HCR: The GOP is tethering itself to Trump and the Big Lie

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

July 13, 2021

Today’s news all centered around the Big Lie that former president Donald Trump won the 2020 election.

Yesterday, Trump spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where the audience cheered through his meandering speech, in which he insisted that he won the 2020 election. “The entire system was rigged against the American people and rigged against a fair, decent and honest election,” he said. CNN’s Daniel Dale, who has fact-checked Trump’s speeches for years, called the speech “untethered to reality.” 

But Trump was not alone: the whole three-day event featured speakers, including Representatives Ronny Jackson and Louie Gohmert, both Texas Republicans, focused on that Big Lie. 

Just how untethered from reality this argument is became clear today when U.S. District Judge Linda V. Parker held a hearing on whether the lawyers who tried to overturn the 2020 election results in Michigan should face sanctions. Those lawyers, dubbed the “Kraken” by one of their leaders, Trump-affiliated lawyer Sidney Powell, produced close to 1000 pages of affidavits intending to cast doubt on the election results. Michigan and the city of Detroit filed complaints with the bar after the lawsuits failed, calling for punishment for the lawyers who had signed on to the effort.

As today’s hearing proceeded, it became clear that the so-called Kraken lawyers had made no effort to verify much of anything they presented to the court. Repeatedly, Parker asked if anyone had tried to verify any of the affidavits they had filed; repeatedly, they indicated they had not. At one point, Parker said, “I don’t think I’ve ever really seen an affidavit” like this. “This is really fantastical,” Parker said. “How can any of you, as officers of the court, present this type of an affidavit?” 

Parker suggested that the whole point of the lawsuits in the first place was to spread lies to make people think the election wasn’t legitimate. “My concern is that counsel here has submitted affidavits to suggest and make the public believe that there was something wrong with the election…that’s what these average affidavits are designed to do, to show there was something wrong in Michigan….” 

Although Kraken lawyer Juli Haller began to cry during the hearing, Trump-affiliated lawyer Sidney Powell made it clear that, far from backing down, she wanted to move forward. Repeatedly, she and other lawyers demanded a trial or at least an evidentiary hearing, clearly trying to legitimize their claims by presenting them in an official setting. Like other Trump supporters, Powell is hoping to use official procedures to legitimize lies. We saw this in the hearings before Trump’s first impeachment, when lawmakers such as Jim Jordan (R-OH) used the official proceedings to construct a narrative for rightwing media.

David Fink, an attorney representing Detroit, called that pattern out: “Because of the lies spread in this courtroom, not only did people die on January 6, but many people throughout the world…came to doubt the strength of our democratic institutions in this country.”

Also today, news broke that, back in November, the Republican National Committee’s chief counsel, Justin Riemer, called claims that Trump had won the election “a joke.” Speaking of the lawyer pushing such claims, Riemer said, “They are misleading millions of people who have wishful thinking that the president is going to somehow win this thing.”

And yet, the Republican Party itself is tethering itself to Trump.

In Oklahoma and Alaska, state Republican Party leaders have backed Trump-supporting challengers to James Lankford (R-OK) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Lankford was actually speaking on the floor of the Senate on January 6, preparing to object to some of the certified ballots, when the rioters broke into the Capitol. After the insurrection riot, Lankford chose not to continue his objection to the counting. He now faces a primary challenger.

So does Murkowski, who, when party leaders similarly primaried her with someone backed by former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2010, won a write-in campaign. Shortly after the insurrection, Murkowski said to a reporter: “I will tell you, if the Republican Party has become nothing more than the party of Trump, I sincerely question whether this is the party for me.”

In Pennsylvania, the chair of the state senate’s Intergovernmental Operations Committee, Trump-ally state senator Doug Mastriano, is demanding an Arizona-type recount of the 2020 vote in his state. Blocked by Democratic governor Tom Wolf and the state’s attorney general, Mastriano today issued a statement saying he would continue to fight for what he called a “forensic investigation.”

Meanwhile, in Texas, at least 51 of the 67 Democratic lawmakers are leaving the state to block Republicans from passing voter restriction laws. By fleeing the state, they will deprive the legislatures of enough lawmakers to do business, a number called a “quorum.” The Texas legislature is in special session this summer in part because the Democrats blocked these laws in the same way in May. In response, Texas governor Greg Abbott vetoed funding for the legislature. Today, once again, he accused them of abandoning the duties for which voters elected them. 

And yet, the Republicans’ argument for further restricting the vote is based on the Big Lie that the state needs to be protected from voter fraud after the 2020 election.  

Tomorrow, President Joe Biden will go to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to make a speech on voting rights. He is expected to call out the Big Lie and to talk about “actions to protect the sacred, constitutional right to vote.”

HCR: Biden’s challenge with Afghanistan

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

July 8, 2021

Today, President Joe Biden announced that the military mission of the United States in Afghanistan will end on August 31. We have been in that country for almost 20 years and have lost 2448 troops and personnel. Another 20,722 Americans have been wounded. Estimates of civilian deaths range from 35,000 to 40,000. The mission has cost more than a trillion dollars.

Leaving Afghanistan brings up just how much the world has changed in the past two decades.

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan a month after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001—which killed almost 3000 people in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania—to go after al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who had been behind the attack. The Islamic fundamentalist group that had controlled Afghanistan since 1996, the Taliban, was sheltering him, along with other al Qaeda militants. Joined by an international coalition, the U.S. drove the Taliban from power, but when the U.S. got bogged down in Iraq, its members quickly regrouped as an insurgent military force that attacked the Afghan government the U.S. propped up in their place. By 2018, the Taliban had reestablished itself in more than two thirds of Afghanistan.

In the years since 2001, three U.S. presidents have tried to strengthen the Afghan government to keep the nation from again becoming a staging ground for terrorists that could attack the U.S. But even a troop surge, like the one President Barack Obama launched into the region in 2009, could not permanently defeat the Taliban, well funded as it is by foreign investors, mining, opium, and a sophisticated tax system it operates in the shadow of the official government.

Eager to end a military commitment that journalist Dexter Filkins dubbed the “forever war,” the previous president, Donald Trump, sent officials to negotiate with the Taliban, and in February 2020 the U.S. agreed to withdraw all U.S. troops, along with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, by May 1, so long as the Taliban stopped attacking U.S. troops and cut ties with terrorists.

The U.S. did not include the Afghan government in the talks that led to the deal, leaving it to negotiate its own terms with the Taliban after the U.S. had already announced it was heading home. Observers at the time were concerned that the U.S. withdrawal would essentially allow the Taliban to retake control of the country, where the previous 20 years had permitted the reestablishment of stability and women’s rights. Indeed, almost immediately, Taliban militants began an assassination campaign against Afghan leaders, although they have not killed any American soldiers since the deal was signed.

Biden has made it no secret that he was not comfortable with the seemingly endless engagement in Afghanistan, but he was also boxed in by Trump’s agreement. Meanwhile, by announcing the U.S. intentions, American officials took pressure off the Taliban to negotiate with Afghan leaders. The Pentagon’s inspector general noted in February that “The Taliban intends to stall the negotiations until U.S. and coalition forces withdraw so that it can seek a decisive military victory over the Afghan government.”

In April, Biden announced that he would honor Trump’s agreement—“an agreement made by the United States government…means something,” Biden said—and he would begin a final withdrawal on May 1, 2021, to be finished before September 11, the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Today, the president explained that the withdrawal was taking place quicker than planned. He claimed that the U.S. had accomplished what it set out to do in Afghanistan. It had killed Osama bin Laden and destroyed a haven for international terrorists.

But the U.S. had no business continuing to influence the future of the Afghan people, he said. Together with NATO, the U.S. had trained and equipped nearly 300,000 members of the current Afghan military, as well as many more who are no longer serving, with all the tools, training, and equipment of any modern military. While we will continue to support that military, he said, it is time for the Afghan people to “drive toward a future that the Afghan people want and they deserve.”

For those asking that we stay just a little longer, especially in light of the fact the U.S. has lost no personnel since Trump cut the deal with the Taliban, he asked them to recognize that reneging on that deal would start casualties again. And, he asked, “Would you send your own son or daughter?”

Biden insisted the U.S. would continue to support the Afghan government and said the U.S. was working to bring to the U.S. Afghan translators whose lives are now in danger for working with U.S. forces. He also seemed to acknowledge the extraordinary danger facing Afghan women and girls under the rule of the Taliban as it continues to sweep through the country. And yet, he said, “I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.”

But Biden’s argument for leaving Afghanistan is based not just on the U.S. having achieved its original stated goals and his own dislike of endangering our military personnel. He wants the U.S. to adjust to the reality that the world has changed dramatically in the past 20 years.

Since 9/11, the international terrorist threat has spread far beyond Afghanistan and is now far easier to target with financial measures than with soldiers. So, for example, in April, the Biden administration placed sanctions on Pakistani nationals for money laundering in what was likely an attempt to stop the money flowing to the Taliban through Pakistan, money that keeps the Taliban alive. It has also sanctioned Russia for backing the Taliban in its attempt to assassinate American military personnel.

Bruce Riedel, an expert on U.S. security, South Asia, and counter-terrorism at the Brookings Institution who was with the Central Intelligence Agency in Afghanistan when the Russians invaded in 1979, concluded after Biden made his withdrawal announcement in April that it is not clear that the Taliban will take over Afghanistan after the U.S. leaves. The country remains mired in a civil war, and who the winner will be remains open.

Threats to America are more likely to come these days from cyber attacks, like the one that hit the U.S. on the Friday before the holiday weekend. Apparently originating in Russia, that ransomware attack hit supply chains. Like the one that hit Colonial Pipeline in May, disrupting fuel supplies to the Southeast, such attacks have potential to do enormous damage. Biden has warned Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country harbors hackers, that critical infrastructure is off limits, and that the U.S. will retaliate for any such attacks.

Finally, of course, Biden can turn his attention from Afghanistan in part because the U.S. has not suffered a major attack by foreign terrorists since 2001. Now, according to Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas, our primary danger from terrorism is homegrown and comes from “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists.”

HCR: In 1879, political extremists tried to suppress the vote and take over the country. Is history repeating itself?

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

July 2, 2021

Today news broke that Anthony Aguero, who was in the Capitol on January 6 and who is close to Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), joined Republican members of the right-wing Republican Study Committee when they traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border Tuesday night.

Aguero interviewed, chatted with, translated for, and gave a ride to one of the lawmakers, there. Those included Representatives Lauren Boebert (R-CO), Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), Ronny Jackson (R-TX), Thomas Tiffany (R-WI), Chris Jacobs (R-NY), Michael Cloud (R-TX), John Rose (R-TN), and Mary Miller (R-IL). The Republican Study Committee’s deputy communications director, Buckley Carlson, who is Tucker Carlson’s son, said Aguero’s presence with the group was “purely incidental.”

The association of sitting Congress members with someone who was apparently part of an insurrection is particularly audacious at a moment when the House of Representatives is in the process of forming a select committee to investigate that series of events.

Once before, in 1879, a political party behaved in a similarly aggressive way, trying to destroy the government from within. Then, too, Congress members took an extremist position in order to try to steal the upcoming presidential election. They hoped to win that election by getting rid of Black voting.

Still angry after the votes of Black southerners tipped the contested election of 1876 to the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, Democrats set out to stop government protection of Black voters before the next presidential election. In 1879, they attached to appropriations bills riders that prohibited the use of the army to guard southern polling places (it is a myth that federal troops abandoned the South in 1877) and eliminating federal supervision of elections. The punishment for holding federal troops at the polls was a fine of up to $5000 and imprisonment at hard labor for 3 months to 5 years, that is, an express ride into the convict labor system that was brutalizing formerly enslaved people.

Republicans refused to accept the terms of the appropriations bill, and Congress adjourned without passing it. Hayes immediately called the new Congress into special session. In this Congress, though, Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate, for the first time since before the Civil War. And, since the senior members of the party were southerners, former Confederates quickly took over the key leadership positions in Congress.

Once there, they ignored that voters had put them in office in a reaction against Republicans’ economic policies and Hayes’s contested election. Instead, they insisted that the American people wanted them to enact the extreme program they had advocated since the war, overturning the federal policies that defended Black rights and reinstating white supremacy, unchallenged. They took their fight to end Black voting directly to the president.

The House Minority leader was a Union veteran from Ohio, James A. Garfield. He explained to a friend the Democrats’ plan: if Hayes vetoed the bills and the Democrats were unable to pass them over his veto—“that is, if he does not consent or 2/3 of the two Houses do not vote on these measures as the Democratic caucus has framed them,” Garfield wrote—“[t]hey will let the government perish for want of supplies.” “If this is not revolution,” he concluded, “which if persisted in will destroy the government, [then] I am wholly wrong in my conception of both the word and the thing.”

Democrats tried to argue that they were fighting for free elections, for liberty from a tyrannical national government. But they also listed the virtues of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, whom they compared to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and U.S. Grant, and celebrated the former Confederates who had been elected to make up their new majority. Just like Davis, they claimed, all they asked was to be left alone to run their states as they wished. One ex-Confederate told the New York Times that leaving Congress in 1861 had been “a great blunder.” Southerners were far more likely to win their goals by controlling Congress. Southern Democrats urged their constituents to “present a solid front to the enemy.”

With Garfield stiffening the spines of nervous Republicans, Hayes vetoed the bill with the riders five times, and as popular opinion swung behind him, the Democrats backed down. They had badly misjudged their power. The extended rider fight kept the story of their attack on the government firmly in front of voters, who despised their behavior and principles both. In the next presidential election, voters turned away from the Democratic candidate and to Garfield, now famous for his stand against the riders and for his wholehearted defense of Black voting.

The 1879 overreach of the Democratic extremists marked a sea change in the Democratic Party. Scorched by their 1880 defeat, Democratic leaders turned away from ex-Confederates and toward new urban leaders in the North. Eager to nail together a new constituency, those leaders talked of racial reconciliation and began to lay the groundwork for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was born in 1882, just two years before New York Democrat Grover Cleveland would win the White House on the party’s new platform.

The story of Garfield’s rise to power has been much on my mind today, partly because it is the anniversary of the day in 1881 when assassin Charles Guiteau shot the president, although he would live until September 19, when he finally succumbed to horrific infections caused by his doctor’s insistence on probing the bullet wound without washing his hands.

But I am also thinking of this story as I watch Senate Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) try to figure out how to respond to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s invitation to suggest five members for the new select committee to investigate the January 6 insurrection. Senate Republicans killed the bipartisan select committee on which Republicans would have had significant power to limit the investigation both in scope, by refusing to agree to certain subpoenas, and in time, because Congress had required that committee to report before the end of the year. Now, Republicans are facing a committee dominated by Democrats who have subpoena power and no time limit, all while Republican extremism is on increasingly public display.

Forcing the creation of this select committee, rather than taking the offer of an independent, bipartisan committee, was a curious decision.

In 1879, when voters spent several months watching extremists of one party try to suppress the vote and take over the country, they rejected that party so thoroughly that it had to reinvent itself.

HCR: The Big Lie continues to poison

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

June 15, 2021

This morning, the Democrats on the House Oversight Committee released a series of emails and documents that show just how hard former president Trump worked to overturn the 2020 election and retain an illegal grip on power. 

On December 14, 2020, which was the day electors in each state certified the votes of the Electoral College, then-president Trump’s assistant wrote an email to then–Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen talking about alleged voter fraud in Michigan. The email was titled “From POTUS”—that is, from the President of the United States—and it included a long list of talking points to offer about why the votes should not be certified. That email had a number of documents that allegedly proved voter fraud.

Minutes after that email went out, another Justice Department official, Richard Donoghue, sent the same documents to the U.S. Attorneys for the Eastern and Western Districts of Michigan. Forty minutes later, then-president Trump tweeted that Attorney General William Barr would be stepping down and would be replaced by Rosen. Donoghue would become Rosen’s deputy. 

On December 29, then-president Trump’s assistant emailed Rosen, Donoghue, and Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall with a draft of a legal brief to file in the Supreme Court. It demanded that the court declare that the Electoral College votes of six states—ones that Trump lost—“cannot be counted” and asked the court to order a redo of the election in those states.

From then on, Trump and his aides, including White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, repeatedly pressured officials at the Department of Justice to overturn the election results. Meadows forwarded information suggesting, among other things, that Italians changed U.S. votes through satellite technology and that Trump clearly won the election. Their complaints were so far-fetched that Rosen and Donoghue referred to them as “Pure insanity.”

And yet, the Big Lie that Trump won the 2020 election continues to poison our country. On January 6, that lie led Trump’s supporters to try to stop the counting of the certified electoral votes by storming the Capitol and threatening the lawmakers there. Just hours after the insurrection, 147 Republicans voted to challenge the election results. 

And some of them remain firmly in the camp of the Big Lie, now downplaying the events of January 6. Today, 21 House Republicans voted against awarding the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’s highest award, to all the law enforcement officers who protected the Capitol on January 6. The measure passed with 406 lawmakers of both parties voting in favor. Republican Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said to those voting no: “How you can vote no to this is beyond me.” 

But some have gone further in challenging the seriousness of the attack on the Capitol. Today at a hearing of the House Oversight Committee, a number of the Republicans spent their time expressing concern for the insurrectionists. Representative Glenn Grothman (R-WI) suggested that as many as 1000 of the people in the Capitol on January 6 were tourists who had wandered into the building inadvertently (the Capitol was closed to tourists because of the pandemic). Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) argued that the Capitol police officers were “lying in wait” for Ashli Babbitt, who was shot as she tried to break into a secure area. According to Gosar’s construction, Babbitt was “executed” by police. He demanded to know the name of the officer involved in the shooting.

Today, Attorney General Merrick Garland released the nation’s first ever National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. It emphasized that the Department of Justice would seek to prevent violence, not protected expression, and would be evenhanded: “The definition of ‘domestic terrorism’ in our law makes no distinction based on political views—left, right, or center—and neither should we,” it said. The plan calls for streamlined information sharing among law enforcement officials, a focus on the transnational elements of domestic terrorism, an effort to reduce access to recruitment materials and weapons, and screening of government employees—including military and law enforcement—before hiring to make sure they do not harbor illegal and violent views. 

The new plan also takes a longer view, saying that conquering our long tradition of domestic terrorism will require tackling racism, gun violence, and mass murders. Ending domestic terrorism means paying better attention to mental health and creating “the type of civics education that promotes tolerance and respect for all and investing in policies and programs that foster civic engagement and inspire a shared commitment to American democracy.” And, the document continues, “it means ensuring that there is simply no governmental tolerance—and instead denunciation and rejection—of violence as an acceptable mode of seeking political or social change.”

Also today, Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the third ranking Republican in the Senate, told a right-wing society that he wants to make President Biden “a one-half-term president” by retaking power in Congress in 2022 and blocking Biden’s agenda. 

The president is in Europe, of course, but his spokesperson Andrew Bates illustrated that the administration intends to move beyond the Trump loyalists. In a statement, Bates said: “The President looks forward to continuing to deliver for the American people, continuing to make government work for them again, and continuing to bring our country together—after having reduced cases of the worst public health crisis in over a century by more than 90%, signed historic economic legislation that helped fuel unprecedented job growth for any administration’s first 100 days in office, protected Americans’ health care, and restored our leadership and competitiveness in the world.”