In America, we once thought of political courage as being willing to do something at one’s own expense.
At the pointy end of that consideration are instances when people risk their lives or freedom to do the right thing. The men and women rotting in Vladimir Putin’s jails or dead by his order are proof that history will never exhaust its demand for political courage.
Here, thankfully, we have in recent decades mostly thought of political courage in terms of electoral risks: Gerald Ford taking the hit for pardoning Richard Nixon to bring the Watergate fiasco to a close, Barack Obama refusing the demands of Democrats to prosecute members of the Bush administration, or any politician who crosses the aisle to vote for a measure unpopular with his or her own party for the sake of an idea or policy they believe in.
That’s why we revere courageous leadership. A politician who will sacrifice his or her ambition or grasp on power in order to serve the people is a rarity, and also essential. We name states and cities for them and build monuments to their service. Had George Washington or Abraham Lincoln wanted to be despots, they could have been. Instead, they preserved government of, for, and by the people. In Lincoln’s case, even unto death.
I don’t know if the share of politicians capable of actual courage really is lower today than when I first started covering them full-time two dozen years ago. Some of what I see as declining character in our leaders may be a byproduct of nostalgia, but holy croakano, people …
We surely are living in a political age of desperate, shallow ambition and the cowardice it inevitably produces. No longer is it sufficient to help yourself; you must also hurt the other side.
Which brings us to the investigation into then-President Donald Trump’s effort to steal a second term, the efforts of some Republicans in Congress to vandalize the Constitution to help him, and the sacking of the Capitol by a mob summoned to serve the ambitions of the coup plotters. Forget Lincoln and Washington. This was behavior unworthy of Nixon, who refused to contest some clearly dubious results after the 1960 presidential election and, when president himself, resigned the office rather than subject the country to a protracted impeachment fight.
What Trump and his gang did in the 2020 election and its aftermath is a big historical moment for our country, far bigger than the Watergate scandal we still discuss 50 years later. The coup effort and Capitol attack will long endure in the story of this century, along with the 9/11 attacks and subsequent wars, the panic of 2008 and the ensuing recession, and the coronavirus pandemic during which the 2020 election took place. Trump was the first president ever to pose a credible threat to the peaceful transfer of presidential power that has been our inheritance for 226 years.
Acts of such monstrous self interest and the craven lust for power evinced by the behavior of many in the Republican Party demanded a response of real statesmanship and courage; first from Republicans who had not succumbed to the scheme and then from Democrats. But as you know, both parties failed that test.
What should have happened was that, acting in mutual defense of the legislative branch and the constitutional order, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should have put an impeachment and trial on the fast track. A single, short article against Trump for trying to disrupt the transfer of power, including by sending an angry mob to the Capitol, would have been very hard to vote against for Republicans who hadn’t been part of the power grab. If such an article had been passed by the House that week, I believe Trump would have been convicted and removed from office by the Senate.
Instead, Pelosi put three cable news stalwarts and sharp-elbowed partisans in charge of drafting the articles: Reps. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, David Cicilline, of Rhode Island, and Ted Lieu, of California. What the House voted on a week after the attack was not designed to make it easy for Republicans to get to “yea.”
McConnell seemed content to let Democrats do it on their own. According to a book from two New York Times reporters, six days after the attack, McConnell told aides “If this isn’t impeachable, I don’t know what is,” but that “Democrats are going to take care of the son of a bitch for us.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, though, made McConnell look like captain courageous. After saying in private in the aftermath of the attack that he would tell Trump to resign, McCarthy had shifted by Jan. 11 to saying he believed Trump was sorry for what he had done, to, by the end of the month, going to Mar-a-Lago to ask Trump’s blessing and cheese for photos. Having voted with the coup plotters against election certification, McCarthy probably rightly determined his lot was already cast.
Once the impeachment doomed by partisan self-interest was out of the way, the question was how Congress should investigate what happened. The first and most logical answer was for leaders of the two parties in both houses to pick an outside commission with subpoena powers, as Congress did after the 9/11 attacks. It made sense because it took the responsibility out of the hands of people running for re-election. But in May of 2021, Senate Republicans blocked the creation of such a commission, citing expressly partisan reasons for doing so.
In reply, Pelosi formed a select committee to investigate the attempted coup and riot. Senate Republicans and others in the GOP assumed that House Republicans would use their minority seats on the panel to defend Trump, leak information beneficial to Republicans, and push the schedule (and narrative) in ways helpful to their own team. But McCarthy fumbled.
Two of the five members McCarthy picked for the committee had been part of the effort to steal the election. Pelosi said she wouldn’t seat them, but that she would let the other three serve, and asked for McCarthy to pick two replacements. Instead, McCarthy pulled out completely in an attempt to block the committee. It was a botch. Pelosi named two cooperative Republicans, Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, and plowed on without any interference from McCarthy.
Almost a year later, after lots of leaks and speculation, the committee was finally ready to start its main hearings. Rather than adopting a somber, non-partisan tone, Democrats like Raskin and the head of the party’s House campaign arm were out in advance boasting about how the hearings would hurt Republicans in November’s midterm elections and “blow the roof off the House.” Like with Trump’s second impeachment, a laudable goal was being mired in negative partisanship. At a time when Congress needed desperately to show that there were principles beyond partisan ambition, it sent the opposite message.
But the hearings that we saw last week were not that. They were sober and dignified and seemed mostly to resist gratuitous partisanship. And I hope they stay that way, because I’m the next entrée on the menu.
By the time you read this I may already have finished testifying, and my part is a small one, but I’m not going to write here about what I have to say. I’m still not entirely sure what I will say or what may happen, and don’t want to close any doors or create any expectations. I had a pretty good perch for the 2020 election and was part of the best decision desk in the news business on election night. I’m still so proud of the work we did—we beat the competition and stuck the landing. All I can do is tell the truth about my work and hope for the best.
But I do want to tell you why I agreed to testify before this committee, despite the straitened circumstances of its creation and the mistakes that were made along the way: because it is a duly empaneled committee of the United States Congress, and its chairman asked me to come forward and answer questions. I have no First Amendment grounds on which to refuse since I am not being asked to reveal a source or something like that. If I was in that spot, I would dig in my heels and fight until they either locked me up or let me go. But I have no such grounds.
I spend a lot of time talking about the need for stronger institutions and how Congress must reclaim its status as the first among equal branches. How could I then resist when Congress made a request of me that falls well within its powers? I would rather not have to face the same anger I did after we called Arizona for Joe Biden in 2020. I have no interest in starring in the sequel to that one. But neither could I find an acceptable reason as a citizen to refuse, so I will go. It is not a courageous thing for me to do, only unavoidable.
As a journalist, I feel very uncomfortable even playing this small role in these events. The first rule for my vocation is to tell the truth as best as you can, and the second is to stay the hell out of the story. I will fail in the latter today, but aim for the former.
Members of Congress in both parties failed us after Jan. 6, 2021, and in nearly every case, it was because of a lack of political courage. Once, that meant being willing to hurt your own ambitions or those of your party to do what you thought was right. Now, we can’t even find a sufficient number of women and men who will pass up an opportunity to hurt the other side to do the right thing. The new standard in Washington is that any action must be both helpful to one’s own career and harmful to the hated opposition. We saw that all too clearly as Republicans repeatedly shirked their duty surrounding this bizarre episode, but just as clearly as Democrats egged them on. Keeping the republic will require real courage from our leaders, even when it means passing on the cheap shots.