Vermont Conversation: Rep. Jamie Raskin on losing his son and saving democracy


Rep. Jamie Raskin, left, and his new book, “Unthinkable.” Images courtesy of Harper Collins

The Vermont Conversation with David Goodman is a VTDigger podcast that features in-depth interviews on local and national issues with politicians, activists, artists, changemakers and citizens who are making a difference. Listen below, and subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts or Spotify to hear more.

Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin was expecting trouble after the November 2020 presidential election. Raskin and his Democratic colleagues in Congress anticipated that former President Donald Trump would try to subvert the results and try to derail Congress’s normally pro-forma certification of President Joe Biden’s election. 

But Raskin was blindsided. On December 31, 2020, Raskin’s only son, Tommy, a promising young student at Harvard Law School, took his own life after a long struggle with depression. 

Seven days later — and just a day after burying his son — Raskin returned to Congress to cast his vote to certify Biden’s election. That’s when Trump supporters mounted a violent insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, egged on by the defeated president. Speaker Nancy Pelosi then tapped the grieving Raskin to be lead manager in Trump’s second impeachment trial. Since the summer, Raskin has been a member of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the Capitol. 

Raskin tells his intensely personal and political story in his new book, “Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy.” 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


David Goodman  

Unthinkable reads like a love letter to your late son Tommy and a love letter to democracy. I found it spellbinding both because the events of Jan. 6, but also because of the powerful and emotional story that you tell about Tommy, who you describe as your North Star. Tell us about Tommy Raskin.

Jamie Raskin  

Tommy was a dazzling young man. He was just tremendously exuberantly funny. He cracked everybody up. We just got back from Cambridge, actually, where Harvard Law School had a memorial service for him. He was in his second year at Harvard Law School when we lost him. So many of his classmates just described him as the life of the party. He was he was a musician, a playwright and a stand-up comic. He was somebody that everybody wanted to be around, and he had profound moral and political passions. He was very much a human rights activist. He was an anti-war activist, and he became a vegan and was a really strong animal rights person as well. He converted more people to not eating meat than anybody I’ve ever met in my entire life. He wrote several poems about being vegan and what it meant to him because everybody would ask, “why are you a vegan?” And then he would just get up and start delivering one of these poems. And one of them is a very profound poem called “Where War Begins.” It’s all about how the slaughter of animals conditions us to accept violence against human beings.

David Goodman  

You write about how you channeled Tommy throughout the impeachment, which occurred just over a month after his passing. Can you give an example of a moment during the impeachment where you looked to Tommy for guidance?

Jamie Raskin  

Tommy was a really brilliant debater and debated when he was in high school. He was a real student of rhetoric. Many of the things that I said resonated to me and were kind of Tommy-speak. One moment I remember specifically: We had delivered our opening statement at the beginning of the Senate impeachment trial, and we ended up with 28 minutes left over. So I reserved the time and turned it over to Trump’s lawyers, who you may recall really did a terrible job, but I don’t know that it was completely their fault. They just had so little to work with, because the facts were overwhelmingly on our side, and the Constitution and the law were overwhelmingly on our side. We had been preparing night and day for several weeks, and we had a sensational team of impeachment managers. So they closed, and I had to make a decision about whether to shoot down everything that they had said and expose all of the weaknesses and fallacies of their arguments. But I thought about Tommy and how he oftentimes in debate was very reserved and would be very much a gentleman, almost as if to say, “I don’t need to respond to that. There’s nothing there.” So I just got up and I said, “There was a lot of partisan rhetoric on the other side. We’ve been trying to conduct this trial in a bipartisan way and nothing is more bipartisan than the desire to recess. So we will yield back the remaining 28 minutes of our time.” It’s probably not the kind of thing I would have done, but it was very much the kind of thing that Tommy would have done. He was very elegant and very eloquent in his presentations.

David Goodman  

It seemed appropriate to the moment. Trump’s lawyers had just delivered what I recall was an incoherent stream-of-consciousness ramble. It was a moment where an opponent could stick in the dagger. But you took the high road. 

Jamie Raskin  

Tommy always had a great sense of compassion for people who disagreed with. He taught Sunday school, and one of the things he would tell the kids in his class was to try to make friends with someone you fundamentally disagree with, find what’s good in them and let them get to know you. It was beautiful advice. In his class at Harvard Law School, we met young people who were his friends who were very much of a mind with him politically. He was a strong progressive. He also had very strong libertarian leanings, but he was also friends with a kid who had worked in the Trump administration. Tommy wanted to figure out how this young man thought and they became friends. That man told us how meaningful it was to him to have Tommy as a friend and to feel connected in that way in a situation when he might have really been isolated.

David Goodman  

Let’s turn to the impeachment and your current work on the January 6 Commission. When you and your fellow house managers made the case for impeachment in February 2021, you connected many dots and told the harrowing tale behind the attempted coup. The January 6 Committee began its work last summer. What do you know about the coup attempt that you didn’t know at the impeachment trial?

Jamie Raskin  

We’ve been able to fill in a lot of the details for things that we understood in broad contour before. We knew that a lot of the effort was targeted on Mike Pence, to get him to declare extra-constitutional unilateral powers to reject and repudiate Electoral College votes coming in from Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania, and then also perhaps, Nevada and New Mexico. Some of that was putting together different kinds of clues and then making a surmise. But then to have the Eastman memo come out and have it so clear that there was a whole plan to destroy Joe Biden’s majority in the Electoral College of 306 to 232, to drive Biden’s totals below 270 in order to deny him a majority. Then the plan was to kick the whole contest into the House of Representatives under the 12th Amendment. It was eye opening to see that everything that we were assuming actually was being planned and was premeditated. They wanted to get it into the House of Representatives for a contingent election because they knew that we don’t vote there according to one member, one vote. If we did, then it would have been a majority confirming Biden’s majority of the Electoral College. In a contingent election, we vote state by state, and after the 2020 elections, Republicans controlled 27 state delegations and Democrats controlled 22, and one state, Pennsylvania, split down the middle, 9 to 9, so was to the sidelines. So even if the GOP had lost the vote of Liz Cheney, the at-large representative from Wyoming, they still would have had 26 votes and they would have been able to rush it through like the Republican National Convention to declare Trump president. And then, based on other things that have come out, I’ve come to believe that they were prepared to invoke the Insurrection Act and declare martial law. Trump probably would have called in the National Guard at that point to put down the insurrectionary chaos they had unleashed against us blaming the whole thing on antifa, which was also part of the propaganda pre-planning of this whole effort. So we learned a lot

David Goodman  

What’s remarkable is that in a contingent election, the vote of Peter Welch, representing 600,000 people in Vermont, would count as much as all of California, with 40 million people.

Jamie Raskin  

Yeah. The whole point was to overthrow the Electoral College, which itself is not democratic. But Biden did soundly beat Trump 306 to 232, which happens to be the same margin that Trump had beaten Hillary by in 2016, a margin that Trump had declared “a landslide.” So they were prepared to unconstitutionally overthrow or set aside his landslide victory in order to push the whole thing into the House of Representatives. The alternative was to drive his numbers below 270 but then say that the electors from tens of millions of people were never lawfully cast, and therefore use a new denominator and simply say that Trump beat Biden in the Electoral College. So there were multiple plans afoot. Indeed, there were multiple plans from the point of the election for trying to destroy Biden’s majority in the Electoral College. They went to GOP-run state legislatures to get them to void out the popular vote and just appoint electors for Trump, which to their credit, they refused to do. Then they went to the election officials, people like Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in Georgia, and simply tried to coerce and intimidate them into finding votes. “Just find me 11,780 votes,” said Trump to Raffensperger. That’s not Trump trying to stop election fraud. That’s Trump trying to commit election fraud.

David Goodman  

Why didn’t Pence fold? He had been Trump’s loyal foot soldier, covering for Trump on some of the most outrageous things, from his sexual assaults on women to other charges. What’s your take on Pence and why he held out? 

Jamie Raskin  

I don’t know the answer but there are different theories about it. You’re right that he demonstrated nothing other than invertebrate sycophancy for four years running. And so when I got Pence’s memo at 1 p.m. on Jan. 6 on the House floor explaining why he could not constitutionally do what Trump was asking him to do, it was astonishing. It was uplifting to see that he had done it, but it was pretty amazing, too. I’ve come to think that he did check with a whole bunch of lawyers, and all of his lawyers and everybody around him were determined that he had no such authority. And, of course, no vice presidents have ever done anything like that before. He probably thought to himself that everything else he’d gone along with, Trump was doing in his own name. But this was Pence now acting in his constitutional role as the vice president. And Trump was telling him to do something way outside of the constitutional order that went right to the peaceful transfer of power. And the whole idea of having a democracy — if you don’t have a peaceful transfer of power, you don’t have a democracy. The people are no longer in control. This was an attempt to raid the Constitution and to overthrow the election and to seize the presidency. That’s what was going on. Pence did the right thing. It was kind of a one-day-only pass because I think he has now been doing everything he can to try to curry favor with the forces of Trumpism in the country. Of course, they’re not gonna have anything to do with him. Because with Trump, it’s all or nothing. Either you obey in every case, or you’re an enemy like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger and Mitt Romney.

David Goodman  

You have described what happened with the coup in terms of three concentric rings of actors. Briefly sketch that out. 

Jamie Raskin  

The outer ring was tens of thousands of people who were drawn to Washington over social media in response to appeals by Trump to come for a wild protest. People there arrived with different sets of motivations and intentions, but by the time that mass of people went from the White House to the Capitol, it had become a violent mob and had inflicted serious injuries on police officers, more than 150 of whom ended up with broken jaws, broken necks, black eyes, concussions, traumatic brain injuries, broken arms and legs, heart attacks, strokes, you name it. That was the most innocent level of activity. 

The middle ring of activity was the insurrection made up of domestic violent extremist groups, mostly white nationalist groups that had been brought together for the express and premeditated purpose of taking over the Capitol, smashing our windows, knocking down our doors, attacking our officers and essentially offering bloody instructions to the crowd on how to become a mob, and then finally to “stop the steal,” by which they meant to interrupt the counting of electoral college votes for the first time in American history and blocking the peaceful transfer of power. That middle group consisted of the Proud Boys, who Trump had told to “stand back and stand by” during the first presidential debate; the Oath Keepers, three of whose members have already pled guilty to seditious conspiracy, which means conspiracy to overthrow the government; the Three Percenters; the QAnon networks; the Ku Klux Klan; the Aryan Nations; the 1st Amendment Praetorian; multiple Christian white nationalist groups; some other religious cults that were thrown in including the Rod of Iron, which is the successor institution to Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, one of his sons is created this violent gun cult. So all these people were engaged in military-style training for the assault on the Capitol. We have found great evidence of coordination among them to at the very least overthrow the election and block the counting of electors, if not to overthrow the government, which was certainly in the designs of some of them.

That itself was not the scariest ring. The scariest ring was the very innermost ring of the coup. “Coup” is an odd word to use in American political parlance because we don’t have a lot of experience with coups in our own country. We think of a coup as something that takes place by the military or part of the military against a president. But this is a coup that the political scientists call a self-coup, where the president attacks the constitutional order itself in order to perpetuate his power in office. This was a coup orchestrated by Donald Trump against the vice president, against the Congress and against the people in our institutions. He had tried multiple different things, including possibly seizing the election machinery and having the military rerun the election because everybody knows about that provision in the Constitution, which allows the military to seize the machinery of elections and rerun the election. But when none of that stuff worked, then it all came down to getting Pence to declare these lawless powers to unilaterally reject Electoral College votes. When he refused to do it, Trump, rather than simply accepting that, turned up the heat and sent out the tweet just before 2:30 saying that Mike Pence did not have the courage to do what needed to be done. The mob went crazy and we heard them chanting “Hang Mike Pence, hang Mike Pence,” which struck me is astonishing that you could have tens of thousands of pro-Trump supporters chanting against Trump’s own vice president. That demonstrated a degree of political sophistication and education on the part of a mob that’s quite astounding. They understood, because of Donald Trump’s explanations, that it was Mike Pence who stood between him and being able just to steal the presidency.

David Goodman  

You’ve said, channeling Yale historian Tim Snyder, that “the single biggest predictor of a successful coup against the government is a recently failed coup, because the attackers can scope out the weaknesses.” At this moment, Trump followers are working at a granular level to assure a better outcome for them next time. They’re running for school boards, county election commissions, passing voter subversion laws, to name a few efforts. Can American democracy survive this assault?

Jamie Raskin  

We’ve got to survive this assault if democracy is going to survive and if we’re going to have the ability to confront even larger threats like climate change. So I think we have to and we will. I believe that the vast majority of Americans are with us in wanting to defend democratic institutions and values and democratic progress in the country. What they have against us is a bag of tricks, starting with the gerrymandering of state legislative districts and congressional districts, which then allows GOP legislatures to draw up voter suppression statutes to keep more people from voting. And when we try to pass federal legislation like the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to protect voting rights, then they use another anti-democratic instrument, the filibuster in the Senate, in order to shut us down. That whole system, including manipulation of the Electoral College, is protected by right-wing judicial activism and the packing of the courts. So they basically have every anti-democratic instrument in the country in their bag of tricks, which they’re using to try to thwart the very clear will of the majority. 

Hillary beat Trump by 3 million votes, and Biden beat him by 7.5 million votes, and we beat them by more than 5 million votes in congressional elections. But we’re up against the gerrymandering and the voter suppression and the filibuster. So somehow, we’re gonna have to break out of that matrix of Republican democracy suppression.

David Goodman  

You teamed up with California Congressman Ro Khanna to stop this onslaught. What is your plan? What’s your best idea for defending democracy right now?

Jamie Raskin  

It’s purely old fashioned to ideas. We’ve got to mobilize millions and millions of people across the country, which we can do now especially in the wake of news about the Supreme Court’s assault on another basic right of the people, the right of reproductive freedom and autonomy. In my own small way, my entire campaign consists of one thing: We don’t do pollsters, consultants, polling, TV, radio, none of that stuff. All that I do is my Democracy Summer project, where we take in college and high school kids and we educate them about the history of social and political change in the country and we have seminars and readings and so on. And then we send them out to register people to vote and to engage in canvasses and digital organizing and everything you need to do to win campaigns. And we have unleashed them in the past in swing districts, all the way from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, down through Virginia and Georgia. This summer, Democracy Summer is going nationwide. We are in 70 or 75 congressional districts, and we’re hoping to have more than 1000 young people come and participate with Democratic members of Congress and Democratic candidates in open districts. But that’s just one clue to where we need to go. We need to have a massive mobilization of everybody on our side to get everybody registered and participating to vote and that in itself could yield us control at the House and more senators so we could have real functional control in the Senate. And if we do that, if we were to let’s say elect three new Democratic senators, we could then use a majority in the Senate to overcome the filibuster for voting rights legislation, or overcome the filibuster to codify Roe with the Women’s Health Protection Act, which we passed several months ago in the House. So we can get stuff done.

David Goodman  

In the torrent of breaking news, it can be hard to see how issues are connected. You are one of those who sees through the fog to grasp the bigger picture. Draw a throughline from Jan. 6 to outlawing abortion. Explain the connection.

Jamie Raskin  

I would view them as just different aspects of the same GOP assault on constitutional democracy and freedom. Mitch McConnell made it impossible for there even to be a hearing for my constituent Merrick Garland, who’s now the attorney general, for him to even get a hearing when he was nominated to the Supreme Court by Barack Obama. So they stole that seat, that seat should not be in their hands. They’ve lost the popular vote in seven of the last (eight presidential) elections, and yet they now have a six to three majority on the Supreme Court. They have played extreme hardball in blockading Democratic judicial nominees and then hustle through people like Amy Coney Barrett in the very last days of the Trump administration when they refused to even conduct a hearing for Garland because they said a year was too close to the election. People see through the fraud of these kinds of arguments, but what it adds up to is more and more right-wing power. And the GOP has organized itself and put in its bylaws a campaign to destroy Roe vs. Wade, Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, and the constitutional right to privacy for freedom in decision making over procreative and reproductive choices. This is an attack not just on the right of women to get an abortion but the right of women to get birth control is up for grabs, and the right of gay people to get married, that could be turned back. They could turn the clock back on all of it. Skinner vs. Oklahoma was a case which finally struck down compulsory sterilization, and if there’s no constitutional right to privacy, a state that is powerful enough to tell you that you can’t have an abortion, even if you’re raped or the victim of incest, is a state powerful enough to compel you to have an abortion or compel you to be sterilized if you’re deemed to be an unfit mother, as tens of thousands of women were sterilized in the last century. So they’re setting us up for totalitarian-style governmental control over people’s private lives, just like they are trying to dismantle basic public rights like the right to vote and to have your votes counted fairly. I consider it an alarming situation. 

I think that the Democratic Party, for all of its flaws and imperfections, is really the only major party left that’s committed to democracy. Lincoln’s party has become Donald Trump’s cult of authoritarian personality. As a cult, it has attracted to itself every authoritarian political movement and idea in the country. And they are now part of a worldwide autocratic assault on democracy, from Putin in Russia, to Orban in Hungary, to El Sisi in Egypt, to Duterte in the Philippines, to the homicidal Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman, to President Xi in China — you name it. They’re all on the same team, from Moscow to Mar-a-Lago. That’s what we’re up against.

David Goodman  

You’ve said that the findings of the January 6 Commission will “blow the roof off the house.” What will the commission deliver, and will there be consequences for anyone who’s implicated?

Jamie Raskin  

We’re talking about the greatest presidential crime against American democracy in the history of our country. We’re going to tell the story of how people at the highest levels of government, the highest levels of political power, made common cause with street fascists and actually helped to bring into being a massive violent street fascist movement. They originally tried to get together in August 2017 in Charlottesville, where only 500 people gathered. When they became the storm trooper vanguard of this march of 40,000 to 50,000 people, they were several thousand people — five or six times the number who had gathered in Charlottesville. So people understand the way that Donald Trump exploited these extremist groups. But they exploited him, too. They used him to create their coalition and their alliance and to bring a lot more people into it and to give them a certain kind of panache on the right in America. Now it’s not considered intolerable to be at a protest with people who are wearing T-shirts that say Camp Auschwitz Staff on them or to brandish Confederate battle flags and beat up police officers with them.

David Goodman  

I want to finish where we began. It’s been almost a year and a half since Tommy’s passing. How is he with you now? How is the mission that you have in Congress and in life connected to the terrible experience you’ve been through?

Jamie Raskin  

Tommy was someone who had great dreams for democracy. He wanted a lot more from democracy, not a lot less from it. I feel very driven by the things that he saw and the things that he believed in. And I feel the same way, that we need to be asking a lot more of ourselves, not a lot less from ourselves. I feel very connected to his generation of Americans because they’ve had a hell of a time. There’s a huge emotional mental health crisis among young people now. People used to talk about mental health stigma. They don’t really talk about it anymore because when you’ve got problems like depression and anxiety that are afflicting a majority of an age cohort in the country, it’s hard to stigmatize it. And the surgeon general has declared there to be a national emergency in mental and emotional health among the young, all the way down through middle school and elementary school. So everybody is on an individual odyssey with respect to their psychological and emotional health, but it does exist in a social context. Covid-19 was a brutal and isolating time for people and a really demoralizing time for the young. I know it was in Tommy’s case, and I know what the other young people in our family have gone through. I feel we owe it to them to fight for them — and also to get them to see that politics — although it’s never going to be a complete answer for anybody, is a large part of the answer that people need to make a connection with others in their generation and with people who have fought for freedom and democracy before them. That’s going to be part of the solution for us reestablishing a sense of well-being and security in a really dangerous moment for democracy. I feel connected to Tommy’s generation, and I know how many young people loved him and miss him. I am a poor substitute for my son, but I’m going to do everything I can to fight for that generation.

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