Everyone has to start somewhere. Big-city newspapers send their new idealistic young cub reporters down the street to the city courthouse to cover local crimes, who’s being arraigned for what and what they’re pleading. There’s nothing earth-shattering in that sort of thing, but that’s the news that the locals, who actually buy a copy of the physical newspaper, seem to want. So the new idealistic young cub reporters pay their dues. They do that thankless reporting. But sometimes they get lucky. Long ago, the Washington Post assigned a very young Bob Woodward and very young Carl Bernstein to cover what seems to be a minor local crime, the arraignment of the scruffy crew that broke into the Watergate Complex one night, into the offices of the Democratic National Committee. Were these hapless incompetent minor burglars? Were these goofballs? Woodward and Bernstein decided not, convinced their management to cut them some slack and let them look into this, and ended up bringing down Richard Nixon. Nixon resigned. Attorney General John Mitchell went to jail. Woodward and Bernstein got famous. Everyone wanted to be investigative reporter, just like them, but seemed to forget how this started. Two young local court reporters got curious.
This time the Washington Post sent Rachel Weiner and Spencer Hsu down the street to cover who was being arraigned for what and what they were pleading. But this time no president would resign in disgrace. These two reporters got to cover the likely end of democracy here:
For many accused of trying to block Congress from confirming the winner of the U.S. presidential election on Jan. 6, arrest was a reality check. Now they are getting another.
As defendants charged in the Capitol siege have been coming through court, some have been shifting blame onto former president Donald Trump, downplaying their actions or expressing remorse. But federal judges – particularly those who work a few blocks from the Capitol – aren’t buying it.
One judge called a defendant’s claim of civil disobedience “detached from reality.” Another verbally smacked down an attorney who tried to use QAnon – the sprawling set of false claims that have coalesced into an extremist ideology – to explain his client shouting “Kill them all!” Other judges have been giving defendants civics lessons on how democracy works.
This was bigger than that Watergate thing:
U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell, the chief federal jurist for the District of Columbia, responded incredulously to one defense attorney who said his client believed Trump requested his unlawful conduct. She said that if a president could authorize overturning an election, he would be no different from “a king or a dictator,” and “that is not how we operate here.”
When the attorney added that the man, the accused leader of a Proud Boys group, had been “chastened rather than emboldened” by the federal charges and that his anti-government “fever has broken,” Howell clapped back.
“Essentially, that’s what your argument is, saying, ‘Whoops,’ now?” Howell asked. “Has he expressed any remorse or rejection of his membership in the Proud Boys, a gang of nationalist individuals? Does he reject the fantasy the election was stolen? Does he regret the positions that animated the mob on January 6th? Is there anything on the record about any of those things?”
Judge Howell has what Hemingway once said every writer needs, a foolproof shockproof crap detector. Everyone should have one:
Through attorneys, at least six of the relatively small number of defendants arguing for release from jail pending trial have claimed that their disillusionment with Trump should be considered as a factor. Some, such as the horn-wearing “QAnon Shaman” Jacob Chansley, have cast themselves as both victims and perpetrators.
“Please be patient with me and other peaceful people who, like me, are having a very difficult time piecing together all that happened to us, around us, and by us,” he said in a public statement. “We are good people who care deeply about our country.”
Chansley, after failing to get a pardon from the president, offered to testify against him in Trump’s impeachment trial.
The House impeachment managers demurred. These people are a mess:
Some tie their delusions to involvement with militant right-wing groups and the consumption of far-right news, both of which amplified baseless claims that the election was illegitimate and that Trump would retake power by force.
Jessica Watkins, a 38-year-old member of the Oath Keepers extremist group from Woodstock, Ohio, intended “not to overthrow the government, but to support what she believed to be the lawful government,” public defender Michelle Peterson of D.C. argued in court filings. “She fell prey to the false and inflammatory claims of the former president, his supporters, and the right-wing media.”
Watkins echoed that claim in court Friday afternoon, saying she was “humbled” and “humiliated” after Jan. 6 and was now “appalled by my fellow Oath Keepers.” She said she has disbanded her own militant group and wants to focus on her struggling bar: “I did it out of love for my country, but it’s time to let all of that go.”
It’s back to bartending for her. But not so fast:
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta said it was “really hard reconciling” the Watkins described by the defense with the one who, according to prosecutors, discussed fighting and dying to keep Trump in power. He said he was particularly disturbed by evidence that she and others had a “quick reaction force” waiting with weapons on Jan. 6.
“Why somebody who was there for a political rally would be talking to others about rapid incursion forces doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” the judge said. “This isn’t someone who is simply expressing dissent” but “someone who is involved in the planning and organizing of an incursion of our national Capitol that was a real threat to the fabric of our democracy.”
She’s screwed, but she’s not alone:
Dominic Pezzola, a New Yorker, says he got involved with the Proud Boys – a far-right group with a history of violence – last fall and had “honorable intentions” when he used a police riot shield to break a window at the Capitol, his attorney wrote last week, saying he believed he was “protecting his country.” Pezzola “now realizes he was duped into these mistaken beliefs” and “is consumed with guilt.”
Prosecutors say Pezzola was among the first people to charge through barricades onto the Capitol grounds, reaching the building’s walls and flooding its west plaza. Once there, they said, he confronted police and grabbed a riot shield, becoming the first to breach a window that rioters could enter through.
A judge has yet to rule on Pezzola’s release. But Howell rejected an argument by attorneys for accused Kansas City Proud Boy William Chrestman that his conduct at the Capitol was authorized by the president.
“President Trump for four years bragged that if he murdered someone on Fifth Avenue, his followers would still follow him,” she said, adding, “So if President Trump instructed members of the Proud Boys gang to murder somebody, and they did, that would be a legal excuse and immunize them from any liability for a criminal act?”
Judge Howell isn’t buying that, but she and her team are not unreasonable:
For the bulk of the more than 300 accused rioters charged federally, prosecutors have not sought detention. Many are accused of only misdemeanor trespassing, have no criminal record and have shown work, family and community ties or public or military service. Judges have also pushed back at jailing individuals whose crimes do not involve violence. Many have been spared jail unless they have been alleged to be “one of the individuals who banged down doors, sprayed pepper spray or bear spray at law enforcement officers, injured law enforcement officers, poked out eyes of police in the building,” as one judge recited in releasing a commissioner of a county in New Mexico pending trial.
That county commissioner from New Mexico didn’t try to gouge out any particular policeman’s eyes, so he can pay a small fine for misdemeanor trespassing and head on home. Others cannot:
U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols agreed that Gina Bisignano, accused of inciting other rioters to violence, could be safely released on “strict conditions.” But he pushed back when defense attorney Charles Peruto argued that the Beverly Hills, Calif., salon owner was engaging in “free speech,” got “swept up in the moment” and “drank the Trump Kool Aid” when she shouted encouragement to rioters through a bullhorn on Jan. 6.
“She was an active person in a riot that aimed to prevent by violent means a normally quiet but critical step in the peaceful transition of power,” said Nichols, a Trump appointee and the newest member of the D.C. court. “Her actions fly in the face of common decency and fly in the face of democracy and the rule of law.”
Yes, a Trump-appointed judge said that, but Judge Howell led the way:
In the QAnon case, Howell rejected an attorney’s explanation that when his client shouted “Kill them all!” in the Capitol – referring to lawmakers – he did not mean he would do so personally, but that he believed lawmakers would be executed by proper authorities in a Judgment Day apocalypse.
“QAnon believers will confront facts and reality in court,” she said. “What happened January 6th is no fantasy for people inside the Capitol or for people in the country. The defendant is entitled to his beliefs. He can believe the QAnon theory. He can believe the earth is flat. He can believe what he wants, but he is not entitled to break the law.”
Perhaps so, but those beliefs are still a problem. Nothing has changed for the Trump folks. David Weigel previews CPAC:
One panel will discuss whether tech companies are “colluding to deprive us of our humanity.” One speech will explore what to do when a social media network “deplatforms” a conservative by deleting his account. And seven main-stage panels or speeches will litigate the 2020 election, with panelists who mostly – and incorrectly – argue that Donald Trump won.
The Conservative Political Action Conference, which began this week, has evolved from a fractious meeting of Republicans and libertarians into a celebration of the 45th president and the airing of his grievances.
Trump will close out the event with his first speech since leaving the White House, minutes after a 2024 presidential straw poll that he’s expected to win. The arguments among some elected Republicans about whether they should retool their agenda to prevent future losses, or revisit their alliance with Trump, will have to happen somewhere else.
But they are not talking ideas or policy or any of that nonsense:
“The idea that we’re going to come up with some kind of conservative platform at CPAC, it rings a little hollow,” said Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, which organizes the conference. “Right now, half the country” feels cheated “by the media coverage of the election. So we’re going to go back and cover the facts that most people in the media canceled.”
Weigel thinks that might be a bad idea:
Dozens of lawsuits and Trump’s Justice Department found no evidence of fraud last year that would have altered the election results. But polling since Nov. 3 has found strong majorities of Republican voters agreeing with Trump and supporting his false take on the election.
That has left CPAC in the same place as the larger Republican Party as they head toward the 2022 midterm election: wedded to Trump even as he alienates millions of potential voters.
But they’re fine with that:
The conference, founded in 1973, is usually held near Washington, with a crowd that can grow to 10,000 people. It moved this year to Orlando, where local COVID-19 restrictions allow an indoor gathering if attendees are socially distanced and masked, and complete a quick health survey.
That will cut the full crowd at festivities that began Thursday down to perhaps 3,500 – still one of the largest conferences in the country since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, with all but the priciest tickets sold out for weeks. Scaling a four-day convention down to a virtual Zoom-fest was never considered, and it might have clashed with the theme – “America Uncanceled,” a reference to the Republican idea that “cancel culture” is punishing conservatives for their beliefs.
They show up in person, no masks, no social distancing, none of that, because they won’t be cancelled. They’ll cancel others:
Some prominent Republicans, whose criticism of the election myths have angered party activists, won’t be in attendance. Former vice president Mike Pence, a regular guest who against Trump’s wishes refused to declare the electoral college vote invalid, will not attend and has kept a low profile since attending the inauguration of President Biden.
Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, a onetime winner of CPAC’s presidential straw poll, has been disinvited since becoming the first senator to vote for convicting an impeached president of his own party. (He also voted to convict earlier this month after Trump’s second impeachment.) Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who hasn’t attended since 2014 and who excoriated Trump after voting to acquit him this month, wasn’t invited…
They have their own crew:
Of the 47 Republican members of Congress scheduled to speak at CPAC, just nine voted to uphold every state’s election results on Jan. 6. None voted for impeachment.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who led a Trump-backed lawsuit to undo Biden’s win in Pennsylvania, will speak about “the devaluing of American citizenship” alongside Rep. Paul A. Gosar of Arizona, an early organizer of “Stop the Steal” rallies…
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), who voted to challenge election results on Jan. 6, will lead a panel on “the angry mob and violence in our streets”; three panels will focus on “big tech” and related “monopoly” issues; and one will discuss “protecting women’s sports” from transgender athletes.
That “the angry mob and violence in our streets” seminar is not about January 6 of course. That’s about Black Lives Matter and Antifa. The former wants to kill every cop and then every white man in America. That latter wants to burn down all the bigs cities, or burn down everything, really – everyone knows this. Anything else is nonsense. They’ll go with racism and nonsense:
In 2021, Schlapp said, some of what conservatives used to fight over had been settled by Trump. Some immigration restriction measures, which were “considered racist when they were brought up,” he said, proved potent to “a lot of union Democrats, a lot of diverse people.” Trump had won new voters for the party without the predicted costs among Latino voters, just like he had delivered on deals with Israel despite warnings that he would destabilize the Middle East, Schlapp said.
“Even though Donald Trump is a one-term president,” he said, “there’s this feeling among Republicans that he was a huge, smashing success.”
Just don’t count the dead. Consider this instead:
A golden statue of former President Donald Trump was rolled through the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this week, as those it passed in the lobby offered praise and amazement.
Bloomberg reporter William Turton posted video of the scene on Twitter.
Shouts of “Trump!” could be heard as the statue passed, while one person said, “That is so cool,” and another offered: “We the people.”
“Four more years,” another person said.
That’s what this was about. Moses was wrong. Worship the Golden Calf. Irony is not dead. And the New York Times’ Elaina Plott and Jonathan Martin saw this:
Gathering at the first major conference of pro-Trump conservatives since his defeat, the politicians and activists sought to affirm their adherence to a conservatism as defined by Mr. Trump, and the need to break with many of the policies and ideas that had animated the American right for decades.
Some speakers at the event, the annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference, went as far as to declare the traditional Republican Party all but dead. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is seen as a possible candidate for president in 2024, vowed that conservatives would never return to “the failed Republican establishment of yesteryear.” Others firmly asserted Mr. Trump’s standing as the party’s leader and waved off the talk among some Republicans about moving on from the former president.
“Let me tell you right now,” said Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, “Donald J. Trump ain’t goin’ anywhere.”
The line earned the loudest applause of the conference’s events on Friday morning…
And it was quite a start:
The conference’s opening-day agenda was anchored chiefly in grave warnings about an impending breakdown of American society at the hands of “woke mobs” and “Marxist leftists”; complaints about censorship of conservatives; a false insistence that the 2020 presidential election had been “rigged”; and a suspicion of anyone who did not share their resolve to fight back and stand with Mr. Trump…
The Republican speakers, instead, won applause by focusing on the themes that animated the party during Mr. Trump’s presidency – the us-versus-them politics, the preoccupation with personality over policy – all while scarcely even mentioning Mr. Biden’s name.
This was all about personality:
After days of Republicans proclaiming there would be no civil war in the party, the attacks represented a stark reminder that Mr. Trump and his closest associates are determined to purge their critics.
If that was not clear enough from the rhetoric onstage in Orlando, the former president signaled his determination to exact vengeance by releasing a statement Friday afternoon announcing his support for a former aide, Max Miller, who is attempting to unseat Representative Anthony Gonzalez, an Ohio Republican. Mr. Gonzalez voted last month to impeach Mr. Trump.
“We represent the pro-Trump, America-first wing of the conservative movement,” declared Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, who in January traveled to Wyoming to call for Ms. Cheney’s ouster. “Turns out populism is popular.”
And that is their platform:
Mr. DeSantis suggested that the current threat posed by the left was too dangerous for conservatives to concern themselves with the finer points of policy.
“We can sit around and have academic debates about conservative policy, we can do that,” he said. “But the question is, when the Klieg lights get hot, when the left comes after you: Will you stay strong, or will you fold?”
For Republicans eyeing a presidential bid in 2024, Mr. Trump’s influence was deeply felt, with Mr. DeSantis, Mr. Cruz and others stressing their willingness to “fight.” It was unclear what, exactly, they were pledging to fight for, but everyone seemed to agree on what they were mobilizing against.
Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri had hardly finished reminding the audience that he had objected to the certification of Mr. Biden’s election before the crowd erupted in cheers and offered him a standing ovation. “I stood up, I said, ‘We ought to have a debate about election integrity,’” Mr. Hawley said.
That’s it? Jonathan Chait sees this:
Trump’s appeal to his party was rooted in his reality-television-corroborated claim to be a lifelong winner. Come to Trump’s side, he promised incessantly, and you will win so much you’ll get tired of it. What value does he still have now? When previous defeated presidents were discarded, why cling to the one whose value proposition was based on never being a loser?
An important part of the answer is that, seen through Republican eyes, Trump didn’t lose at all.
But that belief requires some twists and turns:
Within the GOP, there are three basic versions of this belief. The most extreme (articulated by the likes of conservative-media funder and personality Mike Lindell) holds that an international cabal of living and dead progressives engineered a secret algorithm to rig vote-tabulating machines. The second, slightly less crazy version holds that Democratic officials in various big cities, where Black people always cheat at elections, manufactured vote totals in the middle of the night. And the third and least crazy story is that various states ignored the law, allowing mail voting in a way that permitted massive vote fraud to tip the result to Joe Biden.
When asked if the election was legitimate, Republican elected officials generally endorse theory No. 3. Asked by ABC’s Jonathan Karl to affirm that the election was not stolen, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise refused, instead insisting, “There were a few states that did not follow their state laws,” before changing the subject.
Team Trump took those states to court more than a few times, and lost that argument every time, but no matter:
The key to understanding this dynamic is that, in Scalise’s mind, he is taking a moderate position. By advocating the least insane theory about how Biden supposedly stole the election, Scalise, in his own mind, is holding down the sensible center in his party. Going so far as to admit Joe Biden won a majority in 306 Electoral College votes worth of states would create more trouble in his base than it would be worth to appease the mainstream media.
And that takes us back to Judge Howell’s courtroom:
When you begin with the premise that Donald Trump rightly won the election, you naturally interpret the events that followed the election in a different light. Trump’s efforts to overturn the result, pressuring officials to produce new votes for him and whipping up a mob to storm the Capitol, are actually restrained.
The Republicans’ understanding of the January 6 insurrection follows from their delusional beliefs about the election itself. A USA Today poll found that 58 percent of Republicans believe the attack was “mostly an antifa-inspired attack that only involved a few Trump supporters,” more than double the number who describe it as “a rally of Trump supporters, some of whom attacked the Capitol.”
Now add this:
At the same time, as they deny their party had any responsibility for it, Republicans are downplaying the insurrection itself. “This was a riot in which none of the protesters themselves killed anybody,” Glenn Greenwald told Laura Ingraham. Fox News has trained its audience to be able to simultaneously believe that the January 6 riot was a violent false-flag operation to discredit the right and a legitimate peaceful exercise in the petitioning of government for a redress of grievances.
Both of these mutually exclusive stories share the vital characteristic that Trump supporters did nothing wrong. Indeed, to their own minds, the Trump supporters have been doubly victimized. First the election was stolen from them. And then, after they showed remarkable restraint in the face of this crime, they are being pelted with demands to affirm the legitimacy of the stolen election.
Don’t try to make sense of that, but note this:
Support for Trump has ceased to be a strategy for acquiring power. It has become an act of rebellion. The powers that be wish to control your mind by making you believe Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 presidential election. In this context, denying the election outcome, and clinging to Trump, feels like an act of power.
Defeat, in the right context, can inspire minds just as well as victory. Trump’s notion of “winning” used to mean supporting a candidate who would actually prevail and take office. Now it means refusing to concede he ever lost.
But he lost, so, who then runs the country? What’s left of it now? All we get is that odd golden statue.