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Setting the Stage for a Future Coup

Two years after the January 6th attack on the Capitol, while we wait for more conspirators to be indicted, it’s worth considering why the coup failed and how a future coup might succeed.

Fintan O’Toole writes for the Irish Times and teaches at Princeton. His article for The New York Review of Books is called “Dress Rehearsal”. Here are some selections (the whole article is worth reading — it’s behind a relatively porous paywall):

To understand the attempted coup that culminated in the assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, it is useful to go back to D___ T___’s immediate response to the election he actually won, in 2016. The head of his transition team, Chris Christie, then governor of New Jersey, presented T___ with a detailed plan for the transfer of power to his incoming administration. It was literally trashed. As Christie recalled…  “All thirty binders were tossed in a T____ Tower dumpster, never to be seen again.”

T____ didn’t want an orderly transition to his own presidency, let alone to Joe Biden’s. To a raging narcissist a plan is an impertinence, a Lilliputian restraint on the inspired instincts of a giant. But for a seditious conspiracy (or what the House inquiry has characterized as an “insurrection” in its recommendation of charges that should be brought against T____) to succeed, a plan is imperative. T____’s fundamental problem was that his putative second transition was every bit as cack-handed as his first.

Two years on from January 6, the most important question about the coup is why it failed. Or to put it another way: If you were planning a future coup, what could you learn from this one? From the evidence accumulated by the House of Representatives inquiry into the attack, two aspects of this failure are obvious. Too many Republican officials in crucial states refused to subvert their own elections. And what we might call the institutional right—D____ T____’s appointees to the judiciary and the Department of Justice—did not support the conspiracy. Yet the most important factor may be one that is much more intangible. At its heart was T____’s political persona…..

In his 2004 book T____: How to Get Rich, the ersatz mogul set out his rules for success. One was “Be a good storyteller. People like stories, and they’ll remember them.” Another was:

In business—every business—the bottom line is understanding the process. If you don’t understand the process, you’ll never reap the rewards of the process…. Part of the process is doing your homework. You have to know what you’re getting into first.

In the business of staging a coup, T____ violated both these rules. He never managed to settle on a good story. And he did not do enough homework to understand and master the process of retaining the presidency after a clear electoral defeat.

A coup, in this context, does not mean tanks on the streets, helicopter gunships strafing public buildings, thousands of people rounded up by soldiers, and a junta of generals or colonels addressing the nation on TV. On the contrary, the story that needed to be told by the plotters of 2020–2021 was not the overthrow of democracy, but its defense. T____, as his chief of staff and co-conspirator Mark Meadows put it …, was merely seeking “to uphold the democratic process.” In any conceivable future coup, this will again be the necessary narrative. We won, they are stealing our victory, we need to take extraordinary measures to defend democracy.

It is important for actual democrats to understand this. Dark fantasies about martial law and mass repression may deliver a certain masochistic thrill. Yet the lesson from the events of two years ago is that, spectacularly horrifying as it was, the attack on the Capitol was not the main event. It was a poorly conceived and (by T____) badly led reaction to the failure of the much more feasible coup—which T____ just might have pulled off in November or December 2020. He lost that opportunity because he could not create the necessary heroic drama—the one in which he was not sullenly subverting the presidential election but selflessly upholding its real results.

In fashioning of this drama, T____ had one great advantage—five years of preparation. He had, from the start of his run for the Republican nomination, insisted that “our system is absolutely, totally rigged.” Before both the 2016 and the 2020 elections, he refused, on this basis, to commit to accepting the declared results. There was never any real doubt that if he lost in 2020, he would refuse to concede defeat. We know from the House committee hearings that T____’s announcement on election night that “frankly, we did win this election. . . . We want all voting to stop” had been planned well in advance…. On election day, T____ discussed … an earlier memo [that] laid out plans for the president to demand that only the votes tallied by the end of that day should count.

This was the essence of the coup. What is remarkable, however, is the absence of any real plan to enforce it. Here is the first of T____’s misunderstandings about the nature of his own power. It was not feasible for any president simply to order all voting to stop. What was important to the plot was that, having laid down this marker, T____ and his fellow plotters follow it up by creating and sustaining a story in which any vote not counted by his arbitrary deadline was illegitimate. They failed to do this because T____ stupidly believed in his own fictional creation—the mogul from The Apprentice whose orders will be obeyed unquestioningly by subordinates. It is clear from his subsequent reactions that T____ genuinely believed that those minions would include his attorney general, William Barr, his own federal judicial appointees, and the Supreme Court on which he had created a solid right-wing majority.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that this institutional obstruction left T____ with no options other than the final desperate maneuvers of January 6, when he tried to get Mike Pence to refuse to certify the election results and sent an armed mob to attack the Capitol and intimidate the members of Congress. To understand what Trump could have done instead, it is necessary to revisit a long meeting at the White House on the evening and night of December 18, 2020. This episode is easy to dismiss because it was described as “unhinged” and because the proposals aired at it were called “nuts” by [January 6th committee witnesses]. These characterizations are accurate. Yet the meeting matters for two reasons. The first is that it immediately preceded T____’s fateful decision to summon his followers to Washington on January 6. The other is that one of the ideas put forward at this meeting would be of great interest to any future conspirator….

Yet somewhere amid this craziness was the nearest thing the whole plot ever got to a potentially viable plan to overturn the election. Essentially, T___ would appoint [Michael] Flynn as [the leader] of a military-led operation to oversee a hand recount of votes in the six most narrowly contested states:

General Flynn drafted a beautiful operational plan for such a mission. One signature from the President and the whole thing would roll. The teams would be created from the right National Guard Units, the right directives to each…

[Sidney] Powell, meanwhile, would be appointed as special counsel, with powers to seek out and prosecute those responsible for the gigantic electoral fraud….

The most basic requirement was to create a public narrative in which [a] foreign power was identified [as behind the fraud]. Since there was no actual evidence, the plotters were free to invent whatever tale they wanted. Given that T____ had decided months before the election that he was going to claim victory regardless of the actual votes, there was plenty of time to prepare a dossier full of charts and figures and fake “intelligence.” (Think Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.) But the conspirators were like a dog chasing a flock of pigeons—they ran so excitedly after so many targets that they could never catch hold of any particular one….

Having seized control of the voting machines through some kind of military task force, there would then be a live TV event in which all of the paper ballots in the six most contested states would be counted in front of the cameras…. By appearing to commit to conceding defeat if no discrepancies were found, T____ could pose, as he had to do if a coup were to succeed, as the defender of American democracy. It goes without saying that, under Flynn’s watchful eye, discrepancies would have been found … just enough in each state to flip the election.”

Most importantly, there would be a public drama, an elaborate spectacle of “democracy” in action. It is not hard to imagine how T____s enablers in the media would sell this show: Why are the Democrats afraid to see what the paper ballots say? The mechanics of this performance remain obscure. How were “discrepancies” to be created? What would the Supreme Court have done? To have a chance of success, the plan would surely have to have been put into effect much earlier—well before the Electoral College met on December 14 to confirm Biden’s victory.

Yet [the plan had] the germ of the right idea. The best way to steal a presidential election would indeed be through a staged display of democratic process backed by elaborate precooked “evidence” of foreign conspiracy and amplified by Fox News, social media campaigns, and other media. This is the upside-down shape of a successful American coup. Democracy is destroyed by the enactment of its protection. Conspirators succeed by foiling a “conspiracy.”

The author then discusses the former president’s violent rhetoric and the events of January 6th.This is how the article ends:

In the 187 minutes between the end of T____’s speech [on January 6th] and the time he finally called off the mob, he seems to have lost all sense of the relationship between words and actions, between incitement and murder. He sat at the head of the table in the private dining room off the Oval Office watching the mayhem on Fox News. His reaction to the chants of “Hang Mike Pence” was relayed by [Mark] Meadows to [Pat] Cipollone: “You heard him, Pat, he thinks Mike deserves it. He doesn’t think they’re doing anything wrong.” Around the time that members of Pence’s security detail were making what they thought might be their last calls to their families, T____ sent an incendiary signal to the attackers, tweeting, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our country and our Constitution.”

T____, at that point, was implicitly providing a mandate for murder. But this could no longer really be called an attempted coup. Neither T____ nor his fellow plotters had the slightest idea what they would do after Pence, and presumably members of Congress, of both parties, were murdered. This was not a plan for the seizing and holding of power. It was a dark fantasy of personal revenge. Oddly, T____sent that tweet at the moment he really accepted that he was a loser—that unbearable realization made it necessary that someone be sacrificed on the altar of his humiliation. When even that became impossible, there was nothing left to do but cancel the whole show.

If it happens again, it will probably not happen like this. The pilot episode was a disaster because it had no coherent script, too many ham actors, too weak a grasp on the difference between gestures and consequences. But there is much to learn from it. Next time, if there is one, the plot will be much tighter, the action less outlandish, the logistics much better prepared, the director more competent. And the show will be called Defending Democracy.

Finally, Some Confirmation

The Washington Post reported tonight:

The Justice Department is investigating President D____ T____’s actions as part of its criminal probe of efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, according to four people familiar with the matter.

Prosecutors who are questioning witnesses before a grand jury — including two top aides to Vice President Mike Pence — have asked in recent days about conversations with T____, his lawyers, and others in his inner circle who sought to substitute T____ allies for certified electors from some states Joe Biden won, according to two people familiar with the matter. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

The prosecutors have asked hours of detailed questions about meetings T____ led in December 2020 and January 2021; his pressure campaign on Pence to overturn the election; and what instructions T____ gave his lawyers and advisers about fake electors and sending electors back to the states, the people said. Some of the questions focused directly on the extent of T____’s involvement in the fake-elector effort led by his outside lawyers, including John Eastman and Rudy Giuliani, these people said.

In addition, Justice Department investigators in April received phone records of key officials and aides in the T____ administration, including his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, according to two people familiar with the matter. That effort is another indicator of how expansive the Jan. 6 probe had become, well before the high-profile, televised House hearings in June and July on the subject….

There are two principal tracks of the investigation that could ultimately lead to additional scrutiny of T____, two people familiar with the situation said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

The first centers on seditious conspiracy and conspiracy to obstruct a government proceeding, the type of charges already filed against individuals who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 and on two leaders of far-right groups, Stewart Rhodes and Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, who did not breach the Capitol but were allegedly involved in planning the day’s events.

The second involves potential fraud associated with the false-electors scheme or with pressure T____ and his allies allegedly put on the Justice Department and others to falsely claim that the election was rigged and votes were fraudulently cast….

The Insurrection Was Only One Step in the Attempted Coup

The radical reactionaries on the Supreme Court didn’t get a chance to overturn the 2020 election, although given how five Republican justices handed the presidency to George Bush in 2000, they might have been willing. 

It’s important to distinguish between the attempted coup and the January 6th insurrection. Sidney Blumenthal, a former Clinton advisor, explained the distinction on January 6, 2022, for The Guardian:

The insurrection was not the coup itself. It was staged as the coup was failing. The insurrection and the coup were distinct, but the insurrection emerged from the coup. It has been a common conceptual error to consider the insurrection alone to be the coup. The coup, however, was an elaborate plot developed over months to claim that the votes in the key swing states were fraudulent, for Mike Pence as the presiding officer of the joint session of the Congress to declare on that basis that the certification of the presidential election on the constitutionally mandated date could not be done, to force that day to pass into a twilight zone of irresolution, for House Republicans to hold the floor brandishing the endless claims of fraud, to move the decision to the safe harbor of the House of Representatives, voting by states, with a majority of 26 controlled by the Republican party, to deny both the popular vote and the electoral college vote to retain T____ in office, for protests to breakout at federal buildings, and for the president to invoke the Insurrection Act to impose law and order.

Presumably, any gesture to forestall the coup by the joint chiefs would be communicated at once to T____ from his agent, Kash Patel, a former aide to far-right representative Devin Nunes), sworn enemy of the “Deep State”, embedded as chief of staff to the acting secretary of defense, and presidential orders would be issued to countermand. The rally on 6 January – “will be wild”, T____ promised – was a last-ditch attempt to intimidate the vice-president with the threat of violence into fulfilling his indispensable role in the coup, to lend support to the Republicans objecting to certification, and to delay the proceedings into a constitutional no man’s land. …

The insurrection may also have been intended to provide a pretext for precipitating clashes with anti-T____ demonstrators, following the example of the street violence and multiple knife stabbings perpetrated in Washington by the neo-Nazi Proud Boys chanting “1776” on 12 December, and which would then be an excuse for invoking the Insurrection Act. In the criminal contempt citation of Meadows for his refusal to testify before the select committee investigating the US Capitol attack, the committee noted that Meadows sent an email the day before the assault to an unnamed individual “that the national guard would be present to ‘protect pro-T____ people’ and that many more would be available on standby”. From whom would “pro-T____ people” be protected?

In the midst of the attack, the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, managed to reach a preoccupied T____, who was riveted viewing the unfolding chaos on television at the White House, closely monitoring whether the coup would finally succeed, taking phone calls from Jim Jordan and a host of collaborators, and fending off urgent pleas to call it off … T____’s first reply to McCarthy was to repeat “the falsehood that it was antifa that had breached the Capitol”, according to the Republican representative Jaime Herrera Beutler.

McCarthy argued: “It’s not Antifa, it’s Maga. I know. I was there.” “Well, Kevin,” said T____, “I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.” “Who the fuck do you think you are talking to?” McCarthy inquired in an uncharacteristic display of testosterone that soon was replaced with his regular order of servility …. The absence of antifa, and McCarthy’s refusal in the heat of the moment to lend credence to the phantom menace, may have condemned any false-flag thought of invoking the Insurrection Act. Meanwhile, the bayonet-ready national guard idly awaited orders for hours to quell the actual insurrection. …

The coup was hardly T____’s full-blown brainchild. It was packaged for him. It was adapted, enhanced and intensified from longstanding Republican strategies for voter suppression. The coup was a variation on the theme from a well-worn playbook. T____ eagerly grasped for the plan handed to him.

More than a year before the election of 2020, in August 2019, conservative operatives in closely connected rightwing organizations began preparing a strategy for disputing election results. A “Political Process Working Group” focused on “election law and ballot integrity” was launched by Lisa Nelson, the CEO of the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec), heavily funded by the Koch brothers’ dark money syndicate, the Donors Trust. …

The investigative reporter Anne Nelson, in her book Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right, describes the CNP as a nexus of “the manpower and media of the Christian right with the finances of western plutocrats and the strategy of rightwing Republican political operatives”.

A board member of the CNP, Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer at the center of a host of rightwing groups, assumed control over the Alec-originated project and moved it forward. Mitchell was instrumental in devising the blueprint for the coup. On 10 December 2020, 65 leading members of the CNP signed a succinct step-by-step summary of the completely elaborated plot that went little noticed except on the coup-friendly rightwing website Gateway Pundit:

The evidence overwhelmingly shows officials in key battleground states – as the result of a coordinated pressure campaign by Democrats and allied groups – violated the constitution, state and federal law in changing mail-in voting rules that resulted in unlawful and invalid certifications of Biden victories. There is no doubt President D____ J T____ is the lawful winner of the presidential election. Joe Biden is not president-elect. Accordingly, state legislatures in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Nevada and Michigan should exercise their plenary power under the constitution and appoint clean slates of electors to the electoral college to support President T____. Similarly, both the House and Senate should accept only these clean electoral college slates and object to and reject any competing slates in favor of Vice-President Biden from these states. Conservative leaders and groups should begin mobilizing immediately to contact their state legislators, as well as their representatives in the House and Senate, to demand that clean slates of electors be appointed in the manner laid out in the US constitution.

Mitchell was by then a T____ campaign legal adviser, with direct access to T____ and working on the Georgia challenge to the results.

Let’s Not Think About It

After reading a couple opinion pieces in The Washington Post, I was thinking about presenting one or both of them here. One, by Max Boot, is “We’re in danger of losing our democracy. Most Americans are in denial”. The other, by Margaret Sullivan, is called “Democracy is at stake in the midterms. The media must convey that”.

I assume you know the problem. Despite the January 6th insurrection (or because of it), most Republicans want the leader of their cult to run again in 2024. In various ways, they’re trying to make sure he becomes president again whether or not the Democrat gets more votes. What the mob tried to achieve on January 6th, 2021, millions of Republicans would like to accomplish in 2024 using their official powers to restrict voting rights, manipulate elections and change the Electoral College result.

Quoting Margaret Sullivan:

A growing chorus of activists, historians and political commentators have spoken of “democracy on the brink” or “democracy in peril.” What they mean is that, thanks to a paranoid, delusional and potentially violent new strain in our nation’s politics, Americans may not be able to count on future elections being conducted fairly — or the results of fair elections being accepted.

If you have unpopular views in a democracy but want to get and keep power anyway, you need to make it difficult or even impossible for your opponents, the majority, to win elections. You can do that by controlling who gets to vote, who counts the ballots, who reports the news and who runs the legislatures and courts. After January 2025, when the plague could return to the White House, it might take a revolution to restore majority rule. Once it’s lost, it will be hard to regain.

Quoting Max Boot:

The only way to save democracy is to vote for Democrats in the fall. And I say that as an ex-Republican turned independent. It doesn’t matter if you disagree with Democrats on some issues. The overriding issue is the preservation of our democracy. That might sound hyperbolic to some — but that’s precisely the problem. Like so many Ukrainians before [the invasion] on Feb. 24, most Americans remain in denial about the threat to our country.

But I’ve been sounding like a broken record on this topic (it’s an old metaphor that refers to playing the same music over and over). That’s why I decided not to post about it.

So take a look at this:


When I was a kid, I came across a puzzle that looked like that. The challenge was to draw a picture just like it, with a rectangle, an X inside it, and triangles around the edges. The challenge was to draw it without lifting my pencil from the paper. In other words, to draw it in one uninterrupted motion.

It was not easy to do. But at some point, I was sure I’d done it. I just couldn’t remember exactly how. My apparent success motivated me, however, to keep trying. That may not have been a good idea.

What I didn’t know at the time, but do now, is that mathematicians have a name for this kind of puzzle. The challenge is to find the “Hamiltonian path”, a sequence that doesn’t retrace its steps. Some patterns have a Hamiltonian path; some don’t. The one on the left does; the one on the right doesn’t.


Computer scientists are trying to figure out how to solve puzzles like this — to identify which patterns fall into which category — without their computers taking too long, possibly forever. One way to avoid thinking about Republicans and elections is to work on the one above that I either did or didn’t solve.

“We Don’t Expect Him To Be There”

The Department of Justice is taking its own sweet time prosecuting the January 6th insurrectionists, but apparently getting closer to the former president and his co-conspirators. Meanwhile, a member of the House January 6th committee says they’ll have big news starting in June. From NBC News:

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., suggested that the House Jan. 6 committee’s upcoming hearings will be dramatic and include explosive revelations that the panel has been piecing together behind the scenes for months.

“The hearings will tell a story that will really blow the roof off the House,” Raskin said Thursday at an event . . . in Washington.

Members of the committee plan to hold those hearings in June and aim to have a report out about their investigation by the end of the summer or early fall, said Raskin, who sits on the panel.

“No president has ever come close to doing what happened here in terms of trying to organize an inside coup to overthrow an election and bypass the constitutional order,” he said. “And then also use a violent insurrection made up of domestic violent extremist groups, white nationalist and racist, fascist groups in order to support the coup.”

Raskin said the committee will present “evidence” that proves there was coordination among then-President D____ T____ and his inner circle and his supporters who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6 in an attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

The plan was to use then-Vice President Mike Pence to try to get President Joe Biden’s electoral vote tally below the 270 majority needed for victory, Raskin said, which under the 12th Amendment would shift the contest to a vote in the House. If that occurred, he said, Republicans would have the majority to seize the presidency because the votes would be cast by the state delegations, and the GOP controls more state delegations than the Democrats do.

“It’s anybody’s guess what could have happened — martial law, civil war. You know, the beginning of authoritarianism,” Raskin said, speculating on what might have unfolded if the plan was successful. “I want people to pay attention to what’s going on here, because that’s as close to fascism as I ever want my country to come to again.”

“This was not a coup directed at the president,” Raskin said. “It was a coup directed by the president against the vice president and against the Congress.”

The plan was coordinated “most tightly by T____ and his inner circle,” Raskin said, adding that the committee faced the most difficulty in this aspect of its probe. The panel has interviewed more than 800 witnesses, but he said, “The closer you get to T____, the more they refuse to testify.”

Speaking about the threats to Pence on Jan. 6 and the chants by rioters to hang him, Raskin said the vice president’s Secret Service agents — including one who was carrying the nuclear football — ran down to an undisclosed place in the Capitol. Those agents, who Raskin said he suspects were reporting to T____’s Secret Service agents, were trying to whisk Pence away from the Capitol.

Pence then “uttered what I think are the six most chilling words of this entire thing I’ve seen so far: ‘I’m not getting in that car,'” Raskin said.

“He knew exactly what this inside coup they had planned for was going to do,” Raskin said.


So Pence didn’t want to leave the Capitol. The scary interpretation is that he thought he was being kidnapped by the Secret Service. At a minimum, he knew that if he wasn’t at the Capitol, the Electoral College proceedings would go on without him, allowing Republican senators to disqualify the votes of selected states, the first step in overturning the election (the plan his corrupt boss had been trying to convince him to go along with for weeks). It hasn’t received much attention, but the oldest member of the Senate, 88-year old Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) admitted as much the day before the insurrection:

During an exchange with reporters on Tuesday [Jan. 5th], Grassley was asked how he plans to vote [on Jan. 6th].

“Well, first of all, I will be — if the Vice President isn’t there and we don’t expect him to be there, I will be presiding over the Senate,” according to a transcript of his remarks sent by a spokesperson.

Grassley serves as the president pro tempore of the Senate and will preside over any portion of the debate that Pence does not attend.

“We don’t expect him to be there.” Those words are just as chilling as “I’m not getting in that car”.

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