In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday, John Bolton, who served as national security adviser under former President Donald Trump, made an interesting argument: Trump and those around him simply weren’t sophisticated enough for the January 6 riot at the US Capitol to be rightly read as a coup attempt.
Here’s the exchange:
Tapper: “One doesn’t have to be brilliant to attempt a coup.”
Bolton: “I disagree with that. As somebody who has helped plan coups d’etat – not here, but, you know, other places – it takes a lot of work. And that’s not what he did. It was just stumbling around from one idea to another. “
Like I said, interesting, right?
But also, to my mind, wrong. And proven wrong by several things that we know Trump contemplated doing during the period between when he lost the 2020 presidential election and when Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president on January 20, 2021.
1) Trump had executive orders drafted that would have the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security confiscate voting machines in swing states. As CNN wrote earlier this year:
“While advisers publicly floated the idea at the time, revelations that two draft executive orders were actually drawn up for different agencies to carry out the job underscores the extent to which the former President’s allies wanted to weaponize the powers of his lame-duck administration to overturn the election.
“Any operation for the military or federal agents to seize voting equipment for political purposes would have been unprecedented in US history.”
2) Trump openly contemplated naming environmental lawyer Jeffrey Clark as the attorney general in the days before January 6. He did so because Clark, unlike acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, was willing to send a letter to swing states suggesting that there had been widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. (There had not been.)
3) Trump flirted with naming lawyer Sidney Powell as special counsel to further advance her attempts to overturn the election. “I’m making Sidney a special counsel to the president,” Trump told his chief of staff Mark Meadows in mid-December 2020. “Mark, you get her the forms. … Give her the forms to onboard her.” (Powell was never formally named special counsel.)
4) Trump called the Georgia secretary of state and, in a lengthy conversation, urged him to “find 11,780 votes.”
5) Trump repeatedly pressured then-Vice President Mike Pence – including the night before the Electoral College count on January 6 – to overturn the results of the election, even though there is no constitutional authority for the vice president to do such a thing.
All of these actions suggest that Trump was, in Bolton’s verbiage, putting in the work to overturn a free and fair election. He was leaning on state and federal officials and at least contemplated using the official levers of government to further his fever dreams about the 2020 election.
The other point that I think Bolton’s analysis misses is this: Trump wasn’t some low-level apparatchik trying to foment rebellion. He was the sitting president of the United States. Which gave him a greater ability – as demonstrated by the pressure he exerted on the Justice Department as well as state and local officials – to try to get what he wanted.
The simple fact revealed once you examine the actions of Trump and his allies in the interregnum between the 2020 election and the 2021 inauguration is this: We came perilously close to witnessing the overturning of the 2020 election results. And that was because of what Trump did – and failed to do.