About a month ago, former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who worked alongside Donald Trump for a year and a half, publicly declared that the former president is unsuited for public office. Esper went on to agree that Trump represents “a threat to democracy.”
As political criticisms go, this remains a unique condemnation. Officials are routinely targeted with all kinds of rebukes about their competence and integrity, but to say that a leader represents “a threat to democracy” is to argue that our system of government may no longer endure if that leader holds a position of influence.
It’s the difference between a crooked politician and a dangerous one: The problems posed by the latter are existential.
Esper’s fully justified concerns came to mind again yesterday during the latest Jan. 6 committee hearing, as one of the witnesses echoed the former Pentagon chief. CNBC reported:
Retired federal Judge J. Michael Luttig, who advised Pence ahead of the Capitol riot, directly accused Trump and his allies of waging a “war on democracy” on Jan. 6, 2021. He called Trump a “clear and present danger” to American democracy. “Our democracy today is on a knife’s edge,” Luttig, a former judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, said.
It’s likely that much of the country is unfamiliar with Luttig, but circling back to our earlier coverage, in conservative legal circles, he has few rivals. As Politico recently noted, the jurist has spent much of his adult life operating “at the top of the conservative legal world.”
Luttig has been an attorney in the Reagan White House, a clerk for Antonin Scalia, and one of the nation’s most prominent conservative judges, overseeing clerks with familiar names such as Ted Cruz and John Eastman. Not surprisingly, during some recent Republican administrations, Luttig was considered for the U.S. Supreme Court.
When then-Vice President Mike Pence and his team weighed their legal options after the 2020 election, they sought the former judge’s advice. He told them to follow the law. They did.
Nearly two years later, Luttig delivered a warning to the bipartisan select panel investigating the attack on the Capitol: Trump and his confederates not only targeted our democracy after losing in 2020, they’re prepared to do so again.
“[T]o this very day,” the retired jurist testified, “the former president, his allies and supporters pledge that in the presidential election of 2024, if the former president or his anointed successor as the Republican Party presidential candidate were to lose that election, that they would attempt to overturn that 2024 election in the same way that they attempted to overturn the 2020 election, but succeed in 2024, where they failed in 2020.”
He added that “they are executing that blueprint in open and plain view of the American public.”
There’s a school of thought that says the Jan. 6 investigation is unnecessary — an idea espoused by those eager to, as they put it, “move on.” The pushback to such an argument is obvious: Given the seriousness of the plot against our political system, accountability demands an accounting of what happened and who was responsible.
But even if one is mistakenly indifferent to those questions, the point of this exercise is not inherently retrospective: The committee’s work and the search for truth is about our future, too.
A Washington Post report added, “Jan. 6, Luttig said, was a war within a broader war over the future of the country, ‘a war irresponsibly instigated by the former president and his political allies, and his supporters.’ The war rages today, he added, and ‘as a political matter of fact, only the party that instigated this war over our democracy can bring an end to this war.’”
Luttig was right to remind everyone about this foundational truth. One can only hope his ostensible Republican allies were listening.