Former President Donald J. Trump disembarks Marine One at Valley International Airport in Harlingen, Texas Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, and boards Air Force One en route to Joint Base Andrews, Md. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
Former President Donald Trump planted the seeds for the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by continually promoting theories that he lost the 2020 election through fraud, even though top advisers and officials told him there was no evidence to support the claim, according to testimony a U.S. House committee presented Monday.
In its second hearing to introduce findings of its ongoing investigation, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol argued that the first step of Trump’s multipart plan was to sow doubt about the integrity of the election — even as Trump repeatedly heard from credible sources that the claims were baseless.
The meritless claims of a stolen election created the basis for the Jan. 6, 2021, White House rally that morphed into a siege of the U.S. Capitol to deny the certification of President Joe Biden’s election victory.
“He betrayed the trust of the American people,” Chairman Bennie G. Thompson said. “He ignored the will of the voters, he lied to his supporters and the country, and he tried to remain in office after the people had voted him out.
“Donald Trump lost an election and knew he lost an election,” the Mississippi Democrat added. “And as a result of his loss, decided to wage an attack on our democracy.”
‘Avalanche of allegations’
A series of claims of voter fraud were all debunked by government officials and the Trump campaign’s own legal team, according to Monday’s testimony.
Theories would flow to campaign manager Bill Stepien, who would ask his team to investigate them, Stepien said in taped testimony.
In one example, a claim of thousands of illegal votes in Arizona turned out to be from legitimate overseas voters, Stepien said.
Stepien stepped away from the campaign amid an internal division between him and adviser Rudy Giuliani, as it became clear that Trump favored Giuliani’s faction, which advocated pursuing baseless election fraud claims.
Dominion Voting Systems, an elections contractor that was the subject of baseless fraud claims, sued Sidney Powell, a Trump lawyer who agreed with Giuliani about pursuing fraud claims.
In that litigation, Powell conceded that her statements about voting machines were not statements of fact, U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a member of the committee, said Monday.
“What they were proposing, I thought was nuts,” Eric Herschmann, a Trump White House lawyer, said of the Giuliani faction.
Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, also told the panel that he counseled Trump against taking Giuliani’s advice.
Fraud claims were also referred to the U.S. Department of Justice, then led by Attorney General Bill Barr.
In taped testimony, Barr described “an avalanche of all these allegations of fraud that built up over a number of days.”
The early claims “were completely bogus and silly and usually based on complete misinformation,” Barr said.
In a late November meeting in the Oval Office, Trump pressured Barr to involve the Justice Department in the fraud investigations. Barr told the president the department would investigate specific allegations of fraud that could have swung the election, but that claims to that point were “just not meritorious.”
Later, Trump asked Barr specifically about ballots in Detroit, where boxes were seen transported to a vote-counting station. Barr told Trump that that was to be expected as part of the city’s process to centralize vote counting among its 600-plus precincts, Barr said.
Barr said he told Trump the fraud claims he was making to the public were “bullshit,” a comment also aired by the committee in its initial Thursday night hearing.
“I told him that it was crazy stuff and they were wasting their time on it and it was doing great, great disservice to the country,” Barr said.
“He’s become detached from reality if he really believes this stuff,” Barr said he remembered thinking at the time.
Barr later tasked BJay Pak, the lead federal prosecutor in Atlanta, with looking into an allegation Giuliani had made about a black suitcase that Giuliani said had been wheeled into State Farm Arena, an Atlanta venue that was a mass voting site in 2020.
“We found that the suitcase full of ballots, the alleged black suitcase that was being seen pulled from under the table, was actually an official lockbox where ballots were kept safe,” Pak told the panel Monday.
Richard Donoghue, then the acting deputy attorney general, said he told Trump the department had investigated the Georgia claim — as well as others in Nevada, Michigan and Pennsylvania — and that there was no evidence of fraud.
The Election Day ‘red mirage’
In the weeks leading up to Election Day, Trump warned potential fraud would be the only way he could lose the contest and urged his supporters not to vote by mail, against the advice of Stepien and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy.
At the White House on Election Day, Trump declared he’d won the election and complained of “a fraud on the American public.”
“This happened, as far as I could tell, before there was actually any potential evidence,” Barr testified.
Trump seemed to base his view of fraud on the fact that more votes for Biden were counted later in the night.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who led much of Monday’s hearing, asked former Fox News political editor Chris Stirewalt, who appeared in person before the panel Monday, to explain the so-called red mirage that showed Republican gains evaporating.
Stirewalt said he’d worked for weeks to try and educate the public that election results would likely shift from Republican to Democrat as the hours went on. Barr at least received that message, telling the panel “everyone understood for weeks” that was how election night would likely play out.
The phenomenon is typical for elections in the past few decades because of Democrats’ preference for mail-in and absentee voting, which are typically counted after same-day votes, Stirewalt said. Election watchers expected it to be even more pronounced in 2020, when mail-in voting increased 50% due to the pandemic, he added.
“In every election — and certainly a national election — you expect to see the Republican with a lead, but it’s not really a lead,” Stirewalt said. “When you put together a jigsaw puzzle, it doesn’t matter which piece you put in first: It ends up with the same image.”
Elections analysts haven’t traditionally cared about that quirk, Stirewalt said.
“But that’s because no candidate had ever tried to avail themselves of this work in the election counting system,” he said.
In 2020, though, Stirewalt’s team told viewers to expect it to happen “because the Trump campaign and the president had made it clear that they were going to try to exploit this anomaly.”
Fox News’ decision desk, of which Stirewalt was a part, was the first major outlet to call Arizona for Biden, which changed the mood among Trump’s supporters, Stepien said.
The decision to call Arizona was based on precinct-by-precinct data that closely aligned with pre-election polling that showed Biden leading in the state, Stirewalt said.
In the days after the election as states continued to count votes, Stepien felt “very, very, very bleak” about the Trump campaign’s chances, which he told Trump were 5 to 10%.
Connection to riot
Trump’s complaints of electoral conspiracy led to increasingly disturbing threats of violence, according to Al Schmidt, at the time a Republican member of the Philadelphia City Commission who publicly refuted claims of election fraud in the city.
Trump tweeted on Nov. 11 about Schmidt, who said he was then subjected to threats against himself and his family.
“After the president tweeted at me by name, calling me out the way that he did, the threats became much more specific, much more graphic,” he said.
The panel’s vice chair, Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney, said future hearings would detail Trump’s broader plans for Jan. 6, when rioters who believed Trump’s claims of voter fraud attacked the Capitol.
“The Trump campaign legal team knew there was no legitimate argument fraud, irregularities or anything to overturn the election,” Cheney said. “Yet President Trump went ahead with his plans for January 6, anyway.
“Many are serving criminal sentences because they believed what Donald Trump said about the election,” she said. “And they acted on it. They came to Washington, D.C., at his request. They marched on the Capitol at his request. And hundreds of them besieged and invaded the building at the heart of our constitutional republic.”