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An attempted bank robber who doesn’t hurt anybody is still guilty of attempted bank robbery. If someone gets hurt, though, the penalties are greater even if the robber didn’t intend harm.
This is how I think about what Donald Trump did last week. Of course, the violence makes everything worse. But whatever blame he deserves for inciting a mob — and I think he deserves quite a lot — the ransacking of the Capitol should be understood as merely compounding the original caper: to steal the election he lost.
Let’s look at the record.
For years, Trump dodged answering whether he’d respect the results of the 2020 election. Why? Because, as he often says, he likes to keep his options open.
Recall that Trump claimed the election was stolen before his cronies invented evidence of the theft. On election night, he said, “This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.”
This was always the plan. Even liberals downplayed the outrage. They said Trump was “undermining the legitimacy of the election.” He was. And yes, it’s true many Democrats have questioned elections in the past. The difference is Trump’s questioning of the election results was a means to an end, not the end in itself. He assaulted the election’s legitimacy as a necessary first step to stealing the election.
As University of Illinois political scientist Nicholas Grossman laid out, the Trump campaign expected the race to be closer, with Pennsylvania playing the role Florida played in the 2000 campaign. Months before the election, Trump thundered that votes counted after election day shouldn’t count, knowing full well that absentee and early votes would be in Biden’s favor. (He also knew that Pennsylvania’s GOP-controlled Legislature barred counting early votes before election day.)
The plan was to declare victory on election night while he appeared to be ahead.
That’s why Trump and his campaign were so furious at Fox News for calling Arizona early — it undercut their ability to claim victory that night. In the days after the election, they wanted the Democrats to be the ones going to court to overturn the election results, not them. It didn't work out that way.
The original idea was to have the Supreme Court hand Trump the election. This is why he repeatedly insisted that Amy Coney Barrett needed to be on the court before the election. “This scam will be before the United States Supreme Court,” Trump said on Sept. 23, over a month before the election. “I think having a 4-4 situation is not a good situation, if you get that.” The “scam” he was referring to was early and absentee ballots.
The court rightly rebuffed him, which explains Trump’s sense of betrayal by appointees whom he thought owed him loyalty. At the Jan. 6 rally, he hammered his own appointees. “I fought like hell for them …” he said. “And you know what? They couldn’t give a damn.”
So much for Plan A. Plan B was to have state legislatures steal the election for him or have officials “find” enough votes to overturn it. That failed, too.
Plan C ended last Wednesday. At his “Save America” rally, he repeatedly called on Vice President Pence to “do the right thing” and reject the certified electoral college votes, under an insane theory that Pence had such authority. “Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us,” he told the crowd. “If he doesn’t, that will be a sad day for our country because you’re sworn to uphold our Constitution.”
He then asked the crowd to show “strength.” The mob promptly marched on the Capitol to intimidate Pence and Congress to go along with Trump’s demand.
Trump and his team were open about their intent to intimidate Congress into overturning a lawful election. They claim rioting wasn’t part of the plan. Maybe. But after months of Trump and his circle telling supporters that the Democrats were not only stealing the election, but that Biden was a corrupt Chinese puppet bent on destroying America, they negligently did nothing to prepare for it, never mind prevent it. A literal lynch mob chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” A police officer was beaten with American flag poles. Another was bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher.
It’s fine to say Trump didn’t intend the utterly foreseeable — and predicted — violence. But that’s like a robber saying he didn’t intend for anyone to get hurt. The intended theft was bad enough. The violence only makes it that much more heinous.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.