This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America’s Future
THIS BOOK IS based on hundreds of interviews with people at every level of government in Washington, scores of American states and cities, and several foreign capitals. These interviews were conducted on a range of terms: Some people agreed to speak on the record, meaning that they could be cited by name, while others insisted on some degree of anonymity in order to share the most sensitive elements of their experiences in this time of crisis.
Some sources relayed condential documents to conrm or expand upon their recollections. Others shared audio or video tapes taken at crucial times, including recordings of private meetings with White House ocials and congressional leaders. These materials represent a crucial contribution to the historical record, allowing the authors to narrate some of the most important and disturbing moments of this period in thorough detail.
Where quotations are attributed directly to individuals, using quotation marks, it is because they reect the verbatim language used in interviews, text messages, emails, documents, or in recorded material, or were relayed by authoritative sources soon after the fact. In other situations, this book renders conversations and scenes in paraphrased form, without quotation marks.
Interviews for this book are quoted in the present tense to reect that the speaker was looking back on events from a distance; conversations and remarks that unfolded in real time are quoted in the past tense.
In every instance, the authors have endeavored to tell the story of these tumultuous years in our history as vividly as possible, and with the highest degree of precision and delity to the facts.
ABIGAIL SPANBERGER AND Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were not close friends.
Though they both claimed House seats in 2018, an election year that elevated a vanguard of Democratic women, the two had little in common. Spanberger had been an operative with the Central Intelligence Agency before running for the House as a down-the-middle centrist in the red-tinted suburbs of Richmond, Virginia. Ocasio-Cortez, a decade her junior, was an organizer on the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign and then defeated an incumbent member of the Democratic leadership, campaigning as a socialist in New York City.
In some respects, the two women represented the enormous gulf within the Democratic Party, separating the young left-wingers who made up the party’s grass roots from the moderate suburban constituencies whose votes had delivered Democrats a majority in the House in 2018 and then elected Joe Biden to the presidency.
But in the rst days of 2021, Spanberger and Ocasio-Cortez were not thinking much about their dierences. Spanberger placed a call to her colleague on a more urgent subject.
In just a few days, Congress would be tasked with certifying the results of the 2020 election. In a normal year, it was a pro forma exercise. The popular vote had already been tallied and the Electoral College had carried out its arcane duties in the middle of December. The role of the House and Senate was mostly ornamental.
Things were shaping up dierently this year. President Donald Trump had refused to concede the election, and he had instead spent the two previous months peddling increasingly outlandish conspiracy theories about election fraud. His complaints were ungrounded in fact, and lawsuits brought on his behalf had been all but laughed out of court.
But many of his followers had bought into Trump’s claims, and a good number of them were planning to gather in Washington for a demonstration outside the Capitol on January 6. The president was clinging to a bogus theory that his obsequious vice president, Mike Pence, could use his status as the presiding ocer in the Senate to block certication of the election.
As a former intelligence ocer, Spanberger was concerned about the possibility of violence—particularly violence targeting her fellow Democrats, and most especially the handful of highly recognizable progressive women who had been demonized by the right. She reached out to Ocasio-Cortez to urge her to take some unusual precautions, counseling an American lawmaker to approach the physical space of the Capitol—and the ritual of certifying a free and fair election—with the same caution she may have used with an intelligence asset in a dangerous foreign country.
“You are a very recognizable target,” Spanberger recalls telling Ocasio-Cortez. “Drive to work, and make sure that you dress in a way where you are as less recognizable as you could possibly be.”
“Wear sneakers, dress down—don’t look like you.”
That extraordinary conversation was one of many rippling through Congress in those tense days before January 6. In the aftermath of the insurrection, it would become clear that the national security apparatus of the United States and the police leaders responsible for defending the Capitol had failed to anticipate and prepare for the scale of the threat at hand. But to the lawmakers charged with completing the transfer of power between presidents, the mood of menace was pervasive.
To them, it was apparent enough that the basic institutions of American democracy had been strained almost to the breaking point.
In late December, Maxine Waters, the senior Democrat from Los Angeles, had spoken up on a video call with other lawmakers to inquire about security measures for January 6. Waters, one of the most recognizable Black women in Congress and a frequent target of the conservative media, was alarmed about one far-right organization in particular. In the rst presidential debate, Trump had pointedly declined to denounce the extremist group known as the Proud Boys—“Stand back and stand by,” he told them—and now some of its members appeared to be headed to Washington.
What, Waters asked, is being done about that?
On January 3, Democratic leaders issued guidance to lawmakers on keeping a low prole. Worried about a potential altercation with pro-Trump demonstrators on January 6, they advised the rank and le to conceal the special pins that identied them as members of Congress and to use a network of tunnels that runs under the Capitol to move around that day, rather than going outside. Lauren Underwood, a young lawmaker from Illinois, later paraphrased the safety advice with frustrated sarcasm: “It’ll be ne, but in case you’re worried just take the tunnel.”
Andy Kim, a House Democrat from New Jersey, had intended to bring his wife and two sons down to Washington to see him sworn in for a second term. A former National Security Council ocial who had worked in Afghanistan, Kim and his wife, Kammy, decided to err on the side of caution.
“I told her, ‘You know, I’m a little concerned about some of the chatter that we’re hearing about this protest,’ ” Kim says. “ ‘So, I mean, I want you and the kids to stay up in Jersey.’ ”
Before Kim returned to Washington alone, his wife said goodbye with a message Kim did not recall her giving him at any other time.
“Her last words to me were: ‘Be careful,’ ” he says.
Another Democrat, Jason Crow of Colorado, had brought his family to the nation’s capital for his swearing in and had hoped they would stay until January 7—the day after Congress would certify Biden’s victory and drop the curtain on the Trump era. But those plans changed. A former army ranger who did three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, Crow says he sent his family home on the eve of the certication vote.
“My wife and I made the decision for them to leave on the fth, which they did for safety,” he says.
Crow was not the only veteran of America’s twenty-rst-century wars to recognize an incipient breakdown in political order.
The previous summer, Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, who ew helicopters in the navy before winning a wealthy suburban district in 2018, had pressed the country’s top general to conrm that the armed forces would not be used to thwart an orderly transition from one president to the next. The Trump administration had used the military in a brazen political stunt in early June, when the president marched through Lafayette Park to brandish a Bible outside St. John’s Church, anked during the short walk by the secretary of defense, Mark Esper, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Sta, Mark Milley.
Both men had expressed regret afterward, but Sherrill was deeply dismayed. Concerned that the armed forces could be used in even more sinister ways, she pressed Milley by phone to commit that there would not be “some sort of military coup.”
“He assured me in private that he understood his constitutional duties, as did our military,” Sherrill says. “And he felt very secure that the military would carry out its constitutional duties.”
But as the certication vote rapidly approached, questions of military neutrality and public order were looming as large as ever. Milley, an army general whose relationship with the president was in tatters, was among those broaching exceptionally delicate subjects in preparation for the long day ahead.
On January 4, the general placed a call to Tom Cotton, the Republican senator from Arkansas. A hard-line conservative and a close ally of the president, Cotton had announced he would vote to certify the election results, and he was working closely with Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, to counter a group of senators who intended to object.
Milley had taken note of Cotton’s statement, and reached out to ask for help. Could you explain, he asked Cotton, how the certication process on
January 6 is supposed to work?
He was worried, the general explained, that Washington was poised to explode. It was not that he feared an insurrection, exactly. But Milley had seen the scenes of violence in American streets the previous summer, and he feared that in a tinderbox environment there could be an outbreak of street violence between extreme forces on the right and left.
That turned out to be a fatally misguided read on the threat at hand.
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|May 8, 2022|