The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump kept hearing his fraud claims were false — but those he trusted kept saying they weren’t

Former president Donald Trump. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

One of the most important moments in Donald Trump’s political career was the moment he won the 2016 presidential election. I mean, that’s obviously true from the standpoint that it meant he became the 45th president of the United States. But it was true, too, because it was the payoff of a very specific bet he’d made as he was running for president: that he was right and that the experts were wrong.

After all, the experts kept saying he’d lose, analyses based on polling that, we learned after the fact, was underrepresenting core Trump voters. Trump’s campaign was largely predicated on a rejection of Washington elites because it played well, but his disparagements of pollsters were largely a function of necessity. They said he was going to lose and he said he wasn’t — he believed he wasn’t. And, lo: he didn’t.

There was a lesson in that for Trump: trust his gut, if not his rhetoric. And it seems almost certain that this instinct helped build the avalanche that overwhelmed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Sign up for How To Read This Chart, a weekly data newsletter from Philip Bump

On Wednesday, the House committee investigating the riot that day filed a legal document articulating how it believed Trump was probably culpable in the commission of several crimes. A central part of that articulation was that Trump had every reason to know his claims of election fraud — as false as they were incessant — were dishonest. Over and over, people close to him told him that he was elevating unproven nonsense, but he kept elevating it anyway. The Washington Post walked through the legion of realists who confronted Trump’s claims, from Justice Department staffers to a data analyst on Trump’s campaign team. None managed to drag Trump to reality.

But, of course. Some career Justice Department guy, a Deep Stater, says they don’t have evidence of fraud? I bet. Or some guy who looks at campaign data? How did that work out in 2016? And what about what Rudy Giuliani — America’s mayor! — was whispering in his ear?

Then-president Donald Trump tweeted on Dec. 14, 2020, that William P. Barr would resign as attorney general. Tom Hamburger explained their relationship. (Video: Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post)

In a response to the committee’s filing, Trump attorney John Eastman offered this specific defense. Yes, some people, including from the Justice Department were saying no fraud occurred, but “other presidential advisers had given the opposite assessment.” How was Trump to know what was true?

Consider the unusual case of Attorney General William P. Barr, who says he was essentially fired as soon as he spoke out publicly about fraud. He’d been a loyal ally of Trump and was now going against the president’s feverish claims. There must have been some moment where a flicker of doubt passed through Trump’s brain; Barr was his guy, but here he was taking the enemy’s side! Then the flicker passed, and the conflict resolved. Barr must be the enemy.

Because, again, everyone who wanted a piece of Trump’s power and influence, including the attention and money of his base of support, was echoing Trump’s claims without hesitation. Footage obtained by The Post shows how this worked for Roger Stone, a longtime ally of Trump’s who has spent his professional life undercutting the idea that he is strongly committed to maintaining a thoroughly honest approach to politics. Soon after Election Day in 2020, Stone ginned up the “stop the steal” movement, something he said would be a simple conduit for fundraising. As it was.

So you had Stone chirping about fraud, making money doing so. You had Trump’s legal team, battling for influence and attention by making wild and disproved claims about the election being undermined. And you had Trump’s primary window into the world, Fox News, doing little to correct the record.

Remember the position in which Fox found itself after the election. It was the first outlet to call the race in Arizona, as it did on election night itself. The call was pretty clearly premature, in fairness, but that the network was the first to call the race marked the network as somehow hostile to the president in the eyes of his base. It was the same disconnect as when Barr was honest with Trump: Wasn’t this an ally? People started turning to further-right networks like Newsmax.

Barr could afford to burn his bridge with Trump. Fox couldn’t afford to be abandoned by Trump’s base. So, in the aftermath of the election, its personalities did very little to confront Trump’s escalating dishonesty about the security of the election. The watchdog group Media Matters catalogued nearly 800 occasions in the first few weeks of November where hosts or guests cast doubt on the election results. There were isolated moments of skepticism and lawsuit-driven “clarifications” of false claims about voting machines. But there were also top Fox personalities like Maria Bartiromo on TV saying exactly what Trump wanted to hear from his friends. Meanwhile, on those further-right networks, the ones Trump had taken to promoting, the fraud claims were going full-speed ahead.

Trump had gone to great lengths to build a bubble in which he didn’t face significant negative feedback. His Twitter feed was allies and supporters. His rallies were opportunities to be treated like a rock star. His staff was largely winnowed down to sycophants. And there was this loud, roiling movement out there centered on agreeing with him — because it meant a lot of money for people like Roger Stone and a lot of attention for various state legislators.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Trump made false claims so often, even after they were corrected, that The Post had to invent a special category of dishonesty to describe it. Trump was always impervious to reality, and in the weeks after the election, he and his allies had far more motivation to ignore reality than they did to try to confront Trump with it.

And Trump had every reason to assume it was his allies and conservative media who was telling the truth, not data guys or investigators. Once again, he was trusting his gut.

This article has been updated.