Mark Meadows, it seems, is now a bellwether of American democracy. Late Tuesday night, the House of Representatives, on a mostly party-line vote, recommended holding Donald Trump’s former White House chief of staff to be in criminal contempt of Congress, and referred his case to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. Since Sunday, members of the House select committee investigating Trump’s role in the January 6th insurrection have unveiled text messages that they say show that Meadows played a more significant role in helping him try to overturn the outcome of the 2020 Presidential election than was previously known. They also issued a fifty-one page document detailing the questions they had planned to ask Meadows, who abruptly stopped coöoperating with the panel last week. Investigators would like Meadows to explain an e-mail he wrote the day before the attack to an unidentified individual, indicating that the National Guard was on standby to “protect pro Trump people.” They would like to ask him about his communications with an organizer of the Stop the Steal rally that preceded the crowd’s assault on the Capitol, who told Meadows that things “have gotten crazy and I desperately need some direction. Please.’’ And they would like to know why Meadows responded to a member of Congress’s warning that it would be “controversial” to ask Republican legislators in some states to reverse the election by saying, “I love it.”
Some of the messages revealed by the committee show that Meadows, as well as Donald Trump, Jr., and several Fox News hosts, denounced the violence that day and pushed Trump to make a public statement calling for the rioters to leave the Capitol. But last Wednesday, Meadows, who is himself a former congressman, from North Carolina, announced that he was no longer coöperating with the committee on the grounds that his communications with then President Trump are protected by executive privilege. He also filed a lawsuit against the panel, arguing that he was “both being illegally coerced into violating the Constitution” and having his right to privacy violated. By then, though, Meadows had handed over to the committee nine thousand pages of e-mails, texts, and other documents that he contends were not subject to executive privilege. Those documents have given the investigation new momentum.
Members of the committee said that they think Meadows changed his mind after Trump berated him for disclosing in his recent memoir, “The Chief’s Chief,” that Trump had tested positive for COVID before his first debate with Joe Biden during the 2020 campaign. “Many people have speculated it’s because of a backlash from Donald Trump,” Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Maryland, who serves on the committee, told me, adding, “The rule of law applies despite Donald Trump’s tantrums.” A congressional staffer, who asked not to be named, said that Meadows’s initial coöperation with the investigation undermines his current legal claim that the committee is engaging in overreach. “I think he got buyer’s remorse,” the staffer said. “He is putting himself in a difficult position.”
Raskin said he believes that the events of January 6th involved “three rings” of participants. An outer ring consisted of the thousands of Trump supporters who attended the morning rally and, in many cases, sincerely believed his false claim that the election had been stolen from him. A middle ring consisted of certain members of the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and other far-right groups who acted as a “frontal guard” that conducted an organized assault on the Capitol. A third ring consisted of Trump and a small number of loyalists—including Steve Bannon, Rudy Giuliani, and John Eastman, the lawyer who drafted a plan for Vice-President Mike Pence to reject Electoral College votes for Biden—who operated out of a suite in the Willard Hotel, a few blocks from the White House. Raskin described their actions around the events of January 6th as unprecedented in American history. After Pence declined Trump’s demand that he alter the election results, Trump dispatched a mob to block the certification of his defeat. “This was an attempted coup by the President against the Vice-President and the Congress,” Raskin said.
The problem, of course, is that Democrats have had high hopes that Trump would face a reckoning for his misdeeds before, in the Mueller investigation and in the President’s two sets of impeachment proceedings. Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, praised the work of the January 6th committee, and said that fully uncovering Trump’s role remains vital. But he cautioned that political leaders and journalists should not focus solely on producing a January 6th “smoking gun,” reminiscent of the secret Oval Office recordings that brought down President Richard Nixon. “So much of the media has been obsessed with the idea that a document will emerge that shows everything,” Nyhan said. “I worry that we lose the forest for the trees.”
Nyhan, who is also a co-director of Bright Line Watch, notes that both U.S. politics and the ways in which Americans receive their information have changed radically over the past fifty years, contributing to the current deep polarization. According to opinion polls, seventy-eight per cent of Republicans believe that Biden was not legitimately elected—an increase from seventy per cent in April. Nyhan believes the committee’s findings, like past investigations of Trump, are unlikely to sway his fervent base. Meanwhile, Republican leaders, particularly House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, are standing by as Trump purges the G.O.P. of opponents. “He is doing what politicians do,” Nyhan said, of McCarthy. “He is going along with the energy in his party.” Nyhan feels it is equally important for Democrats to immediately enact reforms that will prevent either party in the future from attempting such radically anti-democratic acts as overturning an election—and that they should start building public support for such measures now, rather than wait for a smoking-gun moment to do so. Historically, Nyhan points out, authoritarian regimes have emerged by gradually subverting the independence of rival centers of power—such as the legislature, the courts, and the media—and concentrating power in their own hands. “The story of democratic erosion in other countries is that it happens invisibly, you don’t have this tanks-in-the-streets moment,” Nyhan added. “There are elected governments who operate with impunity, whose opponents don’t have a level playing field to compete upon.”
Observers, however, say it is unlikely that Republicans will support any Democrat-backed election-reform effort. In October, they filibustered the For the People Act, a sweeping Democratic proposal that would have revamped election systems nationwide. Nyhan said that Democrats should consider eliminating or changing the filibuster in order to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, a watered-down election-reform bill endorsed by Senator Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, which currently has some bipartisan support in the Senate. It includes measures that would make it more difficult for state legislators to dismiss election results certified by nonpartisan state officials—a tactic Trump tried to use in 2020. Nyhan also called for reform of the Electoral Count Act—an obscure and poorly drafted 1887 law that describes how Congress should count the electoral votes—before Democrats potentially lose their control of the Senate and House in next year’s midterm elections. “The Electoral Count Act is terrifying,” Nyhan said, referring to the statute’s vagueness. “It’s Chekhov’s gun.”
Raskin said the committee recognizes the full scope of the danger and will produce a “fine-grained portrait” of the events that lead to January 6th and “the assault on American democracy.” In addition, the committee may propose detailed reforms to prevent a future insurrection. “I really thought it was over with January 6th, yet there was an immediate attempt to begin an Orwellian whitewash of the events,” he said, emphasizing that “we need to win this struggle politically.” Forcing Trump to face legal consequences for his actions, though, clearly continues to tantalize Democrats. “The real issue is whether American democracy can strengthen itself against the fascist impulses he has unleashed,” Raskin said, noting, “I still have high hopes that Donald Trump will have his reckoning with the law.”