Nov 28, 2022 • 56M

The Prism Metanews Guide to January 6th - Part 2

Chapters 4-8

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All your Prism Metanews audio content covering the world of misinformation, from recordings of our Twitter live chat Misinfo Meetups to our Guide to January 6th.
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This segment is the second of four parts that comprise this voice essay. You can find this episode on Apple Podcasts here.

Chapter 4 - The Boy Who Cried Fraud

We start, again, in the middle of the night. It’s early on November 4th, 2020, and the votes from the day before have not all been counted. It’s too close to call, but Donald Trump has decided what he will do. He approaches a podium and, with all the world watching, declares victory over his opponent, Joe Biden. He just starts saying he won. This was unprecedented in American history. And it was stupid because, as it turned out, when the votes were counted he would be the clear loser.

Trump’s inability to accept a loss would turn out to be a powerful engine giving energy to an entire movement, leading within two months to the violent assault on the Capitol. How is that even possible? You and I were there, but there is a lot to get into to make it make sense.

First, Americans should all know and be proud that their democratic traditions are strong, and resilient, and getting better all the time. When a political candidate loses, they can challenge the results of an election—but our system requires proof, and our laws keep things fair. Bring it in court, and if you win there you can hold cheaters accountable. This is the way we, all of us, can make our elections fairer, more equal, and more transparent, too.

Second, what Americans should know about Donald Trump is that he’s never demonstrated concern for the actual underlying reality of elections, or contests generally, in which he is personally invested. When he loses, his default, automatic response is to say the other guy cheated. He does not seem to believe in backing his claims up with evidence, though, and never has.

For all the talk of “election security” since November 2020, Donald Trump himself has almost no regard for the integrity of elections. If he is embarrassed by the outcome, it was illegitimate. If he stands to lose power, even moreso. Let’s go through some examples.

Trump won the 2016 contest, right? And he mopped the floor in the Republican primaries to secure the party’s nomination. But before all that, Trump lost to Ted Cruz in the Iowa Caucuses. He just… lost. And Cruz won. None of it was in dispute in any way.

Initially, Trump congratulated Cruz, apparently acknowledging his loss. Days later, however, he cried “fraud.” Someone had rigged the caucuses for Lyin’ Ted. In a fair matchup, Cruz never could have defeated Trump. QED, the matchup wasn’t fair. It’s a circular logic, and one that is more familiar to us all now. But it’s one of the most consistent things about Trump. He makes things up about fraud when he loses.

Fast forward to November of 2016, It wasn’t enough, having beaten Hillary Clinton, just to notch a win and take the presidency. Trump has to win in absolute terms: it was a landslide, it was the biggest win in history, he won the Electoral College AND the popular vote, he received the most votes ever, and so forth. Like many before him, Trump in fact didn’t win the popular vote; Hillary Clinton beat him by about 3 million. Trump’s response? Yep, he claimed illegal immigrants defrauded the popular vote, swinging 3—or maybe 5—million ballots ALL in Hillary’s direction. Trump actually won on all measures, you see—it’s just that Hillary cheated so it would seem like he didn’t.

Take a much more recent example. Georgia’s Republican governor, whom Trump openly hates, ran for reelection this year and was challenged in the primary by a Trump-endorsed challenger. The governor, Brian Kemp, absolutely crushed that challenger, David Perdue, winning by more than 50 points. People paying attention noted that Trump didn’t seem to have the juice to help Perdue win. Trump’s reflex to cry foul was simply too strong, and he put out a statement boosting wild claims that his guy would have won if not for… you guessed it, fraud. The bit gets old when the races are close, but at least it is more believable. In this example, though, you can see how immaterial reality is to his reaction to losing. It doesn’t matter. It’s always fraud.

And so it was when he lost to Joe Biden in 2020. When Trump got up to that podium, he knew what he would say: “we were getting ready to win this election… frankly, we did win this election.” Cheers from his staffers in the room. “This is a major fraud on our nation.”

The question wasn’t whether President Trump would back down and concede if it turned out he lost. That was never going to happen. The question was simply how many people would choose to believe what he was saying, and buy into whatever excuses he would make for why he apparently lost. Would enough of the American public, and key officials at the federal and state levels, go along?

Chapter 5 - Stop The Steal

Shortly after Election Day, Tom heard from a reporter friend that a Korean Air flight to Phoenix had been loaded up with fake Biden votes. This fit very well with what he was hearing from Trump and other politicians about how sinister irregularities and outright shenanigans were cropping up all over the country. The plane had landed, so Tom and a couple other people who believed there was a conspiracy afoot went to see for themselves. They drove over to the airport, took a grainy video, recorded the tail number. One of them followed the cargo loading staff to their homes and took down the addresses. The video was posted online, and the suspicious activity was reported to a Pinal County sheriff. Tom and crew wanted to make sure the fake Biden ballots from the plane never got processed into the counting.

But then, nothing happened. The plane had nothing to do with the election at all, so there was no call for suspicion, to say nothing of an investigation. The ballots weren’t real and therefore could not be fraudulently tallied. The story about fake ballots being flown into Arizona was just nonsense that someone threw out onto the Internet. Tom forgot to activate his critical thinking and got taken for a ride, wasting time and embarrassing himself chasing ghosts.

What’s remarkable about this episode is that Tom Van Flein had been working in Congress for Paul Gosar, a Republican House member from Arizona, for about ten years when Biden beat Trump. Gosar is DC-famous for being one of the most ardently pro-Trump members of Congress, among other things, and he was all in on the election fraud narrative from the start. And Tom was his chief of staff. Along on the airport outing was also Josh Barnett, a Republican who had just lost a race to represent Arizona’s Seventh Congressional District–by 53 points, to Ruben Gallego. Barnett must have been hoping to bust the Korean Air affair *really* wide open.

So that was the first order of business once Trump declared his intention to bluff his way through as more Biden votes were counted and the gentleman from Scranton ran off with the Electoral College. If you support Trump, you have to help stop Biden votes from being counted.

In his midnight non-concession speech, Trump made clear that this was the strategy. He would ask the Supreme Court to intervene. Whatever it took. Doing this would a) prevent all the ballots from being tallied, so he would appear to lose by less than he had, and b) convey the sense that fake votes for Biden were flooding in all around, and it’s all quite suspicious, innit. On November 5th at 2:12 pm, he tweeted STOP THE COUNT exclamation point.

Gentle listener, the patriotic response to questions about who won the election before the ballots are counted is to insist that all the ballots be counted. Maybe there needs to be an audit later, but never have I seen a candidate call for stopping the count before it was possible to tell with confidence who won.

Let’s back up a minute and consider how we got to this place where it even made sense to some people that not counting all the votes, in the United States of America, was a good idea. In his final year as president, Trump had personally expended a great amount of effort into getting everyone to think that mail-in votes were easy to manipulate and counterfeit. You might have even found this persuasive; certainly many people did. He asserted it aggressively and often. For months before November, Trump repeatedly took to Twitter–he was still allowed to tweet then!–to rail against how easy it is to vote by mail in so many states, and insisted that in-person voting was the only way to go.

Here’s an example, the full text of a Trump tweet dated June 22nd, 2020. You and I were canceling summer plans because COVID had reached everywhere. Donald Trump was blasting in ALL CAPS, “RIGGED 2020 ELECTION: MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!”

As election security experts will tell you, mail-in voting is in fact pretty well protected and has very low rates of fraud associated with it. Not perfect, but election results don’t get overturned, ever, because of fraudulent absentee ballots. We use them extensively, so there wasn’t any reason for Trump to take this line.

Except. That what is true in many states is that the mail-in votes are counted last, even if sent in well before Election Day. Trump managed, whether on purpose or not, to create a situation in which the votes that would be counted first, in person on Election Day, would be tilted his direction–and the votes that would favor Biden would mostly be counted after that. Everyone who knows how elections are conducted, correctly guessed which political party would be taking COVID seriously in the fall, and saw Trump’s tweets realized there was going to be a “Red Mirage”: in many places, the impression given by early results would most likely be that Trump had established commanding leads that did not exist in reality. Red Mirage, in fact, is a longstanding pattern going back decades, because Democrats generally prefer mail-in voting more than do Republicans. Attorney General Bill Barr later testified under oath that “everyone understood” this was going to happen in 2020. Experts warned repeatedly that it could engender widespread doubts about the outcome if Trump ended up losing.

News networks heard what those experts were saying, and caveated their reporting of tallies into Election Night. But it was still easy to take away the impression, and to reinforce that impression, of Trump doing very well until, suddenly and for the rest of the counting, he didn’t.

This was unthinkable to people who consumed only conservative media in 2020, because the idea of Trump not winning by a landslide was never entertained. All you heard was what a juggernaut Trump was, how epic his rallies were, how united the party was around him, and how terrible Biden was by comparison, hiding in his basement. It was an extraordinarily effective propaganda campaign with its target audience, based on half-truths, some outright lies (like Joe Biden being senile), and extremely weak logic. How is a person immersed in those vibes going to react when told Trump is on track to lose? How could he lose when WE ALL SAW the boat parades??

Trump supporters, primed to believe he was a lock for reelection, watched on election night as Sleepy Joe Biden caught up and surpassed Trump in swing state after swing state. As those mail-in ballots were counted and reported out. In the dark of the night. Surely this was the fraud that Trump had warned everyone about? What it actually was, was the Red Mirage was evaporating.

This was how “Stop the Steal,” a movement supercharged by misinformation that reached and persuaded millions of Americans, began in November 2020.

“Stop the Steal” was already a thing, in fact, and it had some infrastructure already in place. Trump was able to conveniently plug into what people had ginned up on phony pretenses in earlier contests, for example a 2018 Florida Senate race. It’s a playbook that disingenuous hucksters had used and knew how to make use of when a preferred candidate loses. Ali Alexander, Roger Stone, and others were more than happy to put their tactics and organizing skills to work for Trump in his hour of need.

So ready-made was this movement that the very evening of November 4th saw the first Stop the Steal rally, in Phoenix. Paul Gosar was there as a speaker. He warmed up the audience for a guy notorious for promoting the debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory. For the next several weeks, people demonstrated outside the Maricopa County ballot processing facility, trying to demand that the count be halted. Arizona resident Jake Chansley–the so-called QAnon Shaman who we’ll later see inside the Senate chamber–got his first major press exposure at these events. The Phoenix protests, from the beginning, were infused with a radical element explicitly in thrall to the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy.

In addition to Arizona, Stop the Steal targeted Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia, the places where Red Mirage effects were most powerful because they flipped those states from Trump to Biden. At least two of these states would need to be put back in the Trump column to overturn, so this is where they concentrated fire.

Things then got more complicated and more convoluted. When it became clear that Maricopa County was going to hand Biden Arizona’s electoral votes, localized bunkem quickly spread, notably the claim that Sharpie markers had invalidated ballots cast for Trump.

Fairy tales multiplied. Soon it wasn’t just that mail-in ballots or Sharpie markings were suspect, it was that the tabulating machines had been hacked, supposedly by foreign powers, and votes cast for Trump had been changed, electronically, to votes cast for Biden.

At the headquarters of the Republican National Committee on November 19th, Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, and other attorneys representing Trump did a press conference in which they spun some of these types of extremely hard-to-believe tales. When the companies that made the machines later sued for defamation, it was shown that none of what was being said was based in reality.

It’s important to note at this point that not too long into November, the Trump campaign definitely knew it had lost. The question didn’t really linger much past the two weeks following Election Day, at least not for anyone paying attention. To take one notable example, the federal leader directly responsible for election security communicated repeatedly, including in public, that the allegations were untrue. Trump fired Chris Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, in a tweet on November 17th.

Before November 19th, campaign staffers had determined to be false the claims being made about Dominion and Smartmatic voting machines. They prepared an internal memo saying so. Everyone knew.

So it was all out there. Almost no mystery left to hide behind. Barring some dramatic development, Biden had clearly won enough states to secure the Electoral College, a fact that Trump’s team was in possession of as “Stop the Steal” got going in earnest. The states were certifying these results one by one. It was, in the official sense, over.

But the outgoing President plowed ahead, entertaining and embracing outlandish conspiracy theory after outlandish conspiracy theory—any and all that could explain away his loss, no matter how implausible. And this despite their falseness being so easy, on the whole, to determine. It was not a quest to learn what happened, it was an expedition to fish for pretexts for other action. An assault on public confidence in our elections, dressed up in the language of “election integrity.”

Others stood by to help, to lend their platforms, credibility, and rhetorical talent to the cause, bringing many in who otherwise might have exercised skepticism about it all. Jim Jordan, Congressman from Ohio and jacketless pro-Trump firebrand, like Trump had suggested weeks before the election that Demcrats would try to steal it. As early after the election as November 5th, Jordan was asserting that this had indeed come to pass, and he systematically hammered known falsehoods about the election into the consciousness of anyone who would listen.

The Stop the Steal leaders knew how to use the Internet, too. Without Facebook groups and astroturfed Twitter campaigns, the movement probably would not have reached the immense scale or incurred the severe anger that made January 6th possible within a few short weeks. It was everywhere, and growing quickly. People who were disappointed that Trump lost were seeing in their feeds, hour after hour, confident statements about how obvious the fraud was, and how important it was for patriots to not allow it to stand. Talk of 1776 bubbled and simmered. Angry face emojis. The comments were a wasteland.

Massive rallies in DC followed, organized and promoted online, first in November and then in December. All along the way, Ali Alexander was touching base with other organizers and spreading election misinformation via a platform called Periscope. As January 6th got closer, 4chan, 8kun, Gab, Google, Parler, Reddit, Snapchat, Telegram, theDonaldwin, TikTok, Twitch, YouTube, and Zello were all used to communicate, plan, and/or disinfom, judging from the interest investigators have taken in hearing from those platforms in the year and a half since the attack.

Stop the Steal had grown into a misinformation-fueled leviathan, a well of grievance waiting to be tapped. The place to turn its attention on would be none other than Trump’s own Vice President and the Congress. Could these rallies, this mass of misled humanity, be used to coerce Pence and wavering Republican lawmakers into abusing their positions to help Trump illegally do something that had never been attempted?

To answer that, here’s what Ali Alexander said on December 28th in a now-deleted Persicope video: “I was the person that came up with the Jan. 6 idea with Congressman Gosar, Congressman Mo Brooks, and then Congressman Andy Biggs… We four schemed up of putting maximum pressure on Congress while they were voting, so that who we couldn’t lobby, we could change the hearts and the minds of Republicans who were in that body, hearing our loud roar from outside.”

But before the ROAR, we have to briefly walk through the lawyer-concocted schemes that would attempt to provide cover for Pence and the Congress to do what Trump wanted them to do. How could they possibly justify objecting to the certified electoral ballots of enough states to deny Biden the win? It starts, in true Trump fashion, with LAWSUITS.

Chapter 6 - I’ll See You in Court

On February 7, 2022, veteran lawyer Sidney Powell submitted a filing with the U.S. Court of Appeals Sixth Circuit. Powell was in danger of being disbarred and losing her ability to practice law in Michigan, and she needed to defend herself. At issue was the so-called “Kraken,” a raft of lawsuits that Powell and other Trump attorneys had sold the public in late 2020 as THE THING that would flip Red Mirage swing states from Biden to Trump. Was the Kraken ever real? Did she actually believe it would do what she said?

You may remember Powell from earlier, when I said she held a press conference at the RNC on November 19th. Ms. Powell had sold the Kraken as the antidote to a far-fetched set of absurd conspiracy theories about the election being hacked. Her focus on the remedy fooled many into skipping right past checking if her diagnosis was correct in the first place. It wasn’t, and in the end she had to admit that even the cure was predicated on stuff for which the best evidence of its veracity is that… many people think it’s so. From the filing: “Millions of Americans believe the central contentions of the complaint to be true, and perhaps they are.”

In short, the Kraken was never legit. But it took a couple of billion-dollar defamation lawsuits to force Sidney Powell to voice this conclusion, and a great number of her countrymen still cling to the preposterous fairy tale that foreign powers, or media machinations, or a global anti-conservative elite, or Democratic operatives, or all of the above, had perpetrated unprecedented levels of voter fraud to get Trump out of the White House. And what’s even more amazing, is that these baddies did all this without leaving so much as a scintilla of evidence behind that proved they did it. That’s how complete, and capable, the conspiracy was to many Republicans.

Despite having mostly only flimsy anecdotes, unverifiable witness accounts, and a few heavily edited video clips to make their case, Powell and others filed more than 60 cases to challenge the election results. Because they were not good cases—and badly lawyered to boot—these challenges started losing. And then more of them lost. In the end, almost every one of them came up totally empty. What remained didn’t show anything close to what would be needed to put Trump back on top in even a single Biden state.

Legal Ls notwithstanding, there were two important ways the courts strategy helped get us to January 6th. First was the effect on Republicans of all the Kraken talk, and of the association of people with then-good reputations, and of constantly hearing that Trump was on offense. That surely several of these lawsuits, not essentially zero of them, would turn into something and vindicate the President. Undoubtedly the multitude of thousands of sworn affidavits these attorneys were touting in official-sounding terms… well, those couldn’t ALL be nothingburgers… could they?

The impact here is additive, despite there being no substance to the individual assertions. People paying less than close attention could be forgiven for feeling like there was SO MUCH evidence, not realizing that allegation after allegation was actually being publicly debunked, shot down in court, and often both. Sworn affidavits can be submitted as evidence, but they still have to be evaluated for substance before anyone will decide to look into whatever is being said. Literally anybody willing to say it can give an affidavit, but only substantive testimony becomes evidence and is further vetted.

The second important effect of this flurry of litigation is that it gave Trump ammunition to persuade Republican Party state organization leaders, state legislators, and state delegations to Congress, that there was a big enough question mark over the election results that they should feel comfortable helping to thwart what appeared to be the will of their voters. This mattered a great deal for Trump because his Constitutional lawyers had briefed him on a novel interpretation of how those elites could throw the Electoral College into chaos for his benefit.

The idea his advisors brought him was that one man, Mike Pence, could go against the voters and make Trump president again. Retired federal judge J. Michael Luttig told Congress and all Americans recently that “there was no basis in the Constitution or laws of the United States at all for the theory” that these advisors were suggesting. Trump decided to give it a whirl.

Chapter 7 - Organized Subversion

Robert Sinners was feeling squirrelly. He was up to something–something *big* that could help his boss, Donald Trump, stay in the White House after losing the election. But in order for it to work, the people involved had to keep it quiet. That was because the something he was up to was extremely antidemocratic and, probably, illegal. They would need a smidge of tradecraft.

Georgia, where Sinners had been working as a leader in the Trump campaign, had gone narrowly for Joe Biden in November. In December, the state would certify its official results and duly appoint a slate of electors to represent Georgia in the Electoral College. But. In the past few weeks Trump’s people had orchestrated a multi-state scheme to have states he lost, including Georgia, send parallel, illegitimate, slates of electors to set up Congressional Republicans and Vice President Pence to overturn the election on January 6th. That sounds inflammatory, but there’s really no other way to say it. By mid-December, Republicans carrying out this scheme in Atlanta were set to meet at the state capitol building, which it was thought would give a veneer of authority to the sham operation.

And so it was that Robert Sinners sent an email to Georgia’s fake electors ready to do their part. Paraphrased: Hi from the Trump campaign. Please be sneaky, or we could run into problems.

Direct quotes from the email are actually even worse, if you can believe it, and they reveal a high degree of consciousness of guilt about how fundamentally wrong the fake slates plan was. "I must ask for your complete discretion in this process… Your duties are imperative to ensure the end result -- a win in Georgia for President Trump -- but will be hampered unless we have complete secrecy and discretion… Please, at no point should you mention anything to do with Presidential Electors or speak to media."

The idea to have “alternate” electors was raised to Trump’s inner circle no later than the days immediately following the election. Members of Congress and lawyers who know how the Electoral College works started pitching this to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, including in text messages that have since been made public. One can imagine them all nodding and agreeing with one another when this was discussed, thinking this was very clever indeed. Of course the election was stolen, after all, and the court cases were going to prove it. But if that doesn’t happen fast enough, prudence demands that we get these gears in motion.

The clock was ticking until January 6th, when Congress would have opportunity to challenge elector slates, state by state, and the VP would do his part to count the ballots as proscribed in the Constitution. Full steam ahead, no time to waste. They would try first for state legislatures to authorize alternative slates. That would be as good as could be hoped for and would make things easier for the VP and Trump’s allies in Congress. Failing to get partisan legislatures to authorize Trump slates, the Trump team would resort to having Republicans informally create faux slates.

Legally, this whole notion is a shambolic, un-American travesty. It goes against the Constitution, and the Electoral Count Act of 1887, and the norms of peaceful, orderly presidential transition that our nation has observed for centuries. The reason we know this is because several people working for Trump wrote memos outlining legal theories for how this would work, and then it got shot down by one person who looked at it after another, many of them sympathetic to Trump’s push to keep power. Pence’s people looked at and rejected it. The White House Counsel looked at and rejected it. Virtually every legal scholar who has analyzed it since this all became public in recent months has rejected it categorically.

These theories amounted to bogus justifications to carry out a coup. They tried to make a case for overthrowing the government that the people of the United States duly chose under the Constitution. That’s unpatriotic. It’s also illegal, and you can’t make it legal with too-clever-by-half legal memos.

But some people tried. John Eastman, Kenneth Chesebro, and Jenna Ellis drafted a few of the known examples. Senator Mike Lee of Utah advised the effort, spending hours a day at one point trying to find a way for Trump to not lose. Slide decks were made recapping the arguments in the memos. It was a whole. thing. in November and December of 2020.

Trump was easy to convince. You basically had him at “there’s a way”! So what was the point of all this law talk? Well, for one thing, it related to the lawsuits underway and Trump’s wish that the Supreme Court would step in and stop Biden from being inaugurated. Second, and very importantly once the lawsuits failed en masse, the memos were seen as a way to persuade Republicans in Congress and at the state level that they could get away with putting Trump in office for another four years. These arguments would give them rhetorical cover for doing what they surely should have understood was unambiguously wrong. A fairy tale to make them feel better for essentially telling their constituents, “I don’t care that you wanted Biden; I want Trump.”

The Trump camp printed out reams’ worth of copies of these memos and put them into the hands of friendlies all over Capitol Hill and in Red Mirage statehouses. Some of the state legislators, apparently emboldened by this convenient excuse, held “hearings”--meetings that were meant to look like official hearings but weren’t–in which witnesses asserted that their state’s vote should be invalidated or even reversed. Charitably, the evidence cited in these meetings was unverified. In some cases, the claims had already been thoroughly debunked or rejected out of hand from the Kraken and other court challenges. But the point wasn’t to make a compelling case on election fraud. It was theater to help further the alternate and fake electors plan. Disinformation in service of the coup.

Trump made direct appeals to members of Congress and state lawmakers so they would be ready to step in and do their part, we have since learned. The weight of the Republican National Committee came squarely down for the plan, with fundraising emails between the election and January 6th appealing to rank-and-file Republicans to pressure Congress to keep Trump in power.

We can also single out three individuals in particular for their notable roles in all this.

First, Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, who was the driving force behind much of the action at the state level. Rudy made personal appearances at some of the “hearings” and generally did whatever he could to make Trump slates happen.

Second, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who had served in the House of Representatives until tapped by Trump, helped grease the machinery in Washington. As a gatekeeper for Trump, Meadows put onto the White House schedule all sorts of individuals who would introduce all kinds of impossible Hail Mary pass ideas into Trump’s mental space. Trump was focused like a laser on undoing his loss, and these people were saying they could help. So what if they involved fantastical conspiracy theories and pseudo-legal baloney? Along with Giuliani, Meadows also reportedly supplied state legislators with suggested templates for them to use in creating their alternate slates. Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are the ones that have been confirmed to have used these centrally drafted templates.

Third, Virginia Thomas bears special mention as an especially enthusiastic proponent of the elector slates scam. Thomas, a conservative activist whose husband, Clarence, is an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, urged Meadows to fight Trump’s loss. Notably, she personally contacted at least 29 Arizona lawmakers about what Giuliani and Meadows were coordinating. [As an aside: Justice Thomas later dissented, himself against all eight other justices, from a majority opinion that affirmed the January 6th Committee’s right to be provided Trump-era records from the National Archives and Records Administration. So, lots of questions there. But I digress.]

In the end, none of the state legislatures took the extraordinary measure of sending a competing Trump slate to the Electoral College in conflict with their certified Biden slate. None of them rescinded or decertified anything–and there’s almost certainly no legal basis for doing so, anyway.

After all the work they put in, what Trump and co. were left with was a small number of entirely unofficial Trump slates. Things weren’t going as hoped, but still the plan went forward. Everything would now come down to Pence. Either he would fulfill his duty to Trump–what Trump would paradoxically call “doing the right thing”--and declare the Electoral College to be riven by the imaginary problem of alternate slates, or he would just count the ballots officially sent by the states, as the law required him to do.

The outgoing President needed to lean on Mike Pence harder. In the coming weeks, Pence would go through some things. Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas and several of those who signed the fake Arizona Trump slate sued the Vice President. (This case was dismissed on January 2nd.) Pence would increasingly become a main character and villain on the conspiracy theory message boards, with people who aren’t in touch with reality calling for his arrest and death if he went against Trump. There is a lot we don’t know about in detail from Trump himself. Pence once described it to someone by saying they had no idea what kind of pressure he was under. The pressure was intense, and intensifying by the day. Things would get much, much worse.

Chapter 8 - Insider Threat

Donald Trump believed in at least one thing that we know of. He thought that martial law, like duct tape, could be an effective solution for any number of problems that a President of the United States might face. A former senior official in Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, Miles Taylor, has said publicly that Trump spoke often in official settings, over the course of years, about invoking the Insurrection Act, a law that allows the president to exercise emergency powers under some conditions. According to Taylor, Trump referred to this ability he had to send the troops in to quell domestic unrest as a kind of “magic power.”

The idea of using the awesome might of the government to benefit himself clearly was on Trump’s mind leading up to January 6th. It was all hands on deck, and that included any loyalists he had or could put in place in federal agencies.

There were two main fronts to this. Trump wanted the Department of Justice to provide cover for the electors scheme by suggesting to the public the election was corrupt. Separately, if needed, the military could be ordered to intervene in the post-election goings-on.

First, the DoJ. An investigation, or even an announcement of an investigation, would be GREAT.

Imagine having the shadow of a Department of Justice investigation hanging over the election result that you desperately want to be reversed. You could say, “Look, the election was corrupt, that’s why federal officials are working to expose and charge the criminals!” Imagine how very helpful this could be, as the civil lawsuits lost steam, for moving unsure Republicans in Congress. It could give cover to Pence and make his impossible task less difficult politically.

You need the Attorney General on board to make this work. Bill Barr had been very helpful to Donald Trump when Robert Mueller was investigating the nature of Russia’s support for his 2016 campaign. By enabling the “investigate the investigators” effort, Barr helped create a counternarrative to what was becoming known at the time, and this counternarrative filled the void while Mueller worked in silence. Crucially, Barr released a “summary” of Mueller’s report, in advance of its full release, that watered down what Mueller had found and misdirected blame away from Trump. Thanks largely to Barr, the nation ended up essentially shrugging at the proven facts that a) Russia openly lent assistance to get Trump elected, and b) the Trump campaign welcomed Russia’s assistance. Mueller also left little doubt that Trump had personally acted on numerous occasions to obstruct his investigation, but he declined to go beyond documenting those episodes. With Barr’s assist, Trump was able to spin the report as an exoneration–and then go into attack mode using “Russia Russia Russia” as a tagline.

In November 2020, it at first appeared as though Bill Barr might go along with lending the credibility of the Justice Department to the election fraud allegations. In a letter sent to staff on November 9th, Barr formally changed decades-long Department policy of not intervening in election-related cases, which are handled by the states. The letter was enough of a breach of Justice norms that District Elections Officials from around the country, senior officers, signed a joint letter urging Barr to rescind this announcement and policy change. In their opinion, non-intervention was good and important, it is respectful of states’ sovereignty over elections, and they didn’t want to be thrown into partisan politics. Would Barr listen? Or would he go full election truther?

As it turned out, no to both. He didn’t reverse that decision, but Barr told President Trump directly that the claims being thrown around were baseless. The supposed inner city fraud in Detroit, the supposed electronic flipping of votes on Dominion machines, and the other supposed crimes—they were all bunk. Trump didn’t pay any mind to his Attorney General’s attempts to correct the record, though. As conspiracy theorists tend to do, when one assertion about the election was conclusively shot down he just galloped off to another. According to Barr, in later testimony to the January 6th Committee, he asked people in Trump’s inner circle like Meadows and Kushner when the President would be moving on from this.

Barr and his deputies knew, from dozens of investigations into the claims and hundreds of interviews, that there was no there there. But the President wasn’t listening, and eventually Barr made his stance public. He invited an Associated Press reporter to lunch, and over their meal Barr gave on-the-record refutations of the lies the President was pushing. It was December 1st, and Barr was not long for his position.

Back at the White House, Trump was having his own lunch in a dining room. Incensed that Barr seemed determined not to help overturn the election, Donald threw his porcelain plate against the wall with enough force that it shattered, splattering ketchup around the room. He summoned Barr to the White House when the quotes were published, and afterwards Trump tweeted about how Barr had decided to resign before Christmas to spend the holidays with his family.

Okay, so… Barr is out. But his replacement, Acting Attorney General Rod Rosen, also ended up being a no-go. Rosen and the Deputy Attorney General, Richard Donoghue, were immediately given opportunities to assist in the ways Trump wanted, but they quickly declined.

As Rosen would later recall, Trump applied persistent pressure, week after week, on the Justice Department to have the election discredited. Rosen has testified under oath that the President called virtually every day on the issue. The line Trump used with Rosen and Donoghue was “just say the election was corrupt [and] leave the rest to me” and Congressional allies. Like Barr, these gentlemen pushed back on election falsehoods on multiple occasions.

A lot of what we know from this period comes from Donoghue, who took contemporaneous notes of interactions with Trump. Rosen and Donoghue have also both given testimony to Congressional investigators.

In speaking with the new leaders of the Department, Trump barely even pretended there was any evidence for making these claims. It was all about vibes. From Donoghue’s notes: Trump said “thousands of people called” their local U.S. attorney’s offices to complain about the election and that “nobody trusts the F.B.I.” He said that “people are angry — blaming D.O.J. for inaction.” In what might be interpreted as helping them save face, but which really just revealed how bad Trump’s own information about the election was compared to theirs, he told them “You guys may not be following the internet the way I do.”

Trump continued hinting to Rosen and Donoghue that many people wanted him to replace them. But with who? Why, someone reliable, of course! Just before Christmas, Trump was introduced to one Jeffrey Clark, at the time acting as head of the DoJ Civil Division. Congressman Scott Perry does the introduction. According to Perry in a later radio appearance, Trump requested this introduction, and he obliged.

Clark and Trump hit it off. Clark was a Stop The Steal superfan and had been agitating for Justice to do more to look into alleged election wrongdoing in Georgia and other states. In a private chat in the Oval Office, Clark and Trump found themselves agreeing on what Justice should be doing.

It wasn’t long before Rosen learned about the Oval Office meeting, and he read the riot act to Clark, who promised to not meet with Trump alone again. But the damage was already done. Clark kept pushing, knowing he had the President’s ear and a shot at the big chair. Trump began telling Rosen that he hears from people that Jeff Clark “is great” and that he should be put in.

On December 27th, Trump called Rosen and Donoghue, again pressing them on voter fraud claims the Justice Department had found no evidence for. The next day, Clark asked Rosen and Donoghue to authorize a letter from the Department to Georgia and other states. The draft pushed all the same election conspiracy theories and suggested that these states void Biden’s certified victories there because the Justice Department was investigating voter fraud. The letter even mentioned, approvingly, slates of replacement electors for Trump. Just what the President would have loved to see. The two leaders informed Trump they could not change the election outcome and summarily shut down Clark’s suggestion.

Here we have to go on a sidebar about Georgia. Georgia was of special interest to Trump, which may explain Clark’s fixation with sending such a letter to officials there. Trump had lost by a smaller margin in Georgia than in many other Red Mirage states, and apparently believed that the numbers could be crunched again to his benefit. On January 2nd, the President made a call to the Republican Georgia Secretary of State who had weeks earlier voted for Trump, Brad Raffensperger. You’ve probably heard of this call; it’s the one where Trump tells Raffensperger ”I just want to find 11,780 votes” for him, one more than he lost by, so the state would flip to his column. The Electoral College had met in December. The ballots would be formally counted in just a few days’ time on January 6th. The impromptu call, arranged after Trump saw Raffensperger on TV saying he lost, was so extraordinary that someone on the Georgia side of the conversation recorded and leaked it to the Washington Post. Someone on the Georgia side also texted Meadows mid-call, saying the conversation needed to end. Making this ask was illegal on its face. Trump was really, really desperate to get Georgia.

From a misinformation standpoint, what stands out about the phone call is how Trump begins by saying he wants to review the ballot counts but almost immediately pivots off, briefly, to saying that attendance at his rallies vs. that which Biden got was evidence that he couldn’t have lost. That it was impossible. Therefore something must be wrong with the count. He returns to the rallies argument later in the call as well. This is a logic that you hear all the time from election truthers–I call it Boat Parade Logic–but what Trump may not have grasped was how little it would count for with people who were still generally attached to reality. Raffensperger and his team were not swayed in the least.

The other misinformation-fueled tactic Trump tried, repeatedly, was to assert that many multiples of the 11,779 votes he lost by had been fraudulently cast. Always with reference to the number 11,779, which seemed to be stuck in Trump’s head. He rattled off number after number that had been supplied to him from who knows where, whether of dead people who had voted, or ballots that had been shredded, or whatever else, confidently stating that they had plenty of votes to overcome the deficit and that he probably actually won Georgia by as much as a half million votes.

Team Georgia told Trump his numbers were wrong. Meadows tried to broker a compromise, where Trump’s team could gain access to the data the Secretary had investigated. He was told that this was not allowed by law. It all went nowhere. To Trump’s obviously increasing frustration throughout the hourlong call, Raffensperger wouldn’t be fishing for the 11,780 votes.

Okay, back to the Justice Department. The day after the Raffensperger call, and as its leak was reverberating throughout Washington, Donoghue and Rosen were brought to the Oval Office to convince Trump not to replace them with Clark, who was ready to send “the letter” asserting that widespread fraud in multiple states needed to be investigated. According to Rosen, Trump told him he had already decided to make the switch to Clark before they got to the White House. White House call records show that the title “Acting Attorney General” was already being afforded to Clark by this point. The hour was late.

The rumor was also getting around that Rosen would be fired, with at least one Trump ally excitedly texting Mark Meadows that the word was Clark would be installed the following day, and that patriots would be happy. Texts between senior Justice officials on that day reflected speculation that Rosen would be out, but their reaction was to assure one another that they intended to resign in protest if it happened.

Back at the Oval Office, the meeting with Rosen, Donoghue, and Clark lasted hours. Also present was Assistant Attorney General Steven Engel, who had been considered for the Supreme Court, and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and his deputy. Trump wanted to know why he shouldn’t just put Clark in. What did he have to lose?

At the end of the day, however, Rosen was still standing. Trump believed when Donoghue insisted the decapitation move would trigger a wave of dozens of resignations of officials Trump had appointed to the Department, starting with himself and Engel. Cipollone also said he would resign and likened the idea of firing Rosen to a "murder-suicide pact" the administration would not survive. Trump told Clark he appreciated his willingness to throw the weight of the Department behind the fraud narrative, but that it was clear Clark would be unable to follow through with the letter and the rest of it, given the all-but-certain resignations and other blowback. Clark couldn’t have the job because he wouldn’t be able to do the job the President wanted done.

Rosen and Barr weren’t the only Justice officials Trump tried things with, either. The Georgia saga saw yet another drama as Trump started complaining about one of Justice’s U.S. Attorney in Atlanta, BJay Pak. The President was sure that Pak was a never-Trumper, as he mentioned at one point in his call to Raffensperger. 

The Pak episode was more about personal pique than anything that was going to move the election project forward, but it represented pressure from the White House on an official who should not be pressured by the White House. On January 4th, Pak abruptly resigned after Donoghue told him about the president’s plot to install Clark and of the complaints Trump was voicing about Atlanta.

There was a bigger context to the Justice story, too, which was that it wasn’t the only federal agency where Trump was considering who he could put in place to swing those bureaucracies into action. For example, it has been reported that Trump thought about replacing the directors of the CIA and FBI.

In a tweet on November 9th, the President also fired Mark Esper as Secretary of Defense and elevated counterterrorism chief Christopher Miller to be Acting Secretary. Young, fringey loyalists like Kash Patel and Ezra Cohen-Watnick were in leadership positions at the Pentagon.

There is much in this that could turn out to be consequential in this part of the dramatic scene being set for January 6th. For example, the military would have played a role if the President had invoked the Insurrection Act, as many suspected he might. At a rally in June 2022, Trump claimed he offered to Nancy Pelosi and the mayor of DC to send 10,000 soldiers or National Guard to protect the Capitol… on January 3rd. But this claim is very likely false, as there is no record of Trump making such a request. On the one hand, holy cow, what would have been possible with 10,000 soldiers under his command across the Rubicon with the pretext of unrest? On the other, if this was true then what happened when authorities repeatedly hailed the National Guard for backup on that day?

There was the baffling, hourslong delay in deploying the National Guard to the Capitol as it was being attacked, which raised a lot of questions about the chain of command on that day. So that remains another unexplained aspect of all this.

But much of this is not well established or counterfactual, and it is difficult to convey without speculating. So I ask your understanding that I am choosing not to go into further detail here, at least for now.

Let’s go instead to a different story that is also about the Defense Department. And this is the second big piece we’ll cover in this chapter: People close to Donald Trump were advocating that he order the military to seize voting machines across the country—and he at least entertained the idea.

Notionally, grabbing the machines was the first step in having them examined to uncover the supposed massive corruption of the companies like Dominion that make them, or prove that foreign powers had hacked them. But taking this action would have amounted basically to invoking martial law and activating U.S. troops for a mission they had never performed before.

The people who were telling Trump that Dominion had been compromised were the ones who suggested he simply take the machines that stole votes from him by force before they were moved and wiped. There could be no waiting, because Dominion was on the move to cover its tracks. This came up several times on the Raffensperger call, in fact: Trump made clear reference to Dominion being a problem for him in several states, and that he had heard Dominion was moving parts of machines around (it wasn’t), and that he had a solution to that problem. But, he said, he didn’t want to “shake up the whole world” and insisted there were more than enough votes to change the outcome in Georgia without taking this unspecified, apparently drastic action related to Dominion.

What could the President have had in mind related to Dominion on January 2nd?

Well, for one thing, he had been briefed on December 18th by Kraken attorney Sidney Powell, disgraced former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, and others about how he could issue an Executive Order to have the military step in to seize the machines. They had helpfully drafted such an order in advance, ready for his signature, and essentially sidled their way into the Oval Office using false pretenses to present it to him. By the time of the Raffensperger call, this had been on Trump’s radar for more than two weeks.

The President, however, ultimately seemed reluctant to go that route. For two weeks, he had been persuaded to not empower the Powell faction or seize the machines. But he brings it up as a possibility still, unprompted, on January 2nd. Kind of like he is holding it in reserve, in case the arguments he confidently asserts as ironclad don’t do the trick. Maybe he was calculating that he could just get what he wanted on January 6th through the electors scheme, and that would obviate the need for martial law unpleasantness. At least until after? But we don’t really know.

Trump never did the E.O. That said, looking just at what we know about, Trump at various points tried to have Defense, DHS, and even Justice get the machines for him. He talked to state lawmakers in Michigan about having them use local law enforcement. There may be others; what’s clear is that he was considering all angles.

Rudy Giuliani didn’t want the military to be involved, so his solution was to ask a prosecutor in Michigan to voluntarily hand over the Dominion machines from Antrim County, a place where the Trump team felt sure there had been foul play. (There hadn’t, but that wasn’t enough to kill the misinformation about Antrim, which continues to this day.)

Before the E.O. was drafted, Team Seize suggested a kind of “letters of marque” approach, in which Trump would sign an authorizing letter—and private companies would then do the seizing, not U.S.soldiers. Election machine privateers. Legal piracy.

Some people volunteered for pirate duty even without the authorizing letter. In Colorado, in Michigan, in Nevada and in Georgia at minimum, Republicans seeking to prove the election was fraudulent took matters into their own hands and freelanced inspections of voting machines. They breached local government-held systems, which, obviously, is illegal. Slowly, these people are facing consequences, which is how we know about their escapades.

So, to recap: Trump tried to get people at Justice to help paint the election as corrupt. The Supreme Court declined to hear his cases. There were no alternate slates. The Vice President did not intend to invalidate any Electoral College ballots.

Trump now shifts into battle mode. It is time to get serious about using the crowd, and the extremist groups among the crowd, who are by now on their way to Washington, to good effect. On Christmas Eve, architect and public face of the fake electors scheme John Eastman wrote to someone in Trump’s circle what was needed was “a targeted way to deploy” the 74 million people who had voted for Trump and still supported him. White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham recounted that this was the period in which Trump held secret meetings to plan January 6th. In addition to militias planning and rally organizers planning, Trump did his own planning in the White House. Dozens of meetings between members of Congress and White House staffers, according to one account. One such meeting, on December 21st, included several Republican congresspeople who later requested Trump pardon them for crimes unspecified. What specifically was discussed has yet to be revealed.

We’re now at the brink of disaster. The machinery was complex, but the theme was straightforward: President Trump and his supporters felt, strongly, that he shouldn’t have to leave the White House over something as silly as the duly certified elections results from a handful of states that chose the other guy. President Trump took the kernel of a knee-jerk reaction to losing, rallied his supporters around it, set in motion a pseudo-legal scheme to undo the loss, and cajoled the Congress and federal bureaucracy into making it all seem legit. Now, he and his merry band were ready to light the fuse that would lead directly to insurrection. We know how this ends, but put yourself back to January 5th, 2021, knowing what you now know about what was underway. Would they pull it off? Could they possibly? Find out in Part 3.