The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside Mark Meadows’s final push to keep Trump in power

The former congressman played a key role in Trump’s effort to overturn the election, according to his texts, congressional investigations and interviews

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, right, walks across the south lawn of the White House in October 2020. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)
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Behind closed doors in a civic center outside Atlanta, state officials were scouring thousands of mail-in ballots on Dec. 22, 2020, when an unexpected visitor showed up: Mark Meadows, President Donald Trump’s chief of staff.

Joe Biden had won the electoral college one week earlier, but Meadows’s boss was still baselessly claiming he’d been robbed — and pointing specifically at Georgia.

After Georgia’s deputy secretary of state blocked Meadows from entering the room where officials were matching voter signatures, Meadows struck up a conversation with her office’s chief investigator, Frances Watson, and got her phone number. To Watson’s shock, the next day Trump called.

“Mark asked me to do it; he thinks you’re great,” Trump said, while falsely claiming he had won Georgia “by hundreds of thousands of votes.” Trump, according to audio of the call, added, “Whatever you can do, Frances, it’s a great thing, an important thing for the country.”

As he hung up, Trump said, “Mark appreciates it.”

Meadows, 62, had taken the job as chief of staff on the principle that his most important task would be “to tell the most powerful man in the world when you believed he was wrong,” he wrote in his memoir, “The Chief’s Chief.”

But instead of echoing the administration’s own Justice Department to tell Trump that his claims of a stolen election were wrong, Meadows went to extraordinary lengths to push Trump’s false assertions — particularly during a crucial three-week period starting with his trip to Atlanta and culminating in the violent insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.

A review of Meadows’s actions in that period by The Washington Post — based on interviews, depositions, text messages, emails, congressional documents, recently published memoirs by key players and other material — shows how Meadows played a pivotal role in advancing Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. In doing so, Meadows “repeatedly violated” legal guidance against trying to influence the Justice Department, according to a majority staff report from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Meadows granted those peddling theories about a stolen election direct access to the Oval Office and personally connected some with the president, according to congressional reports and interviews with former White House officials. He pressed the Justice Department to investigate spurious and debunked claims, including a bizarre theory that an Italian operation changed votes in the United States — an allegation a top Justice official called “pure insanity,” according to email correspondence released by congressional investigators. He also pushed the Justice Department, unsuccessfully, to try to invalidate the election results in six states through federal court action.

Now Meadows’s actions are at the center of probes by both the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack and the Justice Department, which is examining whether to press contempt-of-Congress charges against him and is conducting its own inquiry into the events surrounding the insurrection. North Carolina officials, meanwhile, are looking into whether Meadows himself potentially committed voter fraud by registering to vote in 2020 at a mobile home he reportedly never stayed in.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows suggested that widespread mail-in voting would lead to voter fraud. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Amanda Voisard/The Washington Post)

“Meadows was someone obviously central to the operations of the Trump White House and deeply implicated in Trump’s specific attempts to strip Biden of his electoral college victory after the election,” Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the Jan. 6 committee, said in a statement to The Post. “He was above all a loyal servant to Donald Trump regardless of the dictates of the law and the Constitution.”

A Trump spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

Some former White House officials also say Meadows bears responsibility for enabling Trump’s destructive push to stay in power.

“Anybody who participated in telling the president, 'We can take this back,’ has a role in all of this,” former press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in an interview. “He was allowing people to come into the White House who had this false information. … He was participating in these meetings that were causing the president to really believe in voter fraud.”

Meadows could not be reached for comment. In an April 30 speech urging Christians to vote, Meadows sounded emotional as he referenced his wife, Debra, in the audience and said, “God is humbling us.” He did not mention the investigation of his actions.

Meadows’s attorney George J. Terwilliger III did not respond to a list of questions emailed for this story.

Meadows initially provided thousands of text messages to the Jan. 6 committee but stopped cooperating in December while arguing that there was no valid legislative purpose behind the inquiry. That refusal led him to be cited for contempt of Congress. In a recent court motion, Terwilliger sought access to documents obtained by the committee to support his claim that the panel “is acting for the illegitimate purpose of attempting to embarrass Mr. Meadows through repeated leaks of his documents, information, and text messages to the press.”

The text messages, which have been revealed in court filings, committee documents and media reports, provide a vivid illustration of how Meadows made it a personal mission to try to help overturn the election.

Meadows texted about his “love” for a proposal aimed at allowing state legislatures to keep Trump in office. He said in a text message that he “pushed” a plan for Vice President Mike Pence to reject electoral votes. And he texted conservative activist Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, that the effort to overturn the election was “a fight of good versus evil. … Evil always looks like the victor until the King of Kings triumphs. … I have staked my career on it.”

For Meadows, the three weeks leading up to the storming of the Capitol marked an apex of a political career devoted first to pushing Congress further right and then to enabling Trump.

Now, depending on what Meadows knows and whether he decides to share it, his next steps could help determine whether prosecutors seek to press charges against Trump and others for the events leading up to the storming of the Capitol.

The ‘lion tamer’

After his election to Congress in 2012, Meadows, a former restaurant owner in rural North Carolina and later a real estate developer, earned a reputation as a hard-right combatant while chairing the House Freedom Caucus. He fashioned himself as an outsider who would take on party leaders he deemed insufficiently conservative.

Meadows initially supported Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) for president in 2016 before switching to Trump.

After Trump tapped Meadows as chief of staff in March 2020, some White House officials soon concluded that he was the wrong man for the job. Grisham, in her memoir “I’ll Take Your Questions Now,” described Meadows blocking those who gave Trump sound advice. She wrote that Trump was “increasingly prone to delusion and conspiracy, and it looked to me that Mark Meadows was milking that for all it was worth. Why? Probably because that was how he stayed in power.”

In an interview, Grisham said that she never heard Meadows tell Trump he was wrong about anything, although she and other former White House officials noted that they didn’t know what he told the president in private.

(Grisham resigned as press secretary after Meadows told her she would be replaced; she became chief of staff to first lady Melania Trump and resigned from that post in the wake of the events of Jan. 6.)

In the months leading up to the 2020 election, Meadows brought into Trump’s circle a parade of lawyers and other backers who believed the election might have been stolen.

Among them was Cleta Mitchell, an attorney who served as counsel for Right Women, a political action committee run by Meadows’s wife, Debra. That group’s support helped elect some of the most pro-Trump members of Congress, including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (Colo.). Mitchell was also friends with Ginni Thomas, another Meadows ally. Mitchell declined to comment. Ginni Thomas could not be reached for comment.

Mitchell, in a radio interview that aired in February 2021, said that she told Trump and Meadows in September 2020, “I thought that there was going to be a massive effort to steal the election.”

The day after the election, Meadows called Mitchell and asked her to go to Georgia, where Trump’s initial lead was shrinking as Democrat-heavy absentee ballots were counted. Ginni Thomas, meanwhile, urged Meadows to listen to what Mitchell was saying, texting him a few days after the election to allege that “Biden and the Left is attempting the great Heist of our History.”

“I will stand firm,” Meadows responded a minute later. “We will fight until there is no fight left.”

But on Dec. 1, 2020, Attorney General William P. Barr personally told him to drop the fight, according to Barr’s account in his memoir, “One Damned Thing After Another. In an Oval Office meeting, Barr told the president, as Meadows sat across from him, “We have looked at the major claims your people are making, and they are bulls---.”

Barr wrote in his memoir that he then offered his resignation, prompting Trump to say “Accepted!” Meadows asked Barr to remain through the end of the administration, but he left a month before Inauguration Day.

Meadows labored “mightily to cure or head off the President’s frequent bad ideas or his impulsive mistakes,” Barr wrote. But after Trump lost, Meadows was “like a lion tamer without a whip and chair.”

Digging in

Despite Barr’s conclusion that the election was settled in Biden’s favor, Meadows worked behind the scenes to whip up Trump’s conviction that the election wasn’t over. When Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) on Dec. 8 texted him that there could be a path to Trump’s reelection if some state legislatures appointed alternative electors to the electoral college, Meadows responded: “I am working on that as of yesterday,” according to a text reported by CNN.

That work seemingly should have ended on Dec. 14, when the electoral college, representing certified state vote tallies, voted 306 to 232 that Biden won the presidency. But Meadows dug in.

On Dec. 15, he attended an Oval Office meeting in which Trump was told by two top Justice Department officials that there wasn’t enough evidence of fraud to overturn the electoral college vote. Meadows remained quiet throughout the discussion, according to an administration official familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private meeting.

Then, on Dec. 21, just before Barr’s resignation took effect, the attorney general reiterated that there was no “systemic or broad-base fraud” that would change the election and no reason for the federal government to seize voting machines, which some Trump allies had encouraged. On this same day, Meadows attended a meeting with Trump and GOP lawmakers about voter-fraud allegations and to strategize about Jan. 6.

Meadows then tweeted: “Several members of Congress just finished a meeting in the Oval Office with President @realDonaldTrump, preparing to fight back against mounting evidence of voter fraud. Stay tuned.” (Twitter posted a warning that said, “This claim about election fraud is disputed.”)

The tweet shocked some in the White House who believed the time had come for Trump to concede.

“Tweeting something like that out to the public gives people false hope, and I think fanned the flames of a lot of the people who stormed the Capitol,” Grisham said.

The next day, Meadows made his surprise visit to the Cobb County Civic Center in Georgia, where Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs blocked his entry to the room where ballots were being checked. When Trump called Watson the next day, he pressed false claims that he’d won the state.

“You have a big fan in our great chief, right? Our chief of staff, Mark,” Trump told Watson, according to the recording of the call. “… I won Georgia, I know that, by a lot, and the people know it and something happened there, something bad happened.” Trump told her that “you are going to find things that are unbelievable, the dishonesty.” Watson told him she was “shocked” to receive the call and was “only interested in the truth.”

Watson could not be reached for comment. Fuchs declined to comment.

Pressing the Justice Department

On the same day that Meadows facilitated Trump’s call to Watson, Barr left the Justice Department, and Jeffrey Rosen became acting attorney general.

Meadows soon began peppering Rosen — a Harvard Law School graduate and former deputy attorney general — with suggested investigations into voter fraud, part of an effort that the Senate Judiciary Committee majority staff report last year found “repeatedly violated the DOJ-White House contacts policy.”

On Dec. 29, at a White House meeting with Rosen, Meadows raised a proposed Justice Department lawsuit against six states as part of an effort to overturn the election results. Justice officials had already determined that the federal government had no standing to bring the case, which was drafted by a lawyer working with the campaign.

“It’s not viable,” Rosen told Meadows, he later recounted to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The following day, Rosen also directly told the president that filing the case was a “bad idea, doesn’t work,” according to Rosen’s Senate interview. Rosen declined to comment.

On New Year’s Eve, Meadows forwarded Rosen an email from Mitchell regarding alleged voting irregularities in Georgia. Then Meadows ushered Rosen into an Oval Office meeting where Trump said he was displeased that Justice hadn’t found fraud.

The next day, Meadows emailed Rosen asking about “allegations of signature match anomalies" in Fulton County, Ga. As Rosen forwarded the email to his top deputy, Richard Donoghue, Rosen wrote: “Can you believe this? I am not going to respond to the message below.”

Around the same time, Meadows fixated on an allegation that became known as “Italygate,” in which an Italian defense contractor supposedly worked with the CIA to remotely change votes from Trump to Biden. Meadows sent Rosen a link to a YouTube video about the alleged conspiracy.

There was no evidence to support the claim, prompting Rosen to tell Meadows in a phone call that it was “another one that’s debunked,” according to Rosen’s Senate interview. But Meadows said that “there’s more to it” and asked him to meet with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and a purported witness. Rosen refused, noting to Donoghue that Giuliani was free to walk into a local FBI office to make his claim. Giuliani could not be reached for comment.

“Pure insanity,” Donoghue responded, referring to the Italy allegations. Donoghue did not respond to a request for comment.

Rosen said in his Senate interview that he explained his dismissal of the matter to Meadows, who at first accepted it.

“But then he called me back and he said Mr. Giuliani is insulted that you think he should have to walk into an FBI office,” Rosen said.

A search for fraud

On New Year’s Eve, Meadows became more directly involved in the effort to persuade Pence to cooperate with Trump’s last-ditch plan to stay in power.

By that time, Pence’s then-chief of staff, Marc Short, said in an interview, the vice president’s office had already rejected the idea pushed by some Trump lawyers that Pence could refuse to certify Biden’s electoral college victory when Congress met on Jan. 6.

“I have no doubt that Mark was aware that our office position was that the vice president did not have extraordinary powers and that instead we interpreted the constitutional role of the vice president as pretty straightforward,” Short said.

Nonetheless, Meadows forwarded a memo from a Trump campaign lawyer, Jenna Ellis, that outlined a plan in which Pence could decline to certify the outcome from certain states and send the matter back to legislatures that could select alternate electors. Meadows asked that the memo “be shared with the vice president,” Short said. Ellis did not respond to a request for comment.

Indeed, Meadows seemed enthusiastic about the idea that Pence might not certify Biden’s election, according to texts made public by the Jan. 6 committee. When an unidentified member of Congress contacted Meadows about a “highly controversial” plan for alternate electors, Meadows responded, “I love it,” and “Yes. Have a team on it.”

As Trump continued to fixate on claims of fraud in Georgia around this time, Meadows worked to reach Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, whose office oversaw voting. First, he emailed the Georgia official from a private account, but Raffensperger thought it might be a prank and ignored it, according to a deposition. Meadows later called Raffensperger’s deputy, Fuchs after Trump had made at least 18 other failed attempts to reach Raffensperger through the main office line — to set up a call with the president, The Post reported. Raffensperger, who is running for reelection, declined to comment.

In his memoir, “Integrity Counts,” Raffensperger wrote that he was reluctant to speak to the president. Trump had sued him in an effort to decertify the results of the Georgia election and thus, Raffensperger wrote, he did not think it was “appropriate” to have a one-on-one call. But Meadows was “insistent,” Raffensperger wrote, and so he agreed as long as others from his office joined on a call, which would be recorded. Mitchell, who had spent weeks in Georgia investigating fraud claims, was also included.

On the call, the president told Raffensperger: “I just want to find 11,780 votes” to win the state. That has led Democrats to assert that Trump was seeking to interfere with an election.

Meadows also jumped in repeatedly. After Trump claimed baselessly that 5,000 dead people had voted, Meadows objected to Raffensperger’s statement that only two such ballots had been found. “I can promise you there are more than that,” Meadows said.

After pushing back against the White House for three weeks, Rosen heard that Trump was trying to replace him with Jeffrey Clark, the assistant attorney general for the civil division, who had told Trump that if he was named attorney general, he would take action that might overturn the election, according to a filing by the Jan. 6 committee. Meadows played an “important role in that effort,” the filing said. Clark could not be reached for comment; his lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

Rosen called Meadows on Jan. 3 and asked for an immediate meeting with Trump. Meadows escorted Rosen and other Justice officials to the Oval Office but did not stay, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private meeting.

If Clark replaced Rosen, there would be mass resignations among the Justice leadership, the officials told Trump, according to their depositions to the Jan. 6 committee. Rosen again pushed back against an array of fraud claims, telling Trump, “People are telling you things that are not right,” he said in his Senate interview. Rosen remained in his job, crediting support from his department’s leadership team as well as White House counsel Pat Cipollone.

Meadows wrote in his memoir that he was unpersuaded by dozens of court losses and an array of federal and state officials telling him they’d failed to find widespread fraud. “The facts of fraud were not looked at by the judges and courts,” he wrote, adding that the Supreme Court “would not hear any of President Trump’s many challenges to the election results.”

Trump’s push to overturn the election now rested on his hope that Pence would decline to certify Biden’s election.

On Jan. 5, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) texted Meadows about the plan.

“On January 6, 2021, Vice President Mike Pence, as President of the Senate, should call out all electoral votes that he believes are unconstitutional as no electoral votes at all — in accordance with guidance from founding father Alexander Hamilton and judicial precedence,” Jordan wrote. Jordan did not respond to a request for comment.

“I have pushed for this. Not sure it is going to happen,” Meadows responded at 7:30 a.m. on Jan. 6, according to a footnote in a recent court filing.

Pence, however, had already told Trump he did not have the authority to reject the result.

Meadows, therefore, focused on plans for the Save America rally that would be held on the morning of Jan. 6. A Meadows aide, Cassidy Hutchinson, said in a deposition that a Secret Service official told Meadows in early January that there were “intel reports saying that there could potentially be violence on the 6th.” She said Meadows then privately discussed the intelligence with the official and she was “not sure … what he did with that information internally.” Hutchinson did not respond to a request for comment.

Meadows, meanwhile, “provided guidance” to a rally organizer, and at one point emailed an individual about the event that the National Guard would be there to “protect pro Trump people,” according to the Jan. 6 committee report.

Pleas for help

Midday on Jan. 6, Meadows accompanied Trump to the Save America rally on the Ellipse, near the White House, where the president said that he “won this election by a landslide” and left the impression he would march to the Capitol with the protesters. During this time, Hutchinson sent a message to an unspecified person saying, “Mark is super stressed and Rudy is wandering around with more evidence,” which she later explained in a deposition referred to Giuliani claiming he had evidence that would merit pausing the electoral vote count.

At 2:02 p.m., as pro-Trump rioters surrounded the Capitol and prepared to break inside, Meadows aide Ben Williamson texted his boss that Trump should “put out a tweet about respecting the police over at the Capitol — getting a little hairy over there.” Williamson then found Meadows in his office and repeated the message, Williamson said in a deposition. Meadows went to find Trump, but a timeline of events underscores how long it took for Trump to condemn the insurrection.

At 2:24 p.m., Trump tweeted that Pence did not have the “courage” to “do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.” Then, at 2:38 p.m., reflecting the idea from Williamson, Trump tweeted that people should “support our Capitol Police” and be peaceful.

Some of those closest to Trump flooded Meadows with calls and texts beseeching the chief of staff to get Trump to call off the rioters.

The president’s son Donald Trump Jr. texted Meadows: “He’s got to condemn this shit ASAP. The Capitol Police tweet is not enough.”

“I’m pushing it hard,” Meadows responded. “I agree.”

Fox News host Sean Hannity texted Meadows: “Can he make a statement? Ask people to peacefully leave the [Capitol].” Another Fox New host, Laura Ingraham, texted: “Mark, the president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home. This is hurting all of us. He is destroying his legacy.” Republican members of Congress began frantically emailing Meadows. “Mark, he needs to stop this now,” one said. “TELL THEM TO GO HOME,” said another.

An organizer of the Save America rally texted Meadows that things “have gotten crazy and I desperately need some direction. Please,” according to the Jan. 6 committee report, which does not say how Meadows replied.

Meadows was with Trump much of that afternoon, according to depositions given to the Jan. 6 committee, but Meadows’s response during much of this crucial time has not been publicly revealed. At 4:17 p.m., Trump put out a video in which he told rioters to go home and continued to claim the election was stolen.

In his memoir, Meadows rejected the claim that Trump incited the riot, writing that his words at the rally actually were “more subdued than usual.” Meadows wrote that Trump ad-libbed a line about walking with protesters to the Capitol and told him afterward he had been speaking “metaphorically.” Trump recently told The Post that he wanted to go but was stopped by his Secret Service agents.

Yet Meadows did not write in his memoir about what he did during the storming of the Capitol, what he told Trump during the insurrection, or any other actions during one of the most tumultuous afternoons experienced by any White House chief of staff in recent history.

Earlier this year, Meadows returned to Georgia at an event with Republicans.

He told the audience that he had just talked to Trump, who told him to convey a message: “We cannot give up on election integrity.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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