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The Jan. 6 conspiracy is hiding in plain sight | Will Bunch Newsletter

Plus, after 58 years, a boomer still waits for the full story on the JFK assassination

What happens when a team fires its only Super Bowl-winning coach and replaces him with an unfunny and less inspiring version of Ted Lasso? The 2021 Eagles (bleeped) around and found out as Nick Sirianni and his dismal squad create a football version of “Damn Yankees” — the joy of that 2018 championship apparently a devil’s bargain for a hellish, eternal ever-after.

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You don’t need Perry Mason to find a Jan. 6 conspiracy, just the courage to pursue it

An around-the-clock “war room” in a hotel just one block from the White House.

Staffed by the president of the United States’ personal attorney, the manager of his successful 2016 campaign, and other high-level officials.

Including the lawyer who authored a memo on how the vice president could work with Congress to change the rightful outcome of the 2020 election.

And frequent meetings and calls with the president himself, who even drafted the text of a false tweet that veep Mike Pence was on board with his plot against democracy.

Look, the truth is that you don’t have to be Perry Mason — or, heck, even Hamilton Burger, the hapless DA who lost every case save one to the best attorney in TV history — to see the outlines emerging for a criminal conspiracy indictment that would include Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, political strategist Steve Bannon, memo author John Eastman, and the 45th president himself, along others, for attempting to subvert the functioning of U.S. government on January 6, 2021.

Much of the information that would inform this worse-than-Watergate criminal case has been hiding in plain sight for more than nine months. The presence of much of the inner circle at the Willard Hotel (a name, Willard, that I always associate with rats because of a 1971 movie ... heh) lived on the internets for months, then was confirmed by the new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, and was finally blessed this weekend by a story in the Washington Post.

But that story is also the exclamation point on an increasingly clear picture of what the chaos of the Jan. 6 insurrection was all about. It was not a spontaneous riot, but the inevitable end point of a plot that began with lame-brained schemes to overturn President Biden’s election victory in the courts, or in the state certification process, or finally in Congress. The threat of violence that was realized in the seizure of the U.S. Capitol, which resulted in five deaths, was the scheme’s ultimate weapon — one which could have set the stage for an even more forceful coup if Trump had placed more diabolical allies in the Pentagon or Justice Department.

It’s hard not to see two discrete acts amounting to a criminal conspiracy directed by the sitting president of the United States. The first was a campaign to tamper with the legitimate 2020 election results, with Trump himself and other government officials abusing their power by lobbying to force officials like Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to change vote totals. The second act was Trump and his allies urging supporters to come to Washington on Jan. 6, with key players like longtime sidekick Roger Stone (pardoned by Trump days earlier) working with the violent Proud Boys and Bannon vowing that “all hell is going to break loose.”

With the flood of recent revelations about the January insurrection — much of it because of a House investigation finally gaining steam — the real question is less whether there was a Trump election conspiracy but how deeply its tentacles were spread.

There was much clucking on the internet Sunday over a Rolling Stone report on a series of interactions between the planners of Jan. 6 rallies and at least a half-dozen of the most extreme right-wing House members. But others quickly noted that it’s unclear whether these Congress members knew only about the vote on not certifying results from key states and the initial non-violent outdoor rally to support that effort — which was unseemly but legal — or if they had any advance knowledge of the violent invasion of the Capitol building itself.

» READ MORE: Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, and the criminal conspiracy case of U.S. v. Donald Trump | Will Bunch

Two things seem clear. The first is that the ongoing probe on Capitol Hill — the House Select Committee chaired by Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi — needs to be given a wide berth to get to the truth of what happened that day, including the ability to investigate the role of those House members. The vote to find Bannon in criminal contempt for ignoring the committee’s subpoena must get follow-through from the Justice Department, and others attempting to emulate Bannon’s unlawful defiance must also be punished.

Of course, that critical decision on Bannon’s near-term fate falls onto the shoulder of Biden’s hand-picked attorney general, Merrick Garland, who so far has ruled with deference to dubious tradition rather than with the zeal of a man tasked with righting the ship of democracy before it sinks. Garland’s Justice Department has been aggressive in going after the smaller fish (that’s the American way of justice, isn’t it?) and the middling ones among those who fought with law enforcement and breached the Capitol that day, with 684 suspects charged.

What’s clearly missing from the haul are the Big Kahuna — the coup plotters that include not just the president’s inner circle but, I would strongly argue, Donald John Trump himself. Yes, the decision to charge a then-sitting president and his closest aides with a criminal conspiracy is without precedent in American history, but so is an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

A lack of courage from Team Garland in pursuing such a case — given the overwhelming evidence that’s already been made public — would send the message that it’s not a crime to attempt a coup in utter disregard of the results of a democratic U.S. election. It would offer a license to steal at a time when lawmakers in key battleground states are already laying the groundwork to declare Trump the 2024 winner regardless of the actual votes. It would mark the end of the United States as a democracy. It is simply not an option.

Yo, do this

  1. A federal system that gives considerable governing power to the 50 states is a key part of what’s made the American Experiment unique — but could that also seal our doom? That’s the intriguing question raised by former Ohio Democratic leader David Pepper in his new, incredibly well-timed book, Laboratories of Autocracy. (The title is clever play on a Supreme Court justice’s hope the states could be “laboratories of democracy.”) Pepper tells how state GOP-led moves on voter suppression, extreme gerrymandering, and reproductive rights could erode the union from within. An important read.

  2. It’s rare that I recommend a newspaper article in this space, but it’s rare that a story captures the perilous state of American discourse and democracy as well as “Where Facts Were No Match for Fear,” by the New York Times’ Reid J. Epstein. It tells how the truth-deprived internet fear-mongering of one Montana woman ruined an innocuous plan by local civic officials to get some recognition and a few dollars from the (despised) federal government for a tourism district. The keyboard warrior, in a town were the local paper has lost 80% of its reporters, used easily disprovable false claims to convince state GOP leaders to enact a law. A dispatch from the front lines of a nation going mad.

Ask me anything

Question: Will the Build Back Better bill be Biden’s ACA? A great legislative idea watered down to make no one happy giving the [GOP] enough ammo to win the midterms? — Via @WasserL on Twitter

Answer: I hate to be so pessimistic, but while I once subscribed to the idea that the Democrats could regain some middle-class mojo by passing programs that would actually help people with their problems, from child care to attending community college, I’m now increasingly prone to despair. For one thing, we’ve seen now that voters won’t even credit Dems for the best things they do, like the $1,400 stimulus check. With whatever emerges this week, the focus has been way too much on disappointment over what’s cut out, rather than excitement over what’s still in the Biden plan. Also, voters without school-age or younger kids will see the fewest benefits, but will be the first to blame Biden if inflation persists. So the short answer to your question may be: Yes.

History lesson

Like million of other boomers, my very first political memory was learning from my weeping mom that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated on the Friday afternoon of November 22, 1963. I was 4 then, but as I entered my teens in the 1970s, my first political obsession — again, like a lot of boomers — was finding out who really killed JFK, and why.

If you weren’t alive back then, it might be hard to believe, but “conspiracy theorist” wasn’t an insult then. To the contrary, there was something wrong with you if you weren’t a conspiracy theorist who knew the oddities of Dallas — from “the umbrella man” in Dealey Plaza to the Jack Ruby hit on alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald — and how America had spiraled after Kennedy’s death. My youthful hope was that I would learn the truth about who killed JFK in my lifetime.

» READ MORE: Never-ending JFK assassination cover-up is how we got into this mess | Will Bunch

How naïve! In 1992, when public belief that Oswald was not the lone murderer of Kennedy was at its peak (in part because of a controversial Oliver Stone movie), Congress unanimously passed the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, which made public many government papers during the 1990s, but mandated that even the most sensitive ones be released by 2017 — now, four years ago.

Instead, what still smells like a government cover-up continues. Even the most norms-busting POTUS ever, Donald Trump, gave into a CIA request for four more years of secrecy. President Biden — an idealistic University of Delaware undergrad when JFK was slain — has now announced another temporary delay, blaming COVID-19.

“It’s an outrage,” said the late president’s nephew Robert F. Kennedy Jr. As wrong as RFK Jr. is about vaccines, he’s 100% right on this. Distrust in government — the root of America’s existential crisis — took off that day in Dallas, so maybe full disclosure would move things in the right direction. The final batch of papers probably won’t solve the mystery of JFK’s murder, but continuing the 58-year cover-up only confirms that America can’t level with its own citizens.

Inquirer reading list

  1. The biggest story right now is President Biden’s ever-shrinking economic program, thanks to the extortion-style demands of conservative Dems like Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. In my Sunday column, I noted that the first programs to fall — on free community college and climate change — are the ones with the biggest impact on 18-29-year-old voters who arguably put Biden over the top in 2020. And alienating youth voters could doom the Democrats for a long, long time.

  2. The local news about a horrific alleged rape aboard a SEPTA subway car as it rolled into Upper Darby — and the first, now largely debunked, statements from police attacking witnesses for filming the assault rather than intervening — played into my deeper concerns about lies and disinformation from America’s police. We need to take this problem more seriously. From the lies of the George Floyd murder to the fog of deceit around the causes of the 2020-21 murder spike, public officials and the media need to hold law enforcement to account for chronic dishonesty.

  3. Faithful newsletter readers know I’ve been obsessed about what’s gone wrong with the American way of college and how that’s twisted our politics. Heck, I wrote a book about it, which comes out next August. So I get excited when I see clever new ideas about how to make things better. My former Daily News colleague George W. Miller III, now a Temple journalism professor, floated a brilliant plan on the Inquirer’s opinion page: Offer the region’s top HBCU, the long-struggling Cheyney University, now in Philly’s far-west suburbs, free land at the city’s Navy Yard to bring the campus closer to a large Black and brown community yearning for educational opportunities. It would be a win-win — and so is subscribing to The Inquirer, Philadelphia’s marketplace of smart ideas. Join us on the crusade to make America’s founding city also its greatest city.