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Hold Them All Accountable

The people who stormed the Capitol are facing the music. It’s up to us to make sure that the people who incited them do, too.
February 9, 2021
Hold Them All Accountable
(L-R) Rep. Kevin McCarthy, Rep. Louie Gohmert, Rep. Madison Cawthorn, Rep. Ted Cruz, Rep. Lindsey Graham (Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages)

“Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert? I think in such a case to silence the agitator and save the boy is not only constitutional, but withal, a great mercy.”Abraham Lincoln

According to CBS News, “federal prosecutors have charged at least 205 people for their alleged roles in the riot and opened over 400 investigations into possible criminals.”

Charges include assault on law enforcement officials, theft of government property, and “violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds.” If convicted, many rioters will likely face years in prison.

But what of the elected officials whose months of lies agitated and radicalized the crowd, even before it was incited to insurrection?

Former president Donald Trump will face his second impeachment trial this week for “incitement of insurrection.” But without 17 Senate Republicans joining Democrats to vote for a conviction, he will evade meaningful accountability. (Again.)

Finding 17 Republican senators to convict Trump is a Herculean task, not least because many of them joined him in feeding the lie that brought these people to the Capitol in the first place. In that regard, this trial is unique for having members of the jury who are not just not impartial, but are both witnesses and accomplices to the crime.

Remember: Prior to the attack, more than a quarter of Senate Republicans had publicly announced plans to object to certifying the election results. Many of them are now trying to retcon these objections as “just asking questions” and not an attempt to overturn the election itself. But their calls for investigations into voter fraud and irregularities—despite dozens of court losses and then-Attorney General Bill Barr’s assurances that there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud—were nothing less than hype-man interjections meant to bolster Trump’s claims that he “won in a landslide” and that the election was being stolen.

Sens. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Ron Johnson, and Lindsey Graham were happy to jump in front of every available television camera to discuss the “unprecedented allegations of voter fraud,” no matter how discredited those allegations were.

Graham reportedly even called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who told CBS that “Graham implied for us to audit the envelopes, and then throw out the ballots for counties who had the highest frequency error of signatures”—i.e. throw out all legal votes because a few of their neighbors might have voted illegally, but might not have. Better safe than sorry?

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on November 5, “President Trump won this election, so everyone who’s listening, do not be quiet. We cannot allow this to happen before our very eyes.”

Rep. Louie Gohmert suggested that “violence in the streets” was the only option remaining to keep Joe Biden from becoming president after a federal judge rejected his lawsuit trying to force Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the election.

Newly elected North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn told a Turning Point USA crowd that they should call their congressman and “lightly threaten” them in the name of “election integrity.” Representative Mo Brooks, also a major promoter of the conspiracy theory that the election was stolen, said in a fiery speech just prior to the attack on the Capitol, “Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.”

A few hours later, the rioters beat Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick to death.

The list of Republican election truthers in Congress goes on and on. When Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton—already under FBI investigation for corruption—filed a lawsuit challenging the election results in four battleground states, he was joined by 126 House Republicans. Cruz offered to argue a parallel (ludicrous) case in front of the Supreme Court. Those lawsuits, like all the others, were summarily tossed.

And this is just the incomplete record of elected Republicans, which leaves aside Sidney Powell, Mike Flynn, Jenna Ellis, Rudy Giuliani, the RNC, and the entire right-wing media ecosystem.

So now, while those arrested for the Capitol attack are—rightly—facing hard time, the Republicans and members of Conservatism Inc. who filled these thugs’ heads with poison and pointed them toward the Capitol are “moving on,” their campaign funds flush with the millions they raised claiming they were going to “stop the steal.”

There is something deeply, cosmically unfair about a group of elites force-feeding voters a lie about a stolen election, bilking them out of their money, demanding with the most overheated rhetoric that they “fight” to save the country—and then avoiding all responsibility while those people are hauled off to jail for doing what they’d been asked to do.

Look: The people in mobs are supposed to be held accountable for their actions. That’s the law. But there’s also a whole section of the law which realizes that the creation and instigation of a mob is, itself, a criminal action. And people who do that are supposed to be held to account, too. And the January 6 mob was no different. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.”

Which means that the elected officials who fed these people lies should be held accountable in some way, too.

But, as always, there are different rules for different people and in this case, the law that governs QAnon Shaman Guy has suddenly transmogrified when it comes to Trump. Why? Because of the sheer volume and depth of Republican mendacity. Republicans can’t hold Trump accountable precisely because they were complicit. They actively promoted his lies. And so convicting Trump would be an indictment of their own actions.

Don’t let them get away with it.

The criminal justice system is dealing with the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol. The political system will have to deal with the elected officials who incited them.

Democrats should call witnesses and show videos at the impeachment trial. They should prosecute their case as aggressively as possible, regardless of whether they think enough Republicans will vote to convict. Because this impeachment trial is the first step in holding these people accountable.

And who knows, more Republicans might be persuadable than conventional wisdom currently allows. Make it impossible for them to look away.

The next steps will have to play out over the course of years, as each of these Republicans stands for re-election. Editorial boards should renew calls for their resignations. Corporations should refuse to donate to their campaigns. Republicans who believe in the Constitution should call out those who endangered it and rally to those who, even belatedly, stand in its defense.

Electoral time moves slowly in Congress. It will take years to exact accountability from all of Trump’s accomplices—where it can be done at all. But if this process is going to work, it must start this week by forcing Republicans, in public and for posterity, to confront the crimes they helped incite.

America has just learned, at great cost, that democracy does not happen automatically. It takes committed men and women who are willing to sacrifice in order to protect it. Justice is exactly the same.

Call witnesses. Prosecute the case. And never forget who the enemies of democracy were.

Sarah Longwell

Sarah Longwell is publisher of The Bulwark.