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Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.
“We cannot just sweep this under the rug. We need to know why it happened, who did it and people need to be held accountable for it. And I’m committed to make sure that happens.”
Just five days after the Jan. 6, 2021, mob invasion of our Capitol, those words were spoken, with patriotic determination, by one of Washington’s most prominently placed political leaders. He was not an anti-Trump Democrat bent on partisan vengeance. He was House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican who had loyally backed President Donald Trump. But when that violent mob bashed outnumbered police, smashed their way into the U.S. Capitol — forcing McCarthy and his staff to flee their own offices — the GOP leader urged his fellow Republicans to stand firmly behind the democracy that is the heart and soul of America’s exceptionalism.
Fast-forward to Thursday night: We watched a live, made-for-TV drama unlike anything ever seen in America’s history. We saw the premier showing of the House Select Committee’s investigation of the Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol. It featured scenes that revealed evidence indicating that a sitting U.S. president had actually sought to overthrow his own election defeat and somehow stay in power. Yes, Donald Trump.
The crucial core of the committee’s two-hour prime-time hearing was the prosecutorial presentation by McCarthy’s very conservative fellow Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the committee’s vice chair. It seemed to be everything that McCarthy had urged almost a year and a half ago. Like a masterful prosecutor (a job she never held), Cheney built the committee’s case using blocks of video evidence. What was most convincing was that it was testimony from those who were governmentally and personally closest to Trump — testimony rejecting Trump’s gushing claims that the election was “rigged,” that he really won.
We saw Trump’s former Attorney General William Barr telling committee investigators he told Trump, in three post-election meetings, that he found “absolutely zero basis” for Trump’s incessant claims of election fraud: “I made it clear I did not agree with the idea of saying the election was stolen and putting out this stuff which I told the president was bullshit.”
We saw Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, admitting to investigators she believed Barr: “I accepted what he was saying.” (Translation: She no longer believed her dad’s Big Lie.)
And we saw Trump’s refusal to help his partner and vice president when the vengeful mob began chanting “Hang Mike Pence.” Pence had declined Trump’s arm-twisting to get him to refuse to certify the actual election results. Outside, the mob Trump urged to march to the Capitol brought with them a huge wooden gallows with a rope noose — never mind that Pence’s certification decision hadn’t happened yet. The Secret Service rushed Pence and his family down the Capitol steps to a secluded loading dock.
We watched videos of the mob bashing police, wanting to hang Pence, smashing the cradle of our democracy.
And we watched Trump swooning about “the love in the air — I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Neither had we. We saw sickening yet riveting revelations of a reality that existed behind Trump’s curtain. We remain outraged by our sitting president’s refusal to even try to stop the mob violence that was being committed by his supporters who were all about lynching our democracy.
But as we watch the committee’s dramatic videos revealing abhorrently un-American acts, one glaring question remains unanswered: Will America really give a damn? Will Trump’s supporters ever care that he is lying to them? Lying about fake claims of voting machine fraud?
Here we can learn a lot from watching McCarthy’s political flip-floppery. As measured by the patriotic urgency of his plea in January 2021, we might assume Thursday night’s committee presentation sparked patriotic gratification deep within McCarthy’s soul. But by now we know better than that.
McCarthy long ago switched his patriotic commitment priorities. Now he’s all about covering his aspirations to be the next House speaker. Nothing more. He flew to Mar-a-Lago for a ring kissing. His House GOP ousted Cheney from her leadership role. And he long ago reversed his silly notions that it was wrong to sweep Trump’s unpatriotic conduct under rugs.
But Thursday night, Cheney, ever courageous, showed her fellow Republicans patriotic House cleaning means not only whispering truth to power — but also speaking it courageously to the people you serve. It’s a concept.
“Tonight,” she concluded, “I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”