Before digging into that call, it’s worth remembering the context. The election was called for Joe Biden on Nov. 7, as it became apparent that Trump had no path to victory. The Trump campaign and Trump himself tried to block states from certifying their results, without success.
On Dec. 11, the Supreme Court rejected the Texas attorney general’s flailing effort to toss vote totals from Biden-voting states. Three days after that, electors met in every state to cast their final ballots for president and vice president. By Dec. 27, Trump and an increasingly fringe group of allies had tried to gin up myriad conspiracy theories about the vote, each of which was quickly debunked or facially ridiculous. But here was Trump, insisting that Rosen do something.
Notes taken by Rosen’s deputy Richard Donoghue reveal Trump’s plan, such as it was.
Trump appears to have suggested that he was better versed on the situation than the top Justice Department official, because, he said, Rosen and his team “may not be following the internet the way I do.” (As a nation, we can be grateful that they were not.)
“[U]nderstand that the DOJ can’t + won’t snap its fingers + change the outcome of the election, doesn’t work that way,” Rosen said to Trump, according to Donoghue’s summary.
“[D]on’t expect you to do that,” Trump said in response, “just say that the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me and the R. Congressmen.”
Everything until those last four words was pretty well-established. It was clear from the first hours after polls closed on Nov. 3 that Trump was grasping at every conspiracy theory that popped up on websites or in conservative media, a habit that continues unabated.
It’s long been tricky to determine if Trump actually believes the nonsensical, conflicting or obviously false claims he pushes forward; that he used his familiarity with them as something of a validator in his conversation with Rosen suggests that, to at least some extent, he does.
We knew, too, that there was tension between the White House and Justice Department over the election results, with Trump angling to oust Rosen in favor of someone more amenable to his conspiracy theories. A few days after the call with Rosen, his allies pressed the department to file a lawsuit with the Supreme Court, a suit that largely mirrored the Texas suit that was already tossed.
What Donoghue’s notes suggest is that Trump had fully bought into the effort that would eventually become his Alamo: having Republican legislators block the electoral-vote counting due to take place at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
It was already established that some Trump allies would stand up in opposition to the counting of votes on that day. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) told Breitbart News more than a week earlier that he planned to do so. Others quickly signed on. It was on Dec. 19 that Trump himself first tweeted about Jan. 6, coupling promotion of yet-another false conspiracy theory about the election with the request that his supporters come to Washington on the day the votes would be counted: “Be there, will be wild!”
It hasn’t been clear, though, how closely the White House worked with those legislators in anticipation of the day. There have been hints for some time that members of Congress were in contact with the organizers of a protest at the Capitol that day, with one leader of that effort identifying Brooks and two others by name as having “schemed” with him about how to put “maximum pressure on Congress while they were voting.” But what about the days before? What, if anything, was the strategy for blocking the electoral votes beyond the objections that actually occurred? How closely was Trump involved in the effort?
To some extent, Donoghue’s notes capture a conversation similar to the one that led to Trump’s first impeachment. Then, he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation into Biden that he clearly hoped would shake something loose politically. In December of last year, he wanted Rosen to validate the effort to object to the vote in broad strokes, at which point … something would happen. But what? And with whom?
It’s possible that Trump’s plan went no further than that. It’s possible that he identified those “R. Congressmen” as part of the effort for no reason other than that he knew they planned to object. But that he mentioned them at all does suggest more integration than had previously been indicated. And, as ProPublica has reported, there was clearly some coordination between the White House and the hybrid events that day, including discussions about speaking roles.
Trump and his allies reportedly put the day’s violence to use, looking to leverage the interruption to the vote-counting caused by the rioters who stormed the Capitol. The president and his allies tried calling Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) in an effort to gum up the works. He spoke with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) that day, as well, though it’s not clear when or about what. Trump’s call with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) that day was less friendly, but centered on Trump’s failure to condemn the violence.
One of the unanswered questions about the events of that day is precisely what the White House and Trump’s Republican allies knew about them and how they might have contributed to them behind the scenes. This is a central target of the select committee established to probe the eruption of violence. Certainly, there may be no fire under the smoke.
But, again, some congressional Republicans clearly did their best to aid Trump’s effort. On the morning of Jan. 6, Brooks spoke before Trump at a rally outside the White House. It was time, he said, to “start taking down names and kicking ass.” It’s not clear if any of those in attendance did the former, but some clearly did the latter.