When Failure is Not an Option
Host, Ken Harbaugh, interviews political leaders, influencers, and other history makers about the choices we confront when failure is not an option. Choices like Alexander the Great made when he landed his troops on the shores of Persia and ordered his men to burn their boats.
Rep. Jason Crow: Accountability and the Aftermath of January 6
Rep. Jason Crow, former Army Ranger and congressman from Colorado’s 6th district, talks about the January 6th insurrection and the importance of truth and accountability.
Rep. Crow served as a House impeachment manager during Trump’s first impeachment trial in early 2020. In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection, he has been hailed by his colleagues in Congress as “one of the heroes of that day,” for his actions guiding fellow members to safety.
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Rep. Jason Crow: The main doors on the floor of the chamber had been barricaded. The police had their guns drawn. The mob was surrounding us and they were trying to ram the doors down. We could hear the bangs as they were breaking the glass and trying to break through the doors. We heard a gunshot in the speaker's lobby as one of the officers killed one of the rioters.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
My guest today, Congressman Jason Crow is a former Army Ranger who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now represents Colorado's Sixth Congressional District. He was one of the house managers for Donald Trump's first impeachment trial. And during the January 6th insurrection, he helped get fellow House members to safety. Later that night, when members returned to certify the election, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy recognized Congressman Crow as one of the, quote, 'heroes among us'. Jason, it's hard to believe that was only a couple of months ago. Thanks for joining us here on Burn the Boats.
JC: Yeah. Thanks Ken. It's such a pleasure to be with you and a longtime friend of course, and happy to come on and have a chat with you today.
KH: Well, we're honored to have you, and it's always good to have someone on the show who I know on a personal level, because it just makes the conversation so much richer. And I'm going to start with a personal question. Where are you mentally in terms of processing the events of that day? You have the context of your time as a Ranger to compare it to, but it was a traumatic event.
JC: Yeah. It was a traumatic event and, as I've been really vocal about in the days and weeks after January 6th is, trauma affects everybody. Whether you're a former Army Ranger with a 100 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan under your belt, or whether that was somebody's first experience with trauma on January 6th, it's outside of the norm of human experience. It's not what people can expect or encounter in their day-to-day lives. And it impacts everybody and it impacts everybody differently and on different timelines. So I've been doing a lot of work reaching out to media and doing interviews to make sure that we're de-stigmatizing trauma like that. Because as you know well, Ken, we have a serious stigma issue with mental health with veterans. You have over 20 veterans a day kill themselves. And some of that problem is driven by the fact that we have this warrior culture where people don't feel like they can come forward and get help. But you know, me on a personal level, I'm doing fine. I kind of compartmentalized things a lot on the 6th and after the 6th, but my family has been great. I'm still trying to work through the idea that two lives that I've had, my former life and my current life that I never thought would converge, converged on the 6th. It's been over 15 years since I was at war as an Army Ranger. And I've changed a lot as a person. I'm a father, and a husband, and member of Congress now and I never thought that that old life would converge on the present one, but it did and I'll have to deal with that.
KH: Well, the accounts of January 6 from where you were and interviews with you report that you were preparing to fight, you were gearing up to do battle should anyone make it inside that chamber.
JC: Yeah, I was. As those who have been in combat or in fight or flight situations like that know, there's a certain change in you that you go through when you convert into that mode when you're preparing for a fight potentially in a life and death situation. And I converted back into that. I hadn't been in that kind of scenario and mindset in well over 15 years, but got back into it very quickly. And there was a moment where I was thinking about asking those officers for his gun, because if that mob had broken through the door, it would have been very, very ugly. And I was prepared to do what I needed to do to defend my colleagues and try to get us out of there alive.
KH: You get a lot of credit for that from your colleagues. There are, gosh, hundreds of images that are seared into the collective consciousness from that day, but one of them for me really stands out. And it's of you behind, I think, a bench comforting one of your colleagues, Representative Wild from Pennsylvania. What were you thinking at that moment? Can you, I guess, first of all, since this is a podcast, can you describe that image and then talk us through what was going through your head?
JC: Yeah. So what was happening at that point? There was about two dozen, roughly two dozen members of Congress who had been trapped in the House gallery. And the House gallery is that seating area up above the House floor. They had already evacuated everybody from the House floor, but they didn't evacuate us. We were trapped up there because it's a separate entrance and the mob had already overtaken the stairwell and that part. So we were there and we had locked the doors. The main doors on the floor of the chamber had been barricaded. The police had their guns drawn. The mob was surrounding us and they were trying to ram the doors down. We could hear the bangs as they were breaking the glass and trying to break through the doors. We heard a gunshot in the speaker's lobby as one of the officers killed one of the rioters. And that was what was going on. We were up there. I didn't know how we were going to make it out. I was preparing to fight and I saw Susan had just got off of FaceTiming her son. And she was very distraught, so I just reached out and grabbed her hand and held it and told her that I was going to do everything necessary to make sure she was safe. And we made it out of there.
KH: Is there a community of support among those of you who lived through that? I've been in similar situations and it bonds you in a way that frankly, no one wishes to be connected to another person, but it's kind of an inseverable bond forever.
JC: Yeah, it is, Ken. And as you know well, those foxhole friendships are very deep and very strong. And we have come together as a group. So that group of members, we actually have called ourselves The Gallery Group and have this chat group that we are on. We chat with each other pretty frequently via text almost every day. We've gotten together to bond over the experience. And we've had a couple of Zooms as well, and we have really come together. It’s a group of members that we all have come from very different backgrounds, very different districts, have different politics as well. But we're always going to be bonded over that moment. And that's a really important thing. And obviously veterans are going to understand that I think in a really unique way.
KH: As encouraging as that sounds, it's got to be complicated by the fact that there were members in the House that day who, if not complicit in what happened, certainly abetted it in their words, if not deeds. That's got to really affect the working environment.
JC: Yeah. Well, that might be the understatement of the year, Ken. It's hard. It's really hard. And there's a couple of things I think listeners should understand about that day. One is those rioters, those insurrectionists, I think the vast majority of them truly believed that the election had been stolen despite the fact that all the evidence points to the contrary and 60 plus courts just unilaterally dismissed the lawsuits. They believed the big lie that they had been told. And of course, that drove them to attack the Capitol that day. So that's number one. Number two is that that doesn't happen on its own, right? It doesn't happen overnight. That happened as a result of many folks over months and even years furthering conspiracy theories, retelling and supporting the big lie. And people that know better, people that know it wasn't true still telling the big lie because it helped their own personal politics and their desire for power. And it worked people up into that frenzy. That's a hard realization to come to. And then the second piece is that this is our place of work, right? And just imagine, if you will, to the listeners out there today, just imagine being at your business, your place of work, and it's violently attacked by a mob, police officers are killed, over 140 brutally beaten. The mob was trying to take your life and they came very close to doing it. And then afterwards, your colleagues, the people you work with, not only had they incited and helped further that mob, but they continue to support it. And then they even try to bring guns themselves into the place of work and continue to make threats and intimidate folks. And your employer can't do anything about it. Can't fire those people. Can't take really any corrective measures. That's kind of the scenario that we're facing in Congress. And it's very, very difficult.
KH: Well, I wasn't going to bring it up, but you're making me. We have to talk about your fellow representative from Colorado who has attempted to bring a gun to work, who was one of those inciters of violence. How can Colorado send Jason Crow and Lauren Boebert to represent them side by side?
JC: Well, that's a good question. I'm still grappling with that. You and I both Ken, we carried a gun for work. We carried a gun to serve our country and service to our country because we needed to. It's a very different mentality than somebody that uses it for political theater or stunts, or to get attention. And that's really what you're talking about here when you talk about folks like Ms. Boebert and others. I grew up a hunter. I started hunting when I was 12. I've been a gun owner most of my life, including right now, I'm still a hunter and a sportsman. And I believe in the Second Amendment rights and the rights to self-defense. But I also learned in the military, like you did, that citizenship also comes with duties and responsibilities. Rights also come with duties and responsibilities to be there for each other and to be responsible with firearms and responsible with your words and how you interact in the community. And that's, I think, a part of this discussion that we don't have enough.
KH: President Biden has spent a lot of time and political energy talking about unity. You have spent a lot of time talking about accountability. Can you give us your, I guess, best case scenario on how we arrive at a point where we can come to terms with what happened on January 6th, with what very nearly happened, the overthrow of a government, the live streamed executions of elected representatives in our nation's capital. I'm betting you're going to say you cannot have unity, you cannot have reconciliation without accountability.
JC: Yeah, that's right. There are different sides of the same coin. You look at history, right? You look at every situation where a society or a country has been through a trauma and a major divisive period. You always get through that and kind of build and bring people back together when there's accountability and there's truth. Look at one of the best recent examples of South Africa post-apartheid. They literally call them truth and reconciliation commissions because they knew you couldn't move forward without truth and without some accountability. And you had the victims and the survivors facing the perpetrators and demanding accountability and having an airing of those truths. And that has allowed folks to move forward and unify in a fairly remarkable way. And we face a similar situation in that you just can't sweep things under the rug and pretend it didn't happen. Because not only would that risk it happening again, but you have to heal those wounds by having honesty and having truth. And I really believe that it's important. But I, like President Biden, believe in bringing people together. And I believe in that project, I learned about it in the military. That was one of my first early formative experiences of taking a diverse group of folks and bringing them together and bridging differences to achieve common goals. And we can do that again, but we have to have the leadership and the truth and the accountability to make it happen.
KH: When you say accountability, do you just mean political accountability, which I'm skeptical we can achieve. We'll get to that in a second. Or do you also mean legal accountability, criminal liability, for example, your colleague who was live tweeting the location of the Speaker of the House, the third in line to the presidency as the riots were unfolding.
JC: Yeah. I'm not really talking about political accountability too much. I actually rarely, despite the fact that I'm an elected official, rarely talk about things in terms of politics. What I'd like to see is I'd like to see truth come out, right? I'd like to see people stand up and they don't want to hear it from me necessarily, but my GOP colleagues need to tell their supporters and their constituents that President Biden is the rightfully elected and legitimately elected president of the United States. And that these conspiracy theories are lies and it's not true. And start to stand up for truth. And I think that's really important. And I know that's not going to be easy for some of these folks because of the heated rhetoric and the divisiveness and how Donald Trump has really stirred some of these folks up into a frenzy. But it's really necessary in order for us to move forward. You have to have truth to really have unity. And for us to have a deliberative democracy, right? Democracy requires debate and it requires a push and pull between competing ideas. But you can't have that debate, you can't have that discussion unless you can agree on a common set of facts. Because there are facts, right? There is a truth, an objective truth to many things. And we have to agree on that first.
KH: Do you still hold out hope that the Republican Party, not isolated individuals, but the party writ large is going to do that and with a loud and clear voice acknowledge the legitimacy of the Biden presidency? Because it's not what we're seeing. If January 6th could not break the fever, what in God's name can?
JC: Yeah. In the short term, I'm not seeing that. There's no doubt about it. And I've been extremely disappointed by the lack of courage by folks not standing up and telling the truth and standing up for principles and morals. In the long-term though, I do have hope. I think the genius of our system is that it's self-correcting, right? And that it's very resilient. And I do think that there will be people that will stand up, and there already are, right? There are incredible profiles of courage, by the way, of some of my GOP colleagues now that are standing up and speaking truth to power and taking a stand. And they're doing it at great detriment to themselves and at great risk, but they're doing it because they share, I believe they share love of country. Even though we might disagree pretty ardently on policy, they're pushing back. So I do have hope for that and it's needed, right? Because we need a strong and viable Republican Party. We do. And I say that as a Democrat, which is going to shock some folks. But to get things done, we need to have a negotiating partner on the other side. Right? Because I'm not always right. The Democrats aren't always right. That's, again, the genius of our system is that we have all these different ideas, and we come together, and we debate it, and we try to come up with the best result. And that process of debate and push and pull helps us achieve the best result. But we need to have a viable partner on the other side to do that.
KH: I am not quite sure I am still with you on that. I was for the longest time, but I'm just so appalled at the behavior of former mainstream Republicans and their willingness to offer the veneer of respectability to insurgents, to white supremacists, to racists. That's going to be hard to come back from, and you haven't pulled punches in offering that critique either. At one point, I think you called fellow colleagues who aligned with that kind of thinking “depraved”.
JC: No, I think we're in agreement. I actually think we're talking about the same thing. What I'm talking about is whether or not the Republican Party can redeem itself and become a mainstream party again for the purposes of our democracy. Now, what you're talking about is individuals, because there are depraved individuals who I believe are irredeemable at this point, right? They've shown that over and over again. And there is no place for these folks in that debate.
KH: You're talking about members of Congress, colleagues.
JC: Yeah. Exactly. You're talking about members versus political parties. Right? There are people that don't belong in elected office, period. And unfortunately, we're dealing with those folks and some of them are my colleagues right now. So there has to be a change of faces. There's no doubt about that. And there needs to be new folks who are willing to step up and take their place and help us rebuild.
KH: I want to go a little farther down the rabbit hole and get your thoughts on the metastasizing right-wing extremist movement. You've used that word in describing how it has evolved during the Donald Trump presidency, but what do you mean by that?
JC: Well, first of all, this isn't new, right? This is as old as our nation itself, right? It goes back to our original sin of slavery and the white supremacy and white nationalism that permeates so many of our institutions and our history that we have never dealt with in the way that we need to deal with it. So it's always been there. It is on the rise though, significantly. And it's on the rise because Donald Trump has mainstreamed it, he's romanticized it, he's given it permission. And when you have the highest seat in the land, the President of the United States sitting in the Oval Office, giving interviews, talking on TV or tweeting out support for these radical extremist ideologies and these fringe groups, these hate groups, it is a very, very different problem.
And we've seen the results of that and how it's increased radicalism and extremism significantly over the last couple of years. And we've the results of that in January 6th and unfortunately, we're going to see the results of it in the years ahead. This is not going away anytime soon. We're going to be dealing with this for many years ahead.
KH: You served as an impeachment manager in the first impeachment trial and I’m wondering if you appreciated then that this was your moment. This was Congress's moment. This in a very real sense was a moment for the American people to hold this president accountable and prevent a power grab, which we eventually saw because the impeachment failed in the Senate.
JC: I viewed it as the country's moment that we had seen assaults on the rule of law, abuses against our democracy, against our institutions, against our norms, the likes of which we certainly hadn't seen in my lifetime. And it was finally the moment for it to culminate and for there to be accountability. That's the way I was viewing the trial and the process. And then I don't think I really appreciated it in the moment for the magnitude of the historical aspects of it, because when you're in something that’s as hectic and as intense and stressful as it is, you just get that tunnel vision. You're just focused on the mission and what the task at hand you're not thinking in terms of broader or longer term impact. So, I was very focused during the trial and tried to stay focused, do the job and do it as well as I possibly could. And certainly was mindful of the gravity of representing not just Congress but the American people in the process.
KH: Well you certainly realized with the benefit of hindsight, the moment that was missed. Not by any failings on your part, but by the failure of the conviction in the Senate. You wrote, I believe this was after the insurrection on January 6th, you said, "We warned the Senate a year ago. We said this man is not well. We said how much damage can he do between now and the time he leaves office. And we know now that the answer to that is a lot." I think a lot of people have realized that the gravity with which you approached that first impeachment trial should have been the frame of mind of everybody, that you saw the president then as the threat that we all saw him as on January 6th.
JC: Well, I certainly thought so and continue to think that to this day., I just firmly believe that if anyone was paying attention and was looking at things in an objective way and putting aside their own biases or pre-inclinations, that they could see this threat. Because we had plenty of data, we had plenty of historical action to base it on over the last couple of years. And it became very clear who this president was not just on the campaign trail in 2015 when he made that abundantly clear, but in ‘16 and ‘17 and ‘18 as well. And I thought we had more than enough information and more than enough data to draw that conclusion. And the way I always put it is, put aside that this is the president of the United States for one moment - the former president in this case. And just think about whether or not you would have put up with that in your own personal life, whether a friend, from a family member or somebody who's close to you, putting up with somebody saying certain things and doing certain things, and the answer is almost inevitably no. So why is it different? In fact, the standard should be higher if anything for our president and not lower. But it certainly shouldn't be different than the expectations that we hold our family and friends and other people that we're close to. And I just asked people to use that as a frame of reference. So, I made that warning. I knew the direction it was going and I disagreed with the senators who said that they thought that President Trump had learned his lesson. There was nothing at all to indicate to me that he had learned any lesson whatsoever. And to this day, he still hasn't learned that lesson because he's incapable of learning that lesson.
KH: I can't let you go without asking about guns again. As a Coloradan, as a representative from Colorado, you have once again been thrust into this tragic and cyclical story. And one of the most upsetting things to me is that in the aftermath of every shooting, you hear the right come back with, "Well, the solution is more guns." And I'm wondering what your best argument is in front of your constituents. What's the argument that listeners can bring to their conversations with people who they care about who buy that myth? How do you dispel it? How do you as a combat veteran, as somebody who knows from firsthand experience the difference between a hunting rifle and a weapon of war, what do you see?
JC: Well, we're not the only country that deals with mental health. We're not the only country that deals with crime. We're not the only country that deals with social disenchantment and anger and vitriol and partisanship. But we are the only country that has as many guns and as widely available access to guns and the types of guns that are often used using these mass shootings. That is the only outlier, that is the only data point and difference between us and every other industrialized country and it’s what explains the fact that we are the only outlier in terms of our gun deaths and our mass shootings by many, many magnitudes. And we don't have to live like this and nor have we lived like this in the past. This is a problem that has greatly increased in the last few decades. We talk a lot about rights, but the corollary of rights are duties and responsibilities to each other, to our country, to our neighbors. And there is no right that doesn't also have a responsibility along with it, whether it's the First Amendment freedom of speech and that the limit on that freedom is you can't threaten to kill somebody. You can't go into a theater and yell fire. There's limits on all of these because we live in a society. We are a member of a community and no person is an island unto themselves. And it's time that we start recognizing that and fulfilling our responsibility to each other and do sensible common sense things.
KH: Well thank you, Jason, we end every episode of Burn the Boats with the same question. What's the bravest decision you've ever made?
JC: Boy, that's a tough one. I think deciding to start a family and becoming a parent, it's not an easy thing. You have obligations outside of yourself, you have obligations that last long beyond your life. And I think about that, whether what I'm doing or my actions, not just as a member of Congress, but as a parent, as a member of the community, how is it going to impact my children who are going to have to live with these decisions and my actions well beyond the time I'm gone. And that's scary sometimes. Being a parent is sometimes described as having a decision to have your heart live outside of your body. And that makes you awfully vulnerable. So, I will stick with that.
KH: I hope listeners appreciate as much as I do how much that answer says about you, given your background as an Army Ranger and the many valorous things you've done, that the bravest thing you perceive is your choice to be a parent. Thanks Jason for coming on, we’d love to have you back.
JC: Thanks Ken.
KH: Thanks again to Jason Crow for joining me. You can learn more about his legislative priorities at crow.house.gov and find him on Twitter at @RepJasonCrow.
Next time on Burn the Boats, I’m talking to Christian Picciolini, a former leader in the American White Power movement, who now runs the Free Radicals Project, which is dedicated to extremism prevention, and disengagement.
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.