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Republicans wake up, way too late, to Trump’s assault on democracy

Jon Ward
·Senior Political Correspondent
·10-min read

It took five years of Donald Trump shouting his authoritarian intent for Republican Party leaders to wake up and try to stop him.

It came way too late. The question is, what do they do about it now?

There is a straight line between the Republican Party’s failure to confront Trump when he first emerged in the GOP primary in 2015 and the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

Trump was clear from the beginning of his candidacy that he had no regard for the U.S. Constitution, the rule of law or the idea of adhering to truth and facts. He made numerous statements during the 2016 campaign that indicated his intent to do anything with power he could, including bending or breaking rules to gain or hold on to that power.

Trump supporters clash with police
Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they storm the Capitol. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

And he made it a core objective of his to break the link between his supporters and reality, taking them deeper and deeper into a rabbit hole of conspiracies, lies and fantasies, and demonizing anyone who dared contradict him.

At every turn, with few exceptions over those years, GOP leaders accommodated and appeased Trump and his supporters rather than confronting him. If the GOP does take quick decisive action now to forcefully denounce Trump, the chaos he has unleashed is likely to continue.

And even if they do confront him and make it clear he has gone too far, have they already created a monster that is out of control?

As Van Jones wondered aloud on CNN, “Is this the end of something, or the beginning of something? … This can never happen again,” he said.

There were calls to impeach Trump immediately by neoconservative stalwarts such as Bill Kristol, and at least one Democrat said she was drafting articles of impeachment. But will Republican lawmakers who have cowered in fear from him have the nerve? There were also calls for the invocation of the 25th Amendment to be invoked by the Cabinet instead, to remove Trump from office. One of those recommending that course of action was Ed Whelan of the right-leaning Ethics and Public Policy Center, generally a reliable GOP ally, especially on the subject of judicial nominations. Late in the day, CBS News reported that members of Trump’s Cabinet were discussing such an option.

And the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, said the consideration of removing Trump is “very, very important” because he “incited” the violence and is “not in position to lead the next 14 days."

"I don't think we're done. Today was not it. We need to act in a preventive way to prevent more from happening,” Mullen told PBS Newshour.

Yet even if the GOP does summon the will to dismiss Trump, have they allowed this to go on for so long that he could start a third party?

Deana Bass, who has been a spokesperson and adviser to Secretary of Housing Ben Carson, told Yahoo News that what happened on Wednesday “is not my party or my movement.” She expressed hope that “this anarchy will give the weak courage to speak out against POTUS’s flame-stoking.”

But the GOP’s past record does not spur confidence.

It was not until Wednesday morning that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a stirring rebuke to the president’s attempt to overturn the election.

(via Reuters video)
(via Reuters video)

The senator from Kentucky told his fellow Republicans in the Senate that their effort to challenge the election results was a “poisonous path” that would plunge America into lawlessness and violence.

“The voters, the court and the states have all spoken. If we overrule them, it would damage our republic. ... If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral,” McConnell said in a speech on the floor of the Senate.

Yet as he spoke, a mob outside advanced on Capitol Police. They had been riled up for months by Trump’s stream of lies about election fraud.

And just a little over an hour earlier, Trump had stood before a crowd in front of the White House and urged them to march to the Capitol to pressure Congress to overturn the election.

“We’re going to walk down and I’ll be there with you. We’re going to walk down,” he said. “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women. We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

Trump legal adviser Rudy Giuliani spoke from the stage as well, telling the crowd, “Let’s have trial by combat.”

Not long after, and moments after McConnell spoke, the mob stormed into the Capitol, forcing the evacuation of lawmakers. It was an unprecedented scene in American history. One woman, as yet unidentified, was shot and killed.

As what amounted to an insurrection unfolded, Trump did nothing to stop it, and Cruz and Hawley both sent out fundraising solicitations in the moments before and during the invasion of the Capitol.

Donald Trump
Trump speaking near the White House on Wednesday. (Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

But McConnell and other Republicans also did little to slow the buildup since the Nov. 3 election of festering anger among Trump’s supporters about an imagined stolen election.

For weeks, the GOP refused to forcefully repudiate the president’s avalanche of lies about the election. And Republicans like Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, along with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., encouraged those lies, which drew thousands of Trump supporters to clash violently outside the U.S. Capitol as McConnell spoke on Wednesday.

McConnell may have sensed what was coming, leading him to make his forceful remarks. It wasn’t until after the mob had broken into the Capitol that other Republican leaders finally came to their senses.

McConnell spoke at the beginning of debate in the Senate over the results of the election. But the congressional role is a mere formality in any election where a candidate has a majority of votes in the Electoral College.

President-elect Joe Biden won the Electoral College by a count of 306 to 232.

But Trump has never conceded his loss, and has instead perpetuated the lie that he won in a landslide and was cheated. Millions of his supporters have ignored the fact that there is no evidence to support the president’s claims.

It wasn’t until after it was too late that Trump’s biggest accomplices called on Trump supporters to stand down. Cruz pleaded that “those storming the Capitol need to stop NOW.”

“This has to stop and it has to stop now,” McCarthy said. He called on Trump to demand that the rioters and insurrectionists leave the Capitol.

Supporters of Donald Trump
Radical supporters of Trump climb on walls at the Capitol building on Wednesday. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

Trump finally issued a video more than two hours after the violence began in which he asked supporters to go home while also continuing to lie about the election and telling his supporters they were “very special.” He said nothing to condemn the violent assault on the nation’s democratic foundations.

Later in the day, Trump essentially justified the day’s shocking violence and anarchy, claiming that “these are the things and events that happen” if he is cheated, which he was not. “Remember this day forever!” he tweeted.

In an unprecedented move, Twitter removed the president’s tweet entirely. Twitter then suspended the president’s account for 12 hours and said his account would remain locked until he removed the tweets. Twitter said it would permanently suspend his account in the event of “future violations of the Twitter Rules, including our Civic Integrity or Violent Threats policies.”

And Hawley, who was photographed holding up a raised fist to the mob before they broke into the Capitol, was silent as well for two hours before issuing a statement. He said that “the violence must end, those who attacked police and broke the law must be prosecuted, and Congress must get back to work and finish its job.”

It was not clear how many Republicans would continue to object to the election results as they had earlier in the day. But Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., for one, said he would oppose any such move and called it a lie to claim — as Hawley and Cruz have — that it was simply giving voice to voters.

“[It’s] not a protest; the vote today is literally to overturn the election!” Paul tweeted.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., told CNN’s Manu Raju that he and other Republicans were trying to “expedite” the process of certifying the election results to show unity in the face of the day’s lawlessness and anarchy.

Members of Congress returned to their respective chambers shortly after 8 p.m., and it became clear that the Republican objections to the election would be dropped. But it remains to be seen how determined they are to impose a political cost on the president who brought the country to the brink of civil war, not over any principle or ideological disagreement, but over mere ego.

Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking House member, had been one of the few GOP leaders to forcefully oppose Trump’s attempted coup and his allies in Congress supporting it. She issued a forceful statement in which she said that “what [Trump] caused here is something that we’ve never seen before in our history.”

Supporters of Trump
In front of the Capitol Building on Wednesday. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

“It has been 245 years and no president has ever failed to concede or agree to leave office after the Electoral College has voted. I think what we’re seeing today is a result of that, a result of convincing people that somehow Congress was going to overturn the results of this election, a result of suggesting he wouldn't leave office. Those are very, very dangerous things. This will be remembered and this will be part of his legacy, and it is a dangerous moment for our country,” Cheney said.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, blistered the president and his allies.

“What happened here today was an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States. Those who choose to continue to support his dangerous gambit by objecting to the results of a legitimate, democratic election will forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy. They will be remembered for their role in this shameful episode in American history. That will be their legacy,” Romney said.

Around 6 p.m., former President George W. Bush issued a statement calling the day’s events an “insurrection” and pointed the finger at Trump and his Republican allies.

“I am appalled by the reckless behavior of some political leaders,” Bush said. “The violent assault on the Capitol … was undertaken by people whose passions have been inflamed by falsehoods and false hopes.”

But New Yorker magazine staff writer Susan Glasser noted that “for days and days Bush was asked to speak out about the unconstitutional attack on the election by members of his party. He said nothing. Until now.”

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