July 25, 2022
Last Thursday night’s hearing of the House January 6 Committee was a blockbuster.
When the Committee commenced its hearings back in June, Committee Vice-Chair Liz Cheney carefully outlined the seven core claims the committee would advance, culminating in the claim that then-President Donald Trump stood down and stood by for hours as the insurrection unfolded on his television screen. She promised that the committee would demonstrate that Trump refused to call off the mob that he had invited and incited; to offer any assistance to all of those, including his own Vice President, who were hiding in fear of their lives; and to order the National Guard or anyone else to protect the Capitol and restore order.
Thursday night’s hearing made good on Cheney’s promise. And due to the unfortunate Covid infection of Committee Chair Bennie Thomas, who was unable to be physically present, Cheney herself was able to shine as the effective leader of the entire hearing.
Cheney was brilliant, and her performance fully deserves two full-throated cheers.
First cheer: Cheney did an excellent job of keeping the entire proceeding on track, and of supporting the night’s two “lead” colleagues, Democrat Elaine Luria and Republican Adam Kinzinger, who carefully made the case for Trump’s contemptible complicity and dereliction of duty on January 6. The testimony of the two live witnesses—along with the use of taped witness testimony, video footage of the insurrection, Trump’s Tweets, and tapes of Trump’s lame speech at 4:17 pm that day– combined to make an utterly compelling case.
Second cheer: Cheney capped off the entire proceeding with an absolutely terrific speech in which she delivered a powerful indictment of Trump and of MAGA Republicanism more generally.
She began by thanking the witnesses, especially the female witnesses, who testified knowing they would be attacked and threatened “by President Trump, and by the 50, 60 and 70 year old men who hide themselves behind Executive Privilege.”
She then seamlessly pivoted to the non-partisan character of the Committee and its commitment to the truth:
“This Committee has shown you the testimony of dozens of Republican witnesses, those who served President Trump loyally for years. The case against Donald Trump in these hearings is not made by witnesses who were his political enemies. It is, instead, a series of confessions by Donald Trump’s own appointees, his own friends, his own campaign officials, people who worked for him for years, and his own family. They have come forward and they have told the American people the truth. And for those of you who seem to think the evidence would be different if Republican Leader McCarthy had not withdrawn his nominees from this Committee, let me ask you this: Do you really think Bill Barr is such a delicate flower that he would wilt under cross examination? Pat Cipillone? Eric Herschman? Jeff Rosen? Richard Donoghue? Of course they aren’t – none of our witnesses are.”
She then went on to emphasize that Trump continues to pose a danger because he continues to hold many millions of citizens in thrall to his lies:
“Here is the worst part. Donald Trump knows that millions of Americans who supported him would stand up and defend our nation were it threatened. They would put their lives and their freedom at stake to protect her. And he is preying on their patriotism. He is preying on their sense of justice. And on January 6th, Donald Trump turned their love of country into a weapon against our Capitol and our Constitution. He has purposely created the false impression that America is threatened by a foreign force controlling voting machines, or that a wave of tens of millions of false ballots were secretly injected into our election system, or that ballot workers have secret thumb drives and are stealing elections with them. All complete nonsense. We must remember that we cannot abandon the truth and remain a free nation.”
And she concluded by underscoring the categorical imperative to keep Trump away from political power, invoking nothing less than the patron saints of conservative Republicanism, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, to make her point:
And every American must consider this. Can a President who is willing to make the choices Donald Trump made during the violence of January 6th ever be trusted with any position of authority in our great nation again? . . . Ronald Reagan’s great ally, Margaret Thatcher, said this: “Let it never be said that the dedication of those who love freedom is less than the determination of those who would destroy it.”
Cheney’s message was powerful and her delivery equally powerful, and she did her very best to appeal to any Republicans or independents who might possibly be persuaded that Trump and his MAGA following represent threats to the republic.
In the proverbial “court of public opinion,” Cheney’s performance represented a very important contribution.
That is why it deserves two full-throated cheers.
But only two.
Because the very strength of Cheney’s rhetorical framing was also a weakness: by emphasizing the importance of Republican “truth-tellers,” and evoking Republican symbols, Cheney, along with Kinzinger—who mentioned only in passing that 147 of his Republican colleagues voted to decertify Biden’s election on January 6 after the insurrection—Cheney almost sounded like she was trying to treat Trump as an outlier, and to exonerate the Republican party itself, the brand if not the current leadership. And, of course, it would be foolish to expect anything else from her. Because she is a conservative Republican, and she is seeking reelection as a conservative Republican. And, perhaps most importantly, her break with Trump and with the party leadership that supports him really became irreparable only after January 6, because for her it was not the Mueller report or the first impeachment but only Trump’s refusal to accept his electoral loss that represented a bridge too far. It would be absurd to expect her to deliver a direct attack on the party with which she still associates. And equally absurd to “fault” her for being who she is.
She clearly is a Republican, but a dissenting Republican who takes seriously the Constitution, and she is currently persona non grata within her party, who will almost certainly lose to a MAGA opponent in the Wyoming primary. Her message, and her very leadership on the committee, does speak strongly against the current direction of the party. But however understandably, it does not speak strongly enough.
And this is important, because it is not simply Trump, and not simply his most fanatical Republican supporters, who represent a threat to democracy. The entire Republican party, up and down the ballot, with perhaps a handful of exceptions, is now a threat to democracy. And the party as a whole must defeated in November and in 2024 if liberal democracy is to be preserved. And to the extent that too much emphasis is placed on the worst of the worst—Trump and his geriatric claimants of “executive privilege”– the much wider circle of very bad threatens to come off looking pretty good, if only by comparison.
In this respect last Thursday’s hearing came up short.
Let us recall Cheney’s strong opening frame: “The case against Donald Trump in these hearings is not made by witnesses who were his political enemies. It is, instead, a series of confessions by Donald Trump’s own appointees, his own friends, his own campaign officials, people who worked for him for years, and his own family.”
Cheney described these Republicans as truth-tellers. But these people were only partial truth-tellers, and only at the very last minute, some only after receiving subpoenas to testify. And while they told truths about January 6, and in some cases about the weeks leading up to it, they did not tell truths about Trump’s entire presidency, about his incitement to violence against his enemies long before January 6, and indeed they did not tell the truth about why they campaigned for him in 2020 or remained with him weeks into his effort to overthrow the November 2020 election results, and only broke with him in late December or on January 6 itself. For Trump’s violent rhetoric and hostility to liberal democracy have been well known for years. And these things inhibited none of the Republican witnesses from not simply supporting but working for him.
The witnesses deserve to be appreciated for being honest and coming forward.
But “truth teller” is much too generous a way to describe any of them, including Cassidy Hutchinson, who actually attended Trump’s ellipse speech on the morning of January 6 apparently hoping for something she might consider acceptable, and who willingly worked with Mark Meadows literally up until the insurrection began.
And it is simply false to describe their testimony as “confession.” The Republican witnesses spoke honestly about the evil they witnessed. But none of them offered any kind of “confession” or “mea culpa” for their part in supporting Trump, for working for him to win a second term in office, and for staying with him long after he began his effort to overturn the election.
Further, Cheney’s understandable rhetorical choice to center on the contrast these Republicans and Trump’s “political enemies” is also problematic. For it leaves no space for other critics, and implies that non-Republican critics were simply partisan enemies rather than principled defenders of liberal democracy—and I say “implies” deliberately, because I do not believe that Cheney said or intended to say precisely this. But the words she chose were, perhaps unconsciously, unfortunate.
Imagine if, instead, Cheney had said this:
“The case against Donald Trump in these hearings is not made by witnesses who were his political opponents but by Donald Trump’s own appointees, his own friends, his own campaign officials, people who worked for him for years, and his own family, many of who supported him through the November election and even in his efforts to litigate it in the courts, but who could not support an insurrection. This highlights the non-partisan nature of our committee’s work, in pursuing the best witnesses and in treating them fairly. Not only Donald Trump, but also House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, have denounced the committee’s work as partisan and have denounced my liberal Democratic colleagues on the committee as enemies. But they are wrong to do this. And this committee demonstrates that it is possible for responsible politicians to reach across the aisle to do the work of democracy. I only wish Rep. Kinzinger and I were not the only Republican colleagues to do the right thing here.”
I believe that these words might actually have better captured what Cheney and Kinzinger have in fact been doing these past months. But they also would have represented a more fundamental critique of—and thus break with– their party than either of them are clearly willing to make.
Cheney and Kinzinger have nonetheless played a brave and important role in the committee’s work and in the defense of liberal democracy, and they fully deserve their two hearty cheers.
But not a third.
For that would require something more: a full-throated and unequivocal denunciation of the current Republican party and an equally unequivocal call for all Republicans who value the Constitution to break with their party and to work for the defeat of every single Republican politician who has refused to call January 6 what it was—an attempted coup by a dictatorial president who still leads the Republican party and still commands the support of its leaders and its base.
Trump is the Republican party, and the Republican party is Trump.
And both must be defeated.