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Columnist Will Bunch: Trump Came Much Closer to Pulling Off a January 6 Coup Than People Realize

StoryJanuary 05, 2022
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The January 6 insurrection resulted in criminal charges for over 700 rioters, and the FBI has since called it an act of domestic terrorism. Philadelphia Inquirer national columnist Will Bunch says there is growing evidence that links Trump and his inner circle to the Capitol attack. He argues understanding what was happening behind the scenes at the Pentagon, which has operational control over the National Guard in D.C., can help explain Trump’s botched attempt to overturn the 2020 election and the insurrection that followed. “I think they fully believed that they would be able to call out the National Guard,” says Bunch, explaining Trump’s strategy to incite violence between his supporters and counterprotesters in an attempt to make military orders to disrupt the certification. Bunch predicts Trump and allies will delay cooperation with the House probe into the attack until Republicans can gain congressional power in 2022 and dismiss the investigation.

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StoryJan 06, 2022Reform the Insurrection Act: Former Pentagon Adviser Says Trump Almost Used It to Subvert Election
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Thursday marks one year since the violent mob of thousands of Trump supporters descended on the U.S. Capitol, disrupting Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. Many have referred to the attack as an attempted coup. Five people died, hundreds were injured. At least four police officers who responded to the Capitol on January 6th died of suicide in the days and months after. The FBI has called the insurrection an act of domestic terrorism. Some 700 rioters have been criminally charged.

Meanwhile, the House select committee investigating the January 6th attack has interviewed over 300 witnesses, subpoenaed several key figures in Trump’s inner circle. Last week, it learned of a document that could be crucial evidence in proving Trump’s intentions to tamper with the 2020 election and in inciting the deadly Capitol insurrection. The document is called the ”DRAFT LETTER FROM POTUS TO SEIZE EVIDENCE IN THE INTEREST OF NATIONAL SECURITY FOR THE 2020 ELECTIONS.” It’s included on a list of records that former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, a close Trump ally, is refusing to turn over.

For more, we’re joined in Philadelphia by Will Bunch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer. He writes about this in his column, “Is the 'smoking gun' in Trump’s Jan. 6 attempted coup hiding in plain sight?”

Will, welcome back to Democracy Now! Explain what this is.

WILL BUNCH: Right. Well, as you mentioned, you know, Bernie Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner, a very close associate of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, who became kind of a Trump insider — in fact, he’d been committed of criminal activity, and Trump had pardoned him. So, he was definitely part of this kind of new inner circle that gathered around Trump between the election loss to Joe Biden and January 6th, who was giving him advice.

And I think the most interesting and, I guess, maybe the most alarming thing that’s been coming out of some of these news reports and leaks out of the House January 6th committee in the last few weeks is the focus of this working group on the idea that Trump might somehow declare a national emergency — which, as you know, in many countries around the world, that’s basically a code name for a coup, right? — and that as part of this national emergency, he might even seize paper election ballots or seize voting machines, which would just be a mess.

And so, we’ve had a couple things. We had an email from Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, about the role of the National Guard, how they expected the National Guard would be there January 6th to, quote, “support” pro-Trump demonstrators, which is an interesting take on things. We had this PowerPoint presentation that circulated on Capitol Hill from Trump’s advisers that talked about this national emergency idea. And now Bernie Kerik’s lawyer has logged the documents that are in his possession, including some that he claims are privileged and that the committee shouldn’t be allowed to see. And one of the ones he’s claiming privilege on is the one that you just mentioned and the one that I think could be a smoking gun, and which is a draft letter from Trump that would basically declare this emergency and allow for the seizing of this evidence.

And I think it’s a very complicated thing, but, very quickly, I think the Trump team expected that on January 6th there would be something that in fact did not happen, which was they expected there to be left-wing counterprotesters, like that December 12th episode that was in the documentary that you just played. They expected a repeat of that. And I think they fully believed that they would be able to call out the National Guard. And remember, Trump installed a lot of close allies in the Pentagon just in the weeks right before January 6th, and the Pentagon has operational control over the National Guard. So, you know, I think there was this theory that if there had been more violence that had involved antifa, which was the enemy of the Trump people, as you just discussed in the last segment, that antifa could have been a pretext for them to call out the National Guard on their side to close down the Capitol. And if the Capitol had been closed down and seized by troops, you wouldn’t have been able to have the certification of Biden’s election. It would have bought them more time for these other schemes that they were working on. You know, it’s interesting that members of Congress, and even Mike Pence himself, were very adamant about not leaving the Capitol. And I think they were afraid if they left the capital on January 6th, that they would never get back.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Will, you wrote in a column a few weeks ago, quote, “the central role of the leftist clashes that never happened, and the thwarted mission for the National Guard and Trump-friendly law enforcement — the final, Hail Mary pass in Team Trump’s slow-motion coup to undo Biden’s election victory — reveals how close a rogue president came to ending … democracy earlier this year.” Could you talk about, one, how — you also say that you believe the left didn’t go for the bait of coming out there —

WILL BUNCH: Yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — in Washington, and how that then ended up gumming up the plans of the Trump people, from what you can tell.

WILL BUNCH: Yeah, I mean, that’s one of the most amazing little-known stories about January 6th, is in the maybe two-week run-up before January 6th, when a lot of people — although apparently not the FBI for some reason, but a lot of normal people — knew that this was going to be a potentially violent day and that, you know, we knew that busloads of these people were descending on the Capitol, and the word got out on the left that they’re trying — they want to provoke violence. You know, they want to provoke clashes between left-wing counterprotesters, whether they were, quote, “antifa,” unquote, or just normal resistant folks — they wanted to set up these clashes.

And so, on social media, you actually saw this hashtag, like you said; #DontTakeTheBait became a popular hashtag at the end of December and early January. And you had public officials join in. You know, Muriel Bowser, the mayor of D.C., and other officials went public telling people who were not Trump supporters, “You don’t want to be anywhere near the Capitol on January 6th. Please stay away.” And I think the city even kept some of its workers home. And there was a real effort to just let the Trump people do their thing in the city, and not confront them, not provoke them. And, you know, that was kind of like — in the famous Sherlock Holmes line, that was like the dog that did not bark on January 6th, because you didn’t have those clashes.

And it explains a lot. People are baffled by the inaction of the National Guard. And we now know — and Ryan Goodman and Justin Hendrix from Just Security have done some great reporting on this. You know, we now know that Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint Chiefs, and other top people in the Defense Department were horrified at the idea that the Trump allies within the Pentagon could use the National Guard in service of a coup, basically, in service of Trump. And as a result, I mean, that really was the reluctance to call out the National Guard. You know, D.C. officials were baffled, because they wanted to use the Guard to fight against the Trumpists, the insurrectionists. But in the Pentagon, the worry was that if the Guard got involved and took over the Capitol, that that would end up looking more like a coup. And so, that explains why the National Guard didn’t get involved for three or four hours, until the incident was basically over at that point.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I want to go back for second to this draft national security letter, with Bernard Kerik’s lawyer claiming attorney-client privilege. Of course, Bernard Kerik, as you mentioned, was not only convicted on tax evasion charges but has the dubious distinction of being one of the only people, perhaps in American history, who spent time in the very jail that was named after him, the Bernard Kerik Correctional Facility. And, of course, he’s not a lawyer. So, could you talk about this claim and how it could stand up if it went to court? But, obviously, it might take months for a court decision on it.

WILL BUNCH: Yeah. Well, Juan, you, like me, remember Watergate, and you remember the famous term from Watergate, “stonewalling.” Well, you know, Trump and his team, they’re the masters of stonewalling 2.0. I mean, the basic philosophy, which Trump honed during his years as a sleazy real estate developer in New York, is just when there’s a problem, throw everything up against the wall, you know, lawsuits, just delay.

I mean, what we’re seeing here is unprecedented in terms of people who clearly have no reason to not testify or to defy a subpoena claiming they have the right to defy these subpoenas. And you’ve seen charges now against Steve Bannon. You may see charges against Mark Meadows. But I think for the next 12 months you’re going to see this web of obstruction, of these privilege claims that are going to have to be fought out in court, whether it’s executive privilege or something just more mundane like attorney privilege, which is what Bernie Kerik is claiming.

And I think that the ultimate reason behind this is because Republicans are very confident that they’re going to retake the House in the midterms this November, just based on history and the other trends. And when they do that, they know they’ll be able to end this probe. So, you’ve got the Democrats with this one year to get to the truth, basically. You know, I think the January 6th committee has been doing a fantastic job, and we’ve been seeing the fruits of that in the last couple weeks. And [inaudible] is going to be very dramatic. But you do have that hanging over their head. You know, they’ve got a one-year race against this massive wall of obstruction from Team Trump.

AMY GOODMAN: It will be very interesting when they hold public hearings, and then that comparison to the Watergate public hearings that so many watched at the time. But I wanted to ask you, Will Bunch, about what former Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro said on MSNBC yesterday when he was interviewed by Ari Melber. He outlined his support last year for what he called the Green Bay sweep, a plan to overturn the election results in six states.

PETER NAVARRO: The plan was simply this: We had over a hundred congressmen and senators on Capitol Hill ready to implement the sweep. The sweep was simply that. We were going to challenge the results of the election in the six battleground states. They were Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin, Nevada.

ARI MELBER: Do you realize you are describing a coup?

PETER NAVARRO: No. I totally reject many of your premises there.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there you have it, Will. I’m wondering if you could respond to this. Jamie Raskin, one of the key members of the select committee, has responded, the congressman from Maryland, and said that you have this very unusual situation where maybe the Trump supporters outside, in their violence, with this insurrection, subverted what they wanted to accomplish, their allies wanted to accomplish, Trump wanted to accomplish inside, what Peter Navarro just laid out.

WILL BUNCH: Well, yeah, I mean, when you look back at it, there are so many different ways that things could have broken on January 6th as opposed to what happened. But I think the bottom line — I mean, I think Ari Melber nailed it. I mean, there’s no other word for what they’re talking about here other than a coup. You know, the idea was that if you could block the certification in enough states — and I guess those six states would have done it — then you would have taken Biden under 270 electoral votes. Then the claim would be that, well, you’re throwing the election into the House under the constitutional procedure. And the way the House vote goes, which is not by individual member but by state delegations, the Republicans actually still control the majority of the delegations, and so Republicans could have imposed — used that mechanism to impose a Trump presidency.

So, the thing is, I don’t think that plan could have worked without the cooperation of Mike Pence. And so, you know, I mean, there were three or four incredible hinge points about January 6th, and the failure to convince Pence, who had been such a compliant vice president for four years, to go along is one of the hinge points. I think Mark Milley and the Pentagon realizing the threats — and don’t forget the January 3rd letter from every former — every living former defense secretary, from Dick Cheney to the Democratic ones, warning about the military getting involved on January 6th, because they knew that something was afoot, and they were terrified of the possibilities.

But I think this talk about the Green Bay sweep just shows the high level of planning that was going on here. And let’s not forget, it’s a felony to disrupt the operations of Congress. And I think that’s something that the January 6th committee is really honing in on. Was there a criminal conspiracy to disrupt Congress from doing its job on January 6th? And if so, who was involved in that? You know, obviously, Trump advisers were involved. Was the president himself involved? You know, to again, for the umpteenth time, get back to Watergate, what did the president know, and when did he know it? I mean, I think there’s going to be some real drama behind these hearings when they go public. They may be in primetime, I’m hearing now, which would be quite a political event in 2022.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Will Bunch, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, national columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer_. We’ll link to his pieceswill/ at democracynow.org.

A very happy birthday to Clara Ibarra! And a belated happy birthday to Dennis McCormick!

Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Mary Conlon. Our general manager, Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Jon Randolph, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude and Dennis McCormick. Remember, wearing a mask is an act of love, preferably an N95. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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