The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The conspiracy to subvert the 2020 election spanned the country

An image of former president Donald Trump is displayed at the Capitol in Washington on June 21 as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol continues to reveal the findings of its year-long investigation. (Al Drago/Pool via AP)

No one from Vermont has been arrested for participating in the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. No one from Nebraska has, either, nor either of the Dakotas.

And that’s the end of the list. At least one person from each of the other 46 states and from D.C. has been arrested in connection with the riot, according to data compiled by George Washington University Program on Extremism. That ranges from 87 Floridians who’ve been targeted for prosecution by federal authorities to one person each from Hawaii and Alaska. The effort to block the counting of electoral votes at the Capitol on that day was truly a national effort.

But blocking the electoral vote count on Jan. 6 was simply the culmination of a multipronged effort by Donald Trump and his allies to forestall Joe Biden’s inauguration as president. In recent weeks, we’ve learned not only more about the breadth of that effort (thanks largely to the work of the House select committee focused on probing the riot) but also about how law enforcement has been working to uproot it.

What occurred from Nov. 3, 2020, to Jan. 6, 2021, was an attempt to force the nation to accept a second term in office for Donald Trump, despite the election results. A slow-rolling coup. And as with the Capitol riot itself, it should be recognized as a national effort, one intertwined with Trump’s campaign and his party.

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On Wednesday, the Virginia home of former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark was searched by federal investigators. Eighteen months ago, few Americans had heard of Clark, an acting assistant attorney general in the Justice Department before his departure. But then we learned that Clark had been at the forefront of an effort to get Trump to supplant the acting attorney general to redirect the department’s energy at unfounded claims of voter fraud. Clark was introduced to Trump by Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) and quickly earned the president’s favor by proposing a strategy for leveraging the Justice Department in service of Trump’s effort to retain power.

The raid at Clark’s house occurred on the same day that federal investigators seized electronic devices from the chairman of the Republican Party in Nevada. Michael McDonald was reportedly involved in an effort to put forward an alternate slate of electors from his state after it voted for Biden, part of a similar effort that unfolded in a number of other states that Trump had lost. McDonald was actually one of the alternate electors, as the party touted on its Twitter account the day that electoral votes were finalized.

That’s just one state. In late January, the House committee subpoenaed 14 party officials and activists in seven states for information about the ploy to create facially viable sets of alternate electors that could replace the certified versions on Jan. 6, following that up with further subpoenas a few weeks later.

The Justice Department’s targeting of McDonald this week also wasn’t an isolated effort. The Washington Post reported that individuals associated with the fake-electors effort were also subject to subpoenas or searches in Georgia, Virginia and possibly Michigan.

During the committee’s hearing Tuesday, Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel was shown in recorded testimony. The Republican National Committee (RNC) had hosted a call in the weeks after the election featuring Trump and his attorney John Eastman — another once unknown name that’s gained some notoriety.

Trump “turned the call over to Mr. Eastman,” McDaniel said, “who then proceeded to talk about the importance of the RNC helping the campaign gather these contingent electors in case any of the legal challenges that were ongoing changed the result of any of the states.”

That framing is careful, implying that the RNC’s involvement was one of “helping” the campaign should its legal efforts pan out. Of course, the RNC had already planted a flag in support of the effort to upend the election results when the party hosted Trump’s attorneys Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell for a breathlessly nonsensical news conference alleging rampant fraud. Despite McDaniel’s careful phrasing, the involvement of party officials extended well past the point at which there was a credible legal path to overturning any results. (It’s not clear when the RNC call with Eastman occurred.) The campaign’s lawsuits became increasingly flighty, culminating in a lawsuit from the attorney general of Texas asking the Supreme Court to throw out vote totals in Biden-voting states on explicitly specious grounds. Hundreds of Republican officials, including members of Congress, signed on in support of that suit.

Ultimately, invalid electoral slates were filed in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. (There were actually three filed from Arizona, including two from a sovereign citizens’ group.) In total, 84 people were identified as electors for Trump in states that Trump lost. The documents often make explicitly false claims (such as that the Michigan electors were gathered in the state Capitol, which they weren’t) that might invite fraud or forgery charges. Many of the signatories were involved with the party or elected officials. It’s not that this wasn’t understood to be risky; state officials in four states rejected the plan in advance. But scores went along with it.

For those slates to be considered valid (as McDaniel argues was the hope being held out), the Trump campaign sought to pressure state legislators to seize the authority to appoint electors as they saw fit. The argument derives from the “independent state legislature doctrine,” a theory that holds state legislators have ultimate authority to decide how electors should be appointed. So, the theory goes, if legislators said that the Trump slate was the state’s slate, that was the state’s slate.

A few days before Jan. 6, Trump and Eastman participated in a conference call with legislators aimed at getting them to take such an action. “You are the real power,” Trump told them at the time. Nearly two dozen legislators in Pennsylvania had already signed on to a resolution aiming to exercise that purported power.

According to contemporaneous reporting, several hundred legislators sought to participate in the call with Trump and Eastman. More than a dozen legislators from Wisconsin subsequently wrote to Vice President Mike Pence asking him not to count the state’s submitted electors, as did scores of legislators in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona.

On Jan. 6 itself, Trump and his allies tried to use the riot to persuade more members of Congress to oppose the counting of cast electoral votes. Once the Capitol was cleared, the count went forward anyway, and Trump’s loss was confirmed. But not before 147 Republicans in the House and Senate — including a majority of the House Republican caucus — voted to block the submitted votes from Arizona, Pennsylvania or both. Again, this was after the riot.

All of this, every part of it, was downstream from Donald Trump’s false claims about the election being stolen and his being the real winner of the election. But the House committee’s elevation of officials who thwarted Trump’s efforts during its hearing Tuesday should be considered in the context of how many other officials went along with it. Thousands of people from nearly every state in the union were involved in the fake-elector plan or worked as legislators to try to replace Biden’s electors or pushed as members of Congress to prevent the electors cast by Arizona or Pennsylvania from being counted — or simply showed up in Washington, where they overran Capitol Police to block the process entirely.

Trump was the spark to the effort to steal a second term in office. The resulting wildfire ran throughout the Republican Party and the country.