CNN anchor Jake Tapper is throwing his hat into the crowded ring of journalistic deep dives into January 6 and the 2020 election. In recent weeks, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa released their book, Peril, which brought to light the now infamous John Eastman memo; The Washington Post’s mammoth January 6 investigation further exposed the FBI’s failure to respond to threats about the Capitol riot; and HBO’s Four Hours at the Capitol documentary replayed the events of 1/6 in visceral, on-the-ground fashion. But Tapper’s retrospective, which airs Friday at 9 p.m. on CNN, takes a unique approach by detailing Donald Trump’s plot to steal the election from the perspective of the Republicans who worked to foil it.
On Thursday, I spoke with Tapper about Trumping Democracy: An American Coup and the State of the Union host’s fear that Trump’s election scheme last year could succeed if he tries it again.
Vanity Fair: What motivated you to make this special?
Jake Tapper: One reason was there’s obviously a lot of attention on January 6, and the violence and the attempted insurrection, but I thought that it would be important to show how this was a months-long campaign by Donald Trump and his aides to undermine the election that only ended up where it ended up because all the previous attempts to subvert the election had failed. People need to understand that he could and likely will try to do it again, and it won’t necessarily be violent. Next time, it might be without violence but more successful. The second reason is because I have just really been struck in my conversations with Republicans who are worried that this is going to happen again, and that it will be the end of American democracy. And these are not histrionic Never Trump Republicans, these are people who supported Trump, who campaigned for him, who voted for him. Very conservative Republicans in many cases. I wanted to make sure people understood that… [and heard] from these Republican representatives Anthony Gonzales, Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, and Alyssa Farah, former communications director from the Trump White House. I felt like it was important to say, Hey, don’t take my word for it. Listen to what these conservative Republicans are saying.
That was one of the aspects of your specials that stands out compared to other recent retrospectives on the election––you almost exclusively spoke with Republican lawmakers and officials. What was the thought process behind that editorial decision?
That’s what I wanted to do at the very beginning––because this isn’t about partisan politics. This is about democracy… I wanted the voices to be conservative Republicans, because look, Democrats have been criticizing Donald Trump since he came down the escalator in 2015. I wanted to cut through what could be easily dismissed as partisan. I thought this would be the best way to do it.
Do you think that some of the Republicans speaking out about Trump’s election lies now are doing it for self-serving P.R. purposes––as a way to rebrand and get the Trump stench off of them, now that he’s out of power?
I don’t, and I’ll tell you why. First of all, Donald Trump might not be in office but he’s still in power. Second of all, you just have to look at the career of somebody like Liz Cheney, or Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan in Georgia, or any of these other individuals and say, ‘What is the easiest thing for them to do? What better guarantees their future in American politics?’ And the answer is keeping their mouth shut or supporting Trump’s lies. That’s where the money is. That’s where the power is. You don’t have to approve of Liz Cheney’s politics or her views on foreign policy to… see that she’s doing this at tremendous professional cost and even personal risk to her. It would have been much easier for her to do what Kevin McCarthy did and is doing, or what Steve Scalise did and is doing. Or she could at least keep her mouth shut like most Republican officials are doing. And she’s not. So actually, I mean, the evidence is all to the contrary, that the future in the Republican Party right now is to double down on the lie. And if you’re not going to double down on it, at least don’t criticize it, or maybe play footsie with it. But there is very little upside other than being able to sleep at night, other than being able to look your kids in the eye.
Watching your show over the past 10 months, I’ve noticed you’ve made a seemingly intentional effort to not give airtime to the 147 Republicans who voted to overturn the election. How long are you going to keep lawmakers like Steve Scalise off your show? And what are your thoughts on competing programs that do grant airtime to members of Congress who have lied or are still lying about the 2020 election results?
I had hoped that others would have seen the logic in my approach to this. But I will confess it is fairly lonely terrain, so I don’t know how much longer I can do it. I am willing to provide a space for somebody to come on and say that they were wrong, that they shouldn’t have signed on to the Texas Attorney General’s deranged lawsuit, or that they shouldn’t have voted to not count the votes from Pennsylvania or Arizona. I am willing to hear an apology and move on. Those were, in my view, serious actions that are part of the attempt to undermine American democracy. And, two, if you are willing to lie about something like the election, what else are you willing to lie about? But you’re right, I don’t know how much longer I can continue to do it. I really don’t, just because the midterms are coming up. The presidential election is coming up in 2024. I’m sure some of the election liars are going to be running for president.