On Friday, Donald Trump received two more unwelcome reminders he is no longer president. Much as he and his minions chant “Lock her up” about Hillary Clinton and other enemies, it is he who remains in legal jeopardy and political limbo.
But in other ways, the world has changed. The justice department is no longer an extension of Trump’s West Wing. The levers of government are no longer at his disposal.
Next year, much as Trump helped deliver both Georgia Senate seats to the Democrats in January, on the eve of the insurrection, his antics may cost Republicans their chance to retake the Senate.
Documents that would probably not have seen the light of day had Trump succeeded in overturning the election are now open to scrutiny, be they contemporaneous accounts of his conversations about that dishonest aim or his tax returns.
Those who claim that the events of 6 January were something other than a failed coup attempt would do well to come up with a better line. Or a different alternate reality.
Ashli Babbitt is no martyr. Trump will not be restored to the presidency, no matter what the MyPillow guy says. Trump’s machinations and protestations convey the desperation that comes with hovering over the abyss. He knows what he has said and done.
First, on Friday morning, news broke that the justice department had provided Congress with copies of notes of a damning 27 December 2020 conversation between Trump, Jeffrey Rosen, then acting attorney general, and Richard Donoghue, Rosen’s deputy.
As first reported by the New York Times, the powers at Main Justice told Trump there was no evidence of widescale electoral fraud in his clear defeat by Joe Biden.
He replied: “Just say that the election was corrupt [and] leave the rest to me.”
That goes beyond simply looking to bend the truth. As George Conway, a well-connected, prominent anti-Trump Republican, tweeted: “It’s difficult to overstate how much this reeks of criminal intent on the part of the former guy.”
One White House veteran who served under the presidents Bush told the Guardian: “‘Leave the rest to me’ sure sounds like foreknowledge.”
Just “connect the dots and the dates”, the former aide said.
The insurrection came 10 days later. As the former Trump campaign chair and White House strategist Steve Bannon framed it on 5 January: “All hell is going to break loose.”
Truer words were never spoken.
Unfortunately for Trump, Friday’s news cycle didn’t end with the events of 27 December. A few hours later, the DoJ’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), its policy-setting arm, once led by Bill Barr, Trump’s second attorney general, opined that Trump’s tax returns could no longer be kept from the House ways and means committee.
Ever since Watergate, presidents and presidential candidates have released their tax returns as a matter of standard operating procedure. Trump’s refusal to do so was one more shattered norm – and a harbinger of what followed.
The OLC concluded that the committee’s demand for those records comported with the pertinent statute. Beyond that, it observed that the request would further the panel’s “principal stated objective of assessing the IRS’s presidential audit program – a plainly legitimate area for congressional inquiry”.
Here, the DoJ was doing nothing short of echoing the supreme court. A little over a year ago, the court rejected Trump’s contention that the Manhattan district attorney could not scrutinize his tax returns and, in a separate case, held that Congress could also examine his taxes.
In the latter case, in a 7-2 decision, the court eviscerated the president’s argument that Congress had no right to review his tax returns and financial records. Writing for the majority, John Roberts, the chief justice, observed: “When Congress seeks information ‘needed for intelligent legislative action’, it ‘unquestionably’ remains ‘the duty of all citizens to cooperate’.”
At that point, Trump had made two appointments to the high court. Both joined in the outcome. So much for feeling beholden.
Prospective witnesses before the House select committee on the events of 6 January ought to start worrying. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, Congressman Jim Jordan: this means you. By your own admissions, you spoke with Trump that day.
It was one thing for Merrick Garland’s justice department to continue the government defense of Trump in E Jean Carroll’s defamation lawsuit. It’s a whole other thing to expect Biden’s attorney general to play blocking back for Trump. It is highly unlikely here.
The justice department does not appear ready to come to the aid of those who sought to overturn the election. Already, it has refused to defend Mo Brooks, the Alabama congressman who wore a Kevlar vest to a 6 January pre-riot rally.
On top of that, the Democrats control Congress and Liz Cheney, dissident Republican of Wyoming and member of the 6 January committee, hates Jordan. It is personal.
“That fucking guy Jim Jordan. That son of a bitch,” Cheney told the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen Mark Milley, about Jordan, according to Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker of the Washington Post.
Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican who like Cheney voted to impeach Trump over 6 January and has joined the select committee, may also be in the mood to deliver a lesson. Congressional Democrats may want to see Jordan and McCarthy sweat. The House GOP got the committee it asked for when it withdrew co-operation. It faces unwelcome consequences.
As for Trump, he may well continue to harbour presidential aspirations and dreams of revenge. But as Ringo Starr sang, “It don’t come easy.” Indeed, after Friday’s twin blows, things likely became much more difficult.