No time for complacency—January 6 was a dress rehearsal

The Trump conspirators haven't given up on overthrowing the US government—and they may yet succeed.

Location, location, location. For good or evil, history often is made in the confines of a hotel room or suite: whether the first meeting of the post-revolution Soviet government at Moscow’s Hotel National in 1918, or the drafting in 1922 of Ireland’s constitution at the lovely Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin.

So to anyone who has even a little knowledge of Washington, DC, history, it should come as no surprise that the grand Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, just a couple of blocks from the White House, was a hotbed of conspiracy in the post-election days leading up to the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

According to The Washington Post, “The Jan. 6 rally on the Ellipse and the ensuing attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob would draw the world’s attention to the quest to physically block Congress from affirming Joe Biden’s victory. But the activities at the Willard that week add to an emerging picture of a less visible effort, mapped out in memos by a conservative pro-Trump legal scholar and pursued by a team of presidential advisers and lawyers seeking to pull off what they claim was a legal strategy to reinstate Trump for a second term.”

The so-called “legal scholar” was John Eastman, author of batty and illogical memos and plots that a former federal appellate judge labeled as “wrong at every turn.” They were meant to convince Vice President Mike Pence—in his role as president of the US Senate—to reject the result of the Electoral College vote that made Joe Biden president. Donald Trump was dancing in delight at this prospect, egged on by advisers Rudy Giuliani, Steve Bannon, former White House special assistant Boris Epshteyn and ex-New York City Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik, who did prison time for tax fraud, criminal lies and ethics violations. He was, of course, pardoned by Trump early last year.

From their “command center” or so-called “war room” at the Willard, their dangerous shenanigans included “finding and publicizing alleged evidence of fraud, urging members of state legislatures to challenge Biden’s victory and calling on the Trump-supporting public to press Republican officials in key states.” All of this was backed by nothing other than bluster and lies. Yet how powerful those lies remain.

The Willard has long been a nexus of power and influence in Washington and as demonstrated by the presence of Trump’s hooligans, not all of it on the up-and-up. In the 19th century, British journalist William Howard Russell wrote, “The great pile of the Willard’s hotel probably maintains inside more scheming, plotting heads, more aching and joyful hearts than any other building of the same size in the world.” Treaties were negotiated there, and deals dirty and dingy continue to go down, as lobbyists wheedle, and politicians’ palms are greased and pockets lined in the luxury of the joint’s social rooms and corridors.

Abraham Lincoln and his family stayed there the week before his inauguration. And it was at The Willard on the day of Lincoln’s assassination that his killer John Wilkes Booth stood across a dining room glaring at General Ulysses S. Grant’s wife Julia as she enjoyed her lunch. Lucky for them, the Grants declined Lincoln’s offer to accompany him to Ford’s Theater that night.

Unlike the wacky theories that continue to feed Trump’s election fantasies (and pocketbook), the death of Lincoln really was a conspiracy, with Booth bringing into his plot others who were assigned to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. They failed, although for Seward it was a close call. And while Trump’s cries of myriad conspiracies against him are false, he is—as usual—projecting. The real conspiracy being perpetrated is the plotting by him and his misguided authoritarian coterie as they continue trying to undo the 2020 elections, plan ahead to future votes and connive to restore Trump to his presidential potty seat.

Whether the boys in their Willard Hotel suite also will be found to have been involved in planning the violence that took place January 6 isn’t yet known for sure but the news on Thursday that the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the US Capitol already has interviewed more than 150 witnesses and continues to issue subpoenas is heartening. “It is a range of engagements—some formal interviews, some depositions,” ranking committee member Liz Cheney said. “… There really is a huge amount of work underway that is leading to real progress for us.”

On Monday, the committee subpoenaed Eastman and Kerik as well as Michael Flynn, Trump campaign mouthpiece Jason Miller, campaign manager William Stepien and campaign executive assistant Angela McCallum. And on Tuesday, another ten were added to the subpoena roundup, including Trump adviser Stephen Miller and former press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.

Is there a connection between the ugly violence of January 6 and the men at the Willard plotting a coup d’état? Certainly by implication, but we’re still waiting for direct proof and live in hope that the House committee and the Department of Justice can find it. Meanwhile, Rolling Stone’s Hunter Walker recently reported that three of the rally planners have “detailed explosive allegations that multiple members of Congress were intimately involved in planning both Trump’s efforts to overturn his election loss and the Jan. 6 events that turned violent.

“… While there have been prior indications that members of Congress were involved, this is also the first account detailing their purported role and its scope. The two sources also claim they interacted with members of Trump’s team, including former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, whom they describe as having had an opportunity to prevent the violence.”

In addition to Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia, “the members who participated in these conversations or had top staffers join in included Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas).

“… Gosar, who has been one of the most prominent defenders of the Jan. 6 rioters, allegedly took things a step further. Both sources say he dangled the possibility of a “blanket pardon” in an unrelated ongoing investigation to encourage them to plan the protests.

“’Our impression was that it was a done deal,’ [one] organizer says, ‘that he’d spoken to the president about it in the Oval… in a meeting about pardons and that our names came up. They were working on submitting the paperwork and getting members of the House Freedom Caucus to sign on as a show of support.’”

Yet another good reason to throw Gosar out of the House, who on Sunday night retweeted a post depicting him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and brandishing swords at President Biden.

Meanwhile, last week, The Post published its massive, comprehensive account of the events leading up to, during and after the January 6 rebellion. Even though, “Intelligence officials certainly never envisioned a mass attack against the government incited by the sitting president… Trump was the driving force at every turn as he orchestrated what would become an attempted political coup in the months leading up to Jan. 6, calling his supporters to Washington, encouraging the mob to march on the Capitol and freezing in place key federal agencies whose job it was to investigate and stop threats to national security…

“His words triggered rapid action by angry supporters who made plans to go to the nation’s capital, fusing together in a dangerous call-and-response.”

Time is of the essence for the House investigators, the DoJ and American freedom: if Republicans retake control of the House next November, all the committee’s hard work may be lost. What’s more, draconian state election law revisions and the placement of Trump advocates in elected or appointed positions where they could overturn state election results, mean the 2024 presidential election could see the second Trump presidency and an accompanying abandonment of hope, decency, truth, and a free and open society.

As the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center set in motion the events of 9/11 more than eight years later, what has happened these past months before, during and after January 6 must be taken as a serious prologue to catastrophe. This is no time for complacency. If we drop our guard, next time they may not miss. To quote the former guy, “will be wild.” And a death blow to democracy.

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and currently president of the Writers Guild of America East.

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