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A former judge’s devastating verdict on Donald Trump’s scheming against American democracy

Once again, the Jan. 6 committee’s hearings are a must-see for democracy.

J. Michael Luttig, a former judge for the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, testifies before the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the US Capitol, on Thursday in Washington, D.C.Anna Moneymaker/Getty

It may be the most important declaration to date in the US House of Representatives’ hearings on Jan. 6 — and it’s not a revelation about scheming or skulduggery but rather a solemn plea to all Americans by a revered former judge.

“No American ought to turn away from January 6, 2021, until all of America comes to grips with what befell our country that day, and we decide what we want for our democracy from this day forward,” former federal appeals court judge J. Michael Luttig declared in a written statement to the House select committee investigating Jan. 6.


Those are vitally important words for our country. And Luttig, as a veteran of the Ronald Reagan White House, a former clerk for then-appeals court judge Antonin Scalia, a top official in the George H.W. Bush Justice Department, and then a well-regarded judge on the the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, is a highly credible voice to deliver that message.

Let’s hope Luttig’s sterling conservative credentials are enough to break through on a matter where partisan affinity can have a dismaying truth-distorting or truth-rejecting effect. As uncomfortable as it is for past or current supporters of Donald Trump to revisit it all, Jan. 6 was a moment where our democracy was under serious assault, both from the anti-constitutional scheming of Trump and his political henchmen and by the brutal, police-assaulting MAGA crowd that stormed the US Capitol hoping to further his effort to overturn the election results.

Indeed, had Vice President Mike Pence buckled to his boss’s relentless pressure and aided and abetted the White House’s schemes, we really would have seen a purloined election — one stolen by Trump.

As Luttig said in his written statement, part of which he repeated in oral testimony on Thursday: “It is breathtaking that these arguments even were conceived, let alone entertained by the President of the United States at that perilous moment in history. Had the Vice President of the United States obeyed the President of the United States, America would immediately have been plunged into what would have been tantamount to a revolution within a paralyzing constitutional crisis.”


We also learned from Greg Jacob, the vice president’s former legal counsel, that even John Eastman, the bizarre right-wing lawyer who hatched the plot to have Pence reject the Electoral College results, realized that action wouldn’t survive US Supreme Court scrutiny if constitutionally reviewed by the court. But according to former Trump White House lawyer Eric Herschmann, Eastman was willing to see violence in the streets if that’s what it took to keep Trump in power.

Now, anyone who writes about Jan. 6 is familiar with the rationalizations that have become the reflexive right-wing retort. One is that the House select committee isn’t legitimate, because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn’t accept two of House minority leader Kevin McCarthy’s nominees, whereupon McCarthy announced Republicans wouldn’t participate at all. (Pelosi then appointed two GOP representatives, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, to the panel.)

But that’s a spurious objection for this reason: The GOP was set on thwarting any systematic examination of Jan. 6 and the events that precipitated it; witness the way Senate Republicans used a filibuster to block a House-passed plan for an independent commission. That opposition, born in part of GOP concern that the proceedings would hurt Republican chances in the midterm elections, can’t be allowed to prevent an accounting so vital to American democracy.


Sadly, even conservative commentators who should know better, like radio host and former Reaganite Hugh Hewitt and Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel, have embraced that exercise in obscurantist evasion.

Anyone inclined to seek a similar safe space from truth must come to grips with this reality: The most damning revelations from the committee hearings so far have come not from Democrats or inveterate anti-Trump voices, but rather from top members of his former administration or campaign.

For our democracy to endure, the Constitution must be honored over political cause or candidate. On Jan. 6, the vice president did just that in rejecting Trump’s nefarious plot.

Pence stuck to principle and the Constitution, risking possible death at the hands of a violent mob that was calling for his hanging — and was in his close proximity at the time. He should be the hero of Republicans who purport to cherish the Constitution and the rule of law — just as Donald Trump should be the object of their ire.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.