On Dec. 27, 2020, more than six weeks after losing re-election, an infuriated President Donald Trump telephoned his acting attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen. Mr. Trump’s former attorney general, Bill Barr, had announced his resignation less than two weeks earlier, after telling the president that the claims of election fraud Mr. Trump had been trumpeting were — as Mr. Barr later bluntly put it in testimony — “bullshit” and publicly affirming that there was no fraud on a scale that would affect the outcome of the election.
With Mr. Rosen’s deputy, Richard Donoghue, also on the line, Mr. Trump launched into the same tired, disproved and discredited allegations he had propagated so often at rallies, during news conferences and on social media. None of it was true, and Mr. Donoghue told him so. According to Mr. Donoghue, Mr. Trump, exasperated that his own handpicked top appointees at the Justice Department would not affirm his baseless allegations, responded: “Just say that the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.”
It was a remarkable statement, even for a president who had serially abused the powers of his office. Having been told by the very department that had investigated his claims of fraud that they were untrue, Mr. Trump told the acting attorney general and his deputy to lie about it and said he would take it from there.
That Mr. Trump was willing to lie so baldly about a matter at the heart of our democracy — whether the American people can rely on elections to ensure the peaceful transfer of power — now seems self-evident, even unremarkable, when we consider the violent attack on the Capitol he incited days later. But Americans shouldn’t lose sight of how this behavior indicts the former president, and not just the former president but the Republican members of Congress whom he knew would go along with his big lie.
The report released Thursday from the Jan. 6 committee, on which I served, makes abundantly clear that there were multiple lines of effort to overturn the 2020 election. Some involved attempts to pressure state legislatures to declare the loser to be the winner. Others involved a fake electors plot, pressure on the vice president to violate his constitutional duty and efforts to force an elections official to “find” thousands of votes that didn’t exist. It was only when all of these other efforts failed that the president resorted to inciting mob violence to try to stop the transfer of power.
But one line of effort to overturn the election is given scant attention, and that involved the willingness of so many members of Congress to vote to overturn it. Even after Capitol Police and Metropolitan Police put down the insurrection at great cost to themselves,the majority of Republicans in the House picked up right where they left off, still voting to overturn the results in important states.
At one of our Jan. 6 committee hearings, the committee vice chair Liz Cheney, a Republican, called out her colleagues in Congress for their duplicity in the most searing terms: “There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”
With our work on the committee largely concluded, it will now fall to the Justice Department to ensure a form of accountability that Congress is not empowered to provide, and to vindicate the rule of law in a manner beyond our reach: through prosecution. Multiple laws were violated in the course of a broad attempt to overturn the election, and not just by the foot soldiers who broke into the Capitol building that day and brutally assaulted police officers, but also by those who incited them, encouraged them and, when it was all over, gave them aid and comfort. Bringing a former president to justice who even now calls for the “termination” of our Constitution is a perilous endeavor. Not doing so is far more dangerous.
There is a growing disdain for the law and for our country’s institutions, and a frightening acceptance of the use of violence to resolve political disputes. Mr. Trump’s big lie has been one of the most powerful instigators of political violence, since it persuaded millions of people that the election they lost must have been rigged or fraudulent. If people can be convinced of that, what is left but violence to decide who should govern? The attack on the Capitol was an all too foreseeable consequence of Mr. Trump’s relentless effort to alienate the people from their government and from the most important foundation of governance: their right to vote.
Even the Constitution cannot protect us if the people sworn to uphold it do not give meaning to their oath of office, if that oath is not informed by ideas of right and wrong, and if people are unwilling to accept the basic truth of things. None of it will be enough.
But if we allow ourselves to be guided by facts — not factions — and if we choose our representatives based on their allegiance to the law and to the Constitution, then we should have every confidence that our proud legacy of self-government will go on. It is our hope that this report will make a small contribution to that effort. Our country has never before faced the kind of threat we documented. May it never again.
Adam B. Schiff is a Democratic member of Congress from California and the author, most recently, of “Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could.”
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