there. Meadows also took to Twitter that day to praise Senators Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Ron Johnson and more than 100 other Republican legislators who planned to vote against certification.
Cruz, like Hawley and Johnson, claimed he was merely respecting voters’ desire to investigate electoral fraud — though he, Hawley and Johnson helped instill suspicions in voters’ minds in the first place. After the insurrection, Cruz suddenly became a Trump critic. “The president’s rhetoric was irresponsible. I think it was reckless and I don’t think it was remotely helpful,” he said. “What I was doing, and what the other senators were doing, is what we were elected to do, which is debating matters of great import in the chamber of the United States Senate.”
Hawley, like dozens of his Republican colleagues, voted against certification even after violence had unspooled around the Capitol. He tweeted that “the violence must end,” without offering any reflections on his own role in stoking the chaos.
While Hawley was decertification’s ringleader, he had plenty of company. There was Representative Mo Brooks. “BAM! The fight for America’s Republic IS ON!” he tweeted on Jan. 6. “Today is the day that American Patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.” There was House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who also ran interference for Trump during last year’s impeachment proceedings. “President Trump won this election, so everyone who’s listening, do not be quiet,” he said on Nov. 5. “We cannot allow this to happen before our very eyes.” This is the same enabler who, after Trump’s 2017 inaugural address invoking “American carnage,” said he welcomed “a new period in our country’s great history.”
Home-state newspapers have called on Cruz, Hawley and Johnson to resign, but it’s not clear that they or other legislators — including Representatives Jim Jordan and Devin Nunes, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Lindsey Graham — will pay a price for enabling Trump.
Trump also enjoyed the support of influential and dangerous crackpots such as his former campaign manager, Steve Bannon. YouTube recently banned Bannon’s podcast, “War Room,” after he had spent months promoting violence and revolution on behalf of Trump and in opposition to what he described as a stolen election. In one broadcast, Bannon discussed beheading Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and FBI Director Christopher Wray. After the Capitol siege, Bannon, who is also battling federal fraud and money laundering charges, claimed that, “We don’t believe in taking matters into our own hands; we believe in the rule of law.”
Lin Wood, an attorney who’s hatched multiple conspiracy theories on Trump’s behalf, appeared on a Bannon podcast in late November and advised Trump supporters to “be prepared to fight for their freedom” against “people trying to take over our country.” The day after the Capitol was stormed, Wood advised followers on one social media platform to consider whether Pence had committed treason by presiding over the certification process: "Get the firing squads ready. Pence goes FIRST." Amid mounting criticism for those remarks, Wood tried clarifying things: "I have reliable evidence that Pence has engaged in acts of treason,” he told CNN. “My comments were rhetorical hyperbole.”
Wood has been part of a clutch of lawyers, including Jenna Ellis, Sidney Powell and Cleta Mitchell, who unsuccessfully weaponized the legal system to try to undermine the 2020 election. Sitting atop this group is Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
Giuliani, a ubiquitous Trump apologist who was an architect of the president’s efforts to smear Biden in Ukraine, fired up the crowd at the “Save America” rally. Before Trump came out to speak, Giuliani shouted that waging war on the 2020 election results might require “trial by combat.” He’s now engaging in some of the most tragicomic and unintelligible reputation-laundering out there, claiming he “meant we would have trial by the machines being in combat with each other, and the ballots being in combat with each other.”
Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan recently criticized Fox News for leading the way among media organizations in peddling pro-Trump lies in recent years, singling out Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham as primary forces responsible for radicalizing Trump’s mob.
Hannity, the Energizer Bunny of election-fraud fearmongering who enthusiastically promoted the Save America rally, has dutifully condemned the violence at the Capitol. But in a broadcast after the siege, Hannity spent a relatively short portion of a segment analyzing the insurrection and inveighing against violence before reminding his viewers that Trump “was right” and the election was a “train wreck.” He went on to wildly inflate the number of people attending the Save America rally and wonder why Democrats don’t understand concerns Trump’s supporters have for election fraud. “This is why millions of Americans no longer trust the system,” he noted, before spending the bulk of the segment ranting about Democrats’ tolerance for violence, Hillary Clinton, Hunter Biden’s laptop and a hot mess of his other hobbyhorses.
The business community and Trump’s financial backers have, at a minimum, some soul-searching to do. Lloyd Blankfein, the former chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. took the financial community to task last week for its willingness to overlook the dangers Trump presented in exchange for tax cuts and deregulation. “If you are willing to overlook bad character because they do good things for you, then that comes back to bite you,” he said. Reputation-laundering with the business crowd appears to involve largely going mum. Two dozen wealthy Trump supporters — including Peter Thiel, John Paulson, Richard LeFrak, Andy Beal, Charles Dolan, and Richard and Liz Uihlein — largely declined to comment when Bloomberg News asked them for their views of the insurrection.
“I am shocked and horrified by this mob’s attempt to undermine our Constitution,” the financier Stephen Schwarzman, a longtime Trump backer, told Bloomberg News. “As I said in November, the outcome of the election is very clear and there must be a peaceful transition of power.”
Trump’s three eldest children are also trying to reposition themselves as law-and-order folks after each of them, to varying degrees, threw fuel on the election-fraud fire. Ivanka Trump yanked a tweet she posted as violence escalated at the Capitol, in which she referred to the insurrectionists as “American Patriots” who needed to march peacefully. She tried refining her pitch in a second spin cycle, tweeting that “Violence is unacceptable and must be condemned in the strongest terms.”
Their father looms large over this trio (and Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner). They’ve watched Trump enabler after Trump enabler — including, most recently, Pence — get shunted aside for not showing sufficient loyalty to the paterfamilias. That reality, along with family ties and their own ambitions, have made them incapable of doing anything in public other than cheerlead for him.
But the president who once bragged he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and not lose political support has now been caught on tape and TV screens repeatedly pursuing a political coup. Another impeachment looms. Law enforcement is circling. His political future is, at best, clouded. And regardless of how all this plays out, history is likely to remember Trump and his enablers as dangerous and destructive insurrectionists.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
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