In the wake of results for two Georgia elections that would cost him his position as Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell was having the finest moment of his political career just past 1:30 p.m. Jan. 6, as he spoke with surprising emotion against the push by 13 of his Republican colleagues to "overrule the voters" and refuse to certify the Electoral College results making Joe Biden the President-elect.
Noting that Donald Trump's claims of vote fraud had been rejected time and again by both the states involved and the courts, "including some judges appointed by the President," Mr. McConnell said on the U.S. Senate floor, "We cannot simply declare ourselves the national board of elections on steroids. If we overrule them, it would damage our Republic forever. If this election was overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral."
It was essential, he said, that Senators have "a shared commitment to the truth and a shared respect for the ground rules of our system. We cannot keep drifting apart into two separate tribes with a separate set of facts and separate reality, with nothing in common except our hostility towards each other and mistrust for the national institutions that we all share."
He pointed out that Democrats had challenged the result of the 2004 presidential election with the same type of proceeding, so Republicans weren't breaking new ground, but then added, "We must not initiate and escalate what we repudiate."
Whipped Mob Into Frenzy
What he didn't mention was that the challenge 16 years ago hadn't been initiated at the fervent urging of a sitting President. Mr. Trump finished a lengthy filibuster to thousands of supporters near the White House as the Senate proceeding got under way, telling followers to whom he had promised a "wild" rally, "If you don't fight like hell, you're not gonna have a country anymore."
In case anyone thought he was just speaking rhetorically, a few minutes later he brayed, "Let's go to the Capitol!"
Mr. Trump, of course, despite promising them, "I'll be with you," headed back to the White House, putting some distance—physically at least—between himself and the violence that would begin less than an hour after Mr. McConnell's uncharacteristic call for principles, rather than political leverage, to prevail.
The Kentucky Senator was followed to the podium by the man who would replace him as Majority Leader, Chuck Schumer, who would then yield to Ted Cruz, who argued that it was necessary to delay certifying Mr. Biden's 306-232 victory in the Electoral College on the grounds that a recent poll showed that "39 percent of the country believes the election was rigged."
What he didn't say was that this was the result of Mr. Trump proving the Big Lie Theory: that if you repeat something that's untrue often enough, you'll pick up more than a few believers.
Five years earlier, the man who at the time hadn't quite clinched the Republican nomination for President stated prior to the Iowa caucuses, "I have the most-loyal voters. I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK?"
Pence Resisted Bullying
His attempt to pressure Vice President Mike Pence into going along with his attempt at a coup hadn't worked—before the hearing, Mr. Pence had released a letter stating, "As a student of history who loves the Constitution and reveres its Framers, I do not believe that the Founders of our country intended to invest the vice president with unilateral authority to decide which electoral votes should be counted during the Joint Session of Congress, and no Vice President in American history has ever exerted such authority."
Previously occupied by his speech in which he did the political equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theater, Mr. Trump didn't respond until the more-crazed of his supporters had stormed the Capitol Building, finding their way through its halls while Mr. Pence was whisked from the Senate Chamber by his personal security detail for his own safety. The building was placed on lock-down and Senators and Representatives were directed to "shelter in place."
Just about the time when TV cameras showed his supporters on the balcony of the Capitol—a restricted area—Mr. Trump's tweet stated, "Mike Pence didn't have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!"
A different take on the situation was offered by Terrance Gainer, the former Chief of the Capitol Police nearly 20 years ago who later served more than seven years as Sergeant at Arms of the Senate.
Reached by phone, he told MSNBC, "Clearly this President has incited these individuals to become attackers. And so it proves a couple of things: the empty barrel does make the most noise. He's making it dangerous for the police officers and the emergency responders, as well as people who might have a right to be loud and vocal, but not violent."
'Police Fanatics' Indeed
As to the Trump supporters carrying out the mayhem, Mr. Gainer added, "It seems strange to me that a group of individuals who profess to be such police fanatics and 'police this and police that' are attacking police officers."
Mr. Trump has long played a dangerous game by riling up his supporters and never been publicly called to account for it by his allies. Not Republican elected officials who might complain about his tweets but never got specific enough to incur his wrath and that of the cult he developed around him. And not his police allies either, the most-prominent among them Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch, whose endorsement of Mr. Trump's re-election last summer paid tribute to his unyielding support for cops while gliding by the President's contempt for the rule of law when it stood in his path.
A call made to a PBA spokesman Jan. 5 but not returned seeking Mr. Lynch's response to the President's having been caught on tape three days earlier pressing Georgia's Republican Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, to manufacture just enough votes to swing in his favor a state Mr. Biden had won by nearly 12,000 was not returned. Mr. Trump's tone reminded some of recordings of organized-crime bosses issuing ultimatums, even as Mr. Raffensperger and his Counsel tried to explain that under the law to which they'd sworn an oath, there was nothing they could do.
It was also reminiscent of his call last year to the new President of Ukraine implying that he wouldn't supply badly needed military aid unless he did Mr. Trump "a favor" by creating an investigation into the dealings of Mr. Biden and his son Hunter in that nation. What the President later described as a "perfect phone call" got him impeached in the House of Representatives, the first step in removal, which fizzled out when Mr. McConnell refused to call witnesses to the Senate's proceedings before every Republican Senator except Mitt Romney voted to acquit him.
The Senate leader had made a calculation that holding on to the narrow GOP majority made it imperative to give Mr. Trump a pass, knowing that if ousted he would do everything he could to turn his supporters against Republicans in the general election. He was banking on being able to manage Mr. Trump enough to preserve his own power while getting dozens of new judges appointed who were his choices rather than the President's.
That made Mr. McConnell another in a long line of chumps who didn't realize until it was too late that loyalty was a one-way street for the spoiled rich kid who never grew up because he wasn't forced to and considered any move against him, regardless of the grounds, unforgivable. It didn't matter that Mr. Trump's charges of election fraud went nowhere with the authorities who heard his complaints; Mr. McConnell's delayed declaration that Mr. Biden was President-elect in mid-December, after the Electoral College gave him the majority he had earned, infuriated the President.
Over the next three weeks, he at times went along with the call by Lin Wood, an attorney with whom Mr. Trump had built an alliance, that because the November election was rigged, Georgia Republicans shouldn't bother voting in the two Senate contests, although winning just one of them would preserve the Republican majority.
It wasn't until the night before the election that the President appeared in Georgia on behalf of Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, and only after Ms. Loeffler said that she would join the 12 other Republican Senators who planned to vote against certifying the Electoral College results.
It wasn't enough. Perhaps because sharp ideological swings by the Republican incumbents reminded voters that Mr. Trump's exit from office wouldn't fundamentally change the workings of the Senate if they gained new terms, they turned out strongly for Jon Ossoff against Mr. Perdue and Raphael Warnock against Ms. Loeffler. The results were a kind of replay of the general election: the Republican Senators piled up leads of more than 100,000 votes three hours after the polls closed, but as the returns from the state's largest cities and surrounding suburbs poured in late that night, Mr. Warnock won by 73,000 votes and Mr. Ossoff by 35,000.
It seemed that Mr. Trump had once again pulled his King-Midas-in-Reverse act, blowing up those who aligned themselves with him while leaving Democrats with slender majorities in both houses of Congress that would give Mr. Biden considerably more power to get things done.
Unbowed by Defeat
That prospect didn't chasten the floundering President or his surrogates in the least. His two oldest sons—affecting the testosterone-fueled swagger that suggested they were chips off the old blockhead—served up some late-morning macho, with Eric calling on recalcitrant Republicans to show the same spine his father had and Donald Jr. declaring, "To all the Republicans who have not been willing to actually fight, the people who did nothing to stop the steal, this gathering should send a message to them. This isn't their Republican Party anymore. This is Donald Trump's Republican Party."
He also said, ominously, "If you're gonna be the zero and not the hero, we're coming for you."
The elder Trump took the stage at noon, stating, "We won this election and we won it by a landslide," although Mr. Biden's 7-million-vote margin suggested otherwise.
He then told his followers, "There's never been a movement like this. Ever, ever," and it was hard to dispute that.
Nor would most people deny that the coronavirus was the biggest factor in his defeat, although not in the way he meant when he said, "They've used the pandemic as a way of defrauding the people."
He led the crowd in a chant of "bull----" in describing the huge swing in the vote against him that began late on election night nine weeks earlier.
Before he sent his followers off to raise hell, he insisted, "Our brightest days are before us. Our greatest achievements still wait."
Then came the rioting, and the video of members of the Capitol Police crouched down, avoiding windows, guns drawn in case the thugs—one more division of Trump's "very fine people"—came through the door. One of the protesters was shot dead by police, carried out on a stretcher, her face and body covered in blood.
That evoked the video of Rudy Giuliani addressing the crowd that morning, closing his remarks with, "Let's have trial by combat!" The glint in his eye suggested that he had managed to enable Mr. Trump through his wild conspiracy theories because they were roommates in the same pit of insanity.
Like a Banana Republic
They were images, along with those of the more-nimble rioters climbing the walls of the Capitol Building, that led former President George W. Bush to compare the scene to what you'd find in a "banana republic," with dictators trying to hold power by the use of force. As disgracefully as it reflected on Mr. Trump and his more-extreme followers in Congress, it was also embarrassing to the country, and more than a bit chilling.
Mr. McConnell was among those who called it "an insurrection." His fellow Republican, Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, said, "We saw blood shed because a demagogue chose to spread falsehoods and sow distrust of our fellow Americans.."
The day began with the hopeful signs of Georgia, the state that gave us the arch-segregationist Governor Lester Maddox, having elected its first black and Jewish Senators. It included positive signs from the Republican side as well. Mr. Pence, the tight-jawed symbol of unflagging loyalty to Mr. Trump, stated that this was one line he wasn't willing to cross even if it cost him politically. Mr. McConnell, who began earning his reputation as an obstructionist with his declaration to his conference more than a decade ago that their objective was to make Barack Obama a one-term President and cemented it by denying Merrick Garland so much as a hearing when Mr. Obama nominated him for a Supreme Court seat, showed his soul wasn't completely lost.
Ms. Loeffler, who would soon be out of a job, was among more than a dozen Republicans who, once Congress reconvened that night, withdrew their support for the push against adopting the Electoral College results, recognizing finally that it was one step toward a coup that had turned bloody that afternoon.
But those moments of grace were overshadowed by Mr. Trump, and the ugliness he carries wherever he goes. He's left democracy battered, bruised and shuddering over what further outrages he might initiate or incite during his final two weeks in office if he wasn't removed from office.