Nothing is more important than Team Trump's January PowerPoint urging a full-blown coup

Will Bunch
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows listens as President Donald Trump speaks to the media outside the White House on Oct. 30, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images/TNS)

In 1971, the brilliant musician Gil Scott-Heron warned America that "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." So far that's been true, but who knew that in 2021 the counterrevolution — more popularly known as a coup — would be laid out in a PowerPoint presentation?

Indeed, when the story first dribbled out late this past week, it sounded more like a plot twist from a really bad self-published political thriller than real life: A 38-page plan for President Donald Trump to declare a "National Security Emergency" and seize ballots as part of a wider effort around Jan. 6 to prevent the certification of Joe Biden as Trump's successor.

According to one slide from the presentation that Trump's top aide, then-chief of staff Mark Meadows, viewed and later turned over to congressional investigators, the president would endorse a bat guano-crazy conspiracy about Chinese interference in the 2020 presidential election as a pretext to declare all electronic votes invalid.

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It's the kind of transparently fake and utterly corrupt coup that you'd only expect to see in the type of less-developed country we used to call a banana republic. But as The Washington Post and other outlets reported, the wackadoodle plan for Trump to stay in office after losing an election, thus ending American democracy, was circulated on Capitol Hill just two days before 147 Republicans indeed voted against certifying Biden's wins in key states.

In this image from video, Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., speaks as the House debates the objection to confirm the Electoral College vote from Pennsylvania, at the U.S. Capitol early Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. (House Television via AP)

I know, it seems kind of funny — this nerdy tech tool that Bill Gates and his Microsoft monolith acquired to propel regional sales meetings in Duluth instead being used in the plot to end the American Experiment after 245 years. But the quickening flow of leaks and new discoveries from the House committee probing the Jan. 6 insurrection is no laughing matter.

Last week saw a cluster of news stories — some coming from the slowly forward-moving House select committee — that continue to confirm greater White House involvement in Jan. 6 planning. This clearer picture also shows an escalating, increasingly desperate Trump-led effort to block the fair and legitimate counting of the 2020 votes, from the courts to the corridors of Congress to, finally, the bloody barricades.

For example, a report that two of the Jan. 6 event organizers met privately with Trump in a White House dining room just two days before the insurrection should cement the idea that the events leading up to the fateful day were closely coordinated with the president and his inner circle — a point that was arguably already driven home by recent confirmation of a Jan. 6 "war room" run by close Trump associates at the Willard Hotel.

But other new what-the-heck disclosures about the events leading up to Jan. 6 are a reminder that there are still things we don't know or fully understand. Why, for example, did a publicist for the hip-hop superstar Kanye West — whose quixotic independent presidential campaign sure looked like an effort to siphon away a few Black votes for his friend Trump — show up in Georgia on Jan. 4 to threaten an election vote-counter who'd become the subject of wild conspiracy theories on the far right?

High-stakes public hearings might also shake the Beltway inertia that the threat to democracy posed by the insurrection should take a backseat to other matters having more impact on voters' day-to-day lives, including the never-ending pandemic and the economic aftershocks, good and bad. Many in the elite Washington media seem to have adopted the mantra that it's time to move on from Jan. 6, especially since any coup ambitions were seemingly thwarted with President Biden's inauguration. Some tried to tamp down the disclosure of the coup-plotting PowerPoint circulating among Trump's highest aides and congressional allies, arguing that the existence of the document isn't "a hair-on-fire moment" for the American system.

The Washington Post reported Saturday that the originator of the PowerPoint plan appears to be a Texas-based retired Army colonel (who, interestingly, specialized in psyops) named Phil Waldron, who'd managed to first get his ideas and then himself woven into Trump's inner circle, including a close relationship with the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. While Waldron hasn't been a household name, he told The Post he visited the White House multiple times in the days after the November 2020 election, met personally with Meadows and was part of those critical pre-Jan. 6 briefings on Capitol Hill. Waldron also said he met personally with Trump and "several Pennsylvania legislators" in the Oval Office on Nov. 25 — a matter that maybe the Pennsylvania legislature or someone in my home state should investigate, no?

As crazy as Waldron's claims of Chinese-led election tampering or his remedies of seizing paper ballots under a "national security emergency" might sound, it's important to understand how close this plot came to succeeding. If days of hounding and pressuring then-Vice President Mike Pence to go along with the plan had worked, or if the subsequent violence had created a pathway for Trump to send in Army troops to seize control of the Capitol before Biden's certification, America would have been plunged into Kabul-level chaos.

But there's an even more important reason for the Jan. 6 disclosures to be seen and understood as the most important story in America right now: Bolstered by the lack of consequences so far for Trump and his inner circle, the coup attempt is ongoing. As the unpunished leader of a Republican Party that this anti-democracy ex-president has now spent six years bending to his will, Trump is currently leading an effort to change laws and remove any balky GOP officials who thwarted him in 2020 — to make sure he will be declared the winner in 2024, regardless of the reality-based vote count.

The New York Times reported this weekend that many believers in Trump's stolen-election conspiracy theories or even people who traveled to Washington on Jan. 6 are winning or the early favorites for a number of key vote-counting positions for 2022 and 2024, from the new judge of elections in the small town of Mt. Joy, Pennsylvania, to the powerful secretaries of state in the battlegrounds that cost Trump the presidency last year.

"This is a five-alarm fire," Jocelyn Benson, Michigan's Democratic secretary of state, told The Times, adding: "If people in general, leaders and citizens, aren't taking this as the most important issue of our time and acting accordingly, then we may not be able to ensure democracy prevails again in '24."

Unfortunately, not enough people are acting accordingly. Any student of the last century of world history knows the seriousness of underestimating the rise of authoritarianism in far-flung precincts, that while the media is obsessing on the petty squabbles among, say, the Social Democrats, or the delusions of a decrepit ruling class, a madman who failed but learned from one aborted putsch is busy perfecting the second assault.

The only thing wrong with describing the PowerPoint for an all-American coup as a "hair-on-fire moment" is that the term is way too small to describe the existential threat that's smoldering, unextinguished, in the rotting foundation of the United States and its increasingly haywire experiment. It's been said before, but whatever you would have done in 1933 Germany or 1963 Alabama is what you are doing in 2021 America. We can speed up the hearings, put the biggest story on the front page, and arrest the coup plotters, or we can let the fire burn. The choice is ours.

— Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.