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The Jan. 6 committee plumbs the fragile ego that fueled the Capitol attack

Trump’s need to believe — and to convince others — that he had defeated Joe Biden seemed to drive the series of high crimes and misdemeanors he committed in the aftermath of the election. 

A video image of then attorney general William Barr is seen on a screen as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds public hearings to reveal the findings of a year-long investigation.
A video image of then attorney general William Barr is seen on a screen as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds public hearings to reveal the findings of a year-long investigation.
Mandel Ngan/Pool via REUTERS

I am not capable of feeling much if any sympathy for Donald J. Trump. But during Monday morning’s installment of the Congressional inquiry into Jan. 6, I did, a couple of times, find myself almost pitying him.

It seemed almost possible that the hole in that man’s soul is so large that it rendered him unable to accept that he had been overwhelmingly rejected by the U.S. electorate in 2020, and therefore in desperate need of falsehoods that would enable him to continue to believe that he had been reelected.

I wouldn’t want to take that notion too far. But whether he’s a knowing liar or a deluded self-deceiver, Trump’s refusal to accept Joe Biden’s victory over him has led to terrible, horrible and in some cases fatal consequences for some people. 

The consequences to Trump were ego damage. Perhaps to him, that’s worse than death.

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During yesterday’s testimony, Trump’s need to believe and convince others that he had won the 2020 election (which he lost by a substantial margin in both the popular and electoral votes) seemed to be driving the series of high crimes and misdemeanors he committed in the aftermath — all because he was not just unwilling but perhaps unable to acknowledge his defeat.

The star witness of the three-hour hearing, testifying on videotape, was former Attorney General William Barr. We knew before yesterday that Barr had jumped off the Trump train a while back.

Yesterday we learned in some detail that Barr (who, unlike many Trumpians, has no difficulty acknowledging that Joe Biden won the election), was pressured by Trump to help him overturn the result. After reviewing the available evidence and concluding that Trump’s belief that the election had been stolen was utter rubbish, Barr told Trump there was nothing to his claims of fraud. 

In taped testimony before the Jan. 6 committee staff, which was shown at the hearing, Barr said: “My opinion then and my opinion now is that the election was not stolen by fraud. And I haven’t seen anything since the election that changes my mind on that.”

Of course, that only makes Barr a member of what we sometimes call the reality-based community. Barr also noted that Trump’s claims that he was a victim of fraud dated back to Election Day itself, before the votes were counted.

Barr doesn’t claim to know whether Trump has convinced himself of the Big Lie, or is just brazening it out no matter what the evidence shows. But that “if [Trump] really believes this stuff, he has really lost contact with reality.” 

Barr further told the committee staff that he eventually resigned as attorney general in part because Trump kept pestering him to use the Justice Department to somehow overturn the election result.

Barr’s refusal to pursue Trump’s various theories for trying to overturn the election result led to his departure from the cabinet a few weeks before Trump’s term expired, replaced by a flunky more willing to do Trump’s bidding (but who was still unwilling to overturn the election result). 

Richard Donoghue, a former deputy attorney general under Trump, had a similar experience. Trump had a seemingly unending list of rumors to pass along about alleged voting improprieties, most of which were easily disproved. But when Donoghue explained to Trump that one theory was impossible or had been disproved, Trump didn’t bother to defend it, he just moved along to other theories.

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For example, Trump claimed that he had heard about a voting machine error rate in Michigan of 68 percent, meaning 68 percent of votes were incorrectly recorded. No, Donoghue told him, the error rate was .0063, meaning less than one error per 15,000 votes. Biden won Michigan by more than 150,000. At that rate, even if they were all Trump votes counted for Biden, that wouldn’t have changed the outcome.

Congressman Benny Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the special investigating committee, said during the Monday public committee hearing: “The very least we should expect from any person seeking a position of public trust is the acceptance of the will of the people: win or lose. [Trump] didn’t have the numbers. He went to court. He still didn’t have the numbers. He lost. But he betrayed the trust of the American people… He ignored the will of the voters. He lied to his supporters and the country.”

Committee Vice-Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) noted that the evidence shows that Trump persisted in insisting on more searches for ballot fraud even after the campaign’s general counsel, Matt Morgan, said that even if all the ballot errors Trump was alleging had checked out in his favor, it would not have been enough to flip the election in his favor.

The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Cal), noted that Trump used the false claims of election fraud in fund-raising letters to supporters and raised millions in contributions to pursue the claims but instead spent the money on more fund-raising. Lofgren also noted that well before the election, Trump began asserting that if he did lose the election, it would be “because it was rigged.”

Part of Trump’s backup for that claim was that the Biden-Harris ticket didn’t pull ahead until late in the evening. But the day’s testimony began with a panel of Republican campaign officials whose main point seemed to be to establish that Trump had been warned about what political professionals have come to call the “red mirage.” 

Because Democrats were much more likely to vote absentee and by mail in 2020 — and because those mail-in ballots are added to the totals after the same-day voting has come in — the early returns were expected to create a “red mirage”: a temporary and illusory lead for Republicans — one that was meaningless until all the votes, including those that came in via mail, were counted.

Trump, of course, had done everything to discourage his supporters from voting by mail and then claimed that the domination of Democratic votes in the late night and next-day counting was prima facie evidence of fraud. He used that argument to rile up his believers that the election had been stolen by the mysterious late surges of votes for Democrats.

Trump and his allies continued to make allegations of fraud, charges were repeatedly investigated and proved unfounded, Lofgren noted. Of 62 cases that made it to court, Trump lost 61 times, even though many of the cases were heard by judges Trump appointed. One of those cases was considered by the U.S. Supreme Court, where all three Trump-appointed justices joined with the court’s other members to unanimously rule against Trump’s side.

Benjamin Ginsberg, a well-known Republican lawyer specializing in campaigns and elections (he represented the Bush campaign in Bush v. Gore) looked at 60 of the post-election election cases brought by the Trump campaign and testified none ended up proving what Trump had alleged.

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There was one aspect of the whole affair in which Trump succeeded, though: raising money. Amanda Wick, Senior Investigative Counsel for the House of Representatives, said that Trump raised $250 million in contributions to an “Official Election Defense Fund,” a fund that never actually existed. Just a week after Election Day, Trump created a separate entity called the Save America PAC, which passed millions to a variety of pro-Trump organizations, including one called “The Trump Hotel Collection,” leading Lofgren to remark: “Not only was there the Big Lie. There was the Big Rip-Off.”

Wick said that the biggest single payment from “Official Election Defense Fund,” went to an outfit called Event Strategies Inc., which Trump hired to organize the Trump rally on Jan. 6, the event that morphed into the attack on the Capitol. She noted that appeals for contributions to the fund kept going out until 30 minutes before the Capitol was breached.

The committee’s next hearing is set for 9 a.m. (central time) on Wednesday.