Here we go again.
Watching the recent coverage of the January 6 investigation, I felt a stab of deja vu. As the House committee probing the insurrectionist riot held a hearing this week that focused on the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, two militant right-wing groups that led the assault on the Capitol, commentators zeroed in on the question of whether Donald Trump and his White House had forged a direct connection to these extremists prior to their attack on Congress. That is, was there collusion between Trump and these domestic terrorists who have been indicted on charges of sedition? Now where have we heard this before?
This question is an important one, but it is also a trap. Trump and his comrades have been rather deft at developing a tactic to protect him from charges of profound wrongdoing: They raise the bar. If Trump is caught holding a match outside a burning house, Trump and his defenders will say, “Do you have proof he doused the interior with gasoline? That’s fake news. A hoax.”
This is what happened with the Russia scandal. There was plenty of confirmed evidence that Trump and his crew acted in a sleazy and improper manner. During the 2016 campaign, his top advisers signaled to Moscow they were fine with the Kremlin’s covert efforts to influence the election to assist Trump. They secretly met with a Russian emissary who they were told was part of this project. And Trump and his team repeatedly denied Vladimir Putin’s regime was attacking the election—even though they were informed Moscow was taking clandestine action to help the Trump campaign—and thus provided cover for Putin, aiding and abetting Russia’s assault on the American political system.
These actions—arguably acts of betrayal—were undeniable and immensely scandalous. Yet Trump and his protectors defined the scandal in different terms: Did he collude with the Kremlin? They made the central question whether he had conspired directly with the Russian operation to hack the Democrats and release pilfered emails and documents through WikiLeaks. Of course, no such direct conspiring was necessary for the operation to succeed. Trump merely encouraged this assault committed by a foreign adversary and denied that it happened. This was enough to land him in Benedict Arnold territory. Yet when special counsel Robert Mueller reported he had not found evidence that Trump criminally conspired with the Russians, Trump and his cult declared he had been cleared—even though Mueller’s final report documented his misdeeds and detailed numerous instances in which Trump possibly obstructed justice.
No collusion equals no culpability—that’s how Trump managed to shape the Russia scandal. And to a large extent the scheme worked. Much of the mainstream media got hooked on the collusion question, and Republicans and the Trumpified conservative press dished out this propaganda unrelentingly. All that helped to deflect attention from the incontrovertible Trump wrongdoing that had transpired. (By the way, a 2020 report issued by the GOP-chaired Senate intelligence committee noted that Paul Manafort, when he was chief executive of the Trump campaign, did indeed collude with a Russian intelligence officer who might have been involved in Moscow’s attack on the election.)
In much the same way, Trump need not be nailed as a colluder with the Oath Keepers or Proud Boys to merit widespread condemnation and possible criminal investigation. It’s been proven that the Trump White House via then-chief of staff Mark Meadows was in communication on January 5 with longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone and disgraced former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, who themselves were in contact with the allegedly seditious Oath Keepers and Proud Boys. So it remains a possibility that the White House was in cahoots with the extremists, perhaps egging them on to cause chaos on January 6 that would impede the certification of the electoral vote count—which, at that time, was what Trump desired. (The Proud Boys, at the very least, believed Trump sent them an encouraging message during the 2020 campaign when he told them, “Stand back and stand by.” And in 2016, Trump publicly asked Russian hackers to target Hillary Clinton—and they did.) Yet if these two dots—Trump and the insurrectionist paramiltarists—are not connected, that does not absolve Trump.
So much of Trump’s post-election misconduct is now out in the open. His Big Lie crusade and his incitement of the January 6 mob occurred in full public view. And his behind-the-scenes efforts to overturn the election have been revealed: leaning on state Republican legislators; pressuring election officials in Georgia (“I just want [you] to find 11,780 votes”); scheming to create fake elector slates; pressing the Justice Department to declare the election results corrupt; and muscling Vice President Mike Pence to block the certification of electoral votes. Moreover, the January 6 committee has been revealing evidence showing what was already known about that awful day: While the pro-Trump marauders attacked the Capitol and assaulted law enforcement officers, Trump took no steps to end the riot. The raid proceeded for hours before Trump called on his supporters to leave the Capitol. (The committee has teased that it will provide more testimony regarding what Trump did and did not do on the afternoon of January 6 in a hearing next week.)
Some of Trump’s actions may have been illegal—and there’s much discussion these days as to whether Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Justice Department is fully investigating them and whether Trump and his henchmen could be indicted. (The Fulton County district attorney is on the case.) But there is no question that Trump committed serious wrongdoing and that on January 6 he abandoned his duties as president, as he watched the riot and did nothing.
All this ought to be enough to brand Trump a villain and a danger to American democracy. Conspiring with the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys would be merely one more offense on a tall pile. It could expand his legal liability. But it’s a subplot in a tale already fully established: Trump attempted to subvert the constitutional order to retain power.
Trump has often escaped accountability by committing transgression upon transgression. Each dirty deed distracts from the other. Any one of his plots to steal the 2020 election would be a major scandal in itself. (Pushing the Justice Department to falsely declare the results were fraudulent!) Yet all of his dishonest conniving creates a gigantic blur that can be hard to absorb or follow. The January 6 committee has done a good job of breaking down Trump’s myriad skullduggery. This will certainly not convince the Trump cultists and denialists; they cannot be reached. But for the rest of the nation, there’s no need for a smoking gun—or to get hung up on a particular allegation or possible criminal violation. The question is no longer Trump’s guilt but how best to counter the threat he continues to pose to the republic.