A series tracking the growing assault on voting rights, and efforts to undermine the democratic process in America.
Is anyone with real power taking this thing seriously?
That’s the biggest question on the minds of pro-democracy, pro-voting people during this week’s anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. They’re right to ask: While hundreds of Trumpist rioters are facing charges, the planners, financiers, and strategists of the insurrection are not. The broader plot to overturn election results so that Donald Trump could keep his grip on power has so far gone legally unanswered.
Legislation to protect basic voting rights is withering in the Senate. Ever-growing numbers of Americans, specifically Republicans, believe the “stolen election” lie that animates it all.
Until this week, President Biden had made speeches about defending democracy and voting, but to supporters they felt more like lip service than a call to the barricades. Then, on Thursday, standing in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, the same hall traversed by rioters one year ago, he was merciless against election lies, autocracy, and Trump’s assault on free and open voting.
“That promise is at risk, targeted by the forces that value brute strength over the sanctity of democracy, fear over hope, personal gain over public good. Make no mistake about it: We’re living at an inflection point in history,” Biden said.
“I did not seek this fight brought to this Capitol one year ago today,” he went on. “But I will not shrink from it either. I will stand in this breach. I will defend this nation. And I will allow no one to place a dagger at the throat of our democracy.”
Soaring stuff! But will it matter?
In a speech earlier this week, Attorney General Merrick Garland promised the DOJ’s criminal investigations wouldn’t stop with the rioters who stormed the Capitol. But he has given no indication he’s willing to prosecute important potential crimes beyond Jan 6.
Garland read from a teleprompter just steps from the Spirit of Justice statue that aides to former AG John Ashcroft once covered with $8,000 worth of blue drapes lest her one bare breast peek into his camera shots. Garland pledged to pursue Jan. 6–related crime “at any level,” from organization to financing. That’s comforting, given what we already know about coup plotters who hoped to use delays in the electoral vote count on Jan. 6 to buy time for the broader coup plot.
Garland is constrained in what he can say about potential criminal investigations or who might be their targets, so broad strokes are about all we’re going to get. But it was the areas where he was silent that stood out. What about Trump’s plot to subvert Garland’s very DOJ and weaponize it for his coup? What about the Jan. 2 phone call where Trump is heard—on tape—intimidating Georgia’s secretary of state into “finding” enough votes to overturn the election? On both counts, nothing.
Is Garland committed to defending the justice system and voting from Trumpist attacks with no direct fact trail to Jan. 6?
In the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer used the anniversary to once and for all confront the GOP blockade of voting rights. He’s promising votes on two voting rights bills next week and, when they’re blocked by Republicans, to force a vote on changing the Senate’s rules to circumvent the filibuster. “By any means we can,” Schumer said from the Senate floor.
But all the passion for democracy this week may not even be enough to convince all Democrats it’s time for emergency measures.
It only took a day or two for conservative Dem Sen. Joe Manchin to pierce the fantasy that he and fellow filibuster defender Sen. Kyrsten Sinema will carve out an exception for voting rights. Some lesser rule tweaks may happen next week. But whether they result in actually passing basic but important voting protections Manchin and Sinema both say they support is uncertain.
By the time Biden spoke, there was already a sense that the leverage Democrats and democracy-defending Republicans have is slippery at best. What exactly is Biden willing to do now that he’s standing in the breach? So far he has not tried to galvanize the public with the idea that the representative government they largely take for granted, while imperfect, is under direct threat from authoritarianism. He appears about to try.
The White House has scheduled a presidential speech on voting rights for next week. But there won’t be any anniversary to make it feel special.
The VICE News Tonight team of Liz Landers, Alexis Johnson, and yours truly joined Krishna Andovolu to get a handle on the state of our democracy on this worst of anniversaries. Check it out:
Make sure your friends sign up for Breaking the Vote. We give the love all year round, not just once a year.
You’re coup-dially invited
Nothing says “anniversary” like a warm invitation to stop by and reminisce about what was. Maybe that’s why the January 6 House committee eased off on the subpoenas this week in favor of a more “We should totally hang out, if you’re free” vibe.
Fox News host and close Trump adviser Sean Hannity got a non-compulsory invitation to appear. To punctuate the gesture, the committee publicized even more of Hannity’s texts to Whte House chief of staff Mark Meadows. And they all show Hannity apoplectic over Trump’s behavior before and after Jan. 6, all while downplaying the events—and who was responsible—to his audience.
- On Insurrection Eve, Jan. 5, Hannity told Meadows he was “very worried” about the next 48 hours. (The committee would love to know why he was worried.)
- On the same day, Hannity warned Meadows that Trump’s campaign to pressure Veep Mike Pence to reject swing-state electors would cause the White House counsel to resign in protest.
- On Jan. 10, Hannity texted Rep. Jim Jordan, suggesting that Trump was in a very bad headspace and warning that Trump “can’t mention the election again. Ever.”
The committee’s soft touch on Hannity appears to be a concession to his status as a… (scare quotes) journalist… In reality, Hannity is a GOP adviser and political operative whose checks are issued by a cable channel’s holding company. In any event, he’s unlikely to share the truth with the committee, so expect to see more of his texts to coup plotters.
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy also got an invite. McCarthy could know a lot about what literally dozens of his rank-and-file colleagues said and did before Jan. 6. He’s also one of the people known to have spoken directly to Trump as the rioters stormed the Capitol. What exactly did Trump say when McCarthy begged him to rein in the mob?
TupPence for your thoughts
No FOMO for former Veep Mike Pence, the A-list invite of the week. Pence probably wasn’t super tuned in to the outside coup plot, but he’s got Meadows-level visibility into Trump’s demands, actions, and state of mind around Jan. 6. You’ve already heard how far Trump and lawyers like John Eastman went to coerce Pence into rejecting electors. Pence refused and likely averted a coup in the process, and Trump whipped MAGA into a frenzied mob out for his head. Will Pence talk? Unclear, but remember that two of his top aides are cooperating with the committee. That tells you where PenceWorld is at.
Gork and the pillow man
Sadly, a “no presh” invite wasn’t available for this week’s side players, Seb Gorka and Mike Lindell. The Hungarian Nazi-collaborator medal wearer and the millionaire conspiracy theorist both got subpoenas for their phone records before and after Jan. 6. Both are suing Verizon to try to block the requests, joining the likes of Mark Meadows, Michael Flynn, Ali Alexander, and John Eastman, who’ve all sued to thwart the panel. (Lindell is a minor character in the Jan. 6 part of the coup plot but a major one in the broader world of Republican disinformation and election lies.) Check out the time last summer when VICE News Tonight hung out at his cyber symposium.
The Proud Boys’ second act
One of the biggest takeaways from Jan. 6 is that the GOP’s lurch toward propaganda-fueled authoritarianism isn’t just a Washington, D.C., phenomenon, and it isn’t only about elections. While we’re (rightly) obsessed with Viking-hatted QAnon nuts spreading bullshit with Omicron-like efficiency, more intentional and violent actors are weaving their way into civil society far away from the Capitol.
About 50 Proud Boys have been charged so far in connection with the Jan. 6 riot, many with heavy stuff like conspiracy. But VICE News’ Tess Owen has this eye-opening (and terrifying) look at how the neo-fascist street brawlers retreated from high-profile violence post-Jan. 6 in favor of hyperlocal community engagement.
Instead of rioting, conspiracy, and breaking antifa skulls, Proud Boys can now be found marching in Fourth of July parades, staging Easter egg hunts, and glowering at lots and lots of highly charged school board meetings in towns across America.
In the meantime, they’re associating themselves with conservative activists not tarnished by Jan. 6, while gaining trust with everyday Americans either unfamiliar with–or willing to dismiss–their violent fascism.
“They’re out to make the case for the Proud Boys, show that they’re not bad people, that they’re here to help the community,” one researcher told VICE News’ Owen. “It’s pretty much them trying to sell themselves to the American people.”
Also, it’s working.
“All I know about that day is that he was in the dining room, gleefully watching on his TV, as he often did, ‘Look at all of the people fighting for me,’ hitting rewind, watching it again. That’s what I know.” – Former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, on President Donald Trump’s activities during the Jan. 6 riot.
‘I Turned Him In’ — When Jackson Reffitt’s dad returned to Texas from rioting at the Capitol on Jan. 6, he told his kids they’d “get shot” if they revealed what he had done. What Guy Reffitt didn’t know was that Jackson had already turned him in.
Guy Reffitt drove to D.C. with an AR-15, a pistol, and body armor. He was caught on tape, and now he’s about to stand trial for a bunch of felonies, including threatening his own children. Don’t miss this incredible account of bravery, violence, and a family torn apart, from VICE News’ David Gilbert.
All (Destruction of) Politics Is Local — We’re pretty much obsessed with state and local election officials here at Breaking the Vote. Just last night, VICE News Tonight’s Alexis Johnson and Madeleine May brought this piece looking at how violent threats and harassment are affecting local election officials. Of course, the big question one year after Jan. 6 is, have the perpetrators been held accountable? The unsurprising yet still infuriating answer, is… not really.
If people like Richard Barron are unfit, who would Trumpists have administering our elections? NPR has this handy list of 15 candidates who’ve parlayed doubt or outright denial into 2022 campaigns for secretary of state. The list is actually incomplete: Jody Hice and Mark Finchem have done way more to attack elections than what’s listed. But hey, columns are stingy.
Also watch out for VICE News Tonight’s upcoming look at how QAnon conspiracies are catapulting some of these candidates to positions where they could actually have the power to help deliver the 2024 election to Trump, whether he wins or not.
Georgia Is (Always) at It Again — A few weeks ago I told you about six Georgia counties where Republicans in the state Legislature had moved to abolish local election boards and give their power to GOP-controlled county commissions. Now voters in one of those rural counties could soon have just one polling place to cast their ballots, and voting rights advocates are livid.
Republicans in Lincoln County are about to vote on a plan to close five voting precincts and collapse them all into one. That would leave rural residents to travel up to 15 miles to vote in a county with no public transportation, taxis, or Ubers.
Trump easily won Lincoln County, north of Augusta, in 2020. About 28% of the county’s 8,000 residents are Black.
Lying Over the PA — Pennsylvania’s 2020 election was counted and recounted, and judges at every level, including the Supreme Court, rejected TrumpWorld efforts to overturn it. PA Republican Sen. Pat Toomey stridently defended the accuracy and fairness of his state’s election, which Joe Biden won by 80,000 votes. Now he’s unfit for the contemporary GOP, so he’s retiring.
So, how many of the Republican candidates to replace Toomey say they would have voted to certify Biden’s 2020 win? If you guessed “zero,” you win Golden Almond from my home town of Hershey, Pennsylvania!
Chalk it up as another example of how fostering Trump’s stolen-election lie is the GOP ticket to entry in 2022. Imagine the consequences for 2024.
Read This One — If you’re going to read just one “I was there” account of Jan. 6, I recommend this one, from my longtime colleague Matt Fuller of The Daily Beast. Matt’s a thoughtful analyst and a critically-thinking journalist, and he’s been on Capitol Hill for enough years to take the long view of the riot and the elected officials who liked it.
The Washington Post
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution