Donald Trump does many things. He energizes crowds, he strikes a chord with audiences, he lies, he complains, he attacks. He also reveals—the character of certain conservative elites, that is. And William McSwain of Pennsylvania is quickly revealing precisely what kind of man he is, or is willing to become. The revelations are not pretty.
McSwain, the former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania under the Trump administration, has declared himself a candidate for Pennsylvania Governor in 2022 in a most unusual way: By writing a craven public letter to President Trump. In the letter, McSwain lends credence to Trump’s destructive election lies:
“On Election Day and afterwards, our Office [the U.S. Attorney’s Office] received various allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities. As part of my responsibilities as U.S. Attorney, I wanted to be transparent with the public and, of course, investigate fully any allegations. Attorney General Barr, however, instructed me not to make any public statements or put out any press releases regarding possible election irregularities.”
It turns out that this is not true.
Just as former Attorney General Barr publicly (and correctly) labeled Trump’s “stop the steal” allegations as “all bullshit,” he immediately called out McSwain for lying in his letter. Barr told the Philadelphia Inquirer that “The letter is written in a very deceptive way that is intended to convey an impression, it’s a false one, that he was restrained from looking into election fraud.” Barr continued: “When I called him I said, ‘It was just the opposite. I put in writing to you and the other U.S. attorneys that you had the discretion to look into any specific, credible allegations of major fraud.’”
So, the question becomes: Why? Why is McSwain lying?
McSwain has enjoyed the fruits of an elite education: He went to Yale for college and then Harvard for law school. McSwain is an accomplished public servant. He served admirably in the Marine Corps. He also served in the Justice Department as an Assistant U.S. Attorney and then as the head U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of PA. He’s a very wealthy, very accomplished, very skilled attorney. He was a partner at Drinker, Biddle, & Reath before his appointment to the U.S. Attorney slot by President Trump, and he joined Duane Morris as a partner following his resignation from the U.S. Attorney’s Office this past January. Mr. McSwain has done well in both public and private life; he’s been successful, and he’s served with integrity. So, again: Why lie now?
Barr has the answer: “He told me that he had to do this because he was under pressure from Trump and for him to have a viable candidacy he couldn’t have Trump attacking him.”
And here we come back to the notion that Donald Trump reveals character. By demanding loyalty to his lies, the former president has a knack for revealing who is willing to give in to their own cowardly impulses and who can resist them.
Trump has revealed that William McSwain—like all of us—is indeed home to different persons. We all contain multitudes. But day in and day out, we must choose which version of ourselves we will ultimately become. There is a version of William McSwain who is the sharp, bright, conservative, and successful public servant. This McSwain serves his country, he knows the law, and he tells the truth as best he sees it. But there is another version who is far less admirable – driven by ambition rather than integrity. And that is the McSwain, unfortunately, who seems to be running for Governor.
McSwain’s willingness to bend the knee to the former president is understandable given today’s political dynamics, not to mention observable throughout the Republican Party’s ranks. To successfully run in the GOP today, it seems that one must go along with Trump’s election lies and be in lockstep with his views.
But this behavior is not becoming of our potential leaders. Even in the aftermath of January 6th, when the destructive potential of those very lies was laid bare for all to see, many Republicans like McSwain are too desperate for political power to stand up for the truth.
So, rather than lead, they pander. And in pandering, they not only reveal their willingness to take the easy road, to give in to their all too human impulses to assent to a politically expedient lie; they also reveal what they think of Republican voters.
In this fraught political moment, when there is so much anger, so much resentment, so much grievance, real leadership is badly needed. Republican leaders like McSwain have a choice: They can follow along with the lies, or they can help lead their party to higher ground. They can choose to believe that the GOP voting base will only get behind them if they cater to their grievances and raw rage. But they can also choose to put in the hard work—which would require knocking on doors, conducting focus groups, and above all else, working to reconnect voters with reality.
Donald Trump’s most committed followers are people, too. They have the capacity to reason, to be persuaded, just like everyone else, as well as the capacity to give in to their fears and fanciful thinking. McSwain and others could treat them like adults, not children, and put in the work of reasoning with them and telling them the truth. As Mitt Romney said back in January: “The best way we could show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth.”
But McSwain has made his choice. He has given in to the temptation to lie, to allow his raw, unprincipled ambition to steer his run for Governor. Pennsylvanians, in turn, must not make the mistake of putting that version of William McSwain in the Governor’s mansion.