At 5:39 p.m., Trump announced that his attorney general, William P. Barr, would be leaving his administration. The timing was odd, given that Trump had only a month left in office. But Trump, we learned on Tuesday, wasted no time in getting Barr’s replacement up to speed on the president’s primary concern.
About 40 minutes before Trump’s announcement about Barr, the president “sent an email via his assistant to Jeffrey A. Rosen, the incoming acting attorney general, that contained documents purporting to show evidence of election fraud in northern Michigan — the same claims that a federal judge had thrown out a week earlier in a lawsuit filed by one of Mr. Trump’s personal lawyers,” the New York Times’s Katie Benner reported.
Trump had been publicly focused on the results in Antrim County, Mich., a few hours earlier.
“WOW,” he tweeted at about 3 p.m. “This report shows massive fraud. Election changing result!”
The report to which he was referring — and which was forwarded to Rosen — was compiled by an activist named Russell Ramsland, who was central to the false claims about the election that were floating around, The Washington Post reported in May. There was a misreporting of results in the county, a function of an error that occurred when some ballots were updated to include new candidates. The error was caught and explained within 48 hours of the election — but Antrim became a focal point of conspiracy theories about voting machines and fraud anyway. (An audit completed a few days after Trump’s tweet validated the corrected results.)
There was, in other words, no reason to think that anything weird happened in Antrim County, no reason to elevate Ramsland’s report and no reason to bring it to the attention of the incoming head of the Justice Department. Yet on that day, at a moment when the election was obviously over but the pandemic obviously wasn’t, that’s what Trump did.
The Times report and one from CNN that focused on the same cache of emails show two alarming factors at play in the post-election Trump White House. The first is the demonstrated credulousness of the president of the United States in embracing disproved or obviously ridiculous conspiracy theories about the election in an effort to retain power and/or assuage his pride. The second is an immediate staff perfectly willing to do the work of putting Trump’s cockamamie ideas in front of senior government officials as though they were worthy of time or effort.
When then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows emailed Rosen on Jan. 1 to raise questions about ballots in Georgia and insist that a Justice Department official “engage on this issue immediately to determine if there is any truth to this allegation,” Rosen forwarded it to a colleague with the message: “Can you believe this?”
The colleague, acting deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue, saw a silver lining, according to CNN.
“At least it’s better than the last one, but that doesn’t say much,” he replied.
When Meadows sent Rosen a YouTube video theorizing that people in Italy used satellites to affect the vote results, Rosen again sent it to his deputy, who, with no apparent hyperbole, deemed it “pure insanity.”
We’ve known for some time that Trump and his team were working to overturn the election results. Those efforts ranged from Trump’s public attempts to undermine the election results to his repeated calls to state officials — including a Jan. 2 call with Georgia’s secretary of state in which he asked him to “find 11,780 votes” — to his aborted move to replace Rosen in early January with Jeffrey Clark, a Justice Department official amenable to Trump’s fraud claims.
What’s noteworthy about the new reporting is that it reveals the extent to which Trump was willing to divert federal resources to chase down obviously untrue theories. Tasking the head of the Justice Department with investigating the legitimacy of satellite-based vote manipulation, of crackpot analyses and of doctored video extends well past inappropriate.
It precisely echoes the incident that led to Trump’s first impeachment. Then, he pressured the president of Ukraine to announce investigations into untrue and debunked allegations about Ukrainian involvement in hacking the Democratic Party in 2016 and about Joe Biden’s son. Trump was impeached on charges of using the power of the federal government — including foreign aid — to try to get Ukraine to deliver something of personal political benefit to himself.
After he lost the election that he had hoped Ukraine would help him win, Trump turned toward pressuring his own government to deliver politically useful results. And no one on his team thought better of his doing so.
This incident raises a question that has lingered around Trump since before he took office: To what extent does he believe the untrue things he says? Does Trump actually believe that Ukraine hacked the DNC in 2016 or that Italian space enthusiasts changed votes? Does he simply believe that it’s useful for those things to be treated seriously as claims? Is the truth somewhere in the middle, with Trump hoping that maybe, just maybe, these will turn out to be accurate and reshape the world to his liking?
It’s always been the case that Trump has given undue credibility to what he wants to hear. Politicians both foreign and domestic quickly learned the value of flattery in dealing with him. That’s why the question above is so important. If dishonest or deluded actors could present obviously false information — obviously, indisputably, ridiculously, provably false information — and have Trump treat it as serious because he wanted to believe it, what other decisions might have been similarly influenced?
On Dec. 29, a Trump aide named Molly Michael sent Rosen a document on the president’s behalf that served as a draft complaint to be filed on behalf of the federal government at the Supreme Court. It broadly mirrored a lawsuit filed by Texas against several states aiming to have their pro-Biden results invalidated. The Supreme Court had refused to hear the case two weeks earlier.
The draft mirrored the Texas lawsuit so closely that it included one particularly noteworthy claim.
“The probability of former Vice President Biden winning the popular vote in the four Defendant States — Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — independently given President Trump’s early lead in those States as of 3 a.m. on November 4, 2020, is less than one in a quadrillion, or 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000,” it reads. “For former Vice President Biden to win these four States collectively, the odds of that event happening decrease to less than one in a quadrillion to the fourth power.”
On Dec. 4, I looked at this jaw-dropping claim. It’s not complicated: The analysis assumes that votes counted before 3 a.m. and after 3 a.m. would not be different. But they were different: The later votes at issue came from large cities that took longer to tally their results — and that were far more heavily Democratic.
In other words, even setting aside the utter lack of evidence of fraud having occurred (that is, the lack of evidence of people actually changing any votes), this statistical analysis was flawed to the point of ludicrousness a week before the Supreme Court rejected the Texas claim. Yet two weeks after the court tossed that case, it appeared in near-whole-cloth in the inbox of the acting attorney general in hopes that it would be treated seriously.
What mattered to Trump wasn’t that the claims be accurate. It was that they be treated as at least potentially accurate and — who knows? — maybe he’d get to stay in the White House. Trump had heard something he wanted to hear, and he wanted the federal government to agree with that, not with reality. His aides did their best to make it happen, despite the various ways in which their time could obviously have been better spent at the moment.
Not for the first time, Trump was stymied by individuals unwilling to accede to his fantasies.