We’re well acquainted with the facts: Former President Donald Trump refused to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election. He and his allies did many things to stop the process through which the winner, now-President Joe Biden, would assume office. They did so openly in many cases; there was no subtlety in Trump’s efforts to undermine the credibility of the election or his desire to reverse Biden’s win.
Yet there’s still an obsession among elected Democrats, professional politicos and the media writ large with finding the piece of evidence, the single fact that links Trump directly to the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6. This hunt for a “smoking gun” has outlived whatever limited usefulness it had — and at this point has become an asset for Trumpworld.
The latest offering comes from The Guardian, which reported Tuesday that on the morning of the insurrection, Trump called several of his closest advisers to strategize ways to stop Congress from certifying the election. Though it doesn’t use the term “smoking gun,” that’s definitely how the story is framed:
Trump’s remarks reveal a direct line from the White House and the command center at the Willard. The conversations also show Trump’s thoughts appear to be in line with the motivations of the pro-Trump mob that carried out the Capitol attack and halted Biden’s certification, until it was later ratified by Congress.
The former president’s call to the Willard hotel about stopping Biden’s certification is increasingly a central focus of the House select committee’s investigation into the Capitol attack, as it raises the specter of a possible connection between Trump and the insurrection.
Don’t get me wrong: My problem isn’t with the reporting, in this piece or any of the work Rolling Stone has done recently to provide new nuggets of detail about what happened Jan. 6. What I take issue with is the idea underpinning the reporting. Since Watergate, there’s been an assumption that there has to be some secret detail just waiting to be revealed that blows the lid off of this whole thing.
But take a moment to consider what we already know. Trump was sowing doubt about the election results on camera as early as April. He promised his supporters that if he lost, it was only because the election was “rigged.” He refused to concede on election night and lied to claim that he’d actually won. His allies organized rallies across the country in the lead-up to Jan. 6, saying the election was stolen from him. He pressured the Justice Department to declare fraud that didn’t exist. He held a rally on the day Congress was counting the electoral votes and spent the days beforehand publicly and privately pressuring his vice president to declare him the winner. He refused to intervene as the mob tore through the Capitol until it was clear that they were unsuccessful, and even then, he did not condemn his followers.
Yet we’re still talking about supposed burner cellphones and a “possible connection” between Trump and the insurrection. The connections are clear and aren’t likely to get much clearer. I’d love to be wrong here, but I doubt we are going to get anything on par with President Richard Nixon’s taped order to obstruct justice. We’re probably not even going to get something as clear as the evidence we saw during Trump’s first impeachment showing he was pressuring Ukraine for his own personal gain.
Even if we do, it’s not guaranteed that the scales will finally be tipped decisively against Trump. (There’s a reason why John Oliver’s “We got him!” bit was so darkly funny.) In fact, according to various outlets through the years, Trump has fired off enough smoking guns to deplete a small arsenal. And yes, that includes several rounds fired prior to and during Jan. 6.
The unfortunate truth is that folks are so busy looking for a smoking gun that they wind up either overlooking or downplaying the mountain of other evidence that suggests, yeah, Trump might have done crimes. This in turn has made it easier for Trump’s acolytes and devoted fans to write off the very real proof of his malfeasance. The initial hype surrounding the now-discredited Steele dossier — the first of many alleged smoking guns — has been weaponized to claim there wasn’t any Russian interference in the 2016 election at all, despite a Senate report saying Trump’s own campaign chairman provided information to a Russian intelligence agent.
The “smoking gun” has become what screenwriters refer to as a “MacGuffin.” Even if you’re not familiar with the term, you likely know the general concept: There is a thing the protagonist is chasing. What that thing is doesn’t really matter — be it the Maltese Falcon, Marsellus Wallace's briefcase, the Sorcerer’s Stone — but the pursuit of said thing drives the plot.
At this point, you can swap in any piece of damning evidence against Trump to get the same result when it comes to this plot. The ending isn’t set to change. So, can we collectively agree to give up the chase and focus on the facts: Trump nearly managed to get the election results overturned — and he’s poised to try again.