The State of American Politics, According to the January 6 Hearings

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Video of former President Donald Trump speaking at a rally, as the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol holds a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. June 16, 2022.J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

Three days of hearings into the January 6 insurgency are over, with two more scheduled to take place next week, but it is increasingly clear that the story of that investigation and the challenge the United States faces the aftermath of the Capitol Riot boils down to a burning question from the distant past – and a wake-up call from the troubled present.

The question Senator Howard Baker Jr. of Tennessee asked during the Watergate hearings has relevance and resonance today: “What did the president know,” he asked on June 25, 1973 , “and when did he find out?

And now we know how close Donald Trump came to defying more than two centuries of custom, an 1887 election law, and the Constitution. That threat was summed up in scathing language delivered in eerily calm Thursday by a retired federal circuit court judge with impeccable conservative credentials.

“[The] declaration of Donald Trump as the next president,” said J. Michael Luttig, who served on the nation’s second most powerful bench after serving in two Republican administrations, “would have launched America into what I believe would have been equivalent to a revolution in a constitutional crisis in America, which, in my opinion, would have been the first constitutional crisis since the founding of the Republic.

Republicans have called the hearings a partisan sham, some Democrats believe the committee still hasn’t sealed its case, and television critics have described the sessions as too flat or slick. But they managed two important achievements.

They gave a Trump answer to the question posed to Richard Nixon and they provided perspective on the real danger stemming from the Capitol riot – not the damage to the building, which was easily repaired, but the potential damage to the constitutional scaffolding of the United States, which, when fragmented, are not easily restored.

“Trump very deliberately set out to kill the spirit of a nation,” said former Republican Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts, who as a youth served as an aide to the committee that prepared articles of impeachment against Mr. Nixon and who issued a brief challenge. to Mr. Trump for the 2020 Republican nomination, in an interview. “That spirit — the idea that in America, ‘fix’ isn’t ‘in’ — is why people all over the world wanted to come to the United States. But Trump wanted to make sure the “ fix” was still “in”. Watergate was an isolated incident that people in the Nixon White House tried to cover up. People in the Trump White House worked to foment a conspiracy.

Now, it’s clear that the question Mr. Baker asked about Mr. Nixon has a clear answer when it comes to Mr. Trump: the president knew all about the effort to void the election (but not so much about the Constitution and the responsibilities of its vice president, Mike Pence, whom he harassed to deny the presidency to Joe Biden).

“Until the day he died, Senator Baker was proud to ask that question,” said Tom Griscom, who for decades was Mr. Baker’s closest aide. “It has become a question over time that many other people have used to try to find the truth.”

And following Mr. Luttig’s testimony on Thursday, it is clear that the danger was not limited to the 2020 election but rather posed a threat to the entire political framework of the country.

His remarks, televised worldwide and recorded on tape, can be recalled when the Capitol rampage is as far in the past as Watergate is to us today. But his written statement, released ahead of his appearance before the committee, posed the issue in even more stark and urgent terms: “crippling constitutional crisis.”

What connects the two defining moments – the Baker question and the Luttig statement – ​​is what the hearings have shown in relief: that Mr. Trump knew all along what he was doing; that he knew that the buttresses of his argument were weak and compromised; that he had been told that his plan was illegal; and he continued anyway.

Some of the committee members’ remarks lacked subtlety, others showed little respect for nuance, but all — two Republicans and seven Democrats — proceeded with gravity and a sense of history.

That sense of duty was best embodied by a little-known member of the committee, Democrat Elaine Luria, a former naval engineer whose nerves were strained operating nuclear reactors on combat ships, riding aboard ships commandeered by Iraqi oil pirates, launching fighter jets. to attack terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan and commanding 400 sailors in a combat-ready unit. She was elected to the House four years ago in a district that includes Virginia Beach and the East Coast and sided with GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin in last November’s election. She faces a tough battle for re-election in November.

“If I don’t get re-elected because of this,” Ms. Luria, 46, told The New York Times, “it’s okay.”

By displaying her will to lose to do the right thing, she provided a stark contrast to Mr. Trump’s determination to win.

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