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Fri Jun 17, 2022, 07:07 PM

Friday Talking Points -- 50 Years From Watergate

We do realize that last week we semi-committed to publishing regular Friday Talking Points columns if there weren't any previous primetime Thursday-night hearings to cover from the House Select Committee on January 6th. However, there was one thing that came out of yesterday's hearing that is not getting nearly enough media or public attention, and we feel obligated to try to change this -- mostly because it is so important.

So we are not in fact going to provide a regular Friday Talking Points column. We will first spend a few paragraphs dealing with a few other bits of political news, and then the rest of this column will consist of an extended excerpt from a letter which was entered into the record during the committee hearing yesterday, a letter which deserves everyone's attention. Every American should read this letter in full, but since it is 12 pages long we will only be offering up the most sobering parts of it.

Today, coincidentally, is the 50th anniversary of the break-in at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. The Washington Post has been building up to this anniversary all week, for the obvious reason that the newspaper's big claim to glory rests on the fact that it was instrumental in taking down President Richard Nixon, due to his illegal activities surrounding the 1972 presidential election. It's an important historical marker to note, obviously. And more than just a little bit ironic, considering where we as a nation are today.

But before we get to the constitutional crisis we are currently experiencing, we did have a few random comments from the events of the last week. Because how could we fail to mention that Sarah Palin placed first in her primary for the vacant Alaska seat in the House of Representatives? This is in no way a guarantee she'll win in November, though, since she fell far short of 50 percent of the vote -- now she'll have to run against the three other top primary finishers, and with Alaska's new ranked-choice voting process, she could wind up being a lot of voters' last choices -- and thus lose. Either way, it'll be an interesting race to watch in the general election.

Down in Georgia, Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker is starting to realize what the political term "opposition research" truly means, as his various personal and political shortcomings are exposed, one after another. That's a very polite way of saying his lies are now catching up to him. The most-recent of these was the revelation that although Walker has been denouncing absentee Black fathers, he is actually guilty of the same thing he has been denouncing, thrice over. First it was revealed he had fathered a 10-year-old boy out of wedlock -- and that the mother had to take him to court to get him to pay child support. Then two more extramarital children were discovered by the media, leading to the extraordinary headline: "Herschel Walker Says He Didn't Try To Hide His Other Three Children."

But the biggest news of the week came from the two hearings the House Select Committee televised. Originally there were three such hearings scheduled, but (for somewhat-mysterious reasons) Wednesday's was postponed at the last minute. This leads us to believe that next week will also see two more hearings, but the committee's webpage currently has none listed, so we'll have to wait and see what happens.

Tuesday's hearing examined Donald Trump's Big Lie in detail, and exposed how many times Trump was told by all the serious advisors he had (or "Team Normal," as opposed to the legal clown car headed by Rudy Giuliani) that there was no basis in fact for any claims of election fraud at all. Trump was, as one witness put it "detached from reality," which is both an extraordinary thing to say of a United States president and also no surprise whatsoever about this particular one.

This detailed examination of how Trump was repeatedly told his Big Lie was nothing short of a big lie had a legal purpose, because it demonstrated what is known as "willful ignorance" -- which is no excuse for criminal behavior. A bank robber can't get up on the stand in his trial and claim: "I didn't know robbing banks was against the law," in other words. It is no legal defense at all, period.

The other big reveal to come from Tuesday's hearing was the fact that Trump's Big Lie was also a "Big Ripoff" -- since he used it to fleece his supporters to the tune of a quarter-billion dollars, promising them that all their money would go to an "Election Defense Fund" to fight Trump's legal battles in court. No such fund ever actually existed, of course. Grifters gotta grift, right?

Yesterday, we got Episode 3 of the ongoing miniseries of House Select Committee hearings. This centered around then-Vice President Mike Pence, and his role in preserving our democracy and upholding the United States Constitution. Pence, of course, is not exactly a liberal hero or anything, but when democracy itself is at stake any port in a storm is a welcome one.

There were many big revelations from the testimony yesterday, but the some of the biggest ones concerned a conservative lawyer named John Eastman -- who was instrumental in pushing a laughably bogus legal theory that Pence somehow had the power to overturn the will of the voters and just anoint Trump president for another term. Eastman himself even had to agree, when pressed by the vice president's legal counsel, that his "legal theories" would have lost nine to zero, if the Supreme Court ever heard them argued in a case. So even Eastman knew what he was proposing was both unconstitutional and illegal.

This guilt was confirmed both by a short mashup of Eastman's testimony before the committee, where he "took the Fifth Amendment" -- refused to answer a question on the grounds that his answer may tend to incriminate himself -- over 100 times. Further evidence of Eastman's knowledge of his own guilt and culpability was revealed in an email he sent asking the White House to include him on "the pardon list." Pardon list? The only possible reaction to this list's existence has to be (pun quite obviously intended): "Pardon me? What 'pardon list'?!?" Hopefully we'll be hearing more about this list in future hearings, since it so obviously shows how many were worried not just about their own guilty conscience but about their actual legal guilt. This was memorably captured by Pence's top counsel, who testified that he told Eastman, after January 6th: "Now I'm going to give you the best free legal advice you're ever getting in your life: get a great effing criminal defense lawyer; you're going to need it."

But the star of the hearings was retired Judge J. Michael Luttig, and the rest of this column is mostly what he had to say to the committee. First, here's what he told them during his in-person testimony, in his closing remarks (from a transcript of the hearing, all the way at the end):

I have written, as you said, Chairman [Bennie] Thompson, that today, almost two years after that fateful day in January 2021, that still Donald Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy. That's not because of what happened on January 6th. It's because, to this very day, the former president, his allies, and supporters pledge that, in the presidential election of 2024, if the former president or his anointed successor as the Republican Party presidential candidate were to lose that election, that they would attempt to overturn that 2024 election in the same way that they attempted to overturn the 2020 election, but succeed in 2024 where they failed in 2020. I don't speak those words lightly.

I would have never spoken those words ever in my life, except that that's what the former president and his allies are telling us. As I said in that New York Times op-ed, wherein I was speaking about the Electoral Count Act of 1887, the former president and his allies are executing that blueprint for 2024 in open, in plain view of the American public.

I repeat, I would have never uttered one single one of those words unless the former president and his allies were candidly and proudly speaking those exact words to America.

Judge Luttig is one of the most respected constitutional lawyers on the conservative side of the American political divide. He was the one Mike Pence reached out to, for a definitive answer as to what his constitutional duties were, when it came to the joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College's votes. That's how respected his legal opinion is, on the right.

For him to use the term "a clear and present danger to American democracy" is the constitutional and legal equivalent of a nuclear bomb. This is why he spent so much time stressing: "I don't speak those words lightly." And he was crystal-clear -- he said it not so much for what happened on January 6th, 2021, but for what is happening right now -- the ongoing attack on democracy itself led by Donald Trump and abetted by far too many Republican politicians.

We pointed this out in our own review of the hearing yesterday, but we strongly feel that more needs to be said on this existential issue. So we are eschewing our normal awards for Democrats this week and instead will move straight to the talking points part of the program, because Judge Luttig actually had a lot more to say on this subject; but because it was all contained in a letter he entered into the record (rather than live within the hearing itself), most people are unaware of just how serious Luttig considers America's present situation.

Volume 666 (6/17/22)

We suppose it is entirely fitting for today to not only be the 50th anniversary of Watergate, but also the 666th Friday Talking Points column to ever be published. Numerologists and Christian mystics, please take note (and then feel free to make your own "number of the beast" jokes, of course).

We are going to refrain from such humor, though, because the subject matter at hand is so serious. What follows is the beginning, the end, and the key passages in the middle of Judge Luttig's 12-page letter that was entered into the record of the House Select Committee yesterday. In fact, we strongly encourage everyone to read this letter in full, because what he has to say is both profound and alarming. This is a clarion cry for action -- and one that, quite sadly, will likely be ignored by the very people he is calling upon to act. This letter is the direst of warnings to America that her democracy is not just in peril, but in danger of disappearing. Which is why we are running it today, rather than some picayune partisan talking points.

Without further ado, here is what Judge Luttig had to say to the country at large. Please note that both emphasis and capitalization are from his original. And as we said, we strongly encourage everyone to take the time to read the full text of what Judge Luttig had to say, because it truly is that important.

Honorable Members of the House Select Committee --

A stake was driven through the heart of American democracy on January 6, 2021, and our democracy today is on a knife's edge.

America was at war on that fateful day, but not against a foreign power. She was at war against herself. We Americans were at war with each other -- over our democracy.

January 6 was but the next, foreseeable battle in a war that had been raging in America for years, though that day was the most consequential battle of that war even to date. In fact, January 6 was a separate war unto itself, a war for America's democracy, a war irresponsibly instigated and prosecuted by the former president, his political party allies, and his supporters. Both wars are raging to this day.

A peaceful end to these wars is desperately needed. The war for our democracy could lead to the peaceful end to the war for America's cultural heart and soul. But if a peaceful end to the war for America's democracy is not achievable, there is little chance for a peaceful end to that war. The settlement of this war over our democracy is necessary to the settlement of any war that will ever come to America, whether from her shores or to her shores. Though disinclined for the moment, as a political matter of fact only the party that instigated this war over our democracy can bring an end to that war.

. . .

The war on democracy instigated by the former president and his political party allies on January 6 was the natural and foreseeable culmination of the war for America. It was the final fateful day for the execution of a well-developed plan by the former president to overturn the 2020 presidential election at any cost, so that he could cling to power that the American People had decided to confer upon his successor, the next president of the United States instead. Knowing full well that he had lost the 2020 presidential election, the former president and his allies and supporters falsely claimed and proclaimed to the nation that he had won the election, and then he and they set about to overturn the election that he and they knew the former president had lost.

The treacherous plan was no less ambitious than to steal America's democracy.

. . .

False claims that our elections have been stolen from us corrupt our democracy, as they corrupt us. To continue to insist and persist in the false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen is itself an affront to our democracy and to the Constitution of the United States -- an affront without precedent.

Those who think that because America is a republic, theft and corruption of our national elections and electoral process are not theft and corruption of our democracy are sorely mistaken. America is both a republic and a representative democracy, and therefore a sustained attack on our national elections is a fortiori an attack on our democracy, any political theory otherwise notwithstanding.

Accordingly, if, and when, one of our national elections is actually stolen from us, our democracy will have been stolen from us. To steal an election in the United States of America is to steal her democracy.

. . .

Irrespective of the merits of the legal arguments that fueled the former president's efforts to overturn that election -- irrespective of them, though there were none -- those arguments, and therefore those efforts, by the former president were the product of the most reckless, insidious, and calamitous failures in both legal and political judgment in American history.

. . .

It is breathtaking that these arguments even were conceived, let alone entertained by the President of the United States at that perilous moment in history.

Had the Vice President of the United States obeyed the President of the United States, America would immediately have been plunged into what would have been tantamount to a revolution within a paralyzing constitutional crisis.

The former president's accountability under the law for the riot on the United States Capitol on January 6 is incidental to his responsibility and accountability for his attempt to steal the 2020 presidential election from the American People and thereby steal America's democracy from America herself. This said, willful ignorance of law and fact is neither excuse nor defense in law. Willful ignorance, thus, is neither political nor legal excuse or defense available to the former President of the United States, his allies, and his supporters.

. . .

The former president's party cynically and embarrassingly rationalizes January 6 as having been something between hallowed, legitimate public discourse and a visitors tour of the Capitol that got out of hand. January 6, of course, was neither, and the former president and his party know that. It was not legitimate public discourse by any definition. Nor was it a civics tour of the Capitol Building -- though that day proved to be an eye-opening civics lesson for all Americans.

January 6 was, rather, a defining, and a redefining, day in American history -- defining and redefining of America itself. On that day, America finally came face to face with the raging war that it had been waging against itself for years. So blood-chilling was that day for our democracy, that America could not believe her eyes and she turned them away in both fear and shame. Even so, many have already forgotten, and many more have chosen to forget. Some who rioted and occupied the Capitol that day had already decided how this war for our democracy must end, while others of their compatriots, upon sober reflection afterward, decided that no, no, this war must end now, before there is further bloodshed.

. . .

No American ought to turn away from January 6, 2021, until all of America comes to grips with what befell our country that day, and we decide what we want for our democracy from this day, forward.

The genius that is America's democracy is this. The Constitution vests all power in "We the People." We agreed in the Constitution to delegate our power to our representatives, only during their time in our service, and at that, exclusively for the purpose of representing our interests in the Nation's Capital, not theirs. Our democracy is the process through which our representatives, using the power that we have delegated to them, in turn and in trust, govern us. We choose in our national elections those who we want to represent us, including most importantly the President of the United States. It is for this simple reason that to steal an election for the presidency from us is to steal our democracy from us.

America's democracy was almost stolen from us on January 6.

Our democracy has never been tested like it was on that day and it will never be tested again as it was then if we learn the lessons of that fateful day. On the other hand, if we fail to learn the lessons that are there to be learned, or worse, deny even that there are lessons there to be learned, we will consign ourselves to another January 6 in the not-too-distant future, and another after that, and another after that. While for some, that is their wish, that cannot be our wish for America.

. . .

It is no wonder that America is at war over her democracy. Every day for years now we have borne witness to vicious partisan attacks on the bulwarks of that democracy -- our institutions of government and governance and the institutions and instrumentalities of our democracy -- by our own political leaders and fellow citizens. Every day for years now we have witnessed vicious partisan attacks on our Institutions of Law themselves, our Nation's Judiciary, and our Constitution and the Laws of the United States -- the guardians of that democracy and of our freedom. For years, we have been told by the very people we trust, and entrust, to preserve and to protect our American institutions of democracy and law that these institutions are no longer to be trusted, no longer to be believed in, no longer deserving of cherish and protection.

If that is true, then it is because those with whom we entrusted these institutions have themselves betrayed our sacred trust.

. . .

All of a sudden it seems that we are in violent disagreement over what has made America great in the past and over what will make her great in the future. In poetic tragedy, [a] political campaign slogan has become divisive political truth. And there is no reason to believe that agreement about America by we Americans is anywhere on the horizon, if for no other reason than that none of us is interested in agreement. In the moral catatonic stupor America finds itself in today, it is only disagreement that we seek, and the more virulent that disagreement, the better.

This is not who we Americans are or who we want to be. Nor is this America or what we want America to be.

Reeling from twin wars, leaderless, and rudderless, America is in need of help. Our polarized political leaders have shamefully and shamelessly failed us. They have summoned our worst demons at the very moment when we needed summoned our better angels.

. . .

Today's politicians believe that they never have to choose between partisan party politics and country, when in fact they are obliged by oath to choose between the two every day, and every day they defiantly refuse to choose. For today's politicians, never the twain shall meet between partisan ambition and country, and never the latter before the former, either. The politicians in today's America only sponsor partisan incitement and only traffic in the same, rather than sponsor bipartisan reason and lead in thoughtful deliberation. They have purposely led us down the road not in the direction toward the bridging of our differences, but in the direction away from the bridging of those differences. They have proven themselves incapable of leading us.

But still, all it would take to turn America around is a consensus among some number of these political leaders who possess the combined necessary moral authority and who would agree to be bound together by patriotic covenant, to stand up, step forward, and acknowledge to the American People that America is in peril.

In order to end these wars that are draining the lifeblood from our country, a critical mass of our two parties' political leaders is needed, to whom the remainder would be willing to listen, at least without immediate partisan recrimination. The logic for reconciliation of these wars being waged in America today dictates that this number needs to include a critical mass of leaders from the former president's political party and that those leaders need to go first. All of these leaders then need to summon first the moral courage and then the political courage, the strength, and the patriotic will to extend their hands, and ask of the others -- and of all Americans -- "Can we talk? America needs us."

While Memorial Day is still fresh in our minds, we would all do well to remind ourselves of the immortal words spoken to the West Point cadets at the United States Military Academy a half century ago: "Duty, Honor, Country." Those three sacred words of profound American obligation were spoken on that occasion to reassure those who had given their lives for their country in the past, and who would give them in the future, that their sacrifice would not be in vain. Those words are as apt today for this occasion as they were on that day for that occasion, if not more.

Then we need to get back to work, and quickly. We need to get back to the solemn business of preserving, protecting, and defending the Constitution of the United States and the United States of America.

The hour is late. God is watching us.

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com
Follow Chris on Twitter: ChrisWeigant
Full archives of FTP columns: FridayTalkingPoints.com

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