Five takeaways: Trump aides describe chaotic post-election White House
(The Hill) – The House panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol delivered damning new evidence on Monday suggesting former President Trump was aware of his election defeat, but still pushed false claims of rampant fraud in an effort to cling to power and raise millions of dollars in campaign donations.
A key witness in Monday’s hearing, Trump’s former campaign manager Bill Stepien, was forced to cancel his in-person appearance when his wife went into labor. But after a short delay, the panel regrouped, leaning on pre-recorded interviews with Stepien, former Attorney General Bill Barr and a number of other former Trump aides to bolster their case.
All told, the witnesses told the story of a chaotic post-election environment in which top White House staffers, campaign operatives, cabinet secretaries and congressional leaders pressed the former president to abandon the fictitious narrative of a stolen election, only to be ignored by Trump and a small cadre of loyalists willing to go along with the sham.
Here are five takeaways from the panel’s second public hearing.
Trump was warned at every turn
The committee brought out official after official from the campaign and from the Trump administration detailing how they cautioned Trump at every turn against declaring victory and claiming fraud.
The former president was told the uptick in voting by mail due to COVID-19 would delay the results. He was advised against claiming victory before the results were finalized. And he was told again and again that his election fraud claims were baseless and unsupported by evidence.
“My recommendation was to say that votes are still being counted. It’s too early to tell, too early to call the race,” Stepien said.
“I don’t recall the particular words. He thought I was wrong. He told me so. And you know, that they were going to, he was going to go in a different direction.”
Trump campaign spokesman Jason Miller offered similar advice.
“There were suggestions by, I believe it was Mayor Giuliani, to go and declare victory and say that we’d won it outright,” Miller said. “I remember saying that… we should not go and declare victory until we had a better sense of the numbers.”
Former Attorney General Bill Barr in particular laid into the former president, calling the claims “completely bogus and silly and usually based on complete misinformation.”
“There was an avalanche of all these allegations of fraud that built up over a number of days. And it was like playing whack-a-mole, because something would come out one day and then the next day it would be another issue,” Barr said.
Part of building a legal case against Trump
Monday’s hearing was the committee’s first fully dedicated to showing the extent Trump was repeatedly warned about his election fraud claims.
It’s an important building block for the committee in the week ahead as they look at what actions Trump took given the repeated warnings from staffers and even his attorney general.
That point is key to showing Trump’s culpability and would raise questions about his motivation as the committee holds hearings looking at the former president’s pressure campaign at the Department of Justice to investigate his attempts to get Vice President Mike Pence to reject the will of the voters.
Trump campaign lawyer Alex Cannon said he had a “15 second” conversation with Pence in which he relayed the campaign was unable to substantiate Trump’s election fraud claims.
“He asked me if we were finding anything. And I said that I didn’t believe we were finding it or I was not personally finding anything sufficient to alter the results of the election. And he — he thanked me. That was our interaction,” Cannon said.
Barr also told Trump his fraud claims should be the campaign’s work, not the Department of Justice.
“The department doesn’t take sides in elections, and the department is not an extension of — of your legal team,” Barr said he told Trump later.
“He didn’t seem to be listening and I didn’t think it was, you know, that I was inclined not to stay around if he wasn’t listening to advice from me or his other cabinet secretaries.”
Witnesses give sense of Trump’s state of mind
The committee failed to directly demonstrate that Trump himself knew there was no voter fraud, and realized he was misleading the public.
In fact, in some of the taped depositions, witnesses described a president who seemed to believe his own arguments even as nearly everyone around him did not.
Barr detailed a report Trump relayed on Dominion voting machines, something the former attorney general said in earlier testimony “were made in such a sensational way that they obviously were influencing a lot of people.”
“And the statements were made very conclusory like this — these machines were designed to, you know, engage in fraud or something to that effect, but I didn’t see any supporting information for it,” Barr said of Trump.
“And I was somewhat demoralized because I thought, boy, if he really believes this stuff he has, you know, lost contact with — with it — he’s become detached from reality if he really believes this stuff.”
Former Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue also testified to Trump’s fixation.
“There were so many allegations that when you gave him a very direct answer on one of them, he wouldn’t fight you on it, he’d move to another one,” Donoghue said.
If Trump’s claims of a stolen election are false, they are also extremely lucrative.
House investigators found that, between Election Day and the Jan. 6 attack, Trump’s campaign sent millions of emails to potential supporters — as many as 25 per day — asking for small donations to something called the Official Election Defense Fund.
In interviews with campaign staffers, the investigators found that no such fund ever existed.
“I don’t believe there is actually a fund called the Election Defense Fund,” said Hanna Allred, a former Trump campaign aide.
Gary Coby, the former digital director for Trump’s campaign, acknowledged that the fund was a marketing tool: “Just topic matter,” he told the committee, “where money can potentially go to be — how money can potentially be used.”
The effort yielded $250 million, investigators found, $100 million in the first week after the election alone.
Yet most of the money did not go to help the campaign fight to overturn the election result, as the solicitations suggested, the committee said. Instead, Trump created a separate entity, the Save America PAC, which funneled money to conservative groups run by Trump allies, including $1 million to a charitable foundation run by his former chief of staff Mark Meadows; more than $5 million to the event company that oversaw Trump’s Ellipse rally on Jan. 6;
and more than $200,000 to the Trump Hotel Collection.
“So not only was there the big lie, there was the big rip off,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). “Donors deserve to know where their funds are really going. They deserve better than what President Trump and his team did.”
Fox News predicted Trump would ‘exploit this anomaly’
Few news outlets have been more friendly to Trump during his meteoric political rise than Fox News, where the top pundits — including Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity — have defended Trump’s actions post-election and repeatedly downplayed the violence of Jan. 6.
Yet it was Fox News which was first to declare that Biden had won Arizona in 2020 — a controversial election-night call that deflated the Republicans’ hopes of keeping the White House. And Monday’s select committee hearing revealed that leaders at the network had not only anticipated that Trump would try to spin the early returns to claim a false victory, they also steered their coverage to warn viewers against believing it.
Appearing before the panel, Chris Stirewalt, former political editor at Fox News, described a phenomenon known as the “red mirage,” which predicts that Republican candidates typically race ahead of Democrats on Election Day because GOP voters tend to favor in-person voting. The margins close, Stirewalt said, as mail-in ballots — which are more popular with Democrats — are counted after the polls close.
“So in every election — certainly a national election — you expect to see the Republican with a lead, but it’s not really a lead. When you put together a jigsaw puzzle, it doesn’t matter which piece you put in first. It ends up with the same image. So for us, who cares?” Stirewalt said.
“But that’s because no candidate had ever tried to avail themselves of this quirk in the election-counting system,” he continued. “We had gone to pains — and I’m proud of the pains we went to — to make sure that we were informing viewers that this was going to happen. Because the Trump campaign and the president had made it clear that they were going to try to exploit this anomaly.”
Other witnesses on Monday described Fox’s Arizona decision as a gut punch for Trump, his aides and his family members watching the election returns at the White House that night.
Miller said the call “completely” changed the atmosphere in the room.
“[We were] both disappointed with Fox and concerned that maybe our data or our numbers weren’t accurate,” he said.