The Fractious Night That Began Trump’s Bid to Overturn the Election
WASHINGTON — Rudolph W. Giuliani looked drunk, and he walked over to the president.
It was election night in 2020 and President Donald J. Trump saw his reelection bid slip, vote by vote. According to video testimonials compiled by the House Committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, Mr. Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and Mr. Trump’s personal attorney, spewed conspiracy theories.
“They’re stealing it from us,” Mr. Giuliani told the president when he found him, according to Jason Miller, one of the president’s top campaign officials, who told the Jan. 6 committee that Mr. Giuliani was “absolutely drunk.” that night. “Where do all the votes come from? We have to say we won.”
Several times that night, Mr. Trump’s own family members and close advisers urged him to reject Mr. Giuliani’s advice. Mr Miller didn’t tell him to “go declare victory” without a better understanding of the numbers. “It’s far too early to make such a proclamation,” said Bill Stepien, his campaign manager. Even his daughter Ivanka Trump told him the results were still being counted.
But in the end, Mr. Giuliani was the only one who told the president what he wanted to hear that night.
Giuliani’s rants about stolen ballots fueled the president’s own conspiracy theories about a rigged election, which have been publicly and privately staged since long before the votes were counted. They contributed to a months-long assault on democracy and — according to the commission — inexorably led to the mob storming into the Capitol in hopes of getting Joseph R. Biden Jr. certified. to quit as president.
Mr Trump told Mr Miller, Mr Stepien and the rest that they were weak and wrong. Speaking in the reception area of the White House living quarters, he said he was going “in a different direction.”
Not long after, Mr. Trump did just that, appearing before the cameras at 2:21 a.m. in the East Room in front of a wall of American flags.
He denounced the election in the speech, calling the vote “a fraud for the American public” and a “humiliation” for the country. “We were getting ready to win this election,” he told his supporters and television viewers. “Honestly, we won these elections.”
The White House inside account that night was collected by the Jan. 6 committee. During Monday’s second public hearing, the committee played a video that painted a vivid portrait of how Mr. Trump dismissed warnings from his closest associates and advisers and set out to declare himself the winner.
Testimonials from those closest to the former president effectively documented the formal beginnings of Mr. Trump’s insistence that the election was stolen.
Read more about the January 6 House Committee hearings
Mr Trump hadn’t been shy about that expectation; weeks before Election Day, he had predicted a ‘fraud like you’ve never seen’. And even as the votes were being counted, Mr. Trump started getting that message across. But the testimony given during Monday’s hearing was the linchpin of the argument the committee is trying to make: that Mr. Trump knew his claims about fraudulent elections were untrue and made them anyway.
“That’s the bottom line,” said Representative Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat who chairs the committee. “We had an election that Mr. Trump lost, but he refused to accept the results of the Democratic process.”
In the weeks following election night, Mr. Trump was repeatedly told by top officials that his allegations of fraud were unfounded.
The commission underscored that fact with lengthy video clips from former Attorney General William P. Barr, who said curbing the “avalanche” of fraud charges by the president “was like crazy because one day something would come out and then it would be a different problem the next day.” He called Mr Trump and Mr Giuliani’s fraud allegations “totally bogus and foolish and mostly based on complete misinformation.”
But the commission’s portrayal of the White House on election night was the most compelling story of the day. And the testimony of Trump associates who said they had doubts about Mr. Trump’s fraud allegations was striking, especially since some of those same associates had publicly expressed their support for the president, derailing the election results. doubt was cast.
Shortly after 11:15 PM, Fox News called Arizona for Mr. Biden, a big blow to the Mr. Trump’s campaign. Drawing on interviews with Ivanka Trump, her husband, Jared Kushner, and several of the president’s campaign staff, the committee video captured how the party atmosphere at the White House residence changed from giddy optimism to grim fear.
“Both disappointed with Fox and concerned that our data or our numbers may not be accurate,” said Miller, describing the mood among the president’s supporters.
After the phone call to Arizona, Mr. Trump’s team was furious, according to previous coverage of the night. Mr Trump told his aides to make Fox News somehow change course. Mr. Miller called a contact at the network. mr. Kushner contacted the owner of the network.
“Hey, Rupert,” the president’s son-in-law said into a cell phone as Rupert Murdoch, the head of the network’s parent company, took his call.
But soon there would be another concern for the group of assistants later called “Team Normal” according to Mr. Stepien. They received an alarming warning: Mr. Giuliani had had too much to drink and had gone upstairs to the living quarters, where the president was monitoring the reports.
Several Trump aides try to interfere, but Giuliani, who had stared at the screens in the campaign warroom and insisted that the president had won Michigan, was undeterred.
He demanded a meeting with the president, according to a former aide familiar with the conversation.
Mr. Stepien confronted Mr. Giuliani. How do we win? he asked him. Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, was also there and told Giuliani that he was wrong in saying that Trump had won Michigan.
“That’s not true, Rudy!” he said loudly, according to the person familiar with the conversation. (Mr. Meadows would almost immediately embrace the president’s allegations of fraud publicly and privately, as documented in text messages discovered by the commission.)
The president’s aides soon failed in their attempt to keep Mr. Giuliani away from him. In the video presentation, Mr. Giuliani fired his rivals for trying to stop him from giving the president his advice.
“I spoke to the president,” he told the commission’s investigators. “Maybe they were there. But I spoke to the president several times that night.”
Few of the president’s aides came out in the days after the election with doubts about the president’s chances. In fact it was the opposite. During a conference call with reporters the day after the election, Mr. Stepien said he believed Mr. Trump would win Arizona by 30,000 votes when the count was over.
Mr Trump had said for months he would win the election, even as polls showed he supported Mr Biden in a political climate soured by Mr Trump’s bumbling and erratic performance during the coronavirus pandemic. But he started to cast doubt on the reliability of the ballots sent in much earlier in the year, which were made more widely available due to the pandemic.
The president warned weeks before election day that those ballots, along with the votes cast by early voting, would be counted later than the votes cast for Mr. Trump on the same day, the president stunned his advisers by stating that he simply would go out and say he had won .
“We want all votes to stop,” Trump said in his early morning remarks on Nov. 4. “We don’t want them to find ballots at 4 a.m. and add them to the list. OK?”
Later that day, Ivanka texted Trump to a chain where Mr. Meadows at was: “Keep the faith and the fight!” Mr. Trump almost immediately began telling Mr. Giuliani to start gathering all the information he could.
On Friday, it was clear from the Trump campaign data guru that the numbers just weren’t there to pass. The next day, Mr. Stepien, mr. Miller and other assistants by Mr. Kushner sent to Mr. Trump that he had extremely little chance of any success due to ongoing challenges.
When the men arrived at the White House residence, Mr. Trump was calm, but he was not interested in heeding the warnings. He continued to reiterate his election conspiracies after Monday’s hearing, issuing a… incoherent 12 page answer with a simple underline:
“They cheated!” He wrote.