Devastating January 6 Committee Testimony—Day Two
The Plot Thickens—and So Does the Grift.
Because of the historic nature of the January 6 Committee hearings, I’m changing my usual publishing schedule. I posted an extensive recap of Day One after Thursday night’s primetime hearing, I’m doing the same now after Day Two and will do so again after Day Three on Wednesday. I welcome your comments below on my take and on the broader story.
Near the end of Day Two of the January 6 hearings, something simple, even obvious, that my best friend from childhood, Bill Foster, told me in 2015 filtered back into my brain. Bill spent decades in the real estate business and while he never knew Donald Trump, he understands intuitively the way he thinks. “Follow the money,” Bill said, echoing what Deep Throat told Bob Woodward (at least in the movie version) during Watergate. “With most of these real estate guys, and especially Trump, it’s always, always, always about the money.”
I had long taken Trump’s grifting for granted and until Monday didn’t see it as central to the Big Lie and January 6. But what if a pathetic and dangerous desire to cling to power was only part of his motivation? As Day Two showed, Trump’s assault on the Republic was rooted in his monumental ego—his refusal to accept the absolutely clear will of the people—but it may have continued on its disastrous course because of his greed. Or as Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) put it: “Not only was there the Big Lie; there was the Big Rip-Off.” At the intersection of the two sits his criminal intent, which must be proven to bring him to justice.
Going into Monday’s 10:00 a.m. hearing, we already knew that last Thursday’s powerful primetime opening argument had begun to change the political calculus. It was no coincidence that after The Wall Street Journal editorialized that Trump “betrayed his supporters” and The New York Post editorialized that the nation needs “a fresh start” from “the King Lear of Mar-a-Lago” the other major Murdoch-owned media outlet—Fox News—reversed course and began carrying the hearings live.
Monday got off on what seemed to be the wrong foot when it was announced that Bill Stepien would not testify in person because his wife had gone into labor. Stepien was Governor Chris Christie’s amoral henchman in Trenton, where in the “Bridgegate” scandal he was credibly accused of shutting down traffic on the George Washington Bridge as political retribution. In 2017, he became White House political director and later served as Trump’s 2020 campaign manager. I had been looking forward to Stepien’s live testimony recounting how he told Trump he’d lost the election. I thought it would land harder given that he’s currently managing the campaign of Harriet Hageman, the Trump-backed House candidate now favored to beat Rep. Liz Cheney in Wyoming’s August 16 Republican primary.
With the hearing delayed, my mood darkened further when at 10:30AM, I heard my formidable MSNBC colleague, Chuck Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney, say: “There’s this thing called evidence and it would be nice to have it.”
But then the hearing got underway and we began to get just that, piece by devastating piece. It turned out to be better watching Stepien testify on tape because we didn’t have to worry about him filibustering or walking back his deposition. We got to cut to the chase of his testimony and that of others in the White House, like senior adviser Jason Miller, who set the stage for the Big Lie by explaining that “the mayor [Rudy Giuliani] was definitely intoxicated” on Election Night. In his inebriated state, he said anyone who didn’t agree that Trump had won the election “was being weak.”
The Committee understands that pulling deluded Americans out of the Big Lie rabbit hole requires context. So it heard live testimony from Chris Stirewalt, the conservative on-air analyst fired by Fox for defending the famous decision on Election Night to call Arizona for Joe Biden. First, Stirewalt explained the meaning of “the Red Mirage”:
It starts with the fact that Democrats, especially during Covid, tended to vote-by-mail, while Republicans were instructed by Trump to distrust mail-in ballots and vote in-person on Election Day. Stepien testified that in the summer of 2020, he and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tried to convince Trump that this was dumb—that the GOP was losing an opportunity to win more mail-in votes and that Republican workers on the ground were well-organized to “collect” (Stepien’s euphemism for harvest) mail-in ballots. This was important testimony because it shows that Trump was told specifically that mail-in ballots were not a Democratic plot.
For a day partially devoted to answering Howard Baker’s old Watergate Committee question—“What did the president know and when did he know it?”—it was helpful to establish that Trump was also informed before the election about the Red Mirage. He was told that the partisan split over mail-in vs. in-person voting meant that he would build up early leads in several states that would likely evaporate as the evening wore on and the mail-in vote was finally counted. The point was clear: Trump was lying when he told supporters that this late reporting of election returns showed that the election was rigged. His blindness was willful.
Fox’s Decision Desk was confident about it’s Arizona projection and of course it turned out to be right. By historical standards, the 2020 election was not close, and not just because Joe Biden won seven million more popular votes than Trump. Thousands of votes in four different states would have to suddenly turn up for Trump. “Better off to play the Powerball than for that to come in,” Stirewalt testified.
Inside the White House, aides were upset and angry about the Arizona call—and they protested to Fox (which we didn’t hear about in the hearings, one of the advantages of this panel having no Republicans eager to savagely cross-examine any witnesses criticizing Trump). Notwithstanding their rage, everyone except Trump and Giuliani accepted, as Ivanka Trump testified on tape, that the outcome of the election would not be determined on Election Night. Stepien recounted that “my recommendation was that because votes are still being counted, it’s too early to call the race.” Trump ignored Stepien’s common-sense advice and—based on nothing but the cavalier words of a drunk mayor soon be promoted to the president’s lawyer — declared victory in the wee hours.
In the days immediately after the election, Stepien testified that he believed Trump’s chances of winning were “very, very, very bleak”—only 5 to 10 percent if all the recounts and court challenges went their way. Which they didn’t. Besieged every day by one “wild claim” after another, Stepien offered an example: Arizona Republicans claimed that thousands of illegal immigrants had voted but it turned out these were overseas ballots and perfectly legitimate.
Stepien concluded: “I didn’t think what was happening was either honest or professional.” The battle lines inside Trump World were drawn: “I didn’t mind being characterized as part of Team Normal,” Stepien testified.
He had a lot of company. Trump’s “own campaign advisors, the Department of Justice, and his cybersecurity experts all told him the same thing,” Liz Cheney (R-WY) said. Their accounts of dealing with Team Crazy are disturbing. Former Trump campaign lawyer Alex Cannon recalled talking to Peter Navarro, the signal caller of what Navarro called “The Green Bay Sweep”( the coup strategy to be covered in upcoming hearings). “I believe Mr. Navarro accused me of being an agent of the deep state working with Chris Krebs [the administration’s top cybersecurity expert, who had found that the election was clean and secure] against the president. And I never took another phone call from Mr. Navarro,” Cannon said.
Trump was entitled to challenge the election results in court but he lost in 61 of 62 cases (the only victory was on a technical question with no bearing on the outcome). In the cases that reached federal court, 10 of the judges rejecting the claims were appointed by Trump. Lofgren put on the screen some of the words from the various opinions. “Wholly unbelievable”…”implausible”…”without merit” and “irrelevant analysis” were among the milder descriptions of the Trump arguments.
In a welcome development, 11 of the Trump lawyers have been disciplined by state bar associations, including Giuliani, who had his New York and Washington, DC law license suspended. (This is an important deterrent to monkey business in 2024). “The Trump campaign did not make it’s case,” concluded live witness Ben Ginsberg, who for 30 years has been the top Republican campaign lawyer. I interviewed Ginsberg almost every day I was in Tallahassee covering the 2000 Florida recount and found him to be a fierce partisan, which gave his testimony here more weight.
Monday’s most damaging witness was once again former Attorney General William Barr, who laid out exactly what the “bullshit” (his description of the vote fraud charges) smelled and tasted like. Barr said dealing with the allegations was like “playing whack-a-mole,” and that the claims the Justice Department was asked to investigate were “completely bogus and silly and based on misinformation.”
Barr charted how his relationship with the president deteriorated. On November 23, they spoke for the first time since the middle of October. Barr informed Trump that “the department doesn’t take part in elections” and that the fraud claims were “just not meritorious. they’re just not panning out.” On the way out of the White House, Barr asked Jared Kushner and senior aide Dan Scavino, “How long is he going to carry on with this stolen election stuff?” Chief of Staff Mark Meadows “caught up with me and said, ‘I think he’s becoming more realistic about how far he can take this.’ And Jared said, ‘We’re working on it. We’re working on it.’”
Apparently not hard enough. After Barr told the Associated Press on December 1 that there was “no evidence” of election fraud, he went to the White House and found “the president as mad as I’ve ever seen him.” Barr quoted Trump referring to himself in the third person, “You must have said this because you hate Trump. You hate Trump!”
Barr tried to reason with him. When Trump raised a “big dump” of fraudulent votes in Detroit, Barr told him that was standard because votes were counted at a central facility, not in Detroit’s 630 precincts. (He added that Trump did better in Detroit in 2020 than in 2016). The very next day, December 2, Trump held a press conference to peddle the same Michigan allegations that Barr had just told him were “nonsense.”
On December 14, Trump informed his attorney general that he now had “absolute proof” from an outfit called Allied Security Operations Group (run by Russell Ramsland, whose allegations had already been thoroughly debunked by reporters) “that the Dominion machines were rigged and the report means I’m going to have a second term.” Barr scanned the report and testified that “To be frank, it appeared very amateurish to me. I was demoralized because if he really believes this stuff, he has become detached from reality.”
In his deposition, Barr went on to demolish Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary 2000 Mules, which used “singularly unimpressive” photographic evidence and lame geo-location data from cell phones suggesting that “if you go by five [drop] boxes you’re a mule.” And like another witness, former U.S. attorney BJay Pak, he explained that the much-viewed video of a suitcase being shifted under a table in Atlanta—video that Rudy called “a smoking gun”— showed nothing. (“The suitcase full of ballots was actually an official lock box where ballot were kept safe” Pak testified).
We also learned specifics about Pennsylvania, where the GOP’s nominee for governor, Doug Mastriano, joined Giuliani in trying to conjure the specter of Chicago, where as late as the 1960s dead people were known to have voted. Al Schmidt, a Republican election official from Philadelphia whose family was doxxed and threatened with bodily harm by Trumpsters, testified live that “not only was there not evidence of 8,000 dead people voting. there wasn’t evidence of 8.” Schmidt said that charges of fraudulent Philly voting were bogus. At that point, I hissed to my TV: “And racist.”
At one point, Barr testified that the “idiotic claims” were genuinely harmful. “It was crazy stuff that was doing a great disservice to the country,” he said. Which makes his December 14 resignation letter all the more appalling. In fawning prose, he told Trump that the election fraud allegations “will continue to be pursued” and went on to praise his Dear Leader (“Your record is all the more historic because you accomplished it in the face of relentless, implacable resistance.”).
Imagine if Barr had also informed the president that six days earlier, December 8, was the “safe harbor deadline” for states to certify their results, making the meeting of the Electoral College electors and final January 6 congressional certification into a mere formality. Imagine if he had told the president that he had lost the election and should concede as much for the good of the country. However harmful to Trump, Barr’s testimony doesn’t even begin to atone for his craven and ultimately unpatriotic conduct in office.
Judge David Carter summarized Trump’s assault: “This was a coup in search of a legal theory.” But it was also a coup in search of a buck. As Lofgren noted, if Trump had conceded by the safe harbor day, as all previous unsuccessful presidential candidates had, he would have had “no clear path to raise millions of dollars.” $250 million, to be exact.
As a video prepared by the Committee explained, something called “The Official Election Defense Fund” sent as many as 25 emails a day to Trump supporters, right up to the morning of January 6. Most of the money went not for legal challenges but to Trump’s Save America PAC, with more than $1 million going to an organization run by Mark Meadows and $204,000 going to Trump’s hotel properties. This has to be the largest slush fund in the history of American politics.
The non-existent “Election Defense Fund” turns out to be, as two Trump staffers confirm, a “marketing tactic.” As Steve Benen of MSNBC puts it:
Part of what makes this jarring is the degree to which it’s a fraudulent scam wrapped in a fraudulent scam: Trump started with a lie — the election results were illegitimate — and then added another lie on top of it, by telling those who believed the first lie to go grab their wallets and contribute to Election Defense Fund that had nothing to do with defending elections.
And after they grabbed their wallets, more than a few grabbed their clubs, bear spray and other makeshift weapons and attacked the citadel of our republic.
Like prosecuting Al Capone for tax evasion, maybe they’ll get the Former Guy for the grift. It better be for something.