Even Without the Assault on the Capitol, It Was Still a Coup
Republishing my two-part piece from 2022.
Hello and good day to everybody,
To mark the 3rd anniversary of the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol, I am republishing two pieces I wrote back in January 2022 about why I firmly believe that even without the Capitol riot, this was still a coup attempt. In fact, I believe that the “paperwork coup” in which Trump was trying to find legal loopholes to illegitimately retain power was worse than the physical attack.
But real quick: here’s the part of the newsletter where I ask you to consider signing up for the free version if you’re new here and ask existing free subscribers to consider upgrading to the paid version.
Without further ado… here are those two pieces, combined into one super piece:
The ongoing efforts to rewrite the history of not just that day, but the entire post-election period, have gotten out of hand.
It’s extremely common for people on the right to argue that there was no “coup attempt” on the basis that people storming the Capitol building couldn’t have actually taken control of the federal government by force. There are lots of, “Mobs of people trespassing, physically confronting police, and steaming mementos is criminal — not a coup” and “People in MAGA hats walking around the Capitol taking photos was not an insurrection” takes out there. And… sure. Okay. But that’s not the whole story, is it?
The storming of the Capitol didn’t happen in a vacuum, and it’s wildly dishonest to pretend it did. The goal of the rioters was to create a disruption, to create so much chaos that Congress couldn’t get through the formality of certifying Joe Biden’s election, to create a delay that would have afforded either state legislators or Republican members of the House of Representatives the opportunity to flip the election to Trump.
Writing over at The Atlantic, David A. Graham explained the actual “paperwork coup” strategy:
The second prong was to persuade Pence to block or delay certification on January 6. Eastman wanted Pence to declare that there were no valid slates of electors from seven states that Trump allies claimed had major fraud. Ellis wrote in a memo that Pence should refuse to open votes from six states with putative controversies, though Sekulow rejected the theory. (She claims she was simply laying out legal theories, not endorsing them.) Waldron wanted Pence to accept alternative slates of electors from contested states, or else ignore the contested states altogether.
It isn’t hard to spin scenarios about how this might have turned out, because the proponents did so right there in writing. Eastman imagined that Democrats would object, so Pence would say the matter had to go to the House of Representatives, where each state’s delegation would receive a vote. Because Republicans controlled a majority of state delegations, they would elect Trump. Ellis foresaw a different possibility: Pence would demand that states make a response, effectively kicking the question back to state legislatures. Waldron, who was more of an outsider but did manage to meet with Meadows and members of Congress in the days before January 6, had the most chilling suggestion: that Trump declare a national-security emergency, effectively bypassing democracy in the name of a manufactured crisis.
Here are the facts: Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election by every imaginable standard.1 Needing 270 electoral votes to win, Biden tallied 306 to Trump’s 232. Biden received 51.3% of the vote compared to Trump’s 46.9% (81.3 million votes vs. 74.2 million votes). It was decisive. Remember that Trump had long insisted that his 304 to 227 Electoral College victory over Hillary Clinton2 in 2016 was a “landslide” (never mind that it was the closest election since 2004).
The people had spoken. We did not want Trump to be president any longer. And yet, to paraphrase Mitch McConnell, he persisted. Even had the assault on the Capitol not happened on January 6, 2021, Trump and his enablers in the media and Republican Party were still taking wildly anti-democratic actions intended to render the people’s votes moot. This cannot get lost in the larger discussion of the GOP being a party that is fundamentally anti-democracy.
On November 7, four days after the election, CNN projected that Biden would win the state of Pennsylvania, putting him over the 270 electoral vote threshold necessary to win the race. NBC, CBS, MSNBC, ABC, the Associated Press, and yes, even Fox News came to the same conclusion within 16 minutes. This is the point where the losing candidate usually faces the reality of the situation and prepares to deliver a concession speech. Trump did not. Even more than that, the Republican Party agreed with him.
Right-wing media personalities such as Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, Ken Starr, John Roberts, Tom Fitton, Will Cain, Kayleigh McEnany, and Jenna Ellis all promoted the fringe and anti-democratic “Independent State Legislature Doctrine” strategy, calling on states with Republican majorities in their state legislatures to simply ignore people’s votes and instead award their allotment of electoral votes to Trump, instead.
Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress and within Trump’s administration refused to acknowledge that Biden had won. A week after the election, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked about the transition of power between the outgoing Trump and incoming Biden administrations. His response? “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” Naturally, mainstream media outlets printed the lie in big, bold headlines, doing little to quash the lie.3
On November 9, 2016, Mitch McConnell said it was time for Democrats to “accept the results of the election, to lower the tone.” Exactly four years later, he lined up behind Trump to contest the election results, saying that it would be premature to say that Biden had won until the Electoral College voted in mid-December. And once the Electoral College confirmed Biden’s victory, McConnell reluctantly acknowledged what had long been apparent: Trump lost.
“But the Democrats…”
147 Republicans (139 members of the House and eight members of the Senate) voted against certifying the election results. Those 147 Republicans tried and failed to install Trump, the clear loser of the election, for (at least) a second term. A common defense of their actions has been to point out that a handful of Democrats filed objections to the 2000, 2004, and 2016 elections. The big difference between those objections and the GOP’s actions on January 6, 2021, is that Democrats weren’t actually trying to overturn the results.
In January 2001, 20 House Democrats attempted to file protests against the counting of Florida’s 25 electoral votes after the Supreme Court stopped a hand recount of the votes, effectively handing the state and election to George W. Bush.4 Vice President and 2000 Democratic candidate for president Al Gore presided over the session, gaveling down the objections one by one.
In January 2005, Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones filed an objection to the counting of Ohio’s votes. At the core of the complaint were concerns about excessively long lines at polling places, but was not in itself an attempt to overturn the results. From Tubbs Jones’ remarks on the House floor:
I am duty bound to follow the law and apply the law to the facts as I find them, and it on behalf of those millions of Americans who believe in and value our democratic process and the right to vote that I put forth this objections today. If they are willing to stand at the polls for countless hours in the rain, as many did in Ohio, then I should surely stand up for them here in the halls of Congress.
This objection does not have at its root the hope or even the hint of overturning the victory of the President; but it is a necessary, timely, and appropriate opportunity to review and remedy the most precious process in our democracy. I raise this objection neither to put the Nation in the turmoil of a proposed overturned election nor to provide cannon fodder or partisan demogoguery for my fellow Members of Congress. I am convinced that we as a body must conduct a formal and legitimate debate about election irregularities. I raise this objection to debate the process and protect the integrity of the true will of the people.
In total, 31 Democrats in the House and one Democrat in the Senate (Boxer) voted to reject the Ohio votes. Senator and 2004 Democratic nominee for president John Kerry was not in attendance and did not vote, instead releasing a statement that morning announcing that he would not be taking part in the protest as “our legal teams on the ground have found no evidence that would change the outcome of the election.”
And finally, in January 2017, a handful of Democratic members of the House objected to the vote totals, but as there were not any members of the Senate willing to sign on to their complaints, they were dismissed outright by then-Vice President Joe Biden, who presided over the session.
None of the Democratic candidates — not in 2000, 2004, or 2016 — were still pursuing the presidency on the day the electoral votes were being tallied. You can call their objections foolish if you’d like, you can say they were grandstanding; you can say they were wasting everybody’s time, but you cannot say that what they did was an attempt to do an end-run around the will of the voters as Republicans did on January 6, 2021. Perhaps Gore, Kerry, or Clinton believe that they should have won, or even that the elections were unfair. That’s fine. And it’s fine if Donald Trump spends the rest of his days thinking the 2020 election was somehow unfair to him. The difference here is that Trump’s White House coordinated with members of Congress to try to actually subvert the election results to stay in power.
Trump advisor Peter Navarro explained Trump’s plan.
After months of trying everything from strongarming state officials into “finding” additional votes to trying to recreate 2000’s “Brooks Brothers Riot,” January 6, 2021 marked Trump’s last stand. And it bears repeating that even if the Capitol had not been attacked that day, the actions of Republican members of Congress were not a normal part of the election process but rather an attempt to install the loser of an election to a position he did not win. It’s dismaying to watch as Republicans who tried to do this not only face zero consequences for their actions but are still treated by the press as totally normal and not at all a threat to the republic. As Matt Fuller wrote at The Daily Beast:
In the aftermath of Jan. 6, most of the media still hasn’t really figured out how to cover Republicans. I’d include myself in that statement. We mostly just pretend Jan. 6 didn’t happen, as if it’s totally normal to let Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) pontificate about gas prices or inflation while we ignore the lies he continues to spew about who’s actually responsible for the attack—or the role he played in undermining our democracy and endangering those of us who were at the Capitol that day.
It’s difficult to write a story in which you stop in every paragraph to note whether the particular Republican you’re mentioning returned to their chamber the night of Jan. 6, with blood still drying in the hallways, and voted to overturn the will of the people. But maybe we should.
I certainly look at those Republicans differently. Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma—the old John Boehner ally who’d post up in Capitol hallways and deliver colorful quotes about House conservatives—isn’t so funny to me anymore. The Freedom Caucus members who I spent years obsessively following just aren’t as interesting now. Their legislative maneuvering, while as important and impactful as ever, has a dark shadow of sedition to it.
Many of these Republicans would have proudly overruled the voters. They are people who not only downplay the violence and the seriousness of the attack but celebrate rioters, who lionize the insurrectionists who paid the ultimate price for believing their lies.
Peter Navarro, a Trump White House official who now regularly does his remote interviews in the style of a pro wrestling promo, has recently taken to telling anybody who will listen about the plan he and former Trump advisor Steve Bannon concocted called the “Green Bay Sweep,” which had the intended goal of delaying certification of the votes in hopes of either having them sent back to states Trump lost that were controlled by Republican legislatures (where they could be awarded to Trump despite his loss) or to simply keep Biden from hitting the 270 mark and letting the House vote on it (a majority of House delegations were controlled by Republicans, meaning that the Republicans in the House would be able to vote to keep Trump in power).
After successfully re-writing the history of Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, why wouldn’t they try to use this same tactic for January 6?
I don’t blame GOP apologists for trying to use this (extremely dishonest) line of argument. After all, this is the exact same tactic they used to rewrite the history of the Trump-Russia investigation, which they have (more or less) successfully rebranded “the Russia Hoax.”
In March 2019, Trump lackey William Barr released a letter “summarizing” the findings of the Mueller investigation into Russia’s attempts to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Naturally, Barr’s letter painted a pretty rosy picture for Trump — but it wasn’t accurate. In fact, days after Barr released his letter, Mueller himself sent Barr a letter worried that Barr’s letter misrepresented key elements of the investigation.
The summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions. We communicated that concern to the Department on the morning of March 25. There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.
The truth is that yes, Russia ran a public influence campaign aimed at helping Trump in the 2016 election, and Trump’s campaign had numerous contacts resulting in what a bipartisan Senate report called “a grave counterintelligence threat.”
The Committee found that the Russian government engaged in an aggressive, multi-faceted effort to influence, or attempt to influence, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Parts of this effort are outlined in the Committee’s earlier volumes on election security, social media, the Obama Administration’s response to the threat, and the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment.
Republicans get by with a little help from their friends (the press and “anti-anti-Trump” commentators).
If you were to ask someone who’s read the Mueller report and the bipartisan Senate reports to describe what “Russian interference” means, they would probably say something along the lines of it being a multifaceted influence campaign by the Russian government to hurt Hillary Clinton’s 2016 run for president, help Trump’s 2016 run once he became the Republican nominee, and sow doubt about the state of American democracy. If you ask that same person what the most effective portion of that campaign was, they’d likely be able to answer it in a single word: Wikileaks.
Remember the steady stream of email leaks between July and October 2016? Remember how they started right when the Democratic National Convention was about to begin? Remember how a new set of emails were released just hours after the damning “Access Hollywood tape” was released? Yeah, that.
Once again, from the Senate report:
The Committee found that Russian President Vladimir Putin directed the hack-and-leak campaign targeting the DNC, DCCC, and the Clinton Campaign. Moscow’s intent was to damage the Clinton Campaign and tarnish what it expected might be a Clinton presidential administration, help the Trump Campaign after Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, and generally undermine the U.S. democratic process. The Committee’s findings are based on a variety of information, including raw intelligence reporting.
The hack-and-leak campaign was conducted by the GRU through specialized cyber units, executed using established GRU infrastructure, and planned and coordinated by GRU headquarters elements. Starting in March 2016, the GRU used spearphishing techniques to gain unauthorized access to the email accounts of individuals associated with the Clinton Campaign, including Campaign Manager John Podesta, and stole thousands of emails. In April 2016, the GRU leveraged stolen credentials of some of these individuals to obtain further unauthorized access to the networks of the DNC and DCCC, where it identified and carefully exfiltrated tens of thousands of politically sensitive documents from April through June 2016. The GRU continued to conduct hacking operations to obtain additional material from accounts associated with the Clinton Campaign until at least September 2016.
Those emails were provided to Wikileaks, which were then timed for release for maximum effect.
In the five weeks leading up to the 2016 election, Fox News’ evening shows ran 173 segments about DNC/Podesta email leaks. And it wasn’t just Fox, either. CNN ran 57 segments and MSNBC ran 17. The New York Times published 27 stories during that time span, as well as USA Today (11), The Wall Street Journal (27), and The Washington Post (26).
During the final month of the presidential campaign, Trump himself referenced Wikileaks emails at least 164 times and said the word “Wikileaks” at least 124 times. Though there wasn’t really much of note in the leaked emails themselves, the drip-drip-drip release of them created an air of scandal. Clearly Trump and the Republican Party believed this was important as it became the closing message they rallied around.
Now let me be extremely clear: none of this is to say that Russia’s influence campaign was the reason Clinton lost the election. You don’t need to flood my comments by going, “Oh, so RUSSIA told Hillary not to campaign in Wisconsin???” or whatever. It’s unnecessary and immaterial.
But one trick people like to use when trying to downplay that influence campaign is to pretend that only its least effective elements existed.
Perhaps you’ve seen this image before.
Yep. That’s Buff Bernie. If you find someone online trying to downplay Russia’s influence efforts, you’ll probably find this somewhere within their arguments. For instance…
And the thing is: these are not pro-Trump accounts. Anti-anti-Trump is one way to describe them, I suppose (whether being pro-Trump and anti-anti-Trump are all that different… that’s another story). But notice how “Buff Bernie” keeps coming up. Many elements of the influence campaign were hamfisted, but that doesn’t change the fact that at least one portion of them (the hacked DNC and Podesta emails that were distributed by Wikileaks) was successful in capturing the attention of the American political press for weeks on end.
Does the U.S. have a long, long, long, long, long history of similar attempts to affect the outcome of elections in other countries? Yes, absolutely. Does that mean that the people of the U.S. shouldn’t be frustrated/angry/confused/worried/whatever about other countries doing it to us? I don’t think so. The U.S. does a lot of really terrible things in its foreign policy that we wouldn’t be thrilled to have done to us. And while you can debate what actions (if any) should be taken by the U.S. government in response to interference, it shouldn’t be controversial to acknowledge that it happened.
For real, search the word “Russiagate” on Twitter. It still turns up stuff like this from pro-Trump and anti-anti-Trump voices alike:
If you point out that it sure looks like the Russian government hacked and selectively leaked DNC emails to Wikileaks, which was itself in contact with Trump’s campaign in 2016, the general response you’ll get is mockery. If you point out that yes, agreeing to a secret meeting at Trump Tower for dirt on your opponent is an attempt to “collude” with people offering you that dirt, you’ll be treated like a conspiracy theorist.
It doesn’t matter that those are both accurate statements. It doesn’t matter that there’s far, far, far, far more evidence that Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 election than there is evidence that the 2020 election was somehow rigged against Trump (because there’s zero evidence of the latter). What matters is that these narratives take hold unless you push back against them. After successfully dismissing Russian involvement in the 2016 election by pointing out its most ridiculous elements (see: Buff Bernie), those same people are doing the same with Trump’s 2020 coup attempt. The people who are trying to do that want us all to focus solely on the January 6 storming of the Capitol and not the months-long attempt to overturn the results of the election.
I fear that within a few short years, mentions of January 6 or the Trump coup attempt will be treated as the same type of laugh line that “Russiagate” has become.