This is the first Democracy Weekly newsletter we have published since December 17th, 2020. These unprecedented times have required us to adapt our weekly content. We hope you have appreciated our communications and the #RenewDemocracy campaign over the last several weeks. In order to push back against much of the anti-democratic activity of the past few months, we hope that you can join us on President’s Day, February 15th, at 6:00 p.m. ET for a virtual democracy rally headlined by Lt. Col (Ret.) Alexander Vindman!
Joseph R. Biden was inaugurated yesterday (January 20th) as the 46th President of the United States. After years of democratic backsliding, this peaceful transition of power reaffirmed America’s commitment to democracy. But we cannot become complacent. Countless challenges remain.
Here are two important ones this week:
1. Who Enabled the Capitol Insurrection?
2. Russian Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny Jailed After Returning to Russia
Democracy Stress Tested
The Capitol Building on January 6th. Credit: Reuters / Leah Millis
Who Enabled the Capitol Insurrection?
In the aftermath of the siege of the Capitol, even as prosecutors have begun to track down and arrest hundreds of the insurrectionists, questions swirl about who enabled the events of January 6th. To date, five people died in the attack, including one Capitol Police officer.
Even Republican Senator Mitch McConnell has acknowledged President Trump’s culpability for having incited the mob. The President repeatedly rebuffed requests to call up the National Guard––a far cry from his response to protests and riots over the summer. He circulated and amplified disinformation about the election for months, which fueled the insurrection. Even though most have now condemned what happened at the Capitol, many Republican Members of Congress likewise spread propaganda and ultimately voted to decertify the election, lending credence to the insurrectionists' cause. And right-wing media, as well as social media, created the requisite misinformation ecosystem that contributed to the Big Lie.
But some have speculated that those responsible extend far beyond the actors and actions described above. Conspiracy theories and conjecture abound. Let’s look at the facts.
Who enabled the insurrection?
1. Members of Congress
On Tuesday, January 13th, Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) claimed that she had seen Republican Members of Congress leading “reconnaissance” tours on January 5th. A veteran, Sherrill specifically credited her Navy service for training her to spot the suspicious activity. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, members of the public could only be in the Capitol at the express invitation of a sitting Member of Congress or their staff.
Later, Congressman Steve Cohen (D-TN) revealed that he and Congressman John Yarmuth (D-KY) had both seen freshman Lauren Boebert (R-CO) guiding a large group of people around the Capitol in the days immediately before January 6th. Boebert denied having given a tour. However, on January 6th, she tweeted “Today is 1776,” which, for some people, would have clear implications. Independent security officials should investigate whether or not Members of Congress, Boebert included, aided the mob in any way.
2. State and Local Officials
A number of Republican elected officials at the state and local levels were involved in the events of January 6th. State Senator Amanda Chase (R-VA), a leading Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, attended the “Stop the Steal” rally. Previously, she had accused Democrats of “committing treason” by loosening voting restrictions for COVID-19, and called on President Trump to declare martial law to overturn the election.
The district director for Republican Congressman Bob Good (R-VA) also attended the January 6th rally. And a state representative in West Virginia resigned after he was arrested for taking part in the insurrection; he had filmed himself storming the Capitol.
In the days before January 6th, many local Republican chapters posted a Facebook flyer calling for “Operation Occupy the Capitol” and declaring themselves “#1776Rebel[s].” When an organizer of the “Stop the Steal” rally tweeted, “I am willing to give up my life in this fight,” the Arizona Republican Party retweeted his message with the rejoinder: “He is. Are you?”
Whether or not these officials participated in the mob, their presence and voices legitimized and encouraged the Big Lie that led to it.
At least half a dozen former Trump campaign officials were listed as staff for the January 6th Trump rallies at the Capitol, indicating that the gatherings were not necessarily as driven by grassroots activists as some have claimed. Many Republican “dark money” groups, which, due to their non-profit status, do not have to disclose their donor lists, funded and organized the events. The Republican Attorneys General Association, a PAC dedicated to electing Republican Attorney General candidates nationwide, sent out robocalls encouraging supporters to attend the “Stop the Steal” rally. Charlie Kirk bragged that his organization, Turning Point USA (a group that promotes right-wing talking points on college campuses), would be sending more than 80 buses “full of patriots” to the rally, although they ended up sending seven.
Many different individuals and groups helped to organize and fund the many rallies that ultimately devolved into the storming of the Capitol. Although they do not bear direct responsibility for the horrific events of January 6th, the violence would not have happened without their support.
4. Capitol Police
Many of the Capitol Police officers were heroes. Eugene Goodman, with his quick thinking, diverted an entire mob from the Senate Chambers, buying just enough time for Vice President Pence and the remaining Senators to flee. But some failed their country.
Two Capitol Police officers have been suspended and 10 are under investigation for their conduct during the insurrection. One officer joined the mob to pose for selfies. Another put on a MAGA cap and began to direct the mob inside the Capitol. Some insurrectionists told the New York Times that a Capitol Police officer gave them directions to Chuck Schumer’s office. Nearly 30 police officers from across the country were also present at the Capitol to help storm the building.
The Chief of Capitol Police and both the House and Senate Sergeants-at-Arms have resigned for their failures to keep the Capitol safe. An investigation is ongoing.
Unlike those who killed Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, the four groups described above do not bear direct responsibility for the violence (aside from a few individuals). But, by enabling and parroting the Big Lie, they all made violence possible.
The makeshift courtroom in which Navalny was tried. Behind Navalny is a portrait depicting Genrikh Yagoda, a director of the Soviet secret police who oversaw Stalin’s show trials in the 1930s. Credit: Lifeshot
Russian Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny Jailed After Returning to Russia
On Sunday, January 17th, mere minutes after anti-Putin opposition leader Alexei Navalny returned to Russia, he was taken into custody. Navalny’s decision to return to Russia, even after having been poisoned by the Soviet nerve agent Novichok in August, reaffirmed his willingness to take personal risks in order to fight against Russia’s dictatorship.
Navalny is one of Russia’s best-known dissidents, famous for his leading role in 2011 mass protests against electoral fraud, anti-corruption investigative journalism that counters state-controlled media, and efforts to unify anti-Putin opposition forces. After landing in Moscow, he was arraigned for violating the parole terms of a 2014 conviction (which the European Court of Human Rights said was itself illegitimate). His alleged violation is failing to visit the Russian authorities twice per month while he was recuperating in Berlin after those very same authorities had poisoned him.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has attempted to downplay Navalny’s significance, avoiding saying his name over the past month and calling him “the Berlin patient” or an “insignificant blogger” instead. However, Russian authorities dubiously:
rerouted his flight shortly before it landed on false pretenses, diverting it from an airport at which opposition protestors had gathered;
tried Navalny in the backroom of a police station into which only three, pro-Kremlin outlets were allowed;
refused to let him see a lawyer until moments before the trial began;
transferred him to the prison where attorney Sergey Magnitsky, who investigated Kremlin corruption and tax fraud, was killed.
These are bold actions to take against someone who is supposedly so insignificant. As Navalny awaits hearings for baseless parole-violation and fraud charges that could keep him behind bars for up to ten years, he posted videos online urging his supporters to keep fighting. Nationwide protests against his arrest are scheduled for this Saturday, January 23rd.
1. Why did Navalny return?
Navalny knew he would be arrested after returning to Russia: he has been jailed more than ten times since 2011, and was recently added to the country’s Federal Wanted List. Nonetheless, he came back. Why?
First and foremost, Navalny pointed out that “Russia is my country, Moscow is my city, and I miss it.”
Second, he likely hopes his return will galvanize opposition forces ahead of the September 2021 parliamentary election. With support for Putin’s United Russia (UR) party at historic lows, they stand a serious chance of losing their Parliamentary supermajority. Kremlin misconduct towards Navalny will only serve to highlight Putin’s corruption and bolster Navalny’s movement.
Third, by returning, Navalny has, in a sense, cornered Putin. Any action the Russian leader takes to crack down on Navalny and his supporters is an implicit acknowledgement of the threat they pose to Putin’s rule, challenging Putin’s public insistence that Navalny is unimportant.
Fourth, Navalny’s courage sends a message beyond Russia’s borders. In putting his career, safety, and even life on the line to thwart Putin, Navalny has led by example and empowered movements against illiberal and authoritarian regimes everywhere. Protestors in Belarus fighting Alexander Lukashenko’s repressive regime projected a huge portrait of Navalny’s face on a building. Unfree people the world over will be inspired by Navalny’s decision.
2. What can America do?
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and incoming National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan both quickly denounced Navalny’s arrest. And shortly thereafter, news broke that the U.S. will sanction a Russian ship involved in constructing the lucrative Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline to Germany, a powerful gesture that Russian state gas company Gazprom says will threaten its bottom line.
However, two additional actions remain critical:
First, the government of the German state Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is attempting to circumvent the Nord Stream 2 sanctions. The U.S. must exert pressure to ensure this doesn’t happen, or encourage Angela Merkel to do so.
Second, Navalny’s close ally Vladamir Ashurkov published a list of eight key enablers of the Russian kleptocracy whom he and Navalny agree must be sanctioned. This list would serve as a good starting point as the U.S. explores punitive actions.
Navalny’s bravery serves as an example. He is willing to risk his life for democracy. What are we willing to do?