What we’re learning about the events of January 6, 2021, keeps getting worse. On the eve of the attack on Congress by a pro-Trump mob, former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows reportedly emailed someone to indicate that the National Guard would be on standby “to protect pro-Trump people” during the fateful joint session of Congress. In another document, a PowerPoint briefing handed over to the House January 6 committee by Meadows, someone floated plans to declare a national emergency and “delay” certification of the electoral votes.
Both of those revelations came from findings by the committee, which issued a report last week on contempt of Congress against Meadows for refusing to testify before the committee and this week formally recommended contempt charges. The report does not significantly alter the general picture of what’s already known about Trumpworld’s plot to overturn the results and keep Trump in power between Election Day and Inauguration Day. But it adds vivid and disturbing new details to how close the participants came to toppling American self-government.
It’s tempting to take comfort in the idea that January 6 represented the high-water mark in the Trumpian plot against American democracy. Federal agents have, after all, hunted down and arrested hundreds of alleged rioters; Trump left office without further bloodshed and under a second cloud of impeachment; President Joe Biden took office as planned on January 20. But it’s increasingly clear that Trump and his allies haven’t been chastened by their actions during the last election. If anything, they’re trying to learn from their mistakes so they can succeed on their second attempt.
In the committee report, Meadows is portrayed as a nerve center of sorts for the Trump White House’s efforts to overturn the election results. In one exchange, according to the report, he urged Republican state lawmakers to gather pro-Trump slates of electors, giving Republicans in Congress an alternative to support during the Electoral College count on January 6. In another episode, he urged the Justice Department to baselessly claim there was systemic voter fraud, giving state lawmakers a pretext to try to overturn their results. And this is just from the materials he willingly provided to Congress.
A White House meeting on December 18 captures just how close Trumpworld came to even more extreme steps. “During the meeting, the participants reportedly discussed purported foreign interference in the election, seizing voting machines, invoking certain Federal laws like the National Emergencies Act, and appointing one of the attendees as a special counsel with a Top Secret security clearance to investigate fraud in the election,” the report said. “White House officials, including Mr. Meadows, may have resisted some of the proposals, but, at one point, Mr. Trump reportedly said: ‘You [White House] guys are offering me nothing. These guys are at least offering me a chance. They’re saying they have the evidence. Why not try this?’”
A major obstacle that Trump faced was that American elections are highly decentralized, with the federal government taking a backseat role to 50 states and thousands of county and local boards and committees that supervise the nation’s voting systems. Even many Republican officials in states like Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin refused to take concrete steps to block or overturn the electoral count as Trump demanded. Along with former Vice President Mike Pence’s refusal to support a unilateral effort to throw out the results on January 6, their moves—or, in some cases, refusals to move in ways that Trump wanted—prevented a breakdown of the legal and constitutional machinery that governs presidential elections.
But the 2024 election may turn out much, much differently. The New York Times reported recently that pro-Trump loyalists who believe the election was stolen have been running for the thousands of local offices that keep the democratic machinery running, sometimes without facing challengers or serious opposition. A November survey by NPR found that only 36 percent of Republicans think that elections are fairly administered and that 38 percent of them won’t believe the 2024 election results if their preferred candidate loses. As a result, some of them appear to be taking that belief to its logical conclusion and taking over their local election boards.
Trump himself is also working to tilt election administration in key states in his favor. In Georgia, where Republican Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger spurned Trump’s calls to block certification or “find votes” in 2020, the former president is backing primary challengers who supported his false voter-fraud claims last year. Axios reported last week that Trump is also trying to remake Michigan’s GOP legislative majority in his image while backing sympathetic candidates for secretary of state offices in key battleground states. If his preferred candidates prevail, it will significantly raise the likelihood that Trump and his allies will overturn or compromise the results next time.
There are more subtle perils that are no less insidious. Conservative politicians and pundits have slowly shifted from denouncing the January 6 rioters to describing them in more sympathetic terms. Some of them are sending unmistakable signals that political violence may be justified in the near future to their supporters and listeners. And I noted last week that proposals to install Trump as House speaker if Republicans retake the chamber in next year’s midterms could have catastrophic implications for how the 2024 presidential election is conducted.
When I spoke with leading voting rights activists and Democratic election officials across the country for our December issue, they were unanimous in calling for Congress to pass new voting rights legislation to strengthen the system before 2022 and 2024. A growing chorus of election experts and legal scholars have also urged Congress to update the Electoral Count Act of 1887, or ECA. That nineteenth-century law, passed in the aftermath of the disputed presidential election of 1876, sets out the procedures for lawmakers to challenge and overturn a state’s slate of presidential electors. Pence’s refusal to bypass those procedures avoided an even deeper crisis on January 6, even as it enraged Trump and his supporters.
Congress, however, has not responded with the urgency that the moment deserves. ECA reform is not on the congressional agenda in any meaningful form. And even broadly popular voting rights litigation remains in limbo in the Senate, thanks to the filibuster—and the refusal of Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to carve out an exception from it. President Joe Biden framed his campaign last year as a defense of American democracy itself. But the White House has largely passed the buck on overcoming voter suppression and extreme gerrymandering to the voters themselves. Biden’s speech on voting rights this summer in Philadelphia described it as the “test of our time” but didn’t call for filibuster reform or pressure lawmakers in substantive ways to take further action.
Democrats, like many political parties, have a habit of campaigning in poetry and governing in prose. Voting rights and election reforms are not the only policy areas in which Biden and congressional leaders have fallen short of their initial promises, after all. But from either denial, paralysis, or perceived powerlessness, Democratic leaders are taking almost no steps to defuse a constitutional and democratic crisis that is brewing in plain sight. It’s the gamble of a lifetime: If the republic and American self-government don’t survive the 2024 elections, then Democrats and their inaction will share at least part of the blame.
* This article concerns a breaking news story and has been updated.