Former federal judge warns of danger to American democracy

During Thursday’s Jan. 6 committee hearing, retired federal judge J. Michael Luttig issued a dire warning to the country. Luttig, who advised former Vice President Mike Pence, said that 17 months after the riot on the U.S. Capitol, “Donald Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy.”

Luttig said the United States is at a crossroads similar to the one the country faced during the Civil War, and he said America needs help.

Luttig was appointed to the federal bench by George H.W. Bush and worked in both the Bush and Reagan administrations. He said in his written testimony that the U.S. is in a “war” over the nation’s democracy and that “only the party that instigated this war can end it,” calling on the Republican Party to start a reconciliation process.

Speaking to NPR on Saturday, Luttig reiterated his message that lawmakers must begin talking to each other as “fellow Americans that have a shared destiny and shared hopes and dreams for America.” But Republicans must start the process, he added.

Luttig spoke with NPR’s All Things Considered about the odds of members of the Republican Party starting these good-faith conversations, pro-Trump candidates currently running for office, and whether the Jan. 6 committee hearings can help close the divide.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

Do you think that there is a meaningful constituency within your party, the Republican Party that is, willing to have good-faith conversations about this? And if so where are they?

As of the day that I testified, no, there are none, and there haven’t been for these couple of years. I’m not a politician, I don’t do politics, but that’s what I propose happen. And it’s with my fervent hope that some number of our elected leaders, at least, will hear the words that I spoke on Thursday and understand what I said, which is that they have an obligation, a high obligation, that they undertake by oath to act in the interest of America and Americans in contrast to their own personal political interests.

If you look at the most recent primaries, pro-Trump candidates are still competing across the country and winning on the lie that there was election fraud in 2020. How do you build trust in our democracy, in the idea that we can get to a better place in our country when you have people at these important high levels who are denying the 2020 election results?

You don’t and you can’t, and that’s why I testified Thursday that the former president and his party are today a clear and present danger for American democracy. And I specifically contrasted that with the circumstance, had it been so, that the former president and the Republican Party had stood down after the 2020 election and accepted the results. But as I said to the select committee on Thursday, that’s not what’s happened.

To this day, the former president and the Republican Party have insisted — and they persist in the claim — that the 2020 election was stolen, and not merely that, but they pledge to execute the same blueprint in 2024 that they attempted in 2020. But their every intention is if they do execute on that plan in 2024 that they will win in 2024 where they failed in 2020.

The January 6th hearings are clearly important for the country to understand what happened on that day and why it happened, and I know you feel that way, but many Republicans do not. They call the hearings an effort to divide. And so I wonder whether you think that they’re more likely to bring closure or further fuel this division that you say is destroying our democracy?

Well, when I turned in my statement to discussing the two political parties in the United States, the most important words to me … were that the two political parties in America are the political guardians of our democracy. That’s why I went on to say that it’s imperative that both parties end this one war for democracy and suggesting that it was the obligation of the Republican Party to begin that reconciliation.

We cannot have in America either political party behaving itself like the Republican Party has since the 2020 election. As long as that continues then we will have an unstable democratic order in the United States, and we will forever be fighting over American democracy. As I went on to say in my statement, the war for America’s democracy is not a war that America can win.

If the two political parties are going to be fighting literally over America’s democracy, that is a war that is endless, and it is destructive of the United States of America. And there is not a person in this country who can disagree with that. They can argue over you know whether, as the Republicans have continued to do, the 2020 activities of the former president in the party threatened democracy. They’re silly to even suggest that. But they cannot argue over the abstract point, the conceptual point that I made, which is if the two parties cannot agree to the orderly transfer of power in the United States then that war will continue, and as long as it continues we do not have democracy in the United States.

Do you think that the January 6th hearings that are going on right now might actually sort of break through and encourage politicians to maybe start to stand up on this issue?

Well, you know I’m a former judge and a lawyer, and to my knowledge, I’ve never spoken publicly a single word of politics. So count me as cynical as to politics and all politicians. Do I think that maybe these hearings can break through to some American patriots who are currently our political leaders? I hope with all my heart and soul that the hearings will break through to those political leaders.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

During Thursday’s January 6 committee hearing, one witness issued a dire warning to the country. J. Michael Luttig is a retired federal judge who advised Vice President Mike Pence that he could not overturn the results of the 2020 election, despite pressure he was receiving from the president. In his testimony this week, he said that, almost two years after the riot at the U.S. Capitol, quote, “Donald Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy.” Luttig said, we’re at a crossroads, similar to the ones the United States faced during the Civil War, and he said America needs help. The question now is what kind, and how should the country navigate its way through these crossroads?

Judge Luttig was appointed to the federal bench by George H.W. Bush, and before that worked for the Bush administration and also in the Reagan White House. Michael Luttig joins us now. Thank you for being with us.

J MICHAEL LUTTIG: Thank you, Adrian. It’s a pleasure to be with you this afternoon.

FLORIDO: You said in your testimony before the House Select Committee investigating the Capitol riot that we are in a war over our democracy, but that, quote, “only the party that instigated this war can end it.” You’re talking about the Republican Party, so what’s the first step to finding the peaceful end to this war that you say our country needs?

LUTTIG: I identified two wars that had been going on for at least two years. The second war is the war that I termed the war for America’s democracy, and I said that that war for democracy began on January 6, 2021. And I go on to say that, through the logic of reconciliation that I propose, it’s incumbent upon the Republican Party to begin the reconciliation process because the Republican Party was responsible for the instigation of that second war on January 6, 2021.

FLORIDO: What does that reconciliation process look like?

LUTTIG: What’s required is a critical mass of our nation’s leaders from both parties to summon the moral and political courage to extend their hands to each other and then to their other colleagues, and all of those colleagues then to extend their hands to America and acknowledge that America is in peril and that America needs their help.

FLORIDO: Do you think that there is a meaningful constituency within your party – the Republican Party – that is willing to have good-faith conversations about this? And if so, where are they?

LUTTIG: That’s the question. As of the day that I testified, Thursday, 2022, no. There are none. I’m not a politician. I don’t do politics. But that’s what I proposed happen, and it’s with my fervent hope that some number of our elected leaders at least will hear the words that I spoke on Thursday and understand what I said, which is that they have an obligation – a high obligation – that they undertake by oath to act in the interest of America and Americans, in contrast to their own personal political interests.

FLORIDO: If you look at the most recent primaries, pro-Trump candidates are still competing across the country and winning on the lie that there was election fraud in 2020. In Nevada, an election denier won the GOP nomination for secretary of state – the post that runs elections – and Nevada is likely to be a very important swing state in 2024. So how do you build trust in our democracy, in the idea that we can get to a better place in our country, when you have people at these important high levels who are denying the 2020 election results still?

LUTTIG: You don’t and you can’t, and that’s why I testified Thursday that the former president and his party are today a clear and present danger for American democracy. And not merely that, but they pledge to execute the same blueprint, as I called it, in 2024 that they attempted in 2020. But their every intention is, if they do execute on that plan in 2024, that they will win in 2024 where they failed in 2020.

FLORIDO: You’ve written that it’s not only Americans who disagree on whether what happened on January 6 was good or bad. Our two main political parties can’t agree on that. The January 6 hearings are clearly important for the country to understand what happened on that day and why it happened. And I know you feel that way, but many Republicans do not. They call the hearings an effort to divide. And so I wonder whether you think they’re more likely to bring closure or to sort of further fuel this division that you say is destroying our democracy?

LUTTIG: We cannot have, in America, either political party behaving itself like the Republican Party has since the 2020 election. As long as that continues, then we will have an unstable democratic order in the United States, and we will forever be fighting over American democracy. If the two parties cannot agree to the orderly transfer of power in the United States, then that war will continue. And as long as it continues, we do not have democracy in the United States.

FLORIDO: Do you think that the January 6 hearings that are going on right now might actually sort of break through and encourage politicians to maybe start to stand up on this issue?

LUTTIG: I’m a former judge and a lawyer, and, to my knowledge, I’ve never spoken publicly a single word of politics. So count me as a cynic – as cynical as to politics and all politicians. Do I think that maybe these hearings can break through to some American patriots who are currently our political leaders? I hope with all my heart and soul that the hearings will break through to those political leaders.

FLORIDO: Michael Luttig is a retired federal judge. He testified Thursday before the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Judge Luttig, thanks for joining us.

LUTTIG: Thank you, Adrian. It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.