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The Vote To Subpoena Trump Shows Democrats Have Found Their Fighting Spirit

Democrats finally seem to realize that accountability is more important than risk avoidance

One of the first things that most pundits will tell you about Thursday’s January 6 committee broadcast – the first since August, and probably the last before the November midterms – is that the committee’s subpoena of Donald Trump won’t go anywhere.

Sure, there were other notable moments in Thursday’s hearing. The committee presented a thorough summary of their findings, seemingly aiming to remind voters ahead of the midterms of the depth of Donald Trump’s commitment to his plan to overthrow our democracy in the service of his own ego.

It bolstered its long-established findings with new evidence: we heard, for the first time, testimony from multiple sources who said that Trump acknowledged privately that he knew he had lost the election.


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We discovered, for the first time, that both the Secret Service and the FBI had much greater and much earlier knowledge of the plan to attack the Capitol than had previously been acknowledged (a revelation that calls those agencies’ actions on that day into question).

We saw, for the first time, footage of the Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer in hiding from the mob, secured in an off-site location while the looters raged and defecated through the Capitol, calling the Department of Justice and governors of the nearby states in an attempt to get some of the police and military’s help to clear the crowd that was not coming from the Trump administration.

All of this was newly specific and remarkable, even if it wasn’t exactly new information. But the real event of the hearings was the subpoena vote. The committee leaked the news strategically, just before the broadcast, with the push notifications from various news outlets alighting on phone screens across America, reminding voters to tune in.

The committee made much of their decision to subpoena Trump, performing a roll-call vote on camera (unanimously “aye”) and emphasizing throughout Wednesday’s hearing that he was the primary instigator and designer of the violent and cockamamie attempt to overturn the 2020 election by force.

Just before the climactic vote, the committee played a montage of members of the Trump inner circle – John Eastman, the fringe law professor who became Trump’s legal guru in a series of failed attempts to undo his election loss; Roger Stone, the Republican operative and self-described “dirty trickster” with ties to both the Trump administration and the violent far-right militias that led the Capitol violence – all taking the fifth in depositions with the committee, and refusing to provide vital information.

The idea of this montage was to justify the subpoena of Trump himself. Look, the committee seemed to be saying to the American people, his friends won’t talk, so we need to go after the big guy. But the fifth amendment wasn’t just a justification, it was also a prediction: of course, Trump isn’t going to talk either.

It’s this reality – that Trump probably won’t testify, that he will issue a series of legal challenges, lies, or, at best, non-answers that shed little light on his actions that day – that gets jumped on by members of the political commentariat who like to prove their own seriousness by pointing out all the ways that the Democrats can never accomplish anything. “The January 6 panel moves to subpoena Trump, an aggressive move that will likely be futile,” was the headline in the New York Times, a phrasing that almost suggested contempt for the attempt to embark on a fact-finding exercise at all. Some people are so determined not to come off as naive that they adopt a withering cynicism, or even a kind of learned helplessness – and unfortunately, a lot of those people work in political media, or for the Democratic party.

But the vote to subpoena Trump, and the willingness to embark on the legal and political fights that will ensue, suggests that congressional Democrats may have a little fighting spirit in them yet. After a halting start to the Biden administration, in which it looked, for a while, as if the Democrats’ agenda would be hamstrung by the intransigence of Senator Joe Manchin, the party has had a remarkable series of wins over the past few months – especially, it should be noted, since the supreme court’s disastrous reversal of Roe v Wade in June angered women voters across the political spectrum and galvanized enthusiasm in the Democratic base.

With this wind of popular outrage at their backs, the Democrats were able to pass the deceptively named Inflation Reduction Act – really an infrastructure and climate bill – and to muster support for Biden’s student debt relief and mass federal marijuana pardon. But the January 6 committee hearings have been one of the feathers in the Democrats’ cap, and it is one of the rare achievements that the House Democratic caucus has made not as assistants and handmaids to the administration’s agenda, but on their own.

This independence and risk-taking in going after Trump may be a sign of a congressional Democratic party that is shaking off its old habits of learned helplessness and beginning to feel more confident in a political landscape that is less about procedural victories – like, say, whether Trump will ever actually sit down for a deposition with the January 6 committee or not – and more about public demonstrations of commitment and confidence.

According to a new book, the House committee that took the bold step of issuing a subpoena to Donald Trump, for instance, is very different from the group of House impeachment managers who made the gun-shy and timorous decision not to call witnesses in the January 6 impeachment trial under pressure from a Biden White House that wanted to move on.

The January 6 committee hearings have been, altogether, a much bolder affair than the impeachment, much more cognizant of their audience - the American public - much better at communicating with them, and much more willing to state facts plainly. Maybe Trump will never testify. But subpoenaing him is still the right thing to do. The stakes are high, and when it comes to Donald Trump, the Democrats finally seem to realize that accountability is more important than risk aversion.

Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist. 

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