January 6 and the Collusion Trap

What is the right measure of success for the Committee investigating the Capitol riot?

Mother Jones Washington Bureau Chief David Corn warns, “Don’t Fall into the Collusion Trap on Trump and January 6.” Considering that myself and a lot of OTB commenters have done so, it’s useful advice.

Watching the recent coverage of the January 6 investigation, I felt a stab of deja vu. As the House committee probing the insurrectionist riot held a hearing this week that focused on the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, two militant right-wing groups that led the assault on the Capitol, commentators zeroed in on the question of whether Donald Trump and his White House had forged a direct connection to these extremists prior to their attack on Congress. That is, was there collusion between Trump and these domestic terrorists who have been indicted on charges of sedition? Now where have we heard this before?

This question is an important one, but it is also a trap. Trump and his comrades have been rather deft at developing a tactic to protect him from charges of profound wrongdoing: They raise the bar. If Trump is caught holding a match outside a burning house, Trump and his defenders will say, “Do you have proof he doused the interior with gasoline? That’s fake news. A hoax.”

The question is an important one because it’s likely the bar to criminal prosecution of Trump and a bar on him from holding office in the future. But Corn is right that we already have plenty of evidence that Trump tried to steal an election he damn well knew he’d lost; abused his power in an attempt to influence and intimidate election officials, his Vice President, and several United States Senators; and all manner of other outrages. But, of course, we knew that before the hearings started.

This is what happened with the Russia scandal. There was plenty of confirmed evidence that Trump and his crew acted in a sleazy and improper manner. During the 2016 campaign, his top advisers signaled to Moscow they were fine with the Kremlin’s covert efforts to influence the election to assist Trump. They secretly met with a Russian emissary who they were told was part of this project. And Trump and his team repeatedly denied Vladimir Putin’s regime was attacking the election—even though they were informed Moscow was taking clandestine action to help the Trump campaign—and thus provided cover for Putin, aiding and abetting Russia’s assault on the American political system. 

These actions—arguably acts of betrayal—were undeniable and immensely scandalous. Yet Trump and his protectors defined the scandal in different terms: Did he collude with the Kremlin? They made the central question whether he had conspired directly with the Russian operation to hack the Democrats and release pilfered emails and documents through WikiLeaks. Of course, no such direct conspiring was necessary for the operation to succeed. Trump merely encouraged this assault committed by a foreign adversary and denied that it happened. This was enough to land him in Benedict Arnold territory. Yet when special counsel Robert Mueller reported he had not found evidence that Trump criminally conspired with the Russians, Trump and his cult declared he had been cleared—even though Mueller’s final report documented his misdeeds and detailed numerous instances in which Trump possibly obstructed justice.

No collusion equals no culpability—that’s how Trump managed to shape the Russia scandal. And to a large extent the scheme worked. Much of the mainstream media got hooked on the collusion question, and Republicans and the Trumpified conservative press dished out this propaganda unrelentingly. All that helped to deflect attention from the incontrovertible Trump wrongdoing that had transpired. (By the way, a 2020 report issued by the GOP-chaired Senate intelligence committee noted that Paul Manafort, when he was chief executive of the Trump campaign, did indeed collude with a Russian intelligence officer who might have been involved in Moscow’s attack on the election.) 

So, again, I’m both in agreement with Corn and not. All of the above is correct. But, again, while my recollection of the Russia scandal had faded a bit given all the other scandals since, I and most of my regular commenters believe Trump’s conduct was scandalous. Even after Bill Barr’s dishonest summary of the Mueller Report was released, roughly half the country believed that Trump colluded with Russia. The problem is that the roughly 40% who are going to believe Trump seemingly no matter what continued to buy into his narrative.

I don’t know what to do about that.

In much the same way, Trump need not be nailed as a colluder with the Oath Keepers or Proud Boys to merit widespread condemnation and possible criminal investigation. It’s been proven that the Trump White House via then-chief of staff Mark Meadows was in communication on January 5 with longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone and disgraced former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, who themselves were in contact with the allegedly seditious Oath Keepers and Proud Boys. So it remains a possibility that the White House was in cahoots with the extremists, perhaps egging them on to cause chaos on January 6 that would impede the certification of the electoral vote count—which, at that time, was what Trump desired. (The Proud Boys, at the very least, believed Trump sent them an encouraging message during the 2020 campaign when he told them, “Stand back and stand by.” And in 2016, Trump publicly asked Russian hackers to target Hillary Clinton—and they did.) Yet if these two dots—Trump and the insurrectionist paramiltarists—are not connected, that does not absolve Trump.

So much of Trump’s post-election misconduct is now out in the open. His Big Lie crusade and his incitement of the January 6 mob occurred in full public view. And his behind-the-scenes efforts to overturn the election have been revealed: leaning on state Republican legislators; pressuring election officials in Georgia (“I just want [you] to find 11,780 votes”); scheming to create fake elector slates; pressing the Justice Department to declare the election results corrupt; and muscling Vice President Mike Pence to block the certification of electoral votes. Moreover, the January 6 committee has been revealing evidence showing what was already known about that awful day: While the pro-Trump marauders attacked the Capitol and assaulted law enforcement officers, Trump took no steps to end the riot. The raid proceeded for hours before Trump called on his supporters to leave the Capitol. (The committee has teased that it will provide more testimony regarding what Trump did and did not do on the afternoon of January 6 in a hearing next week.)

So, again, we knew most of this before the Committee started its public hearings. Indeed, we knew some of the most damning things in real time. He not only “merit[s] widespread condemnation,” he’s been widely condemned. The bar, like it or not—and I decidedly don’t—is evidence so damning that a significant number of those who voted for Trump in 2020 will decide that he’s simply not fit to lead.

What that looks like, I haven’t a clue. But it’s possible, I think. Eventually, the odious revelations about Roy Moore became so damning that he managed to lose to a Democrat in Alabama.

Some of Trump’s actions may have been illegal—and there’s much discussion these days as to whether Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Justice Department is fully investigating them and whether Trump and his henchmen could be indicted. (The Fulton County district attorney is on the case.) But there is no question that Trump committed serious wrongdoing and that on January 6 he abandoned his duties as president, as he watched the riot and did nothing. 

All this ought to be enough to brand Trump a villain and a danger to American democracy. Conspiring with the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys would be merely one more offense on a tall pile. It could expand his legal liability. But it’s a subplot in a tale already fully established: Trump attempted to subvert the constitutional order to retain power. 

Again: we knew that in real time on January 6. Indeed, he was signaling that he would not accept a loss as legitimate for months ahead of the election. Trump has already been “brand[ed] . . . a villain and a danger to American democracy” many times over in elite circles. The bar, like it or not, is for that view to reach supermajority status.

Yes, it’s frustrating. It was predictable and, indeed, predicted that, when Kevin McCarthy withdrew his party’s official support from the Committee that its work would be branded as a partisan witchhunt. For now, that seems to be the prevailing Republican view.

There came a point in the Watergate hearings when enough Republicans believed Richard Nixon was a crook and had to go. I’m not sure that, in the current information environment, we’re capable of that sort of transformation anymore. But that has to be the goal here.

Corn seems to disagree:

Trump has often escaped accountability by committing transgression upon transgression. Each dirty deed distracts from the other. Any one of his plots to steal the 2020 election would be a major scandal in itself. (Pushing the Justice Department to falsely declare the results were fraudulent!) Yet all of his dishonest conniving creates a gigantic blur that can be hard to absorb or follow. The January 6 committee has done a good job of breaking down Trump’s myriad skullduggery. This will certainly not convince the Trump cultists and denialists; they cannot be reached. But for the rest of the nation, there’s no need for a smoking gun—or to get hung up on a particular allegation or possible criminal violation. The question is no longer Trump’s guilt but how best to counter the threat he continues to pose to the republic. 

So, I agree that the “Trump cultists” are unreachable and agree that reaching them is an unreasonable goal. But that’s a relatively small portion even of two-time Trump voters. In system of binary choices, it’s really easy for someone to hold their nose to vote for the party standard-bearer.

So, the latest polling I can find, a Monmouth University survey released last week, is rather depressing:

[T]he House select committee to investigate January 6 has not changed many minds about what happened that day, in part because few Republicans are following the hearings. In fact, Republicans are less inclined than they were a year ago to describe the violence at the U.S. Capitol as either a riot or an insurrection. In the poll – conducted before Cassidy Hutchinson’s public testimony on June 28 – 4 in 10 Americans said former President Donald Trump was directly responsible for the incident.

Just 36% of the public describes the American system of government as basically sound.  This number has declined from 55% in February 2020 and from 44% in 2021, a few weeks after the Jan. 6 attack. Just over four decades ago, 62% said the American system was sound.  At the same time, the number of Americans who say our system of government is not at all sound has jumped from 10% in 1980 to 22% in 2021 and 36% in the current poll. The recent decline of faith in the American system has come at varying rates among different partisan groups. Among Republicans, the sense that our system of government is sound plummeted from 71% in early 2020 to 41% shortly after President Joe Biden’s inauguration in 2021, and has held fairly steady since then. The decline among independents has been more gradual – from 58% sound in 2020, to 46% in 2021, and 34% in the current poll. Democrats actually saw a brief increase in faith that the American system is sound from 2020 (34%) to 2021 (45%), but that has now dropped back to 36%.

Few people are watching the hearings, although more are paying some attention. But they’re filtering their news through preferred information sources and their preexisting biases. And pretty much everyone has, not without reason, lost faith in the system itself.

Still, there’s some good news—but it’s mixed:

Nearly two-thirds (65%) of the public say it is appropriate to describe the incident at the U.S. Capitol as a riot, and half (50%) say it is appropriate to describe it as an insurrection. Both of these numbers, though, are down from a year ago (by 7 points for riot and by 6 points for insurrection). These negative views of Jan. 6 have held relatively steady among Democrats and independents, but have slipped significantly among Republicans. Last year, a clear majority (62%) of Republicans called the incident a riot. Now, less than half (45%) do. Similarly, a third (33%) of Republicans in June 2021 said it was appropriate to describe the incident as an insurrection, but only 13% say the same today.

By comparison, the number of Americans who say it is appropriate to describe the U.S. Capitol incident as a legitimate protest has remained stable over the past year (34% now compared with 33% in June 2021). However, the number of Republicans who see this incident as a legitimate protest has actually risen by 14 points to 61%, at the same time this view has declined among independents (down 6 points to 33%) and remained stable among Democrats (14%).

“Some Republicans who were initially appalled have now recast the events of Jan. 6 in a less negative light. It’s not clear the House committee hearings are having any impact in correcting this view, in large part because Republicans simply aren’t watching,” said Murray.

We’ve literally moved backward. Maybe the Hutchinson testimony and subsequent revelations will move the needle but I’m a bit skeptical. The people who need to be persuaded simply aren’t paying attention:

While nearly half (45%) of Democrats say they have been following the House select committee hearings a lot, just 16% of independents and 10% of Republicans say the same.  In fact, a majority (52%) of Republicans and 4 in 10 independents (41%) say they have not been following the hearings at all.

We’re simply living in different realities in a way we weren’t during Watergate.

Overall, just 6% of all Americans say the recent committee hearings have changed their mind about what happened at the Capitol or who was responsible for Jan. 6. Among Republicans who have been following the hearings, just 1 in 10 – representing 5% of all Republicans – say they have changed their opinion about the incident. In a follow-up question, some of these Republicans say that they learned about the pressure Trump was exerting or that election fraud claims were spurious. However, others claim they have “learned” that “police officers were not killed in that protest,” or that “the Democrats were highly involved as well as the F.B.I.”

That people had pretty firm views before the hearings isn’t shocking. I haven’t changed my mind, either, even though I’ve learned some things. But the fact that some people seem to be “learning” things that ain’t true is disturbing.

Currently, 29% of Americans believe Biden won the presidential election only because of voter fraud. In prior polls since November 2020, that number held steady at 32%. The 3-point difference in the current poll is just as likely to be the product of sampling variance as it is any real chipping away at this unsupported belief.

So, let’s call 30% the hard floor. Those people are simply unreachable. Trump could literally go on Fox News and confess that he ordered the Code Red and these people would still say the election was stolen.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. steve says:

    30% is the hard floor, but the rest of the Republicans/conservatives when faced with a choice between prosecuting one of their own and maybe opening the door to Biden remaining in office or another Dem will all fall in line and support Trump. The very, very few Never Trumpers arent enough to matter.

    Steve

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  2. DK says:

    In prior polls since November 2020, that number held steady at 32%. The 3-point difference in the current poll is just as likely to be the product of sampling variance as it is any real chipping away at this unsupported belief.

    Lol but the Very Serious People insist an alleged 3-point exit poll swing towards Trump with black voters is a sign the Democrats are cracking up and Republicans are the new Rainbow Coalition. Because “woke” or something

    Let’s Just Make It All Up As We Go Along, starring the Beltway media. Featuring the Supreme Court All-Stars.

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  3. DK says:

    I’m both in agreement with Corn and not…I and most of my regular commenters believe Trump’s conduct was scandalous. Even after Bill Barr’s dishonest summary of the Mueller Report was released, roughly half the country believed that Trump colluded with Russia.

    Because Trump colluded, by its dictionary definition. It’s in the public record. Mueller uncovered more collusion. How can Corn still not know that doesn’t automatically mean there were laws on the books — really to be broken — that criminalized this unprecedented, treason-adjacent corruption? Corn is not dumb, so.?

    And even if Mueller had called for Trump to face the legal system for criminal conspiracy, Trump would have lied and the rightwing cult would have backed him. The non-deplorables cannot pull punches based on fear of the Fox News lie machine.

    The Committee should seek the truth and the rest if us must tell it. We can’t appease these traitors.

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  4. gVOR08 says:

    Memes fall out of favor, but let’s go with 27% as the hard floor, the old Crazification Factor. There really does seem to be a quarter to a third of the populace that are determined to avoid any contact with reality. They cannot be convinced. But maybe they can be discouraged into not voting. After all, their vote won’t be counted anyway.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @DK: Pretty much every serious media report on any given poll acknowledges sampling error. The rather slight movement of Hispanic (especially) and Black voters toward the GOP has been rather consistent across polls, as has the larger swing of college-educated voters to the Dems.

  6. Dk says:

    The rather slight movement of Hispanic (especially) and Black voters toward the GOP has been rather consistent across polls…

    Just don’t tell black and Hispanic voters in Georgia and Arizona. They didn’t get the memo, thank goodness.

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  7. James Joyner says:

    @Dk: I don’t have state-level data but all indicators are that the percentage of Black and Hispanic voters going Democrat has been in steady decline, having peaked in 2008. But they still overwhelmingly vote Democratic AND their turnout has increased in the Trump era. So you’ve really got conflicting trends.

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  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    Yes, a third of the country is beyond reach. But that’s been the case since forever, we’ve always had a large contingent of religious nuts. And that’s basically who we’re talking about: White evangelicals.

    It is not useful to analyze these people as though they were a political faction, they are a religious faction. Their devotion to Trump and the Big Lie is not political calculation, or party loyalty, it is religious faith. This is a cult. The more absurd the belief, the more they will double down, because they are ‘witnessing’ in the cause of their new messiah. Each new fact is seen as an attack by malevolent forces out to destroy their cult leader, so each new rejection of facts strengthens their belief.

    We are not dealing here with ‘Republicans,’ although they are coterminous, we are basically dealing with Southern Baptists – Southern Baptists who have in effect added a new member to the holy trinity. It’s now a quadrinity. God the Father, Jesus the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the Avenging Archangel Donald. These people will not suddenly open their eyes. They can’t. But they will erode.

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  9. Kurtz says:

    Among Republicans who have been following the hearings, just 1 in 10 – representing 5% of all Republicans – say they have changed their opinion about the incident.

    Is there a phrase for this? Preformative… something… fairness? evaluation? thinking?

    Performative Rationality?

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  10. Kurtz says:

    @Kurtz:

    No edit button after reload. A rarity for me.

    It occurs to me that “following” may mean watching or listening to a segment or reading tweets from a bad faith actor.

    But who knows?

    It’s kind of like the question about the soundness of the political system. It doesn’t really tell us much about what people actually think about it. There are so many different answers that can be given for each group that it doesn’t provide actionable information–nothing that couldn’t be answered by the question, “are you pissed off?”

  11. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner:

    the percentage of Black and Hispanic voters going Democrat has been in steady decline, having peaked in 2008.

    Black support peaked in 2008. I’m trying to remember what happened in 2008 that might have caused a temporary peak in Black enthusiasm. On the perennial topic of the effectiveness of messaging, maybe the subsequent decline isn’t due to GOP outreach and messaging.

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  12. gVOR08 says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    It’s now a quadrinity. God the Father, Jesus the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the Avenging Archangel Donald.

    And two years from now it will be the Avenging Archangel Ron, or Raphael, or Josh, or whatever the GOP primaries barf up. I confess I have mixed feelings about the 1/6 Committee. I wish them success in one way or another removing Trump from the scene. But there’s no reason to think what might replace him won’t be worse.

    I also have mixed feelings about the apparent bi-partisan consensus to pass a bill clarifying that the role of the VP in counting electoral votes is purely ceremonial. Harris is likely to be presented with obviously fraudulent slates of electors.

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  13. JKB says:

    Musk tweeted, “Dems should also call off the attack—don’t make it so that Trump’s only way to survive is to regain the Presidency.”

    Musk offered good advice which seems to be going unheeded.

    Right now, the fear is Trump might run, but the J6 committee is working to make sure he has to run. Yet, the “evidence” is proving unconvincing in a one-sided dog and pony show. What might happen if things move to an adversarial venue? Whether that be a court or the campaign trail.

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  14. gVOR08 says:

    @JKB: I personally would much rather see Biden or whoever run against Trump in 2024 than, say, DeSantis. Greater chance of the D winning, less risk to the country if the GOP wins. DeSantis actually does bad stuff. Trump largely fails at doing bad stuff.

    And the 1/6 committee seem to be doing all they can to push Garland into making this an adversarial proceeding. Also, too, if TFG doesn’t like it, he could always offer to testify before the committee. Of course that would be under oath, something he avoids like the plague.

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  15. gVOR08 says:

    There are days I despair for my party. This “collusion” thing could cut both ways. It is not a legal term, so no one can be charged with collusion. But it’s also ill defined generally. Where were Democrats saying “Junior and Kushner colluded with Russians in the Trump Tower meeting.”? “Trump openly colluded with Russia when he asked them to make up dirt on Hillary.”? “Manafort colluded with Kilimnik to provide secret insights into the campaign with Russia.”? Goal posts can be moved either way.

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  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @JKB: Musk offered good advice which seems to be going unheeded.

    I think you should heed it while the rest of stick with reality.

    1
  17. dazedandconfused says:

    I suspect the emphasis for the next and last scheduled public hearing will be Trump doing nothing for 3 hours to stop it, not on the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. The professionalism of that committee suggests they are hip to this trap.

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  18. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Michael Reynolds: To be precise, a faction of White Evangelical—Dominionists—who happen to be well positioned as the RW media bullhorn to corral the rest of Evangelical denomination. Of course, there are Black Evangelicals as well…who mostly are not drinking the kool aid and vote Democrat.

    Precision is important here because the Evangelical rallying strength, the Bible, is also it’s weakness. Should Democrats decide to play to win, they’d absolutely have to establish a religious outreach message that would Cleve the Evangelicals from the Dominionists and Catholics from both. Actually not that hard of a task for anyone with a 201 knowledge of the Scripture.

    Right now there’s only one Party framing the Bible as their Political territory…and logically the people that agree with that framing are energized. Shit would get real if their were 2 viewpoints energizing religious voters instead of only 1.

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  19. DK says:

    @JKB:

    Musk offered good advice which seems to be going unheeded.

    Here’s some good advice for Musk and the majority of white male Americans: stop voting for lying, fascist, radical right extremist bigots.

    My guess is this advice will also go unheeded. But no, the J6 Committee should not soft-peddle treason just because some of you can’t stop voting like (and for) lunatics.

    Trump is responsible for Trump’s gross and indefensible behavior. Trump voters are responsible for their gross and indefensible choice to endorse Trump and his acolytes. They need to stop shifting blame and take responsibility for their selfish amorality and lack of decency and patriotism.

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  20. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @JKB: Ain’t nobody scurred of dat orange muthafukkka…