In December 1990, after the collapse of Communist power in Eastern Europe and in the midst of Mikhail Gorbachev's attempts to hold a reformed USSR together, his foreign minister and close collaborator, Edward Shevernadze, suddenly resigned and warned that the country was headed for dictatorship. Observers in the West generally failed to take this warning seriously enough. Seven months later, old-line Communists in the Soviet military and government tried to overthrow Gorbachev in a coup. It failed, and the USSR fell apart less than six months later.
A parallel event, it turns out, took place last December 14, when Donald Trump announced that William Barr was resigning as Attorney General. Barr on November 30 had refused to endorse Trump's claims of decisive voter fraud in the recent election, and Trump had already expressed discontent with him. Barr did not warn of any developments to come, and the two men turned his departure into a love fest. Jeffrey Rosen, Barr's deputy, became acting Attorney General. Less than three weeks later, the President apparently attempted a coup that would have replaced Rosen with the more pliable Jeffrey Clark, and put the DOJ squarely on Trump's side in the voter fraud controversy.
Rosen and Clark had remarkably similar backgrounds, including long careers at the Republican law firm Kirkland and Ellis (which had also made Brett Kavanaugh a partner when he had almost no private legal experience) and service in the George W. Bush Administration. (Other Kirkland and Ellis alumni include Ken Starr, William Barr, White House counsel Pat Cipollone, Secretary of HSS Alexander Azar, and Robert Bork.) Clark was now heading two different divisions of the DOJ at once, the Environment and Natural Resources Division and the Civil Division. (Clark has long opposed the regulation of greenhouse gases.) According to the most thorough account of recent events in the New York Times, Clark by the last week of December had made contact with Trump via an unnamed "Pennsylvania politician," and they had formed a plan. Clark would take over the Justice Department and announce widespread investigations of voter fraud. He would also send a letter to the Georgia legislature asking it to undo the certification of Biden's victory in its state. (Let me go on record: I strongly suspect that they planned to send similar letters to at least two other legislatures, including the Pennsylvania one, since undoing the result of the Georgia election alone could not have given the election to Trump.) Clark met with Trump on Saturday, January 2 or Sunday morning, January 3, and then informed Rosen that he was going to replace him. Rosen quickly called Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, and arranged a meeting with him, Trump, and several senior Justice Department officials on that very evening of January 3. After a long and bitter argument, one of the main features of Donald Trump's personality--cowardice--won out. He agreed to leave Rosen in place, after everyone else in the meeting threatened immediate resignation if he did not. That left Trump with only one card to play: the incitement of the crowd of supporters he had already summoned to Washington three days later. He played it.
The two-week postponement of Trump's Senate trial gives the House of Representatives time to submit a second count relating to this story. They even have time, should they use it, to hold emergency hearings and take testimony from the key players. (Clark has already indicated that he would refuse to answer questions based on highly dubious claims of attorney-client privilege.) Many stories suggest that Mitch McConnell and other Republican Senators are moving towards votes for conviction, and these revelations should move them more quickly.
We are extremely fortunate that Donald Trump doesn't have enough attention span to plan anything ahead. I am shocked that so many well-educated and successful professionals like Barr and Clark have willingly collaborated in some of his most disgraceful schemes. Trump did not however take the trouble to complete the Gleichschaltung of key agencies and put men like Clark in charge of the Justice Department and the Pentagon who would do anything he asked. (He did not make that mistake at state, where Mike Pompeo has been everything he could have hoped for.) If he had, we might well have lost our democracy. The Senate now has a chance to brand Trump's conduct as criminal for all time and ban him from holding federal office. Let us hope that it does.