WASHINGTON (CN) — Fighting for accountability nearly 18 months after the 2021 Capitol riot, the House Select Committee investigating the events of of Jan. 6 laid out its evidence Monday about the role former President Donald Trump played in maintaining that the 2020 election was stolen against the advice and findings of experts and his own counsel who said no election fraud occurred.
The insurrection was not a coincidence, members of the committee argued, but the result of Trump's supporters acting on the conspiratorial words that Trump had been sowing even before the election when he made baseless claims about the integrity and legitimacy of mail-in voting in a year where many voters would opt not to vote in person out of precaution during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic.
After Democrat Joe Biden was declared the winner on Nov. 7, as Trump flouted the advice of his own attorney general and campaign manager, lawmakers on the committee said those doubts evolved into what has come to be known as "the Big Lie."
“The attack on Jan. 6 was a direct and predictable result of Mr. Trump's decision to use false claims of election fraud to overturn the election and cling to power,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California.
When the committee opened Thursday with the first of what will be six hearings this month, lawmakers took Americans through the carnage of the attempted coup that the American government faced on Jan. 6, 2021. Monday's hearing, which lasted only about two hours, looked at Trump's lies as one component of a multistep plan by the then-president to cling to power. The other steps involved his pressure on the Department of Justice to investigate the election, his lobbying of then-Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the certification of the Electoral College, and his urging of local officials in key swing states to reject the election results.
"The Trump campaign legal team knew there was no legitimate argument, fraud or irregularities or anything, to overturn the election. And yet, President Trump went ahead with his plans for Jan. 6 anyway," said Representative Liz Cheney, one of two Republicans on the committee.
Cheney said that, instead of listening to his advisers who “urged him” not to declare victory on election night, Trump listened to an "apparently inebriated Rudy Giuliani" who encouraged the then-president to go public that night and say he had won reelection.
Rolling tape on video depositions, the committee shared the words of several former Trump advisers who informed the then-president early on that vote counting would not be complete on election night due to the large number of mail-in ballots partially attributable to the Covid-19 pandemic. They also warned specifically that in-person ballots indicating a Republican lead may be misleading.
Former Fox News political editor Chris Stirewalt, who left the company due to "restructuring" after Fox called Arizona for Joe Biden in the 2020 election, said Trump’s election fraud conspiracies took advantage of the so-called “red mirage” on election night.
“The Trump campaign and the president made it clear that they were going to try to exploit this anomaly,” Stirewalt said.
On election night 2020, then-Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said it was "far too early" to declare Trump the winner, and he advised the then-president to say it was too soon to call the race.
“The president disagreed with that,” Stepien said in a prerecorded deposition that the committee played Monday. Stepien did not appear in person today because his wife went into labor prior to the hearing.
Former Trump aide Jason Miller testified in a recorded interview that Giuliani was "definitely intoxicated" while having conversations with Trump about declaring victory on election night.
Miller said the former Republican mayor of New York City was firm about asserting Trump’s victory before the votes had been counted: “We won it; they’re stealing it from us,” Miller said Giuliani was musing.
Trump went on to give a speech on election night declaring: "We won.”
But the committee made clear Trump’s election fraud claims went back much farther than election night 2020.
Trump began to sow doubts about the legitimacy of the election and mail-in voting much as early as spring of 2020 — much to the dismay of some of his staff.
In summer of 2020, Stepien held a meeting with Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to encourage the president to stop condemning mail-in voting as such rhetoric could hurt grassroots GOP organizers.
Stepien said that Trump did not listen to McCarthy and his arguments.
“The president’s mind was made up,” Stepien said in his deposition.
Former Trump Attorney General William Barr, who resigned before the insurrection, said in a video deposition that he had a Nov. 23 meeting with Trump in which he told the then-president that the Department of Justice did not have a role in looking into his claims of election fraud.
“The department is not an extension of your legal team,” Barr said he told the president, saying that Trump’s election fraud claims were “not meritorious.”
When leaving the meeting, Barr testified that then-chief of staff Mark Meadows told Barr he thought the president was becoming “more realistic” about the election.
But Barr said things continued to deteriorate in the weeks that followed, saying he feared Trump had become “detached from reality if he really believes this stuff.”
“There was never any interest in what the actual facts were. My opinion then and my opinion now is that the election was not stolen by fraud,” Barr said.
“Before the election, it was possible to talk sense to the president. And while you sometimes had to engage in a big wrestling match with him, it was possible to keep things on track,” Barr added.
After the election, Barr said he felt Trump was no longer listening to him, part of a larger split that emerged in the administration and White House between those who were determined to dispense conspiratorial claims of fraud and those who weren’t.
“There were two groups — my team and Rudy's team," Stepien said, referring to Giuliani. "I didn't mind being part of ‘Team Normal.' I didn’t think what was happening was honest or professional.”
Former Acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue said the Justice Department investigated several claims about election fraud and found no evidence of widespread fraud.
Donoghue said he told Trump: “We’ve done dozens of investigations, hundreds of interviews. The major allegations are not supported by the evidence developed.”
“When you gave him a very direct answer on one of [the claims], he wouldn’t fight us on it, but he would move on to another allegation,” Donoghue continued.
The committee also showed how the "Big Lie" was a major cash cow for Trump as he continued to fundraise campaign dollars even after the election was called for Biden.
Lofgren said the committee’s investigation found evidence the Trump campaign “misled donors as to where their funds would go and what they would be used for,” with supporters thinking their dollars would fund Trump’s court cases, when in fact, they did not.
“The Big Lie was a big rip-off,” Lofgren said.Follow @@rosemwagner
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