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Former federal judge warns of danger to American democracy

J. Michael Luttig, former U.S. Court of Appeals judge for the Fourth Circuit, arrives to testify before the House committee that is investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Anna Moneymaker
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J. Michael Luttig, former U.S. Court of Appeals judge for the Fourth Circuit, arrives to testify before the House committee that is investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
Robert Baldwin III
Robert Baldwin III is an assistant producer for Weekend All Things Considered and a reporter covering developing legal issues. Baldwin was part of the team that won a 2019 National Press Club Award for the breaking news coverage of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooting.
Natalie Winston is the Executive Producer of All Things Considered on the weekends. She has led the show through coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and many other breaking news events. She also led a remote team for a weekend of coverage from Puerto Rico at the start of the 2018 hurricane season.