It is extraordinary that more than 13 months after the US Capitol insurrection, the depth of Trump’s lawlessness and abuses of power is still coming into view. It will be for the House committee probing the attack to paint the complete picture and to weigh in on whether they think there was a criminal conspiracy and the extent to which Trump knew about it and directed it.
But new evidence and reporting already strongly suggests Trump’s team presided over multiple schemes to discredit the election; sought to steal President Joe Biden’s win in the states with rogue lawyers; encouraged fake electors; and sought to block its certification in Congress.
Wednesday’s revelations alone underscored the vast scope of the committee’s investigation, the troubling breadth of the subversion effort and what increasingly looks like a Trump world cover-up.
- The National Archives asked the Justice Department to investigate Trump’s handling of presidential records, all of which should have been turned over when his administration ended. The request followed multiple reports that Trump tore up documents and that Archives staff had to tape back together some that were handed over to the House committee.
- In another staggering development, The Washington Post reported that Trump’s onetime lawyer Rudy Giuliani asked a Republican prosecutor in Michigan to hand over county voting machines, based on a false cheating conspiracy theory.
- The committee has now subpoenaed yet another key former White House official, Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro, who played a major role in elevating false conspiracy theories about a stolen election.
- And late on Wednesday, The New York Times reported that some of the documents improperly taken to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort were believed to have been classified. While a President can declassify any material at any time, the story suggests Trump is guilty of gross hypocrisy given his criticism of Hillary Clinton over classified material on her email server that may have cost her the 2016 election.
New details defy Trump’s cover-up effort
Wednesday’s torrent of disclosures only hints at the size of the election-stealing effort operated out of the Trump White House and of the House committee’s investigation of events that culminated in one of the darkest days in US political history.
If there is any comfort for those who believe in American democracy, it is that all of the schemes failed — often due to the courage of local and state officials, many of them Republicans. But it became ever more clear Wednesday that an ex-President and a corps of fellow believers were willing to attempt to defy the will of voters with authoritarian measures.
That reality underscores the grave danger facing future elections in the US. Trump is seeking to insert like-minded activists and candidates in key positions overseeing elections in what looks like an attempt to destroy safeguards that prevented him from stealing the last election. It is also alarming that while US foes like Russia and China are escalating efforts to discredit democracy in the US and worldwide, their goals are shared by Americans working to destroy it from the inside.
The latest details about the insurrection emerged despite incessant efforts by Trump and those around him to obstruct the January 6 investigation. The President waged a failed campaign right up to the Supreme Court to stop West Wing documents making it to the House committee. Some of his aides have made spurious claims of executive privilege to frustrate the panel, which said Wednesday it had nevertheless conducted 500 interviews. Republicans in the House had tried to stop the investigation even starting and are sure to close it down if they win the majority in November’s midterm elections.
Committee’s progress prompts extreme reactions
The closer the committee appears to discovering the truth, the more unhinged is the reaction from the Trump camp.
Over weekend, in a resolution censuring two Republicans serving on the January 6 panel, the Republican National Committee described the insurrection as “legitimate political discourse.” That was followed on Wednesday by Navarro unleashing an unmoored outburst after he was subpoenaed by the panel to explain alleged efforts to delay the certification of 2020 election results. He accused the committee, which is investigating an unprecedented insurrection designed to overturn a US election, of being “domestic terrorists.”
The request by the National Archives to the Justice Department to look into Trump’s handling of White House records escalates controversy over one of the more recent streams of investigation pursued by the committee.
A source told CNN that the Archives wants a review of whether Trump violated the Presidential Records Act, which requires all paper and other documents to be turned over the National Archives at the end of an administration, and other possible violations, including the handling of classified information. CNN has reported the former President routinely ripped up documents and took some with him to Mar-a-Lago after leaving office. The National Archives retrieved 15 boxes from the Florida resort just last month. And a person familiar with the matter previously told CNN that Archives general counsel Gary Stern had contacted Trump’s team last fall to ask about records apparently taken there.
It was not clear on Wednesday whether the Justice Department would launch an investigation. Even if it did, it seems a long shot that the ex-President could face formal consequences since the Presidential Records Act contains no enforcement mechanism. The request by the Archives, first reported by The Washington Post, follows days of reports about Trump’s habit of ripping up documents. Sources have said that archivists have been forced to try to tape ripped papers back together before turning them over to the House select committee. The question now is whether Trump will face another legal front — on top of a criminal probe in Georgia into his attempt to steal votes and investigations in New York into his firm’s accounting.
All through his personal, business and personal life, Trump has shown an incredible capacity to escape consequences of his actions — often because his transgressions are so vast and unprecedented they defy any previous expectations of how presidents behave.
On the question of the torn and missing documents, Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, suggested that Trump may again escape legal jeopardy.
“It is clearly unlawful,” he said on CNN’s “Newsroom” on Wednesday. “The question of whether it is a crime is a little more complicated. If the intent was, for example, to obstruct justice, to hide wrongdoing, and or other unlawful activity, that would be a crime. Otherwise, it is very wrong, unlawful, but there is no enforcement mechanism and no obvious criminal penalty there.”
The presidency as personal entitlement
The fact that the President appears to have openly flouted laws on record keeping was the latest example of his contempt for the traditions and laws that have long defined the office he held for four wild and damaging years.
Every presidents’ records are kept, providing historians with intimately detailed primary sources that can be used to reconstruct presidencies decades later.
But Trump always appeared to view the presidency as a personal entitlement with which he could do what he liked rather than a sacred trust meant to advance and defend the national interest. That he appears to be attempting to regain the presidency in 2024 — even with all this fresh evidence of his misconduct emerging — only underscores that the coming years could be even more dangerous to US democratic governance and respect for presidential guardrails than the previous five.