That Donald Trump egregiously abused his power as president in the closing days of his term in office there is now no doubt. Pressuring and threatening election officials and inciting a mob to storm the U.S. Capitol make out abuses that rival if they do not exceed those of America’s most corrupt leaders.
Thanks to the testimony of former Trump officials before the House committee investigating the Capitol riot, we now know the abuses were part of the most serious crime ever attempted against the government of the United States of America and its people: a plot to install Trump as president on January 20, 2021, despite that fact he had lost the election. Trump and accomplices attempted a coup d’état that only just failed.
Americans and democracy’s friends everywhere may find it hard to accept that American democracy narrowly survived a coup d’état. Coups happen in poorer countries with weak governments, not in one of the wealthiest nations in the world with a democracy that has weathered civil war and countless violent demonstrations. But the details that have been exposed, most recently the dramatic, chilling testimony of former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, make it clear there is simply no other term that fits.
For those who have not followed the House committee’s work, or who may have but still resist labelling the actions of Trump and accomplices a coup, its broad outlines are described below.
The coup was built around the peculiar way American presidents are elected. They are not chosen by popular vote. Rather, they are selected by the votes of “electors” chosen in each state. The candidate wining the most electors becoming president.
Last November, while Americans may have seen the names Trump and Biden on their ballots, they in fact voted for a slate of electors committed to either Trump or Biden. Michigan, for example, has 14 House members and two Senators and thus Michiganders voted for a slate of 16 electors. There are currently 538 electors, and thus to win the presidency Trump or Biden had to win 270 (538/2 + 1).
Critically for the coup plotters, the Constitution does not mandate that the electors be chosen by popular vote. It provides only that “Each State shall appoint them, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct” (emphasis added).
The attempted coup turned on this provision. What might be termed Coup Version A went into effect on the evening of the November 2020 presidential election. As it became obvious that Trump was losing the popular vote, his accomplices fanned out to states like Michigan where the popular vote was close and where many state legislators were strongly (blindly) pro-Trump. They argued to these legislators that ballots had been falsified or corrupted. Trump won and you should step in and declare that Trump electors are the state’s valid electors. The Constitution gives you the authority to do so.
Version A quickly ran aground, thanks to the patriotism of many state legislators and the passage of time. As Speaker of the Arizona House of Representative Rusty Bowers told the House committee, he could see no authority in either the U.S. Constitution or Arizona law for such a radical, unprecedented move. Other state legislators in other states were equally adamant that Version A not only had no support in the Constitution but was hairbrained to boot.
Time also ran out on Version A. U.S. law dictates that the electors in each state meet on the same day and cast their votes for President and Vice President. In 2020 that day was December 14, and on that day in each state the electors chosen by popular vote in each state voted. Biden received 306 and Trump 232.
Every president before Trump had accepted this vote. Not Trump. Enter Version B, a wilder version of A. Trump lawyers continued to meet with state legislators. But changed their argument, now saying state legislatures should simply ignore the December 14 state certification. To the argument that the official certifications by state authorities prevented such a move, they claimed the Constitution gave state legislatures “plenary” authority over the selection of the state’s electors. That is, at any time up until the formal count of the votes of all state electors on January 6, 2021, the state legislature could declare a new slate using whatever selection criteria it chose. The judgment that Version A was harebrained applied, as lawyers say, a fortiori (with even more force) to this claim.
Version C emerged as it became clear B was not going anywhere. It involved prompting self-selected groups of individuals in states Trump claimed he won to meet, declare themselves the state’s official electors, and sign certificates swearing to that effect. Coup plotters argued that the 12th Amendment to the Constitution sanctioned this tactic.
The amendment provides that the Vice President “shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates [from the states] and the votes shall then be counted. . . .” Coup plotters claimed that under the 12th Amendment the Vice President could reject certificates that he — in his sole judgement – deemed invalid and accept whatever certificate that he — again in his sole judgment — believed was valid.
Version C thus required the plotters to persuade Vice President Pence to adopt what his counsel and every other sane lawyer advised was an unprecedented, illegal interpretation of the amendment. News accounts along with testimony to the House Committee put Trump at the center of C, pressuring the Vice President, as Trump told the mob gathered near to where the votes were to be counted, “to do the right thing.”
Vice President Pence refused Trump’s entreaties. He instead opened the Congressional session and ordered the valid state electors’ certificates to be counted — doing the “right thing” for America and for democracy everywhere.
At that point, Version D went into effect. The Capitol was stormed by what we learned yesterday were individuals carrying AR-15s, handguns, and other weapons and with body armor at the ready. We know from the rioters’ own words that they intended to assassinate the Vice President as well as the Speaker of the House, who with the death of the Vice President would likely have assumed responsibility for counting the votes. Further details of Version D remain to be revealed, perhaps in testimony to the House committee or criminal investigations.
Let us hope all Americans come to recognize just what Trump and associated were up to and that no matter their political leanings, Americans will absolutely and without reservation scorn anyone associated with it. That is our best way to ensure another set of coup plotters fail as utterly as Trump’s did.