Trump’s Latest Legal Troubles and His Commitment To Authoritarianism

Heather Cox Richardson

A new filing today by Special Counsel Jack Smith in the case United States of America v. Donald J. Trump for his attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election shows Smith’s office establishing that Trump has a longstanding pattern of refusing to accept election results he dislikes. 

As early as 2012, the filing notes, Trump baselessly alleged that voting machines had switched votes intended for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. In the 2016 campaign he “claimed repeatedly, with no basis, that there was widespread voter fraud,” and publicly refused to commit to accepting the results of that election. This pattern continued in 2020, but in that election he took active steps to seize power.

The filing introduced information that Trump, an agent, and an unindicted co-conspirator tried to start a riot at the TCF Center in Detroit as vote counting showed Biden taking the lead. As Josh Kovensky of Talking Points Memopoints out, this scheme sounds much like the Brooks Brothers Riot of 2000 that stopped vote counting in Miami-Dade County in Florida. Roger Stone was a participant in the Brooks Brothers Riot; in 2020 he was working to keep Trump in office. 

Smith’s team shows how this pattern continued to play out in the 2020 election, with Trump urging supporters like the Proud Boys to back him, falsely asserting that the election had been stolen, and attacking former supporters who denied that the election had been stolen. The pattern has continued until the present, with Trump calling those who were found guilty of offenses related to the attack on the U.S. Capitol “hostages” and claiming they were “treated horribly.” 

Smith recounts these facts to establish Trump’s motive and intent on January 6, but his identification of a longstanding pattern indicates it would be a grave mistake to think Trump has any intention of campaigning fairly or accepting any result in 2024 other than his return to the White House. 

New House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA), who has endorsed Trump for president and was a key organizer of the congressional effort to keep Trump in office, has promised to release all the surveillance footage from the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Trump supporters insist that the full tapes will reveal that the attack was not as bad as the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol showed. Johnson said that the tapes must be shared publicly for “transparency.” 

Today, Johnson supported Trump’s message about January 6 when he said that he was making sure the faces of rioters are blurred in the surveillance footage. “We have to blur some of the faces of persons who participated in the events of that day because we don’t want them to be retaliated against and to be charged by the DOJ [Department of Justice] and to have other, you know, concerns and problems,”  he said. Johnson’s spokesperson quickly walked back the comment, saying Johnson meant to say that faces were blurred to prevent “all forms of retaliation against private citizens from any non-governmental actors.” 

Also today, Kash Patel, who served on Trump’s national security team and is widely expected to return in a second Trump administration, expanded the authoritarian threats Trump people have been making to include the media. On former Trump ally Steve Bannon’s podcast, Patel promised that the Trump team would fill government positions from top to bottom with loyalists and would use the Department of Justice to go after those perceived to be Trump’s enemies. 

“We will go out and find the conspirators, not just in government but in the media,” Patel said. “Yes, we’re going to come after the people in the media who lied about American citizens, who helped Joe Biden rig presidential elections—we’re going to come after you. Whether it’s criminally or civilly, we’ll figure that out.”

Yesterday, former representative Liz Cheney (R-WY), who is promoting her new book, Oath and Honor: A Memoir and a Warning, called out Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) for his continuing hold on military appointments that kept more than 450 routine promotions from taking effect over the past ten months. Tuberville claimed his refusal to permit the nominees’ confirmations was an attempt to change Pentagon policy of permitting leave for service members in states that ban abortion to obtain abortion care elsewhere. But on NPR yesterday, Cheney wondered: “Why is Tommy Tuberville doing that? Is he holding those positions open so that Donald Trump can fill them?”

Today, under great pressure from members of his own party who worried the Democrats would change the rules to weaken the power of the Senate minority, Tuberville released his hold on most of the nominees. The Senate promptly confirmed 425 of them. 

Still, Tuberville retained holds on 11 officers of the most senior rank. According to congressional reporter for Punchbowl News Andrew Desiderio, the positions left vacant are commander of Pacific Air Forces, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, Air Component Command for the United States Indo-Pacific Command, commander for Air Combat Command, the head of the Navy’s Nuclear Propulsion Program, the head of Northern Command (which defends the United States and coordinates defenses with Canada, Mexico, and the Bahamas), the head of the U.S. Cyber Command, vice chief of staff of the Army, vice chief of staff of the Air Force, vice chief of Space Operations, and vice chief of Naval Operations. 

Last night, Cheney explained to political commentator and television host Rachel Maddow exactly what a second Trump presidency would look like, Cheney said: “He would take those people who are the most radical, the most dangerous, who had the proposals that were the most dangerous, and he will put them in positions of supreme power. That’s a risk that we simply cannot take.”

Mark Joyella of Forbes took note of Maddow’s introduction last night, in which the host stressed the importance of protecting democracy. She began by emphasizing how much she and Cheney disagreed about everything in politics, so much so that it was as if they were on different planets at war with each other. 

Maddow made that point, she said, because “in civic terms, in sort of American citizenship terms, I think it’s really important how much we disagree. It’s important how far apart we are in every policy issue imaginable. It is important that Liz Cheney is infinity and I am negative infinity on the ideological number line. It’s important because that tells you how serious and big something has to be to put us, to put me and Liz Cheney, together on the same side of something in American life.”

The Rachel Maddow Show was the most watched news show on cable television last night, with 3.15 million viewers. The Fox News Channel’s show Hannity, hosted by personality Sean Hannity, had just under 2 million viewers. 

It seems clear Americans are waking up to Trump’s threats to stack the government with loyalists, weaponize the Justice Department and military, deport 10 million people, and prosecute those he perceives to be his enemies in politics and the media. Interviewing Trump tonight, Hannity tried to downplay Trump’s statements about his authoritarian plans for a second term by getting him to commit to staying within the normal bounds of a president should he be elected in 2024. The first time he was asked, Trump sidestepped the question. So Hannity asked again. “Under no circumstances, you are promising America tonight, you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody?” he asked. 

“Except for day one,” Trump responded.

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