Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Defending Democracy Demands Deeds

A source close the president says he might consider creating his own January 6 commission.
June 2, 2021
Defending Democracy Demands Deeds
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It has been an eventful few days for those concerned about the state of American democracy.

On Friday, Republicans—members of the same party that conducted no fewer than six separate congressional investigations about Benghazi—refused to back a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

On Sunday, Michael Flynn—the retired Army general who was President Trump’s first national security advisor, who twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and who was pardoned by the lame-duck Trump—told a QAnon conference that there’s “no reason” a coup like the recent one in Myanmar couldn’t happen in the United States. “It should happen,” he said.

At the same event, Trump’s former lawyer Sidney Powell said that Trump could “simply be reinstated,” with “a new inauguration date” set and Joe Biden “told to move out of the White House.”

On Monday, during Memorial Day remarks at Arlington National Cemetery, President Biden observed that “Democracy itself is in peril, here at home and around the world. What we do now—what we do now, how we honor the memory of the fallen, will determine whether or not democracy will long endure.”

On Tuesday, Maggie Haberman of the New York Times tweeted that Donald Trump—perhaps having heard of Flynn’s and Powell’s weekend remarks—has been telling people “that he expects he will get reinstated by August” as president. For the record, there is no legitimate route to Trump regaining the presidency in August. It’s over. He lost. He can’t admit it. He can’t fathom it. He won’t accept it and he’ll never say it.

Also on Tuesday came word that more than one hundred “scholars of democracy,” including several academic luminaries, had jointly signed a “statement of concern” urging Congress “to do whatever is necessary” to pass national voting and election reforms, saying “our democracy is fundamentally at stake.”

Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele holds his party to blame and up for shame. He believes the GOP is hellbent on regaining power at any cost and destroying itself in the process. “It’s like the death march to Bataan,” Steele told me recently for my podcast Just Ask the Question.

The Democrats, as Steele pointed out, tried everything to get a bipartisan commission. “They let the Republicans call the shots on how it was set up. They gave them everything. And at the end of the day [the Republicans] turned it down,” Steele said.

Steele believes that the GOP doesn’t want a commission because its investigation would expose the GOP’s complicity in the insurrection—and he also notes Republicans’ fear of retribution from Donald Trump who, as crazy as he is, still dominates the party.

It wasn’t Trump but Mitch McConnell who led the resistance to the bipartisan commission. He played footsie with the purveyors of the Big Lie about last year’s election but he had nothing to do with planning the insurrection and has condemned it. Still, he continues to play a political game: By protecting the insurrectionists in the GOP, he’s trying to buy their fealty so he can be the leader of the GOP—arguably even ahead of the out-of-office Trump. McConnell is all about the game playing—win at any cost—and I’d say he long ago abandoned whatever principles he might once have had, but I’ve known him since 1978 and he’s never shown that he’s had any principles.

In response to McConnell’s torching of the proposal for a bipartisan commission, a source close to the president told me on background on Tuesday that President Biden may consider appointing his own bipartisan commission. It is true that the president could create such a commission via executive order. But as Biden has remained aloof from the machinations of this inquiry, that would appear to be little more than a trial balloon.

It is more likely that congressional Democrats will set up their own inquiry, presumably a special committee in the House. But would it be effective? “I have no faith they’ll do it right,” Steele said. “This is what the Democrats have never done well. They don’t play this game as well as the Republicans.”

That is true. The Republicans have a track record of using investigative hearings to score every possible political point—again, remember the committees that spent years keeping Benghazi in the headlines. Democrats have shown they can manage effective lawyerly hearings, like the first Trump impeachment, but they have shown no stomach for the double-dealing the Republicans enjoy.

Steele is angry, but so are many Democrats.

“We want to be clear about something—we love Joe Biden,” prominent Democratic strategist Adam Parkhomenko wrote in his daily newsletter Tuesday. “But we need more. We need a real defense of democracy.”

Parkhomenko pleaded with Biden to step up:

Trump’s favorite parrot—Maggie Haberman—tweeted this morning that Trump believes he will be reinstated as president in August. We can only assume the president of the United States will hear this news and go get some ice cream and then give away another $500 million in infrastructure funds. C’mon, Joe. We need you, buddy. Oh and by the way, Flynn’s brother is still a general in the U.S. Army.

Inside the White House, we reporters are often told things are under control—and I was reminded, again, by my source close to the president that the White House has no intention of directly addressing the Trumpian menace. But this is no phantom menacing the country. It is a cabal of reprobates who care little and know less about democracy and our Constitution. They know only greed. They are morally bankrupt, corrupt and willing to do whatever it takes to regain the power they’ve lost.

So why is President Biden watching from the sideline—speaking eloquently about battling authoritarianism but taking little meaningful action? Is he capable of being the effective leader we need, a defender of democracy, or is he just the lesser of two evils? One plausible explanation: He may be playing the long game—waiting for possible Trump indictments in order to pounce. But that won’t wrest control of the GOP away from Trump. The party may be shrinking in size, but Trump will hold on to power like a New York sewer rat cornered in an alley.

And even if Trump’s grip on the GOP were somehow loosed, the party would still be on its anti-democratic path—so it remains questionable as to why anyone would play the long game against Trump and the GOP.

Biden isn’t doing the country any favors by remaining aloof from this political battle. It is time for action against the insurrectionists—not just the four hundred being prosecuted by the Department of Justice but their enablers in the Republican party. It is time for a declarative counterpunch against the false narrative about the 2020 election. Putting Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of fighting for voting rights is a first step; this country needs decisive action on both voting rights and election reform legislation.

Biden told us this weekend that democracy is in peril. Hell, we already know that. The coup is ongoing. It’s real. Others have spoken endlessly about this. It is led by a minority of voices intent on using our democratic rights to destroy our democracy—if that’s what it takes for them to get and keep power.

Biden doesn’t seem to understand that it isn’t an abstract crisis, but a definitive moment in history where our democracy is in actual danger. A moment that demands not just words, but actions.

Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy magazine. He successfully sued Donald Trump to keep his press pass after Trump tried to suspend it. He has also gone to jail to defend a reporter's right to keep confidential sources.