Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra
Episode 7: Rinse, Repeat
The largest mass sedition trial in American history churns on. And continues descending into chaos. But the dozens of sedition defendants attempting to wreak havoc on the proceedings would soon get a high-profile assist. From serving members of Congress injecting themselves into the trial and coming to the defense of the accused seditionists standing trial. Before a verdict can be reached, one final twist calls into question whether the Justice Department will see the case to the end, or cut bait entirely.
Rachel Maddow: The governor of North Dakota was in trouble. William Langer, Bill Langer — he was known around his state as “Wild Bill”.
Nancy Beck Young: I think the first thing to say about William Langer is to draw focus to his nickname, “Wild Bill” Langer, and maybe that tells you all you need to know.
Maddow: That’s historian Nancy Beck Young. “Wild Bill” Langer was born in Casselton when it was still Dakota Territory. His dad was a member of the very first state legislature convened when North Dakota became a state. Young Bill did great in school, he went off and got a degree at Columbia in New York City. He was first in class there, he was class president. But then he came back to North Dakota to make good, to make a difference in his state. And he very quickly established himself as a political force to be reckoned with.
Young: He was not someone who practiced the fine art of reason and compromise. His style was aggressive and in your face.
Maddow: Bill Langer became an elected prosecutor in the state, and then he became Attorney General, and then he moved up to the top job of Governor. And in the summer of 1934, Governor Bill Langer was in trouble. He was involved in a scheme in North Dakota politics in which he was raising money for himself and his political party by effectively extorting the state’s employees.
Langer made all state employees redirect a part of their salary to pay for a subscription, a subscription to a weekly newspaper that was owned by officials in his political party. So if you’re a North Dakota state employee, each paycheck — say goodbye to a little portion of that because it’s being effectively kicked back to the Governor and his party. It generated a lot of money for his political party. It stuffed his friends’ pockets.
But this tidy little money making operation hit a snag when it came to one specific set of state workers: employees in the highway department. Now, they were technically state employees — they worked under the Governor — and so, like everybody else, cough up the cash out of your paycheck.
But importantly, highways are also federally funded. So if you work for the North Dakota highway department, because the federal government funds highways, your salary is paid in part by the feds. And for North Dakota Governor Bill Langer, that detail had potentially criminal implications. Because if it was federal funds that were being extorted, being diverted to private use, that might be a federal crime.
The U.S. Attorney in North Dakota, the top federal prosecutor in the state, opened an investigation. And Bill Langer, North Dakota’s sitting Governor, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government.
While serving as Governor, Langer was put on trial in federal court. He was convicted. And then he was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison. As a result, the state Supreme Court ruled that Bill Langer had to be removed as Governor. The state’s Lieutenant Governor would take over — which is all dramatic enough, but it got even more dramatic when Langer refused to go.
He refused to accept his conviction as legitimate. He said it was a politically-motivated prosecution. He rejected the court’s order that he be removed as governor. He hunkered down with a group of his political supporters in the state capitol. He declared martial law in the state. He attempted to declare North Dakota independent from the U.S. federal government. He physically barricaded himself inside the Governor’s office and refused to leave.
Langer's supporters marched on the state capitol, demanding that he be reinstalled in power. His supporters then started to march to the hotel where the Lieutenant Governor was staying. The lieutenant governor was named Ole Olson. As the Langer mob marched toward his hotel, one of them was heard shouting, “Shoot [Olson] at sunrise.” The result was a multi-day standoff.
In the end, Bill Langer did eventually give up physical control of the Governor’s office, but he didn’t go away quietly. He said he was the victim of “political persecution.” He said it was the U.S. Justice Department that ought to be investigated for their handling of his prosecution. And he insisted for a long time that he was still the rightful Governor. It was all a little bit crazy.
But it wasn't the end of the road for Wild Bill Langer. Because despite all of that, Bill Langer still had the full support of the Republican Party in the state of North Dakota. Republicans in North Dakota, after all that, they put Bill Langer forward as their party’s nominee for the United States Senate.
Senator William Langer: As long as I’m in the Senate, I will be in there battling for North Dakota, and for the United States of America.
Maddow: Bill Langer eventually managed to get his federal conviction overturned on appeal, but he really had staged an insurrection, declared martial law, declared his state independent from the United States. He’d physically barricaded himself in the state equivalent of the White House to try to hold power by force. And still, the Republican party put him forward as their party’s candidate in the 1940 election for U.S. Senate.
And then Langer won that election. Which meant Wild Bill Langer was now not just North Dakota’s problem, now he was a problem for the United States Senate.
Young: There were enough, enough people who protested his election that he was not automatically seated in January of 1941 when the new session of Congress convened.
Maddow: After he was elected to the Senate in 1940, Bill Langer was tentatively sworn in to take his seat. But the Senate immediately started a formal investigation into whether he was actually fit to serve in that body. They investigated Langer for more than a year.
Young: He was charged with being financially corrupt and moral turpitude.
Maddow: At the end of their investigation, the committee investigating Bill Langer accused him of having a “continuous, contemptuous, and shameful disregard for high concepts of public duty.” They described years of lawlessness, violations of his oath. The investigation concluded that Bill Langer had forfeited his right to serve as a U.S. Senator. They said on grounds of moral turpitude and corruption, Langer was unfit to serve in the United States Senate and he should not be allowed to take his seat. The full U.S. Senate then spent two weeks debating that recommendation.
His supporters argued that the voters of North Dakota knew who he was, they knew what they were getting, and they voted for him anyway. They argued that Langer’s disregard for the rule of law was seen at home as, essentially, a plus — a feature, not a bug.
And so, when it finally came up for a vote, the full Senate voted and they decided to seat Bill Langer. Yes, yes, armed insurrection, total lawlessness, yes. It’s fine.
Young: The Senate ultimately maintained a fairly low bar for admission to their ranks. His misdeeds were not viewed as worthy of his not being seated.
Maddow: Bill Langer serving in the United States Senate — a Senator who himself had been accused of federal crimes and definitely had a personal vendetta against a Justice Department he thought was out to get him — Bill Langer serving in the Senate in Washington, that was about to come in handy for a whole bunch of accused insurrectionists and seditionists who themselves were standing trial in Washington, and who were about to find out just how many friends they had in high places.
This is “Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra.”
Radio Anchor: Today, in the sixth week of our big sedition trial, they may reach the first witness. Then again, they may not.
Young: He goes on a rampage defending the defendants against the charges.
Radio Anchor: Twenty-seven defendants have been on trial, accused of conspiring to set up a Nazi-form of government in this country. The courtroom reached such a pitch that Justice Eicher was forced to resort to numerous contempt fines.
Young: He wants this to go away and he wants to use his power as Senator to make it go away.
Bradley Hart: I think they were in great legal jeopardy.
Maddow: Episode 7: Rinse, Repeat.
Judge Edward C. Eicher had lost control of his courtroom. He was seven months into this trial that he was presiding over, the biggest sedition trial in U.S. history, and things had pretty much descended into total chaos.
Radio Announcer: Today in our big sedition trial, they may reach the first witness. Then again, they may not.
There were defendants who went on the lam: one on a run to the Canadian border, one on a run to the dentist, but at least those were unauthorized absences. The judge also allowed some other defendants to leave for a while if they had other stuff to do. Defendant Joe McWilliams, who was nicknamed Joe McNazi in the press, the judge allowed him to take up a regular factory job instead of coming to court for his trial each day.
Radio Anchor: Those indicted include such people as Elizabeth Dilling, author of “The Red Network.”
Maddow: The judge allowed another defendant, Elizabeth Dilling, to resume her day job as well. Her day job was touring the midwest with a pro-Nazi preacher who was running for President on the banner of something called the America First Party. At his rallies, it was Elizabeth Dilling's job to lead the crowd in singing antisemitic songs. The judge in the sedition trial let her leave court to go do that job during the middle of the trial.
Radio Anchor: But the pick of the bunch of pro-Hitlerites is Mrs. Louis de Lafayette Washburn, a flamboyant notoriety seeker.
Maddow: The other female defendant in the case would occasionally show up in the courtroom in a blue satin nightgown saying that her clothes had been stolen.
Radio Anchor: Among the defendants rounded up by the FBI is Edward James Smythe.
Maddow: Defendant Edward James Smythe, when he made it to court, he was believed to regularly show up drunk.
The defendants themselves, and the nearly two dozen defense lawyers who represented them, they frankly succeeded at overwhelming the judge and taking over the courtroom to such a degree that even dedicated reporters and observers soon couldn't follow what was happening.
But one day, about seven months in, something happened in the courtroom that, even for that trial, it seemed too much to believe. A group of the sedition defendants lined up in a kind of assembly line to stuff envelopes in the courtroom during the trial. They'd take one envelope, stuff it with a document, hand-address it, seal it, put it in a pile, and then they’d move on to the next. They were doing this in a group. It was an organized effort. They had a whole big stack of envelopes that they were working on. It was odd, even for a trial with lots of oddities.
One journalist who was watching them noticed that these weren’t regular envelopes the defendants had stacked up in front of them. They were congressionally franked envelopes from the office of a Republican U.S. Senator: William Langer of North Dakota.
What the defendants were busy stuffing into those envelopes was a speech that Wild Bill Langer had delivered on the Senate floor. A speech in which he offered a full-throated, guns-blazing defense of them, of the defendants, who at that moment were standing trial in D.C.
Young: He takes to the floor of the Senate and delivers a two-hour speech to his colleagues, two hours worth of Langer talking and defending the quote-unquote "good names" of the defendants in the case.
Maddow: In his senate speech, Langer had described the sedition defendants who were being held in the D.C. jail during the trial as “political prisoners.” He demanded that the charges against all of them be dropped. He said they were being “railroad[ed].” He singled out a bunch of them out by name.
Sedition defendant Lawrence Dennis, the author of "The Coming American Fascism," he’d been flown over to Germany by the Nazis, he was on the payroll of the Hitler government's propaganda agencies. Senator Langer described Dennis as “a man of moderate means.”
George Deatherage, the former Klansman who had also been brought over to Germany by the Nazis, who had set up armed cells around the country for a coup to overthrow the government after the 1940 presidential election, Senator Langer described George Deatherage blandly as an “industrial efficiency engineer with a son fighting in the service.”
Young: He saw this as a headline-grabbing moment to go speak out on behalf of the defendants and so he went with it.
Maddow: Senator Bill Langer gave his two-hour speech on the Senate floor about how all these people charged with sedition, they were all great people, they were great Americans.
The speech then went in the congressional record. He got the speech copied at taxpayer expense, he got lots of postage-paid envelopes from his Senate office, and then he enlisted this very weird little secretarial team of accused Nazi agents at their trial to stuff the envelopes in the courtroom so he could mail that speech out around the country, postage to be paid by the U.S. taxpayer.
The judge in the sedition case, as much as he'd let everyone get away with, this stunt from Senator Bill Langer was too insulting, even for him. The judge reportedly considered a blanket contempt of court citation for all the defendants, one that could result in him locking up the remaining defendants who weren't being held in jail during the trial already. The judge even reportedly considered holding Senator Langer himself in contempt, potentially threatening the Senator with jail time, too. The judge considered it, but he didn't do it.
Judge Eicher was reportedly concerned about all the members of Congress who were already expressing hostility to the trial, worried enough that he thought a contempt citation for the Senator — or for these defendants setting up a little congressional mailroom for the Senator in the courtroom — he worried it might spark even more harassment and antagonism and criticism from Capitol Hill. So he let it slide.
But it's worth considering that the envelope-stuffing thing in the courtroom wasn't a one-off disruption from a member of Congress. It was only the latest in a long line of them.
One day in September, Senator Bill Langer had come into the courtroom and thrown his arms around a number of the defendants who were there waiting for the proceedings to begin that day. He sat there talking for over an hour with four or five different defendants, including the convicted Nazi agent George Viereck.
In front of reporters, Senator Langer was whispering with the defendants, laughing, making his presence in the courtroom in support of them as ostentatious as he possibly could. Newspapers reported that his behavior with the defendants created a stir in the courtroom.
Young: He goes to the courthouse and visits with the defendants. Kind of glad-handing them and atta-boying them, so that's a bit of a problem, probably not wise for a sitting member of the Senate.
Maddow: Arguably not wise, but Senator Bill Langer was undeterred. During the course of the trial, he made regular visits to the sedition defendants who were being held in the D.C. jail. For the ones who weren't in jail, Senator Langer liked to be seen escorting some of them around town.
He took special interest in two of the jailed defendants who had been convicted once already of sedition in a case in California. They had told American men being drafted for the war that they should refuse to fight because they'd only be fighting for the Jews. They told American troops in uniform to switch sides and fight for the Nazis. They made public threats that American cities with large Jewish populations would be turned into slaughterhouses. Senator Bill Langer visited them in jail. and for some reason he sent one of them money.
Langer also said in the Senate that convicted Nazi agent George Viereck should not only be freed from jail, he should be paid reparations by the government, and the Justice Department should be investigated for having charged him as a Nazi agent in the first place.
But Senator Bill Langer wasn't the only member of Congress who was effectively adopting the sedition defendants. The other Senator from North Dakota, Senator Gerald Nye, was known to host weekly meetings in his Senate offices for the lawyers for the sedition case defendants. They met in Senator Gerald Nye’s Senate office to plot their courtroom strategy. Senator Nye also considered defendant Lawrence Dennis — the “Coming American Fascism” guy — he considered Dennis to be a close, personal friend. They knew each other from the America First Committee, where both were regular speakers.
There were a lot of America First Committee connections at the trial.
Hart: Some of these people, of course, we have to remember, are known to them. Some of these people had appeared in America First events.
Maddow: That’s historian Bradley Hart.
One of the defense lawyers in the trial had been the Oregon State Chairman of the America First Committee until he was forced out when it was revealed that he’d accepted funding for the group from a Nazi-controlled German organization.
One of the defendants had been quoted in LIFE Magazine in 1942 saying, "We would like to ban the Jews and emphatically burn them out. The Jews control the White House, the President is a Jew, his wife a Jewess, and Jews are running Washington and the nation. To get rid of the Jews, we will have to burn and kill them off." He was now a defendant at the sedition trial, but he had previously been the leader of the Pontiac, Michigan chapter of the America First Committee.
Another one of the defendants had personally been the organizer of paid appearances at America First rallies for Montana Democratic Senator Burton Wheeler. With all the America First Committee connections at the trial, it's perhaps not a surprise that the most high-profile America First members of Congress started to inject themselves into the trial, in all sorts of ways. Chief among them: Senator Wheeler, that America First all-star in the U.S. Senate.
Senator Burton Wheeler: I only wish there were more Americans in the United States of America that loved America First!
Maddow: Senator Burton Wheeler was very tightly associated with the America First Committee. He headlined rally, after rally, after rally for them. That famous photo of him had run in papers all across the country — that photo of him and Charles Lindbergh giving a stiff-armed salute at an America First event in 1941. During the course of the sedition trial, Senator Burton Wheeler took up for the defendants publicly, aggressively, and repeatedly.
Young: He is speaking out that this trial is wrong, it's politically motivated, this is un-American to do this, this sort of thing and is regularly speaking out for the defendants in the trial.
Maddow: Like Senator Bill Langer, Senator Burton Wheeler also sent money to one of the sedition defendants in jail. Wheeler also took to the floor of the Senate during the trial to describe the case as “one of the most disgraceful proceedings in American judicial history.”
Hart: I think a lot of this actually is self preservation. I mean, these are men who have been in touch with some of these groups and organizations for a number of years. The fact that there's an active trial that's on the front page really of, of the newspapers on a regular basis involving people that, that are not that far separated from the America First committee, or from some of these politicians directly, it's certainly causing people to sweat.
Maddow: Senator Burton Wheeler was so aggressive in his denunciations of the trial and in support of the defendants, that one of the defendants — the publicist who worked for Nazi agent George Viereck in D.C. — he told reporters during the trial that he was confident his friend Senator Burton Wheeler would quote, “ruin the case.”
Young: Burton Wheeler has more than a little concern about his own political security, in that, are charges gonna be brought against me as well? And so it's, I think from that place more than any other, that he goes on a rampage defending the defendants.
Hart: Wheeler and Nye both know that they were involved with Viereck. They know that that information is in the hands of the Department of Justice.
Maddow: Senator Burton Wheeler was not a disinterested, impartial observer. He had been part of the operation to launder Nazi propaganda through Congress. He was a big part of the America First committee which was up to its gills in this case. And Senator Wheeler had personally seen to it that the original prosecutor, William Power Maloney, had been fired off of this case. Well now, with the sedition trial finally in the courtroom, with this new prosecutor John Rogge at the helm, Senator Burton Wheeler just picked up right where he left off.
Young: It's essentially a wash, rinse, and repeat of his efforts to have Maloney fired by calling out Rogge as engaging in political persecution, that this guy, this guy needs to go. It's again, more self preservation on Wheeler's part. He does not want any negative press about his association with Viereck.
Hart: Probably there's some amount of fear here as well for people like Burton Wheeler who have been cavorting, we know, with some fairly extreme people for a number of years at this point. What is Wheeler afraid might come out in court? What documents might be introduced? What testimony might be made that might put him in a tough political spot?
Maddow: What might come out at the trial? What might come out in court? At one point in the trial, prosecutor John Rogge introduced evidence, a letter from Silver Shirts leader William Dudley Pelley, that described Pelley’s plans to have a retired general play a key role in the Silver Shirts’ plot to storm U.S. military armories and overthrow the government. This was a controversial, decorated former general who was flirting openly with fascism and antisemitism. He was seen as a hero in the America First movement.
The Silver Shirt leader, William Pelley, wrote to the general to enlist him in his plan for an armed coup against the government. He said to the general in that letter, “the weapons are in our hands.” He said that his next step would be that he planned to contact America First leader Charles Lindbergh, and also Montana Senator Burton Wheeler.
Serving members of Congress like Burton Wheeler and Hamilton Fish and Gerald Nye, they were at the center of the activities and the conversations of these defendants that were all now coming up at trial.
Hart: I think there's a certain amount, as well, of guilty conscience here, too. What if John Rogge decides to take a slightly different tack and starts indicting people who are associated with Viereck as well? I think they were in great legal jeopardy.
Young: He wants this to go away and he wants to use his power as Senator to make it go away. Wheeler is not as deep in as someone like Hamilton Fish, but he does not want the negative press.
Maddow: Hamilton Fish, for his part, he was also busy doing what he could to help stymie this prosecution. But Ham Fish took a slightly different tack. In the months leading up to the trial, Congressman Fish introduced a bill in the House to change the law, to change the Sedition Act, to basically remove the legal basis for the prosecution altogether.
Hamilton Fish’s congressional staffer George Hill was already convicted at this point. When Hill turned state's evidence and proved willing to testify about Fish's involvement, with the men that Hill conspired with also now facing trial, Congressman Ham Fish was doing anything he could to stop it.
Hart: I think the isolationists see this as a political opportunity as well. And they are very open about saying, you know, this is the Roosevelt administration overreaching, this is a form of tyranny.
Maddow: Portray the prosecution as politically motivated. Portray the defendants as small fry, innocent victims. Even change the law to make the prosecution impossible. Deflect and distract in order to obscure their own role in various parts of this scheme. It was a strategy from these members of congress. And it did create even more of a circus atmosphere surrounding the proceedings. More chaos and unpredictability in the courtroom, more pressure on the already overwhelmed judge.
Radio Anchor: The courtroom reached such a pitch that Justice Eicher was forced to resort to numerous contempt fines.
Radio Anchor: Chief Justice Eicher today dismissed defense attorney James J. Laughlin of Washington from having any other part in the mass sedition trial. Laughlin had demanded the impeachment of Justice Eicher. The justice also heard today about the ribbons the defense attorneys were sporting, calling themselves members of the Eicher Contempt Club because of the fines that had been assessed against them. The judge decided it was all very childish and unworthy of disciplinary action.
Maddow: The trial had started in April 1944. It was chaotic from day one. Through April, May, June, July, all through the summer and into the fall, the bedlam in the courtroom, and the criticism and stunts and political pressure from these America First members of Congress, it had just built and built and built.
The judge, Judge Edward Eicher, was being attacked from the right, from the defendants and their supporters on Capitol Hill. He was soon also being attacked and even mocked in the press for letting those defendants and their supporters make this case into a clown show. It stretched on month after month after month after month with no end in sight, and all the time getting worse and not better.
Until the day in November 1944 when Senator Bill Langer was having the defendants line up in the courtroom to form an assembly line stuffing envelopes for him. By the time that day arrived, Judge Edward Eicher had already ruled on more than 500 defense motions for a mistrial. He had heard 72,000 objections made by counsel in the case: 72,000!
He had levied contempt fines on seven different defense attorneys. He considered contempt charges against at least that one U.S. Senator who repeatedly showed up in court to make an ostentatious mockery of the proceedings. The defendants had launched an effort to have Judge Eicher impeached, not just recused from the case, but thrown off the bench altogether. They had brought lawsuits against the prosecutors. They had sung and chanted and screamed their way through such an array of delaying tactics, that by that day in November, there had already been 3 million words entered into the trial transcript. 18 thousand pages of a still-growing court record.
And it was nowhere near even half over. The prosecution said they planned to bring roughly 200 witnesses. By that day in November, roughly seven months in, they hadn’t put up their 200 witnesses, they had put up 39 of them. They still had that far to go. And then once the prosecution would be done mounting its case, then the defense would get its turn. There really was no end in sight.
Judge Edward Eicher was presiding over an unmitigated fiasco, and the people trying to make it a fiasco, trying to make it even worse, they knew it. And they kept upping, and upping, and upping the pressure. Until it got to the point where things finally, inevitably broke.
Radio Anchor: The prosecution had not even come close to presenting its side of the case.
Hart: The government is left with this position of what do we do about this?
Maddow: That’s next.
Maddow: On the night of Wednesday, November 29th, 1944, the day Senator Bill Langer had the sedition defendants start stuffing envelopes for him in the courtroom, Judge Edward Eicher considered, but decided not to hold them all in contempt of court. He was worried about further provoking these members of Congress who had been criticizing the sedition trial so vociferously. He was worried. But he also just seemed a little off.
One of Judge Eicher's law clerks noticed that something seemed wrong. It seemed like maybe he wasn't feeling well. He kept turning his back to the court during the proceedings. It looked to her like he was gasping for air. The clerk begged the judge to adjourn court early, to go home and get some rest. Judge Eicher said it was just indigestion and he pressed on.
In a quiet voice, he tersely overruled the remaining objections voiced in the courtroom that day. At quitting time, he finally gaveled down, he announced that the court would be in recess til the following morning. Judge Eicher went home, he had dinner, and then he died in his sleep that night.
Radio Anchor: The farce that’s been playing in Washington under the title of the mass sedition trial had a tragic ending today. Presiding Justice Edward C. Eicher died at his home in Alexandria, Virginia, and a Justice Department official said the current trial will have to be terminated and hearings started all over again.
Maddow: His wife went to go wake him at 6 o’clock the next morning, but she found him dead. Judge Eicher, at the age of 65 years old, had suffered a massive heart attack.
Radio Anchor: Eicher, who believed that to be patient is a branch of justice, put up with all sorts of antics during the seven months the defendants have been on trial, accused of conspiring to set up a Nazi form of government in this country.
Maddow: When you look back at the news coverage during the great sedition trial in 1944, in retrospect now it seems clear that something was going to break, that it was just too out of control. But at the time, it was an absolute shock when Judge Edward Eicher died in the middle of the proceedings.
The following day, another judge from the D.C. District Court gaveled the court into session to announce Judge Eicher's death. And then the judge quickly gaveled the court back out of session to give everyone a chance to figure out what was going to happen next. Because now amid that shock, there was the suddenly very pressing matter of what would happen to the trial that Judge Eicher had been overseeing, the trial that needed some kind of resolution. But it was such a mess when the judge died, it wasn't clear how it could be brought to an end.
Radio Anchor: The prosecution had not even come close to presenting its side of the case. Meanwhile, one defendant had died, three others had been granted separate trials, hundreds of mistrial motions had been admitted by defense attorneys, some of the defendants had wandered away and hadn’t been seen in the courtroom for weeks.
Maddow: Could the government continue with the case? Would the entire thing have to start over from scratch? If this really was the end, were all of these defendants just going to be let off the hook?
Hart: This presents the Department of Justice with really not a lot of great options. But the government is left with this position of what do we do about this? You can't simply slot in a new judge. You would essentially have to start the trial over again.
Maddow: They couldn't simply slot in a new judge and pick up where the trial left off when Judge Eicher died. The defendants were asked, but they wouldn't consent to it, and it was their right to say no. That meant there would be a declaration of a mistrial in the sedition case, which is an ending of a sort. But it's not the same as an acquittal.
With a mistrial declared, the Justice Department would now have to decide if they wanted to bring the case again. Bring in a new judge to hear the case, and start it all over again from the very beginning, this case that was universally acknowledged to be a total debacle.
Radio Anchor: The mistrial ruling today now puts the matter up to Attorney General Biddle. He can order a new start, or he can forget the whole thing.
Maddow: A new start, or forget the whole thing. It was the Justice Department’s decision now how to proceed, if at all. Begin all over again with a new judge, or cut bait and walk away. Which do you think they chose?
Hart: And so, the Department of Justice simply abandons the case.
Maddow: In the wake of Judge Eicher’s death — facing the prospect of needing to start the whole proceeding all over again from jump, recognizing what a chaotic mess it had been the first go-around, and how much it was stirring up criticism of the Justice Department on Capitol Hill among the defendants' allies and fellow travelers in Congress — the Justice Department decided to give up. They threw in the towel.
Which, for prosecutor John Rogge, was crushing. He had tried and failed to convict members of the Christian Front in New York in the last big sedition trial of the era. He had now tried and failed to convict this band of alleged seditionists as well, many of whom had been working with members of Congress — members of Congress who had injected themselves into this trial. And in this case, he didn’t even get the chance to have a jury render a verdict. This was his own side just giving in.
For the defendants, the decision was obviously a win. At least for those of them who weren't already in jail on other charges, they'd get to walk out the front door of the courthouse. They'd just get to slip back into society to get back to their work.
But it was also a huge win for the members of Congress who had been involved in these schemes, who were involved in these efforts to subvert democracy, who had used the power of their offices to obstruct the investigation and then to delegitimize the prosecution. The death of the judge and the end of the sedition trial, that presumably would mean the end of any legal accountability for them, too.
Young: It provides a hall pass, if you will, for these individuals. It provides an excuse, a justification. I think that they set a precedent making it okay for elected officials to abrogate their constitutional oath by aiding and abetting the Viereck scheme. Their defense of and cheerleading for the defendants in the trial creates another dangerous precedent. They did establish precedence that we have seen far, far, far exaggerated in our own moment, to our peril.
Maddow: Those members of Congress, they got away with it. The end of the trial made sure of that, at least it seemed. Except, John Rogge wasn’t finished yet.
The trial didn't work. The trial arguably had killed the judge. The Justice Department was walking away, but John Rogge was not.
Hart: So in the course of the sedition trial, John Rogge receives a letter, seemingly out of the blue, from a captain who is actually in occupied Germany. And this captain tells Rogge some startling things. The captain says, you know, we've been recovering various documents from the Nazi archives and various places around Germany. We also are securing interviews with various surviving Nazi big wigs and things like that. And he says, you know, what we're finding is there is an incredible network of Nazi sympathizers all around the United States.
Maddow: Amidst the collapse of the sedition trial, John Rogge is alerted to more evidence that exists, evidence looking at all of this from the other side of the Atlantic. The trial, of course, has been happening at the same time that World War II has been happening. And as American soldiers advance toward Berlin, they’re recovering reams of previously secret Nazi documents — documents that, it turns out, detail from the German side the Hitler government's plot to undermine American democracy. German government documents that name names: American businessmen, far-right American fascists aligned with the Nazi cause, members of Congress.
Hart: It in fact includes great detail about the Viereck plot, including the names of all of the members of Congress who were involved in it. Rogge believes rightly that this is an absolute gold mine.
Maddow: An absolute goldmine. When the mistrial is declared, and the Justice Department doesn’t restart the case, the sedition defendants and the implicated members of Congress assume that they’ve gotten off scot-free. But John Rogge doesn't give up. He gets this information from this U.S. Army captain in Germany. Rogge then goes to Germany and he gets to work: pouring over these recovered documents that had been swept up from Nazi archives, personally interviewing high-ranking Nazi officials who had been captured on the battlefield.
Hart: Rogge comes back with I think probably the deepest understanding of anyone in the United States, if not the world, as to what the Germans had been up to in trying to subvert the United States.
Maddow: And then John Rogge comes home with all that evidence. And that is next time, in our final episode.
“Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra” is a production of MSNBC and NBC News.
This episode was written by myself, Mike Yarvitz, and Kelsey Desiderio. The series is Executive Produced by myself and Mike Yarvitz. It's produced by Kelsey Desiderio. Our Associate Producer is Janmaris Perez. Archival support from Holly Klopchin. Sound design by Tarek Fouda. Our Technical Director is Bryson Barnes. Our Senior Executive Producers are Cory Gnazzo and Laura Conaway. Our Web Producer is Will Femia. Madeleine Haeringer is our Head of Editorial. Archival radio material is from NBC News, via the national library of the United States, the one and only Library of Congress, the biggest and most important library in the whole world, I could go on! With additional sound from CBS News.
You can find much more about this series — you can see all 18 thousand pages of the trial transcript boxed up at the national archives; you can see Wild Bill Langer's supporters storming through the streets of Bismarck, North Dakota to try to keep him in power — you can see it all at our website, MSNBC.com/ultra.
Young: Some of the evidence that comes out proving Langer's moral turpitude, in addition to his financial irregularities while governor, also dug back into his days as a defense attorney. He had one client in jail for — I don't remember what now. Said client was divorced and the only witness against Langer's client was the client's ex-wife. So Langer kidnapped the client from jail and the client's ex-wife, and drove them across the state line and forced them to get married again because the wife would not be compelled to testify against her husband because of spousal privilege. The ex-wife wasn't too keen on this scheme, but Langer promised her that as soon as the court case was over, her divorce would be filed and she would be free to go on about her life. She did. She remarried. And then she found out, much to her chagrin, that she was guilty of bigamy because Langer had never successfully filed the divorce paperwork for round two.