‘We Should Be Expecting a Lot More of Democracy’

Jamie Raskin represents Maryland’s 8th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He serves on numerous committees, including ​​the House Judiciary Committee and the recently created House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol. On January 12, 2021, he was chosen by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to be the lead impeachment manager for the second Senate trial of Donald Trump. For more than twenty-five years, Raskin was a professor of Constitutional law at American University in Washington, D.C. His newest book, Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy (Harper), will be released on January 4. We spoke by telephone on October 25.

Q: I want to start by asking about your role in the second impeachment of Donald Trump.

Jamie Raskin: I worked on the impeachment article with David Cicilline [Democrat of Rhode Island], Ted Lieu [Democrat of California], and Joe Neguse [Democrat of Colorado] on the evening of January 6, when we were all either in hiding or trapped in our offices. All of us agreed immediately that the President’s incitement of the violent insurrection alone was the paradigmatic “high crime and misdemeanor.” If that’s not an impeachable offense, it’s hard to know what would be.

Those guys actually took the lead in drafting the article. I spent my time working on a resolution to pass in the House, calling on Vice President [Mike] Pence to activate the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to transfer the powers of the President to the Vice President, because [Trump] had demonstrated himself unable to meet the powers and duties of office. I got to work more on the impeachment resolution in the next day or two, but I was focused for the first twenty-four hours on the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.

Remember, we thought we were in continuing danger from Donald Trump. He had clearly positioned himself outside the Constitutional order, and was waging a war on the election. And we didn’t know what other potential assaults were coming.

Q: Do you think the Senate impeachment vote could have turned out differently?

“If five Democratic members at the House had been killed, the vote would’ve flipped in the other direction in terms of validating the objections to electors from those swing states.”

Raskin: Well, this was a 57-43 result, which was the most sweeping bipartisan vote to convict in a presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history. We had ten Republicans in the House vote to impeach and seven Republicans in the Senate vote to convict—those were Republican Senators from New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the South, the Midwest, the West, and Alaska.

Trump still beat the Constitutional spread in that we didn’t make it to sixty-seven [Senators]. But I do believe that we convicted him in the court of public opinion, and we convicted him in the eyes of history. That leaves us in this fundamentally ambiguous posture because he is, by all rights, a pariah and an outcast from mainstream American politics, yet he has only consolidated his hold over the Republican Party and looks hellbent on running for President again.

Q: You spent many years as a Constitutional law professor before your time in Congress. Do you agree that we really saw a stressing of the Constitution during the Trump era?

Raskin: Yes. The first thing I want to describe is my take on what happened on January 6. There were three rings of activity on that day. The first was the outer ring where most people were. There were tens of thousands of people who were brought in as protesters, and then became rioters. Those people essentially just responded to Trump’s tweets and social media invitations to come and get wild in Washington.

The middle ring was the ring of the insurrection, made up of the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, the Aryan Nations, the QAnon contingent, and other organized battalions. These people had been getting ready for a fight and many were training for a fight, and most of them were armed. So these people acted as the vanguard of the fascist riot against the police, the Capitol, and Congress..

But at the inner core, the central ring, was the ring of the coup. And we don’t think of coups as a U.S. problem, because coups are usually something conducted against Presidents. But in this case, the coup was conducted by the President against the Vice President and against the Congress, in an effort to thwart the certification of Electoral College votes establishing Joe Biden’s victory. They were engaged in a full-scale political coercion and violent assault campaign to force Pence to reject Electoral College votes coming in from Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania.

The purpose was to lower Joe Biden’s vote total below 270, which would’ve kicked the contest into the House of Representatives for a so-called contingent election under the Twelfth Amendment. If you are wondering why they wanted to have the election settled in the House, it’s because under the Twelfth Amendment, we don’t vote one member one vote, we vote one state one vote. So the GOP had twenty-seven state delegations. Liz Cheney  [wouldn’t have] voted for Trump, but that still would’ve left them with twenty-six states and a victory. And at that point, Trump was prepared to invoke the Insurrection Act, and call out the National Guard, not to put down the rioters, but simply to stabilize the situation and proclaim his victory.

Q: How close do you think we came to that scenario?

Raskin: Very close. It was essentially Mike Pence’s determination not to buckle under to Donald Trump. That morning, Trump had called him to the White House and told him that he would go down in history as “a patriot” or “a pussy,” depending on whether or not he joined this plan. And there were all kinds of political efforts mobilized toward forcing Pence to do it.

Of course, the insurrection and the coup merged on the floor of the House of Representatives on January 6, and Pence ended up fleeing with his entourage (including the guy carrying the nuclear football) and ended up hiding out someplace on the Capitol campus. The Secret Service urged him to leave the Capitol campus, and he refused, saying that he was not going to leave until the Electoral College vote was certified.

Pence uttered the words “I’m not getting in the car,” which may be the six most overlooked words of January 6. But those words were pivotal to our ability to keep the Constitutional process going. So I’d say we were in real danger.

And of course, if five Democratic members at the House had been killed, the vote would’ve flipped in the other direction in terms of validating the objections to electors from those swing states. So there were a number of ways that democracy could have been turned on its head.

“Long after Donald Trump has gone, we are going to be dealing with the bitter fruit of the coalition of extreme rightwing forces that he made possible.”

Q: How much of what you’ve just said here is going to be showcased to the public by the January 6th committee?

Raskin: Well, I’m determined, as just one member of the January 6th committee, to bring to light everything that happened both on the insurrection side and on the side of the inside political coup. This is a democracy, and democracies depend on the people having the information they need to govern. James Madison was adamant about that. He said that “a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” People need to have the knowledge of precisely what kind of threat was staring us in the face.

Q: Who has done more damage to the nation: Donald Trump or those that have continued to stand by him?

Raskin: It’s impossible to disentangle Donald Trump from his enablers and followers. It operates like a religious cult. Trump can’t be Trump without all of his followers and enablers, but at the same time, it’s a symbiotic relationship. Everyone sees the way Trump has used violent extremist groups like the Proud Boys, who were told to “stand back and stand by.” Or the Oath Keepers who were out in force on that day. But they used him, too.

In August 2017, at the so-called Unite the Right rally [in Charlottesville, Virginia], they could only summon up a protest of 500 hardcore extremist white nationalists in the streets. On January 6, they went from that hardcore group to several thousand. And they were at [the core] of a mass fascist street movement, unlike anything the United States has seen for many, many decades.

Donald Trump may have used the far right for his own purposes to act as insurrectionists and bodyguards for the inside coup maneuver. But they [also] used him, and long after Donald Trump has gone, we are going to be dealing with the bitter fruit of the coalition of extreme rightwing forces that he made possible.

Q: We’re seeing that today, playing out in local school boards with protests against mask wearing, against critical race theory, and so on all across the country.

Raskin: One of the last video tapes we showed at the impeachment trial in the Senate was of the insurrectionists yelling: Now everybody go back to your states and do the same thing there. And that’s precisely what happened. Not just at state capitols, but at city halls and school board meetings. They are turning school board meetings into hell all over the country.

Q: Your father, Marcus Raskin, was the co-founder of the Institute for Policy Studies. He also wrote articles for The Progressive. What kind of influence did he have on you and how did it shape your ideas?

Raskin: Yes, my father was a very big supporter of The Progressive and a contributor to it, and I used to see The Progressive all over the place at our house, and The Nation and lots of magazines and books, as you can imagine. My father was a great champion of the idea that there’s a struggle between different forms of government going on in America. One is a democratic republic where the government is a servant of the people and the people run the government, versus a national security state [with] structures of white supremacy and racism and fascism. There are all these competing political forms in the country right now, and we have to do whatever we can to make sure that the majority governs and the people rule.

Q: On January 6, besides the tragedy happening at the Capitol, you had your own personal tragedy at that point. Your son had just been buried the day before.

Raskin: It was a terrible week for our family, with the catastrophe of losing our son, Tommy, just a week before. And the day before [on January 5], we had held the graveside service for Tommy. So it was just an inconceivable trauma that we were in.

My daughter Tabitha wanted to be with me on that day [January 6]. I thought it was because she was so upset, but in fact, she was worried about me, and didn’t want me to be alone. So she came and also our son-in-law, Hank, who’s married to our older daughter, Hannah. They were both there and they both got trapped in Steny Hoyer’s office and hid under a desk for several hours with my chief of staff, Julie Tagen, before they were rescued and escorted out by the police. So our private trauma was immediately compounded by this terrible public trauma.

Q: What can ordinary people do to protect and defend U.S. democracy?

Raskin: We have to defend democratic institutions up and down the line, starting with the right to vote. We’re trying to get this freedom to vote legislation passed by the Senate. It has anti-gerrymandering provisions in it. We can mandate independent redistricting panels. And we’re trying to protect the rights of early voting and weekend voting and the right not to have your name purged for missing an election or some other reason like that.

So we’ve got to fight for federal legislation, but we can also fight for state voting rights, and work to register people to vote and turn out the vote.

We should be expecting a lot more of democracy, not less. And that was really what my son Tommy was engaged in. He really wanted to see that democratic government in the United States would be an instrument for promoting human rights and peace and social justice everywhere. That’s our task: to defend the democratic institutions we’ve got, and then put them to work in the interest of the common good.

Q: You talked earlier about the importance of education, having the voters be educated.

Raskin: We’re living in a time of extreme propaganda and deception and brainwashing of people by Fox News and other even more extreme news outlets. We have a responsibility to defend science, reason, logic, data, and then real news, against the waterfall of propaganda coming from Donald Trump and his supporters. That’s a critical thing. My dad used to say that “democracy needs a ground to stand on, and that ground is the truth.” If you pull the truth away from democracy, then all of our institutions are in danger of crumbling.