Trump sent his supporters to the Capitol. They are still fighting ‘like hell’ and following his example

The former president suddenly seems politically and legally vulnerable as Jan. 6 panel piles up evidence

A phone call between former President Donald Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is played during a Jan. 6 select committee on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
A phone call between former President Donald Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is played during a Jan. 6 select committee on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 24, 2022 at 12:43pm

ANALYSIS — Donald Trump was the product of the forces that spawned the “Make America Great Again” movement, not their creator. But he is the one most responsible for unleashing its violent side.

The former president is the father of five children. He also, more than any other national figure, sired the increasingly aggressive tactics of intimidation, threats and even violence by far-right groups and individuals in the political realm.

It could land him in serious legal trouble.

Ryan Goodman, a New York University law professor, this week advised federal prosecutors already looking into Trump’s push to overturn the 2020 election to “not make these cases more difficult than they are. If they focus on Trump’s efforts to engage in vigilante justice, the intent element of these crimes is easily satisfied.” Goodman tweeted that alone leaves Trump vulnerable under two federal statutes and one Georgia state one.

The most high-profile example of what Trump has sown is the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot, moments before which Trump told a charged-up crowd of his MAGA backers to head over to the legislative hub and “fight like hell” or “you won’t have a country anymore.”

The House select committee investigating that attack and the weeks leading up to it continued this week making a case that Trump incited the mob, then sent it to the Capitol to use force to halt the count of Joe Biden’s Electoral College win.

Before that, angry MAGA groups stormed state capital buildings and state officials’ homes to do his bidding. In 2017, there was the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. Trump still refuses to denounce white supremacist groups like the ones that committed violence there.

Most recently, Rep. Daniel Crenshaw, a Texas Republican, was physically accosted by members of his own party in the Lone Star State for being a “globalist RINO,” shorthand for “Republican in name only.”

Retiring Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who voted to impeach Trump and is a Jan. 6 panel member, has received execution threats for himself and his family.

'Death threats'

This week, the Jan. 6 committee heard testimony from two Black election workers — a mother and daughter — from Georgia, whom Trump falsely accused of election fraud after the 2020 election did not go his way there.

Shaye Moss told the select committee on Tuesday: “A lot of threats wishing death upon me, telling me I’ll be in jail with my mother and saying things like, ‘Be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920.’”

Moss told the committee a MAGA mob showed up at the house of her grandmother and “just started pushing their way through, claiming that they were coming in to make a citizen’s arrest. They needed to find me and my mom.”

Other state officials from Georgia, Arizona and Michigan also told anecdotes that day about far-right threats and violence against them, their families and homes.

Which brings us back to Crenshaw.

He and his staff tussled on June 18 with a group of far-right protesters at a Texas GOP state party conference. Crenshaw is a military veteran who lost an eye in Afghanistan as a member of the Navy’s elite SEAL Team 3.

What’s more, he has voted in 2022 and 2021 with the official stance of House Republican leadership 96 percent of the time, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis. That’s the same House GOP leadership that has gone to great lengths to cozy up to Trump and his MAGA base.

Yet, that is not enough for far-right groups, which have established a clear pattern of preferring force and intimidation. Crenshaw had to be escorted away by an armed police officer on Saturday. Those groups’ political icon, Trump, unsuccessfully tried using political intimidation on his vice president, Mike Pence, and as the Jan. 6 panel laid out Tuesday, officials in Georgia and Arizona, to remain in power.

Georgia Secretary of State of Brad Raffensperger essentially told the select committee he saw a White House-sized hole in Trump’s claims: He was actually a drag on other GOP candidates.

“Twenty-eight thousand Georgians skipped the presidential race, and yet they voted down ballot in other races,” Raffensperger told Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., who led the panel’s questioning Tuesday. “The Republican congressmen ended up getting 33,000 more votes than President Trump. That’s why President Trump came up short.”

Trump was told this over and over. He opted for intimidation.

“But why wouldn’t you want to find the right answer, Brad, instead of keep saying that the numbers are right?” Trump asked Raffensperger after the November 2020 election.

In a line almost straight out of a gangster movie, the Queens-born Trump said: “So, so what are we going to do here? … Fellas, I need 11,000 votes. Gimme a break.”

Translation: You don’t want to find out what happens if you don’t find the boss 11,000 votes.

Such intimidation tactics align with what Arizona GOP House speaker Rusty Bowers told the committee that former Trump attorney Rudolph Giuliani insinuated to him: “Aren’t we all Republicans here? I would think we’d get a better reception.”

Former Assistant Attorney General Steven Engel, former Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and former Assistant Attorney General Steven Engel are sworn in Thursday before the House Jan. 6 select committee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

'Say the election was corrupt'

Trump also tried to intimidate Pence into rejecting enough electors to allow state legislatures to move to keep him in the White House.

When intimidation didn’t work on Pence, Trump tried some juvenile manipulation: “You can do this. I don’t want to be your friend anymore if you don’t do this.”

Following Trump’s example, members of right-wing groups aggressively pursued Crenshaw with taunts of “Eyepatch McCain” — comparing him to the late Senate “maverick” John McCain, R-Ariz. — and “traitor.” Trump infamously mocked McCain in the 2016 campaign.

Crenshaw’s latest sin? A false one. Those who accosted him this weekend seemed to think he had expressed support for federal grants to help states enforce red-flag laws aimed at preventing mass shootings. The opposite is true.

But facts have little value in MAGA World. Troublingly, intimidation and threats — even violence — do.

On Thursday, the committee heard from three Trump-era Justice Department officials who said he tried the same on them.

Richard Donoghue, former acting deputy attorney general, on Thursday recalled conversations with the president on Dec. 15, 2020 and another 12 days later.

“The president's entreaties became more urgent … and he had this arsenal of allegations,” he said of the latter. “People are telling you it is not true and you cannot be lying about it,” he said he told Trump. No matter to the former president.

“That’s not what I’m asking you to do,” Trump said, according to Donoghue. "I’m asking you to just say the election was corrupt, and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.” This is the exact tactic Trump tried using on Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, when he asked him to merely announce an investigation of Joe and Hunter Biden in 2019.

Trump has called his July 25, 2019 phone conversation with Zelenskyy a “perfect phone call.” He was impeached the first time because of it.

Select committee members have raised concerns about the far right’s intimidation tactics, and showed how Trump eggs them on. But the groups are only becoming more emboldened. The panel brings almost every second of testimony and shred of evidence back to Trump, the example-setter.

'Straight conspiracy'

Some experts see evidence Attorney General Merrick B. Garland already is on the case. Federal agents spent this week issuing subpoenas to and storming the homes of former Trump world figures.

“This is certainly an indication of a DOJ investigation,” according to Richard Serafini, a former Justice Department trial attorney, referring to a recent DOJ request for all the committee’s witness transcripts.

“It’s a straight conspiracy … under which Trump is the hub and then you have these spokes that emanate from it,” Michael Zeldin, a former senior Justice Department official said on “Just Ask The Press,” a live-streaming show that also featured this scribe. “You’ll have others that were part of the efforts to summon and assemble the mob.”

“You’ll have others who were corruptly acting to replace the attorney general,” he added of William P. Barr, who rejected Trump’s stolen election claims and fraudulent electors plot. “All of those would be spokes connected to the hub.”

Zeldin said the former president and others could be subject to federal charges of defrauding the United States. Jan. 6 panel members have floated this potential charge: seditious conspiracy.

Threats to public figures

Bowers told the committee about a man with the “three bars” of one right-wing group who came looking for him, pulling a gun on a neighbor, saying: “So it was disturbing. It was disturbing.”

How many more “disturbing” moments can a country that nearly saw a presidential election overturned endure? What happens the next time — or times — Trump orders a far-right group to “stand by”?

There are signs Republican voters might not be willing to take that chance — and are paying some attention to the committee’s evidence.

A University of New Hampshire poll shows Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis leading Trump in that early GOP primary state, 39 percent to 37 percent. That’s a dramatic shift from October — seven short months ago — when Trump led DeSantis by a comfortable margin, 43 percent to 18 percent.

The former president suddenly looks beatable politically — and vulnerable legally.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-only CQ Senate newsletter.