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After his son's suicide and the Jan. 6 attack, Rep. Jamie Raskin is not giving up

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., listens during the House select committee hearing on the Jan. 6 attack on July 27, 2021.
Andrew Harnik
/
AP
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., listens during the House select committee hearing on the Jan. 6 attack on July 27, 2021.

A year ago, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., experienced two unimaginable traumas in the span of a single week.

On New Year's Eve 2020, his son Tommy, 25, died by suicide after years of fighting mental illness. Then, on Jan. 6, 2021, just a day after Tommy's funeral, Raskin was at work in the U.S. Capitol with his daughter and son-in-law when a violent mob stormed the building in an attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election.

In his new memoir, Unthinkable, Raskin reflects on his continuing efforts to understand those two traumatic events.

There was a time, he says, when "I wasn't sure whether I was ever going to be able to do anything again."

Then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., asked him to serve as the lead manager in the second impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. Looking back now, Raskin sees Pelosi's request as a lifeline.

"I was forced to galvanize all of my love for Tommy and my daughters, Hannah and Tabitha, and my wife, Sarah, and our family and our country, and to throw myself into the trial to make the case that Donald Trump had incited this violent insurrection in an effort to overthrow the 2020 presidential election," Raskin says.

I personally felt no fear because the very worst thing that ever could have happened to me had already happened to me.

Raskin knew that leading the impeachment trial would likely result in death threats, but he pushed on.

"I personally felt no fear, because the very worst thing that ever could have happened to me had already happened to me," he says. "And so my feeling to the people who want to take down our democracy is that they're not going to scare me out of doing my job."

Trump's second impeachment trial ended in acquittal in February 2021. Now Raskin is serving on the House select committee charged with investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, the events leading up to it and the people behind it.

"I've never been on a more effective and serious bipartisan committee than [this] select committee," he says. "We don't spend all of our time in partisan polemics and food fights. ... We're going to get to the answers and I'm going to report them this year to the American people, because the people deserve it. It's all about the future of our country."


Interview highlights

Unthinkable, by Rep. Jamie Raskin
/ Harper Collins
/
Harper Collins
Unthinkable, by Rep. Jamie Raskin

On how the past year changed him

This whole thing has been such an episode of cognitive dissonance for me, because people will tell you that before we lost Tommy, before Jan. 6, I was the happiest, funniest member of Congress you could ever care to meet. I have a colleague, Abigail Spanberger from Virginia, who was once asked on C-SPAN, "Who's the funniest member of Congress?" And it was my greatest achievement that she said, "Oh, no question: Jamie Raskin." And that's who I was. And suddenly I was just thrust into a world of complete tragedy and pain, and [then] the madness of the insurrection and the attack on our system of government.

On his son Tommy's heightened sensitivity and empathy

From a very young age, he was an enormously sensitive person. He felt the pain of other people and of animals in a way that certainly I had never seen before, and [which] people describe as unique. He would read an article in the newspaper about the civil war in Yemen and the hunger of children there, or about children who were displaced in Iraq, and it would stay with him the entire day and he would think about it, and then he would get in touch with groups that were working on it. He felt these things like these people were members of our family. So he was an extraordinary empath and had this overwhelming sense of responsibility for the world. And so these episodes of war and civil war and famine and hunger and violence, it struck him really hard. That was just in his nature. ... [The pandemic] was intensely isolating and demoralizing for a lot of young people and for someone who's struggling already with depression or some other kind of mental or emotional illness, it can become unbearable, and it did become unbearable in Tommy's case.

"From a very young age, [Tommy] was an enormously sensitive person," Raskin says.
/ Courtesy of the Raskin family
/
Courtesy of the Raskin family
"From a very young age, [Tommy] was an enormously sensitive person," Raskin says.

On why he and his wife keep Tommy's suicide note out so they see it every day

It's definitely the first thing I look at every morning, and for me, it's like "how to" instructions for how to live. [It reads:] "Look after each other and the animals. Don't forget the animals and the global poor." ... Tommy never stopped looking at that level of the Maslow hierarchy of needs. He understood there are people who could focus on nothing other than where their next meal is coming from. Or how are they going to be safe from violence? Or how do they get out of a war zone? And so before we think about, OK, how are we going to get people on trips to Mars and stuff like that? We've got to be thinking about people who are just struggling to survive, even at a subsistence level.

On how he thinks of the events of Jan. 6

The way that I conceive of what happened on Jan. 6 is that there were three rings of activity. In one ring was a mass demonstration ... a "wild" protest [called for] by Donald Trump that turned into a riot. And that's the outer ring that included tens of thousands of people. The middle ring was the ring of the insurrection itself, and that was the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, the Aryan Nations, the militia groups, the QAnon networks, the organized militant political extremist groups that showed up, many of them having trained for weeks for this event. [These were] the first people to break our windows, attack our officers, injure people and help turn the demonstration into a riot.

But the very inner ring, the inner core of it, was the realm of the coup. And it's a weird word for us to use in American political parlance, because we don't have any experience with coups and we think of coups as being things undertaken against presidents, but this was a coup perpetrated by the president, against the vice president and against the Congress. And that was an attempt to essentially steal away the presidential election results and to preserve himself in power for another four years.

On using the term "coup"

This is what the political scientists call a "self-coup," where you have an incumbent president or officeholder who thwarts the electoral process and circumvents the general constitutional rules in order to entrench himself into power. So this would have been a textbook example of a self-coup by a president who is fearing being ousted in an election as Donald Trump was and then tries to galvanize the different levers of power to keep himself in.

On what documents show about Trump watching the insurrection happen and doing nothing

We're talking about really the most serious offense ever committed by a president of the United States against his own government and his own people.

We have had now multiple reports of people making entreaties to Donald Trump to call off the dogs, but him refusing to do so. And that is obviously proof positive of his incitement and what his purpose was in inciting. But it also demonstrates his role in helping to propagate the violence. So that's very serious business. We're talking about really the most serious offense ever committed by a president of the United States against his own government and his own people.

On Trump's culpability for the Jan. 6 insurrection

Donald Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives for the high crime and misdemeanor of inciting violent insurrection against the union, and [the impeachment officers] took the position, which we continue to hold, that if that is not a high crime and misdemeanor against the government, then nothing is. If you can actually incite a violent attack on your own government and that's not impeachable, then you basically don't believe in impeachment. You've just basically nullified the whole process. And 57 senators to 43 agreed that he had engaged in that conduct. So I believe he's been convicted in the court of public opinion, and I believe he's been convicted in the eyes of history and in the eyes of the world.

In terms of criminal actions, of course that's not up to us, but there are a number of criminal offenses that potentially apply in a situation like this, including interference with a federal proceeding, conspiracy to do that, seditious conspiracy. So, you know, there are probably a dozen different offenses. I mean that violent insurrection destroyed federal property, costing us millions and millions of dollars. Was there a conspiracy to make that happen? All of these things are, again, not within the province of the Jan. 6 select committee, but would be appropriate to be considered by the Department of Justice.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Heidi Glenn adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.