Book Reviews: Kinzinger v Cheney

The GOP House J6 Select Committee veterans tell their stories

Renegade by Adam Kinzinger and Oath and Honor by Liz Cheney.

Former House January 6 Select Committee members Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney both released books within a month of each other during the November-December 2023 holiday season. For those of you who may not have read either or both of them, and in light of the fact that today marks the third anniversary of Donald Trump's attempted coup, I offer you the following appraisal. (Consider this post to be two days early from the usual Monday schedule)

By far, Kinzinger's book is the more confessional and self-reflective, taking the reader all the way back to his childhood upbringing in Illinois in a very traditionally religious family with decidedly Republican political leanings. A very large chunk of his memoir deals with his military service and the impact it's had on him and his thinking. One of the more interesting stories he relates is about transitioning from flying the lumbering, airliner-sized KC-135 aerial refueling tankers to the RC-26, which he describes as

...a two-engine turboprop packed with electronic eavesdropping devices and video cameras. It could fly fast and low, capturing the signals from thousands of cellphones. When one matched a number known to be used by insurgents or their Iranian allies, the technology could pinpoint the location, capture video of the area, and send both to ground troops without delay. With the right coordination, the target could be reach in minutes, not hours. (p. 93)

At the time, Kinzinger was flying the RC-26 as part of a Wisconsin National Guard unit deployed to Iraq. Just a little over a decade after Kinzinger flew those intelligence collection missions in wartime, West Virginia National Guard RC-26s would be used domestically to surveil George Floyd protestors at multiple locations.

Kinzinger makes no mention of that misuse of a powerful airborne surveillance capability. Maybe he missed the press coverage on it when it happened, but the military aviation community (like other subsets of the military community generally) is pretty tight. Stories about people or activities involving one's professional community that make it into the press--especially where controversy is involved--inevitably circulate among those in the same field. I found Kinzinger's silence on the episode strange, especially given his obvious and well-grounded concerns about how a second Trump term could lead to platforms like the RC-26  being misused to target future anti-Trump protesters.

Kinzinger's accounts of his first run for local office, then for the House and his dalliance with the Tea Party, demonstrate that, whatever his religious convictions, he was prepared to at least try to placate the increasingly angry, hostile GOP base during the Obama era. Midway through Obama's second presidential term, Kinzinger fended off a Tea Party challenger and went on to win better than 70% of the vote in the 2014 general election. Even so, he knew things were changing in the GOP, and not for the better.

For some Republicans," he wrote, "normal is a mature style. It calls for well-mannered debate, respect for institutions, and resistance to radical change. For others, who were increasing in numbers, it is partisan combat in an endless war. (p. 159)

Kinzinger has plenty to say about the religious right, about the inherent racism among many Trump supporters, and about his own growing disaffection from the political party he had belonged to for years. In describing the 2016 GOP convention incident in which Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) was booed off the stage by Trump loyalists, Kinzinger writes

I knew I was witnessing the first cult of personality to ever seize control of a major political party, and the humiliation of a senator who was one of the worst people to occupy the Senate since Republican Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, who ruined many lives with his witch hunt of the 1950s. (p. 186)

Yet Kinzinger remained the loyal GOP foot soldier into late 2019, when the first impeachment vote against Trump over the "Ukrainegate" episode presented him with a clear moral and political choice.

Kinzinger rationalized his decision to vote against that impeachment resolution. "But with every other Republican voting no," Kinzinger writes,  "I couldn't imagine standing as the lone member of the caucus voting with the Democrats."

It would be Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney who would make Kinzinger feel ashamed of his own moral and political cowardice by being the only Senator to vote to convict Trump of the impeachment charge.

He [Romney] was, in this case, a greater renegade than me....Instead, I played along, hoping Trump would be chastened. He wasn't. In fact, things would get much worse. So yeah, I regret it. As he [Trump] might say, I regret it 'big time.' (p. 218).

Kinzinger's subsequent public break with Trump, as well as his service on the House January 6 Select Committee, would convince him it was time to leave Congress. His book and his ongoing media appearances and writing are clearly part of a journey of atonement.

In contrast, Cheney's book is largely a 350+ page revisiting and follow up to the work of the House January 6 Select Committee. There's a fair amount of behind-the-scenes material regarding her acquisition of private security personnel in the post-January 6 era, the hunt for cooperative witnesses and documents after the committee was finally authorized and formed, and multiple snippets of testimony and depositions that will be familiar to anyone who watched the committee's multiple hearings over the course of 2022.

One of the most tantalizing passages in Cheney's book deals with alleged conversations on the night of January 5, 2021, between White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Trump political consultant and Proud Boy member Roger Stone, and former Army Lieutenant General and ex-Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn:

Testimony obtained by the Committee suggested that Meadows may have contacted both Flynn and Stone at Donald Trump's request on the evening of January 5. Flynn and Stone had both been photographed with certain members of the Oath Keepers or Proud Boys. Of course, members of both the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers were directly involved in the attack on the Capitol on January 6, and a number of the leaders and members of these groups have since been convicted of seditious conspiracy. (p. 246)

Cheney's implicit suggestion here appears to be that Trump, via Meadows, gave the "green light" or otherwise signaled his support for the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys to mount an attack on the Capitol. I'm not aware of any public evidence emerging from the seditious conspiracy trials of Oath Keeper or Proud Boy members that supports that notion.

However, published reports indicate that Special Counsel Jack Smith granted immunity to Meadows in return for his cooperation in Smith's January 6 criminal case against Trump, and that Meadows has appeared before a federal grand jury at least once, in March 2023.

If Meadows had provided Smith with direct, documentary evidence of Trump's complicity in urging or even ordering violent action against the joint session to certify the election, one would think that Smith would’ve charged Trump with seditious conspiracy in August 2023 when he filed the current indictment. If Meadow’s could offer only a verbal confirmation of such a conversation, Stone and Flynn could deny it on the stand, leaving the jury with the task of sorting out which, if any of them, was telling the truth—not the kind of chance any prosecutor would want to take.

What seems more likely is corroborating testimony (and perhaps documentary evidence) from Meadows that Trump knew he’d lost to Biden and was actively engaged in an attempt to defraud the American public via his illegal, multi-pronged effort to nullify the results of the 2020 presidential election. We won’t know either way until Trump’s January 6-related trial takes place. The significance, if any, of the January 5 evening call between Meadows, Stone, and Flynn may never be known.

Some of Cheney's narrative nuggets got considerable press play. Representative Mark Green's (R-TN) alleged comment "The things we do for the Orange Jesus" as he participated in the effort to challenge the legitimacy of Biden's victory (p. 85) was just one of them. What did not get as much attention was how little Cheney reflected on her support for and working with Trump for the first several years of his Administration. In the book, on p. 322, she acknowledges in brief that relationship.

Beginning during the 2016 presidential transition, we had helped the new administration form its team in the federal agencies that mattered to Wyoming. And we worked very closely with that team, introducing and passing legislation and steering policy. During the Trump administration, important policies changed in areas such as land use and energy policy. I was pleased to introduce and cosponsor a number of pieces of legislation in these areas that were signed into law. Wyoming prospered.

Cheney goes on to claim that by 2022 things with Trump were "very different" with "thousands.... across Wyoming" believing Trump's election-related lies. But Trump had been lying to the country about a range of matters well before his attempted coup in January 2021. Cheney mentions nothing about that well-established pattern and practice of Trump peddling falsehoods, dating back to his days in New York real estate decades earlier. Kinzinger has clearly done more genuine--and public--soul searching than Cheney about going along with Trump for too long.

To their credit, each has continued on virtually a daily basis to attack Trump--not only for his continuing lies about the 2020 election, but about his plans should he be reelected in 2024. To that end, one of Cheney's observations about many of our fellow citizens should give all of us concerned about the Republic's survival pause:

What Donald Trump accomplished was this: Despite mountains of hard evidence to the contrary, he persuaded tens of millions of Americans--some 40 to 50 million in all--that their nation had been stolen from them by election fraud. And Donald Trump convinced some of them to believe it absolutely. As if it were a tenet of faith. For millions, their minds may never change on this...Today Donald Trump poses a threat that many in Washington simply fail to grasp. He can move Americans to action based on total dishonesty. I can tell you from my time working to support democracy overseas that the power to rally a mob must never be underestimated. Nor should the fear that a mob can instill in people of reason. (p. 191)

Cheney's message is clear: It could all happen again. The ingredients are all there. And if it happens again, it will make the last time look like a walk in the park.

If you don't want to part with your money to buy the books, see if your local library has them. Unlike most political memoirs, they're worth the read.

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