The Senate impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump has featured chilling video footage of a mob that came within minutes of carrying out far more violence during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol than it ultimately did.
“We had a really close call,” Maine independent U.S. Sen. Angus King told MSNBC Wednesday. “I mean, there’s no question when you see the frenzy and hysteria they were in … if they’d have gotten a hold of of any of the members (of Congress), I don’t think it would have mattered what party or who they were, that crowd was in a bloodlust situation. It was an incredibly close call.”
Illustrating just how close it was is a key goal of the Democratic impeachment managers. It’s a strategy rooted in the hope that Republican senators will realize that they could have been among the casualties.
Impeachment managers used graphics and video to show the mob within minutes of reaching Vice President Mike Pence, who had been targeted for refusing Trump’s instructions to not certify the election results. New security footage showed Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman — already credited for diverting insurrectionists from the Senate chamber — steering Utah Sen. Mitt Romney away from the approaching rioters, some of whom were outfitted in tactical gear, carrying weapons or zip cuffs.
And a video shot by one of the insurrectionists showed the invaders pillaging senators’ desks, including the one for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who the rioters initially mistook as one of the Republican senators who “sold them out,” before realizing that Cruz, who fueled the bogus stolen election claims, was on their side.
Still, it seems unlikely the impeachment managers’ narrative, however compelling, will persuade the necessary 17 Republican senators needed to convict Trump on charges that he instigated the assault by vigorously seeding lies about widespread voter fraud, pre- and post-election. Pre-impeachment trial polls suggest conviction is nearly impossible because overwhelming majorities of Republican respondents oppose it.
The polls also showed nearly two-thirds of Republican voters believed Trump that the election was illegitimate.
“If people can’t trust elections then there’s nothing left of the democracy and you only leave them violence,” King said.
A new survey commissioned by the conservative American Enterprise Institute suggests some Americans are OK with that. It found that 3 in 10 Americans, including 39% of Republicans, agreed that, “If elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions.”
“I think any time you have a significant number of the public saying use of force can be justified in our political system, that’s pretty scary,” Daniel Cox, director of the AEI Survey Center on American Life, told NPR.
The AEI poll has other scary findings, including a significant number of Republican respondents who believe the false QAnon conspiracy that Trump was secretly fighting a child sex trafficking cabal run by Democrats and Hollywood elites.
QAnon, of course, became interwoven in the stolen election fallacy that propelled the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, and its adherents were among those who ransacked the building alongside militia members.
Such beliefs reflect a distinct minority of the American public. Strong majorities of Democrats and independents know that President Joe Biden’s victory was legitimate. But the alternate reality concocted by Trump and others maintains a firm grip on Republican voters, and because of that, many GOP senators may feel compelled to appease their base constituency and acquit Trump.
But there may be an alternative for Republican senators who are concerned with what happened on Jan. 6 and don’t want to see it repeated: A concerted effort to dispel and denounce the myth that, as King said, led Trump extremists to believe “something valuable had been stolen from them” when it wasn’t.
New Secretary of State, new approach
It’s been about a month since the Democratic-controlled Legislature elected Shenna Bellows for secretary of state, but the former state senator is already making an impression.
Bellows, who has vowed to expand voting access and make some changes at an agency that oversees the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and voting systems, kicked off the week by promoting a bill sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, that would allow Maine voters to request ongoing absentee ballots for statewide and municipal elections, thus replacing the need to request a ballot each election.
It’s not uncommon for the state’s top election official to support or oppose legislation during a public hearing, but it has been relatively rare for the secretary of state to use press releases or Twitter to publicize and promote their views, much less call in reinforcements.
For Fecteau’s bill, Bellows convinced Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman to testify during the public hearing about that state’s long history of voting reforms, including one that led Washington to become one of 10 states that automatically mails ballots to voters. Washington state’s reforms began in the 1980s at the urging of Republican lawmakers, ultimately leading to a 1991 law closely resembling Fecteau’s proposal.
Wyman’s testimony could prove useful for advocates of the Maine proposal, but it also demonstrates how Bellows’ approach to her job will be different than her predecessor, former Secretary of State Matt Dunlap.
Dunlap was by no means press or publicity shy, but he generally approached his job as a manager or custodian of existing election laws, not someone who pushed for new ones. Bellows, a former director of the ACLU of Maine and state lawmaker, is taking a much different approach.
She also hired Joann Bautista to become a deputy secretary of state and a policy advisor. The addition of Bautista has rankled some Republican activists, who framed her as overtly partisan. But her addition is further evidence that Bellows won’t just carry out Maine’s election laws, but also actively attempt to change them.
Racial impact statements
Democratic assistant House leader Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross’ push to allow some legislative committees to request racial impact statements on new bills has run into a bit of snag.
The concept is used by roughly half a dozen states as a way of forecasting potential impacts legislation might have on communities of color. Talbot Ross’ bill received support from Democratic leaders, Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau.
But Gov. Janet Mills has some concerns.
Her chief legal counsel Jerry Reid submitted testimony saying that the Mills administration supports the goals of the bill, but also worries that many state agencies don’t have the capacity or race data to conduct meaningful analyses.
Reid also indicated that allowing legislative committees to request such impact statements from state agencies may violate separation of powers provisions in the Maine Constitution, and as such, requests for analysis could be ignored by an executive branch hostile to the entire exercise.
During a work session Talbot Ross insisted that her bill doesn’t intend to require state agencies to analyze data that they might not have. She also noted that her bill is basically a pilot project that would begin next year after legislative leaders agree on what data might be useful in racial impact statements and which committees might be best suited to request them.
However, the Mills’ administration’s primary concern appears centered on making sure those analyses remain a function of the legislative branch and its staff of nonpartisan analysts — or possibly third-party organizations — but not state agencies.
The State and Local Government Committee is expected to continue reviewing Talbot Ross’ proposal next week.
More separation tension
Over the course of his two terms, former Republican Gov. Paul LePage was known for his combative relationship with the Legislature. At its apex, the hostilities resulted in LePage essentially withholding agency data and testimony from his commissioners from legislative committees.
Gov. Mills vowed to repair that relationship with the legislative branch. Not everyone is satisfied.
Rep. William Tuell, R-East Machias, is sponsoring a bill that aims to strengthen lawmakers’ ability to obtain information and testimony from state agencies controlled by the executive branch. Tuell made it clear that his dealings with state agencies and commissioners have been largely positive during the Mills administration, but he worried that the administration was backsliding when Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman did not appear for a hearing last summer to answer questions about delayed payout of unemployment claims.
Fortman’s absence appears to be the primary impetus for Tuell’s bill. The Mills administration is opposing it and it’s making largely the same separation of powers argument that prevented lawmakers from compelling commissioner appearances during the LePage years.
And it appears that the Mills administration has the Maine Constitution on its side in a classic separation of powers dispute that’s repeatedly played out during conflicts between Congress and U.S. presidents.
Reid, the governor’s legal counsel, argued that Tuell’s bill would essentially limit the governor’s authority over state agencies and commissioners that she controls as the state’s chief executive.
Click here to subscribe to Maine's Political Pulse Newsletter, sent to your inbox on Friday mornings.