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Trump’s inner circle warned him election-fraud claims were false

A parade of top advisers — including the former president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner — told investigators that Trump ignored their advice

In the Jan. 6 committee hearing on June 13, multiple witnesses said that President Donald Trump and some members of his campaign spread false election claims. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

The House Jan. 6 committee aired videotaped testimony Monday from a parade of insiders in Donald Trump’s White House describing how they each told Trump in the wake of his 2020 loss that there was no credible evidence the election had been stolen. But they said they were ignored, ridiculed and sidelined by the former president as he persisted in making baseless claims that laid the groundwork for the violent attack on the Capitol two months later.

Monday’s hearing of the select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection focused on Trump’s efforts to spin a narrative of massive voter fraud that had no basis in reality and, in fact, cut directly against the counsel he was getting from some of his most senior advisers.

They included former campaign manager Bill Stepien, who has not spoken publicly about the Trump campaign before or after the February deposition, portions of which were shown Monday. In the clips, Stepien described advising Trump and his deputies both before and after the election about his narrow path to victory — concluding by mid-November that Trump’s chances were “very, very, very bleak.”

Stepien identified himself as part of a subset of clear-eyed Trump advisers — “Team Normal,” he called it — that was eventually sidelined in favor of a rival group led by Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani and other loyalists who were indulgent of groundless voter-fraud allegations and conspiracy theories.

Jan. 6 committee uses video, testimony to tell tale of the insurrection

“I’ve built up a pretty good, I hope, a good reputation for being honest and professional,” Stepien told the committee. “And I didn’t think what was happening was necessarily honest or professional at that point in time.”

Former attorney general William P. Barr, meanwhile, told the committee in a deposition earlier this month that he concluded early on after the November 2020 vote that the stolen-election claims “were completely bogus and silly and usually based on complete misinformation.”

He went on to describe three meetings with Trump — on Nov. 23, Dec. 1 and Dec. 14 — in which the then-president persisted in claiming that the election was marred by widespread fraud and prodded Barr and the Justice Department to act in Trump’s interests rather than to independently evaluate claims of criminal conduct.

Immediately after the Nov. 23 meeting, Barr said, several Trump advisers including son-in-law Jared Kushner and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows sought to assure him that Trump would become “more realistic” and accept his loss. By the Dec. 1 meeting, he said, it was clear that would not happen — describing Trump’s continuing efforts to push him on election-fraud claims in Detroit and Philadelphia.

“I said: Did anyone point out to you … you actually did better in Detroit than you did last time?” Barr said. “I mean, there’s no indication of fraud in Detroit … and I told him that the stuff that his people were shoveling out to the public was bullshit — I mean, that the claims of fraud were bullshit. And, you know, he was indignant about that.”

There was a simpler explanation, Barr added: Trump had underperformed other GOP candidates. “He generally was a weak element on the Republican ticket, so that does not suggest that the election was stolen by fraud,” said the former attorney general, who was once considered an ardent Trump loyalist.

By Dec. 14, Barr said, he concluded that Trump had “become detached from reality if he really believes this stuff.” He recalled Trump handing him a report on allegations of hacked voting machines that had been designed to steal the election for Joe Biden — a report Barr described as “very amateurish” and lacking evidence.

In recorded testimony played on June 13, former attorney general William P. Barr said he was unimpressed with the Dinesh D’Souza film “2000 Mules." (Video: The Washington Post)

Rep. Liz Cheney tells Americans why Jan. 6 should terrify them

Later that day, Barr tendered his resignation — which Trump publicly announced on Twitter that night.

“My opinion then and my opinion now is that the election was not stolen by fraud,” Barr said in the deposition. “And I haven’t seen anything since the election that changes my mind on that.”

Monday’s hearing was the second of seven that the committee is expected to hold this month. Its members argued Monday that the testimony about Trump’s effort to promote a knowingly false narrative of a stolen election led directly to the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. The campaign of disinformation “lit the fuse that led to the horrific violence” that day, said Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.).

In a 12-page statement, complete with footnotes, Trump decried what he called the “Sham Investigation” and said the committee “is disgracing everything we hold sacred about our Constitution.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who conducted much of the questioning during Monday’s hearing, called the attack “a direct and predictable result of Mr. Trump’s decision to use false claims of election fraud to overturn the election and to cling to power.”

“He falsely told the American people that the election was not legitimate — in his words, ‘a major fraud,’ ” Vice Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said. “Millions of Americans believed him.”

On June 13 Rep. Liz Cheney (W-Wyo.) said the public will hear testimony from Trump campaign officials saying he ignored their analysis on election night. (Video: The Washington Post)

While the committee has emphatically argued that Trump “knew” the 2020 election was not stolen from him, much of the evidence offered Monday suggested that the losing president angrily refused to listen to aides who told him that the fraud claims were bunk.

“Before the election it was possible to talk sense to the president,” Barr said. “After the election he didn’t seem to be listening.”

Trump’s state of mind could be a key issue in any criminal investigation of his actions. Attorney General Merrick Garland, who oversees prosecutors who are evaluating potential federal charges against Trump and other officials, said Monday that the Justice Department is monitoring the hearings closely. “I’m sure I will be watching all of it, and I can assure you the January 6 prosecutors are watching all of the hearings, as well,” he said.

Asked Monday whether Biden supported charging Trump with a crime based on what has come out of the hearings, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said the decision would be up to Garland. “The president has been very clear,” she said. “The Department of Justice is independent.”

Committee lawmakers appear divided over whether they will ultimately make any criminal referrals at the conclusion of their investigation.

Thompson told reporters Monday night that the committee would not be making a formal criminal referral to the Justice Department of Trump or anyone else.

“That’s not our job,” he said. “Our job is to look at the facts and the circumstances around January 6, what caused it, and make recommendations after that.”

Shortly after Thompson’s declaration, Cheney tweeted conflicting guidance: “The January 6th Select Committee has not issued a conclusion regarding potential criminal referrals. We will announce a decision on that at an appropriate time.”

Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) went further, tweeting, “If criminal activity occurred, it is our responsibility to report that activity to the DOJ.”

Any criminal referral from the committee would not be legally binding.

The testimony aired Monday from Barr, Stepien and others painted a detailed portrait of a crash effort to concoct an alternate reality where Trump, not Biden, won the election — one that began on Election Day, while voting returns were still coming in.

While Stepien told the committee that he counseled Trump that “it was far too early to be making any calls” with millions of ballots still to be counted, Giuliani — described by Trump aide Jason Miller as “definitely intoxicated” — quickly pressed for Trump to declare victory. (Giuliani attorney Robert Costello denied to CNN that his client was drunk.)

Trump “thought I was wrong,” Stepien said. “He told me so, and, you know, that they were going to go and he was going to go in a different direction.”

Later that night, Trump delivered public remarks that laid out the playbook he would follow for the next two months — and to this day — calling the election results “a fraud on the American public” and “an embarrassment to our country.”

“Frankly, we did win this election,” he said in the speech, a clip of which was played at Monday’s hearing.

Other senior Trump advisers also were seen in videotaped depositions describing the stolen-election theories as unsound, or worse. Matthew Morgan, general counsel for Trump’s campaign, told the panel that the campaign’s legal team concluded within weeks of the election that any fraud allegations were “not sufficient” to reverse Biden’s victory.

White House lawyer Eric Herschmann was even more blunt in describing one theory Trump and his allies promoted — that one election vendor’s machines were programmed to flip votes to Biden: “What they were proposing, I thought, was nuts,” he said.

The hearing also included recorded testimony from Justice Department official Richard Donoghue, who served as acting deputy attorney general after Barr’s resignation. Donoghue described swatting down election-fraud claim after election-fraud claim in discussions with Trump, to no avail.

Officials, Donoghue said, “told him flat out that much of the information he’s getting is false and or just not supported by the evidence.”

The panel’s plans for the hearing were upended just hours before it was set to begin, when Stepien withdrew from his scheduled appearance. Thompson said Monday that Stepien’s wife had gone into labor and did not say whether he would appear publicly at a future hearing.

But the recorded deposition made Stepien a centerpiece of the hearing nonetheless, and his testimony was unexpected and notable: Although prior news accounts have depicted him as one of the figures around Trump who accepted the loss and withdrew from an active role in seeking to reverse it, details of his role in the election aftermath had been unknown.

Stepien, notably, is now serving as a campaign adviser to Cheney’s top Republican primary opponent, as well as several other Republican candidates seeking office this year — some of whom have refused to accept the 2020 election results as legitimate. Stepien’s firm, National Public Affairs, was paid by Trump’s Save America PAC as recently as April.

And while Stepien may have considered himself to be on “Team Normal” after the election, he — and others who privately pushed back — did not publicly describe his misgivings about Trump’s election-fraud claims until the panel served him with a subpoena last year.

His lawyer, Kevin Marino, told reporters Monday that Stepien “has been very clear about his view as to what happened in the 2020 election, and you can rest assured that he isn’t advising anyone to suggest anything to the contrary.”

The committee also heard Monday from Chris Stirewalt, who was working as a senior political editor for Fox News on election night and was fired after projecting that Biden would win Arizona. A second panel featured Benjamin Ginsberg, a prominent GOP elections lawyer; B.J. “BJay” Pak, who served as U.S. attorney in Georgia and has described resisting pressure to validate voter-fraud allegations; and Al Schmidt, a former Philadelphia city commissioner who vocally pushed back on Trump’s stolen-election claims in the days after the election.

Stirewalt explained a key dynamic behind the 2020 presidential election returns — the so-called “red mirage.” Because Trump had encouraged his supporters to vote in person on Election Day, and not to vote by mail, early returns would be disproportionately Republican, with margins narrowing once more mail ballots were counted later in the process.

The red mirage is a concept that explains how in-person voting in the 2020 election initially appeared to give Republicans a lead before all votes were counted. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Trump would later cite those narrowing margins as proof of voter fraud. But Stepien testified that Trump had been briefed on how the election returns would be processed — in effect, that he had been warned about the “red mirage” in advance.

Stepien said Trump was also warned that his strategy of discouraging mail voting and urging his supporters to vote only in person would backfire. He described a meeting with Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in which both men told the president that mail voting would “not be bad thing for his campaign” — noting that Republicans enjoyed a ground-game advantage and that urging voters to cast their ballots only on Election Day “leaves a lot to chance.”

“But, you know, the president’s mind was made up,” he said.

Jan. 6 committee blames Trump for ‘carnage’ at U.S. Capitol

Pak described investigating one of the false claims promulgated by Giuliani, of a “suitcase full of ballots” inside a counting center in Atlanta. In fact, Pak said, the case was an official lockbox and “nothing irregular” was found. “The allegations made by Mr. Giuliani were false,” he said.

Schmidt, meanwhile, described receiving graphic threats against his family after Trump attacked him by name on Twitter. Ginsberg, a veteran of GOP presidential campaigns and multiple recounts, walked through a litany of court decisions rejecting Trump’s fraud claims — some on procedural grounds, but many others on the merits.

“The simple fact is that the Trump campaign did not make its case,” Ginsberg said.

The committee on Monday alleged that a key reason Trump pursued the spate of frivolous lawsuits — even after state electors cast their votes on Dec. 14 — was to boost his campaign fundraising. Without the lawsuits, Lofgren said, “there would have been no fight to defend the election and no clear path to continue to raise millions of dollars.”

The Trump campaign sent as many as 25 emails a day seeking donations, including some to an “Official Election Defense Fund” that, according to campaign officials, did not actually exist other than as a marketing tactic. Instead, much of the money was funneled to the Save America PAC and in turn to groups affiliated with Trump allies. More than $200,000, the panel said Monday, was spent on Trump’s hotel business.

“Not only was there the ‘big lie,’ ” Lofgren said, “there was the big rip-off.”

The committee’s first hearing, watched Thursday by nearly 19 million viewers, laid out an overview of its case holding Trump with overarching responsibility for the Capitol attack. Cheney asserted at the hearing that Trump had a “seven-part plan” to overturn his loss and stay in power — effectively orchestrating a failed coup.

The House select committee held its first prime-time session on June 9 after spending nearly a year investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

The committee’s third public hearing, on Wednesday, will focus on Trump and his allies’ pressure campaign at the Justice Department to overturn the results of the presidential election. It is expected to feature several former Trump administration officials, including Donoghue and former acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen.

Devlin Barrett, Marianna Sotomayor, Amy B Wang, Mariana Alfaro, Rosalind Helderman, Amy Gardner, Matthew Brown and Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report.

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