Trump’s Savviest Aides Already Headed for the Exits

The hearings give the former president’s followers a new excuse to quietly back away.

A photo of people at a January 6 hearing watching Donald Trump speak
Drew Angerer / Getty

Many sophisticated observers of the January 6 committee will judge its success by two key metrics: whether the panel refers former President Donald Trump for criminal investigation and, if so, whether Attorney General Merrick Garland actually proceeds. But committee members are doing another job at least as important as advising the Justice Department: They are giving an off-ramp to those who accepted Trump’s insistence that the 2020 election was stolen out from under him—and who might excuse or even support violence done in his name.

Democracies do not fail in a single moment; they gradually break down from within. The same can be said of violent movements. Since the Capitol riot, the United States has been waging what is essentially a counter-extremism effort against Trump and the forces that nearly toppled our democracy. Such movements grow by portraying themselves as successful and their leadership as exceptional. The committee hearings have shown Trump to be not only an insurrectionist and an inciter of violence, but also a desperate sore loser. Almost everyone around Trump was telling him that his public claims of election fraud were “bullshit,” as former Attorney General William Barr put it. The people who continue spreading that myth need to know that Trump is making a fool of them. The savviest of his advisers long ago headed for the exits, and the ones who haven’t are not to be believed.

Notably, most of the committee’s witnesses against the former president are or were members of Team Trump or the GOP. Look at them, the committee is saying—there is a way out. Trump, according to Representative Liz Cheney, the committee’s Republican vice chair, was advised by an “apparently inebriated” Rudy Giuliani. This description, based on the accounts of Trump-campaign figures, isn’t idle gossip, but is meant to humiliate Trump, make him seem like a puppet of the unhinged and reckless. Run away from that guy! Trump is also betrayed by his daughter Ivanka, who in videotaped testimony looks deflated and pale as she sides with the forces telling Trump to stop his madness. The implication is clear: If his own daughter isn’t with him, why should you be?

The former president’s critics may rightly ask why neither she nor Barr spoke up in the moment. But longtime Trump skeptics aren’t the committee’s target audience. The message to his remaining supporters is: Trump has peaked. His best days are behind him. You won’t be the first to take the off-ramp, but you don’t want to be the last.

Instead of subscribing to Trump’s stolen-election fantasies, Republicans can join Team Normal, the term used by the former campaign manager Bill Stepien to describe those who were not instigating violence. If these former Trump loyalists can reject the lies, the committee is effectively telling his current followers, then so can you. And by the way, there was no honor among Trump’s abettors; the committee has evidence, one of its two Republican members has said, that GOP politicians who may have been involved with coordinating the January 6 effort had sought pardons, leaving everybody else exposed to prosecution.

According to evidence aired Thursday, John Eastman—a Trump legal adviser who kept insisting that then–Vice President Mike Pence had the power to alter the Electoral College vote—presumptuously declared in an email after the riot, “I’ve decided that I should be on the pardon list, if that is still in the works.” One of Trump’s White House lawyers testified that he’d told Eastman, “Get a great effing criminal-defense lawyer. You’re gonna need it.” The message to Trump supporters: With company like this, do you need any more reason to take an exit?

My background is in homeland security, and I have previously argued that counterterrorism holds lessons in how to isolate Trump and de-radicalize MAGA extremists. (Earlier this year, I was among hundreds of experts contacted by committee staffers who were seeking perspective about the events of January 6.) The committee and its investigators plainly understand the one way in which extremist groups gain a foothold politically: Their leaders present themselves as more reasonable and less violent than they really are. The committee is trying to deny Trump and his MAGA allies that option by reminding Americans that the threat of brute force was always the undercurrent behind “Stop the Steal.”

A single congressional committee cannot make Trump’s most violent supporters better, kinder, more accepting of America’s diversity. But it can help separate the former president from elites, donors, and those who would support him simply because they don’t like the alternative.

The committee’s case against Trump is relentless and personal—and one apparently targeted at Americans who might have voted for the former president or been sympathetic to his ideas. As Cheney said, “There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.” The committee and its investigators aren’t being nasty for its own sake.

A fair question is how many of Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters are actually seeing the committee’s work; some of Trump supporters’ preferred media platforms are largely ignoring the proceedings. But the hearings and the conversations they spawn appear on numerous national outlets and local news. Fox News at least covered them in the daytime. Republican elites and conservative influencers are paying attention. Commentators at The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post were not pleased with Trump after the first day’s proceedings; donors are expressing their annoyance; and some GOP members seem more vocal in treating Trump as a political liability for 2024. Asa Hutchinson, the Republican governor of Arkansas, has said that many in the GOP are looking for the “off-ramp” from Trump’s election fiction. On the left, many of Trump’s critics seem to yearn for a single blow of reckoning, but perhaps the threat he and his followers pose is best handled with a thousand cuts.

The most effective attempt to isolate Trump came at the end of the second hearing, when Representative Zoe Lofgren highlighted the Trump family’s greed and opportunism in the days after the election. This narrative isn’t particularly necessary for an indictment. Still, a committee staffer disclosed that, after losing the November 2020 election, Trump and his allies raised $250 million in pursuit of the lie but never set up the special fund that they had promised to dedicate to the cause. Some of the money went to paying Kimberly Guilfoyle, Donald Trump Jr.’s fiancée, $60,000 for a two-and-a-half-minute speech on January 6. Donors “deserve better than what President Trump and his team did,” Lofgren declared, lending a sympathetic ear to those who might be feeling a little duped. Perhaps she doesn’t really believe it, but it works as a way of saying: Have you had enough yet?

The conservative commentator Ann Coulter appears to concur. “Every time you think you have your arms fully around Trump’s con,” she wrote this week, “you realize it’s unfathomably more cynical and far-reaching than you could have imagined.” She added, “Is there anyone in Trump World who isn’t trying to fleece the Deplorables?”

The committee is building a historical record as well as a legal case against Trump and his aides. But it is also grappling with the threat posed by a violent movement—a threat that weakens if enough of Trump’s supporters quietly back away from him. Trump does not need to go to prison to be disgraced. If the former president ends up a rich, lonely man who can no longer fill a stadium, begging a dwindling number of radical adherents for attention while his children grift off his name, then America will have won.