‘Bullshit’, ‘Nuts’, ‘Idiotic’: Trump knew he lost election but pushed fraud claims anyway, Jan 6 committee hears

Former president Donald Trump’s decision to lie about the nature of the 2020 election came after his top advisers told him there was no basis to claim he had won, witnesses told the House January 6 select committee.

The panel’s second hearing focused on what a committee aide described as “Trump’s Big Lie” — the collection of outrageous theories and accusations Mr Trump and his allies floated to justify his election night claim of victory.

While Mr Trump’s former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, was set to testify on Monday, he did not appear because his wife entered labour shortly before the hearing was set to begin.

Instead, the select committee presented a collection of videos depicting statements made by Mr Stepien and other Trump campaign and administration officials during sworn depositions over the course of the select committee’s year-long investigation.

Each of the witnesses testified that Mr Trump had been advised that he was not the winner of the 2020 election when he took to the East Room of the White House in the wee hours of 4 November, the morning after the 2020 election.

At the time, Mr Trump claimed: “Frankly, we won this election, actually,” and argued that late-breaking votes for Joe Biden — the result of mail-in ballots that were counted late into the evening — were fraudulent.

But at the time, he and his closest aides knew he had not, according to testimony.

In one segment of pre-taped testimony, Mr Stepien recalled how he had previously told Mr Trump that election night would be “a long night,” just as it had been in 2016.

“I told him in 2020 that, you know, there were – it was going to be a process again as, you know, the early returns are going to be, you know, positive, and we are going to be, you know, be watching the returns of ballots as they rolled in thereafter,” he said. “I told him it was going to be a process. It was going to be, you know – you know we are going to have to wait and see how this turned out”.

Mr Trump did not wait, however, instead choosing to repeat an argument he had made for weeks on the campaign trail, namely that Democrats planned to steal the election with the aid of fraudulent postal ballots.

The former president had been advised against such an argument by Mr Stepien, who told the select committee he had even gone so far as to enlist the help of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to explain to Mr Trump how postal ballots could be a boon to his re-election hopes.

Mr Stepien told the panel he and Mr McCarthy had told the then-president that the GOP’s strength in on-the-ground organising could be translated into an advantage in postal balloting if Mr Trump were to start telling his supporters to vote by mail.

But the veteran Republican operative said Mr Trump’s mind “was made up,” and the idea of him encouraging mail-in ballots was dropped.

Mr Trump was also advised that the GOP’s traditional strength on election day, contrasted with Democrats’ traditional strength in absentee voting, would cause a phenomenon known as a “red mirage,” in which early election returns would appear to give him a significant advantage, but that advantage could be erased as absentee ballots were opened and tabulated. He was also told such an effect would be even more pronounced in states such as Pennsylvania, where state law prohibits election officials from even opening postal ballots before the polls have closed on election day.

His decision to claim victory on election night appeared to have perplexed then-attorney general William Barr, who said Mr Trump had raised the spectre of fraud “before there was any potential evidence”.

“It seemed to be based on the dynamic that – that at the end of the evening a lot of democratic votes came in, which changed the vote counts in certain states. And that seemed to be the basis for this broad claim that there was major fraud,” Mr Barr recalled.

He added that he “didn’t think much” of Mr Trump’s fraud claims at the time “because people had been talking for weeks, and everyone understood for weeks that that was going to be what happened on election night”.

The adviser Mr Trump listened to most on election night was an ‘intoxicated’ former New York mayor

While Mr Trump’s campaign manager was advising him not to claim victory while ballots were still being counted, he instead chose to follow the counsel of his personal attorney, ex-New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

According to another Trump campaign aide, Jason Miller, Mr Giuliani showed up to the White House residence in an inebriated condition and began pushing campaign officials to tell Mr Trump to declare himself the victor that night.

“The mayor was definitely intoxicated, but I do not know his level of intoxication when he spoke to the president,” Mr Miller said. “There were suggestions, by I believe it was Mayor Giuliani to go and declare victory and to say we won it outright.”

“Mayor Giuliani was saying we won it, they’re stealing it from us … we need to go say that we won,” he recalled, adding that Mr Giuliani was “essentially” arguing that “anyone who didn’t agree with that position was being weak”.

The ex-New York City mayor’s insistence that fraud was to blame for Mr Trump becoming the first US president to lose his re-election bid in decades flew in the face of what top officials at the Justice Department – including Mr Barr – had already determined.

In pre-taped testimony, the former attorney general recalled a contentious meeting with the then-president in which he bluntly explained that there was no truth to what he and Mr Giuliani were claiming.

“I told him that the stuff that his people were shoveling out to the public was bulls*** – I mean that the claims of fraud were bulls***,” he said. He also called the claims “idiotic” and “complete nonsense”.

Mr Barr also told the select committee that he felt “demoralised” by the former president’s insistence on claiming his loss had come about due to fraud because he thought Mr Trump had “become detached from reality if he really believed this stuff”. He added that Mr Trump “never” showed “an indication of interest in what the actual facts [were]”.

But Mr Giuliani’s wholehearted acceptance of the baseless fraud claims so endeared him to Mr Trump that he allowed Mr Giuliani to take over his campaign’s effort to challenge the election in court.

Together with another attorney, Sidney Powell, they began claiming that voting machines made by Dominion Voting Systems – the voting machines used in a number states Mr Trump had lost – had been used to rig the election by changing votes from Mr Trump to Mr Biden. They even went so far as to claim the machines had been developed at the behest of deceased Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez for the express purpose of rigging elections.

Other allegations floated by Ms Powell included an even more outlandish theory which posited that servers in Germany had been used to camouflage how the Dominion machines had flipped votes to Mr Biden.

None of what they alleged was true.

One deputy White House counsel for the Trump administration, Eric Herschmann, described his assessment of the claims put forth by Mr Giuliani and Ms Powell in particularly blunt terms.

“What they were proposing I thought was nuts. The theory was also completely nuts, right? A combination of Italians, Germans, different things that were floating around as to who was involved,” he said.

Despite the reservations of the Trump campaign’s original legal team, Mr Giuliani continued to press the false fraud claims in multiple lawsuits, including a late 2020 appearance in a Pennsylvania courtroom, his first in decades. But he was unsuccessful in persuading any judge to take the claims seriously, and in 2021 a New York State court suspended his law licence for making repeated false statements in court.

Mr Giuliani, who has also given evidence before the select committee in a taped deposition, addressed the characterisation of him as being drunk on election night during a Monday appearance on ex-Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast.

He said Mary Cheney, an LGBT+ rights and conservative activist, was “completely hysterical,” apparently confusing her with her sister, select committee vice-chair Liz Cheney (who had described him as “apparently inebriated” in opening remarks).

The disgraced former mayor also offered up a non sequitur by suggesting that Ashli Babbitt, a pro-Trump rioter who was shot and killed by a Capitol Police officer while trying to break into the House of Representatives’ Speaker’s Lobby, had been killed by “antifa” instead of the police.

The committee also heard evidence that Mr Trump raised $250m in small-donor donations for his “Official Election Defense Fund” – but the fund did not exist and “most” of that money ended up being given to his own political action committee.

Rep Zoe Lofgren said: “Throughout the committee’s investigation we found evidence that the Trump campaign and its surrogates misled donors as to where their funds would go and what they would be used for. So not only was there the big lie, there was the big ripoff.”

The next in the series of televised public hearings by the January 6 committee will be held on Wednesday at 10am eastern time. It is expected to focus on claims that Mr Trump sought to pressure the Justice Department to back his false claims of election fraud.