Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Jan. 6 panel holds up public officials as ‘backbone of democracy’

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In congressional hearings this week, the Jan. 6 committee highlighted public officials from local election workers to the government’s top lawyers as integral to preserving the American republic.

One by one, these witnesses explained why they had resisted then-President Donald Trump’s entreaties to declare the 2020 election fraudulent – and the blowback they and their families have faced as a result. Nearly all of them had voted for Mr. Trump and/or worked in his administration, from Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers to Jeffrey Rosen, a Trump appointee who served as acting attorney general in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6. 

Why We Wrote This
Relying mainly on Republican witnesses, some with heart-wrenching personal stories, the Jan. 6 committee explored the role that election officials play in safeguarding democracy – with a resonance beyond 2020.

Citizens who believe the election was stolen have called them traitors and tyrants. And even some who admire their sense of principle wonder what parts of the story may be missing from these hearings. 

Yet the courage and fortitude highlighted by the committee resonated with other Americans not only regarding 2020, but also heading into this fall’s midterms.

“What the American people saw on Tuesday is a snapshot of what’s happening to election officials in counties and states everywhere across the country,” says Dokhi Fassihian, an advocate for election integrity at the group Issue One.

Washington

In congressional hearings this week, the Jan. 6 committee portrayed public officials as integral to preserving the American republic.

One by one, the committee brought them forward to explain why they had resisted then-President Donald Trump’s entreaties to declare the 2020 election fraudulent – and the blowback they have faced as a result. Nearly all of them were Republicans who had voted for Mr. Trump and/or worked in his administration.

There was Arizona GOP Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers, who refused to bend out of fidelity to the Constitution even as protesters surrounded his home with megaphones, disturbing his gravely ill daughter. 

Why We Wrote This
Relying mainly on Republican witnesses, some with heart-wrenching personal stories, the Jan. 6 committee explored the role that election officials play in safeguarding democracy – with a resonance beyond 2020.

There was Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who was doxxed and his life threatened, yet refused to stand down.

And there was Richard Donoghue, the Justice Department’s No. 2, who was called unexpectedly into the Oval Office days before Jan. 6. He sat before the president in an Army T-shirt, jeans, and muddy boots and told Mr. Trump in no uncertain terms how much he had to lose if he replaced the department’s current leadership with someone prepared to declare the election fraudulent despite their investigations not having found such evidence. The president abandoned the idea. 

Amid deep partisan divisions over Jan. 6 and this congressional investigation, the Democrat-led committee expressed gratitude for these officials’ integrity, courage, and fortitude. 

“They represent the backbone of democracy,” said Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat. “They have earned the thanks of a grateful nation.” 

To be sure, not everyone in America shares that sentiment. Citizens who believe the election was stolen have called them traitors and tyrants. And even some who admire their sense of principle wonder what parts of the story may be missing from these hearings, a tightly focused series with one clear thesis and no dissenting voices or cross-examination.

Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, and Georgia Secretary of State Chief Operating Officer Gabriel Sterling depart after testifying during the fourth of eight planned public hearings of the U.S. House Select Committee to investigate the January 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol, on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 21, 2022.

Former President Trump, for his part, has sought to delegitimize the panel. “If they had any real evidence, they’d hold real hearings with equal representation,” he said in a 12-page statement earlier this month.

Still, even as Republicans dismiss these hearings as a pointless partisan exercise, Mr. Trump recently criticized GOP leadership for withdrawing from the committee last summer after Speaker Nancy Pelosi vetoed two Republican appointees. (She also appointed two other Republicans, Vice Chair Liz Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, both of whom voted to impeach the former president for “incitement to insurrection.”)

Some interpreted Mr. Trump’s criticism as a signal that the committee’s narrative, told mainly through the testimony of Republican officials, is getting through to the American public more than the GOP had anticipated.

“Secret suitcases” and a ginger mintThis week’s first hearing, on June 21, focused on Mr. Trump’s efforts to get state officials to corroborate his claims of election fraud. 

The most well-known witness was Secretary Raffensperger, whose Jan. 2 phone call resisting Mr. Trump’s request to “find” enough votes to overturn the election was recorded and released two days later. His chief operating officer, Gabriel Sterling, testified to how his team reviewed 48 hours of surveillance video that determined that the alleged “secret suitcases” in a Georgia polling center were legitimate ballot carriers packed in full view of election monitors. And Wandrea ArShaye Moss, an election worker in Fulton County, Georgia, described how she loved helping older voters, since some in her African American family had not always had the right to vote. 

She would help them navigate the county’s election website, get a precinct card, or even drive an absentee ballot out to them. Then Rudy Giuliani accused her and her mother, Ruby Freeman, of tampering with election results, based on a video from the polling center Mr. Sterling had investigated. 

“That was a week ago, and they’re still walking around Georgia, lying,” said Mr. Giuliani, who called for their homes to be searched. What he claimed was a USB drive they had passed between each other was in fact a ginger mint, Ms. Moss testified.

She described getting death threats to her Facebook private messages, with people saying things like, ”Be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920.”

Ms. Moss, who has since quit her job after more than a decade in it, is still afraid to go out. Her mom, Ms. Freeman, whose earlier testimony to the committee was played during the hearing, is afraid of having her name called in public – even by friends in the grocery store. She asked listeners to consider what it’s like to be targeted by the president, who is supposed to represent all Americans. 

Election officials and poll workers are facing increased strain and threats – not only around 2020, which presented new challenges amid a pandemic and an incumbent president’s claims of fraud – but also heading into this fall’s midterms. 

“What the American people saw on Tuesday is a snapshot of what’s happening to election officials in counties and states everywhere across the country,” says Dokhi Fassihian, deputy chief of strategy and programs at Issue One, which this week brought a bipartisan group of election officials and poll workers to lobby Congress and the White House for more funding for everything from physical protection to communications staff who can counter disinformation. Their main message: “We just need people to have our backs.”

Joshua A. Bickel/The Columbus Dispatch/AP/File

Supporters of President Donald Trump demonstrate during a rally on Jan. 6, 2021, at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. This week’s testimony about then-President Trump’s pressure campaign against election officials, and threats from his followers, had a rapt audience among secretaries of state and election clerks across the country who said the stories could very well have been their own.

“It is painful to have friends … turn on me with such rancor”Tuesday’s hearing also portrayed Mr. Trump and his team as pressuring GOP legislators in swing states.

Speaker Bowers of Arizona, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told the committee that he would not contravene the Constitution because it was a tenet of his faith that it is divinely inspired. So he resisted calls to get the Arizona legislature to appoint new electors who would declare Mr. Trump the winner instead of Joe Biden. 

When he heard that his colleagues had circumvented him and assembled an alternate group of electors in Phoenix on Dec. 14, he described it as “a tragic parody.” His secretary received more than 20,000 emails and tens of thousands of voicemails and texts, making it difficult to work, he testified. And on the weekends, protesters would drive through his neighborhood with blaring loudspeakers, calling him a pedophile. The commotion was particularly disturbing to his adult daughter, who was gravely ill. 

“It is painful to have friends who have been such a help to me, turn on me with such rancor,” he wrote in a journal entry from that time, which he read during the hearing. But he resolved not to respond with fear or vengeance.

“I do not want to be a winner by cheating,” he wrote. “How else will I ever approach Him in the wilderness of life, knowing that I ask this guidance only to show myself a coward in defending the course he led me to take?”

After his testimony Tuesday, well-wishers – including some Democrats – flocked to his Facebook page to praise him as a “constitutional hero” and offer condolences for the death of his daughter, Kacey Rae Bowers, shortly after Jan. 6. 

“Sir, thank you for your testimony today. Deepest respect,” wrote one. “I’m sorry for what you and your family have endured. You are a shining example of what we should all aspire to be.”

“You give me hope that there are truly good republicans out there. And I was losing hope,” wrote another. “I also hope that your truth spurs more truth from more republicans.”

Holding a line at the Justice DepartmentThis week’s second hearing, on June 23, focused on Mr. Trump’s efforts to persuade the Justice Department’s top lawyers to tell the American people that there had been enough fraud to potentially overturn the election. 

It focused mainly on a contentious meeting the evening of Jan. 3, 2021, about whether to replace Mr. Rosen, the acting attorney general, with Jeffrey Clark, a Trump ally.

In the preceding days, Mr. Clark had drafted a letter that said the department had “identified significant concerns” that could change the election results. When Mr. Rosen, the acting attorney general, refused to sign the letter because none of the department’s investigations had found fraud on such a scale, Mr. Trump moved to replace him with Mr. Clark.

Mr. Rosen testified that in his mind the issue was not his personal role. The inauguration was in 17 days, so if his job ended a little earlier, it just meant a couple weeks of vacation. But what he was more concerned about, he said, was ensuring that the Justice Department stuck to the facts and the law and didn’t enter the political fray.

“When you damage our institutions, it’s not easy to repair them,” said Mr. Rosen, who told the president – as did Mr. Donoghue and assistant attorney general Steven Engel – that he would resign if the president appointed Mr. Clark.

Mr. Engel testified that he pointed out to the president that if he appointed Mr. Clark, the story would not be that the Justice Department had found election fraud but that the president had gone through three attorney generals in less than a month.  

By the end of the meeting, Mr. Trump decided to abandon his plan, and the letter Mr. Clark had drafted was never sent. 

The Jan. 6 committee credited the “bravery” of these lawyers, and said their willingness to put their jobs on the line narrowly prevented Mr. Trump from overturning the election results.

“If we are going to ask Americans to be willing to die in service to our country, we as leaders must at least be willing to sacrifice our political careers when integrity and our oath requires it,” said GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, an Iraq veteran and member of the committee who led Thursday’s hearing. “After all, losing a job is nothing compared to losing your life.”

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