"If I do this, what do I have to lose?": New documents show Trump feared no consequences for a coup

New court filings from the Jan. 6 committee demonstrate Trump thought he'd get away with his crimes

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published March 4, 2022 1:09PM (EST)

Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

There is one simple reason why Donald Trump orchestrated his coup — one which led to a violent insurrection on January 6, 2021: He didn't think he'd ever face consequences for doing so. 

document filed by the January 6 committee with a California federal court on Wednesday confirmed it. The document is filed on a narrow question about obtaining documents from likely Trump co-conspirator John Eastman, who is claiming attorney-client privilege. But that privilege doesn't give lawyers the right to conspire to commit crimes with their clients, which is exactly what the committee alleges Eastman and Trump were doing.

"The Select Committee also has a good-faith basis for concluding that the President and members of his Campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States."

RELATED: "Merrick Garland, are you listening?": Jan. 6 committee says Trump may have violated multiple laws

Late Thursday, the New York Times published an analysis of the evidence for this claim presented in the filing, and unsurprisingly, it's damning and extensive. Through multiple witnesses and documents, the Times shows that Trump was repeatedly informed that his election loss was real. It also shows that Trump's claims of "fraud" were based on nothing. When advisors shot down his conspiracy theories, he just kept making up new ones. This is not the behavior of someone who has sincere reason to believe that an election was fraudulent. This is a person perpetuating a lie and trying to falsify evidence to support it. 

But the most chilling detail in the New York Times breakdown is what former Justice Department official Richard Donoghue described as Trump's rationale for attempting to overthrow democracy. "The president said something to the effect of: 'What do I have to lose?'"

"'If I do this, what do I have to lose?'" Donoghue told the committee Trump asked.

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Donoghue further says he pleaded with Trump not to "hurt the country," but of course, that plea fell on deaf ears. Trump is a sociopathic narcissist. Of course, he wasn't going to be affected by appeals to the greater good, or feel compelled by his own oath to uphold democracy. Trump cares about one thing and one thing only — always has and always will: Donald J. Trump. At this late date, anyone who denies this is a liar or delusional to the point of madness. 

RELATED: Cheater in chief: Donald Trump thinks playing by the rules is for losers

What matters here, however, is the deep assurance Trump had that he would never face a real consequence — neither politically, nor legally, and certainly not criminally — for perpetuating a massive crime against democracy.

And why shouldn't he think that?

Trump has been criming his entire life, and never faced anything like a serious consequence. As the New York Times has repeatedly shown in its reporting, Trump has been a massive tax fraud his whole career. He doesn't even bother to deny it, but brags about how defrauding the government and other taxpayers is a "sport" and makes him "smart." He's been accused of sexual harassment, assault, and rape by over two dozen women. But we don't have just their testimony to rely on to believe them, because Trump himself bragged about it on the infamous "grab 'em by the pussy" tape. Even when one of his illegal schemes comes back to bite him — as happened when he was forced to settle out of court with defrauded customers of his "Trump University" grift — the consequences are insufficient to actually be felt. Hell, he's even managed to get the Republican National Committee to pay his legal bills so that he can keep wasting his money on golf courses. 

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It's not just that Trump commits crimes because he knows he'll get away with them. I'd argue that getting away with it is a big part of what motivates him to commit crimes. It's the thrill of getting one over on everyone else. It's the feeling of power it gives him, realizing that he can get away with stuff anyone else would go to jail for. He doesn't even hide that, as all the bragging about tax fraud and sexual assault shows. And he will not stop committing crimes — including re-attempting a coup — unless someone actually stops him.

As the New York Times analysis shows, one of the biggest obstacles in prosecuting Trump will be "the question of his state of mind at the time." Obviously, Trump knew full well that he lost the election and his claims otherwise are just the latest in a lifetime of lying. But he also has the instinct of self-preservation that flows from a lifelong habit of committing crimes. It appears he was careful never to tip his hand to the fact that he knew he was lying to anyone who could be a criminal witness against him. Instead, he would just keep reiterating his claim that the election was a "fraud" and expect the person he was badgering to pick up on his underlying wish, which was for someone to falsify the evidence to support his lies.

It's the same strategy Trump used in trying to exhort Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy into faking evidence to smear Joe Biden in the 2020 campaign. He never directly asked Zelenskyy to counterfeit evidence, but instead says, "I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation." Similarly, when Trump pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to falsify votes, he never directly demands it. Instead, he asked Raffensperger to "find" the votes. The meaning of the ask is clear, but Trump always carefully uses language that lawyers can later use to quibble over his intent. 

RELATED: Why voters don't blame Republicans for the Capitol riot — no GOP leaders have been arrested yet

As law professor Alan Rozenshtein told the New York Times, "A finder of fact could conclude that Trump is so uniquely narcissistic and self-absorbed that he actually thought the election had been stolen." Which was no doubt the defense Trump had in mind when he carefully made sure to talk in that sideways way he loves to use when engaging in one of his many conspiracies and frauds. But we can know from context that lying and not delusion is the explanation for Trump's claims of a "stolen" election. Trump was claiming that the election was "rigged" for months before the election even happened. That is not the behavior of a man who saw evidence of fraud and is raising the alarm. That's the behavior of a man who plans to commit fraud and is laying the groundwork for his lies.

In February, Trump let the mask slip a little, by releasing a statement asserting that his former vice president "Mike Pence did have the right to change the outcome." That is, of course, another lie. But in lying about the law, he let slip the truth about his state of mind when he revealed that he intended to "change the outcome." His lawyers likely panicked, because Trump released another statement insisting what he meant was that Pence could "send back the votes for recertification or approval." But no one of good faith believes this. He just got over his skis in his dashed-off statement, and the truth about his intent slipped out, which thankfully the Jan. 6 committee is seizing on

Still, Trump is a slippery mofo who has a lifetime of experience getting away with crime. That is likely fueling what increasingly looks like a troubling reluctance on the part of Attorney General Merrick Garland to actually prosecute Trump. If so, that's a massive mistake.

It's abundantly clear that nothing will stop Trump but a threat of consequences, one that has teeth. He is not constrained by morality, as he has none. He is not constrained by the Republican Party, which has made it clear they will assist Trump in his anti-democratic efforts and cover up for any crimes he commits along the way. It may be hard to prosecute him, but it is literally the only hope we have of stopping him from attempting another coup. With the full support of the GOP behind him next time he tries to overthrow democracy, he'll likely succeed. 

"What do I have to lose?" is basically Trump's motto. If he never gets an answer, he will never stop. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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