WASHINGTON — Listening to Donald Trump spout outlandish claims of election fraud, Attorney General William Barr began to wonder if the 45th president of the United States was in his right mind, he told the Jan. 6 committee in a video-recorded deposition.
The two were meeting privately on December 14, 2020, and Trump purported to have new evidence that Dominion voting machines were rigged, Barr testified. He would get a second term after all, he told Barr. The president then handed Barr a report from a cyber-security firm and as Barr flipped through the pages, he saw nothing that gave credence to such a startling claim.
“I was somewhat demoralized,” Barr told House Jan. 6 committee investigators, “because I thought, ‘Boy, if he really believes this stuff, he has, you know, lost contact with — he’s become detached from reality if he really believes this stuff.’”
Barr's testimony — which came only via pre-recorded video — proved to be some of the most riveting from the second hearing, putting the former Trump appointee at the center of the committee's case against Trump.
Barr’s concern over Trump’s mental state — and how a parade of aides and advisers were trying to convince him that he lost the 2020 election — was the central theme from the committee’s second public hearing on Monday.
Other takeaways included:
Trump was urged not to declare victory prematurely
On the night of the election, Trump’s closest advisers gathered in the White House and debated what he should say publicly given that it might be days before the winner was declared.
With votes still being counted, some of his senior advisers believed it was too early for him to call the race. At least one told him so. Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager, suggested to the president that he give a more guarded statement until it was clear who had won. Trump didn’t heed the advice.
“He thought I was wrong. He told me so,” Stepien said in videotaped testimony aired by the committee.
Trump instead took an approach favored by his longtime confidant, Rudy Giuliani. The former New York City mayor was at the White House that night. In a conversation with a handful of Trump advisers near the Map Room — where Franklin Roosevelt monitored troop movements during World War II — he called for declaring victory.
Jason Miller, a Trump campaign official, told the committee that Giuliani said, “‘We won. They’re stealing it from us. We need to go say that we won.’ And, essentially, that anyone who didn’t agree with that position was being weak.” Miller, whose testimony was played in video by the committee, said that Giuliani was intoxicated. (A lawyer for Giuliani denied he was inebriated.)
When Trump delivered his speech, he bluntly — and falsely — told his supporters: “Frankly, we did win this election.”
Panel says Trump engaged in ‘the big ripoff’
The Jan. 6 committee is also tracking the money. One big reason why Trump and his allies continued to push false election fraud claims long after the courts had ruled against Trump was to continue raising millions from fervent Trump supporters, committee members argued.
The committee has previously hinted that money could be a theme that runs throughout the hearings, including who paid for the Jan. 6 rally.
Jan. 6 Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., told reporters after the hearing that more details about Trump’s fundraising efforts will be published in the committee’s final report.
“The big lie was also a big ripoff,” said one committee member, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.
In fact, Lofgren said the Trump campaign sent millions of fundraising emails to its backers, between Election Day and Jan. 6, claiming that a “left-wing mob” was undermining the election and calling on supporters to “step-up” and “fight back” to protect election integrity.
Supporters were urged to donate to Trump’s “election defense fund” but the committee said it found no such committee or fund existed. Instead, much of the $250 million raised went to Trump’s new super PAC, called the Save America PAC, launched just the days after the election.
The Jan. 6 panel said Save America funneled millions of dollars of contributions to Trump-friendly organizations and entities. That included $1 million to the Conservative Partnership Institute, a charitable foundation closely linked to Trump’s last chief of staff, Mark Meadows; another $1 million to the America First Policy Institute, a closely-aligned advocacy group which employs several former Trump administration officials; more than $200,000 to the Trump Hotels chain; and more than $5 million to the events company that produced Trump’s Jan. 6 rally before the attack.
“The [fundraising] emails continued through Jan. 6, even as President Trump spoke on the Ellipse. Thirty minutes after the last fundraising email was sent, the Capitol was breached,” Amanda Wick, senior investigative counsel for the Jan. 6 committee, said in a video during the hearing
Trump’s 2020 campaign was a hot mess
Stepien took over the campaign from Brad Parscale just four months before the election.
Though the campaign would raise $774 million, Stepien said that when he became campaign manager he inherited an operation that was at a low point in the polls and both “structurally and fiscally deficient.” He set about “fixing things that could be fixed with 115 days left in the campaign.”
Trump rebuffed basic campaign tactics that would have maximized his chances. He proved stubborn when it came to mail-in voting.
At one point, Stepien testified, he called a meeting with Trump and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy to persuade the president that mail-in voting could be an asset. McCarthy backed him up.
Stepien’s point was that Republicans had built a grassroots campaign apparatus that could mobilize people to vote by mail. Also, it was risky to bet so heavily on in-person voting. But Trump was unmoved.
“The president’s mind was made up,” Stepien said.
Committee stays on message
With no dissenting voices on the panel, the Jan. 6 committee has demonstrated the benefit of having an entire panel operating from the same playbook.
Republicans chose not to seat anyone on the committee after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected two congressmen they’d wanted to serve. The committee is made up of seven Democrats and two Republicans who are both vocal Trump critics. As a consequence, the panel has been able to stay extremely disciplined and on message as it builds its case against the 45th president.
A typical House committee might see members in the minority interrupt the chairman, cross examine key witnesses, or introduce evidence that contradicts the majority’s narrative. But that hasn’t been the case here.
Add to that the highly scripted format, and the first two hearings have not resembled the productions Congress is accustomed to.
The Jan. 6 panel has presented video montages of the Capitol riot, taped interviews of committee staff who helped connect the dots for viewers, and friendly questioning of witnesses like prominent GOP election attorney Ben Ginsberg.
The Trump campaign “did have their day in court,” Ginsberg testified. “In no instance did a court find that the charges of election fraud were real.” Ginsberg didn’t face any followup questions.
The only surprise Monday came before the hearing got going: Stepien, the star witness of the day, canceled his appearance after his wife went into labor. After a brief delay, the committee regrouped and moved forward with the hearing using video-taped testimony from Stepien during his earlier deposition.
Lofgren said the panel does not need Stepien to give live testimony at a future hearing given his previous “very extensive interview.”
The committee’s presentation is the Trump impeachment trial that never happened
The first two hearings are shaping up to look like the Trump impeachment trial that his accusers wanted last year but never got.
That may not be an accident.
One of the committee members is Rep. Jamie Raskin, D., Md., who led the team of House managers who served as the prosecution in Trump’s second trial.
Trump’s impeachment proceeded on a fast track that made it difficult for Democrats to collect and present evidence laying out Trump’s precise role in the scheme to overturn the election. Plus they had little power to force the sitting president to turn over records, whereas the National Archives has been much more compliant after taking custody once he left office.
Basic questions about Trump’s actions on Jan. 6 went unanswered during the trial. For example, when senators asked what steps Trump took to end the violence at the Capitol, one of Trump’s lawyers made reference to a tweet he had sent out asking people to stay “peaceful.” Trump was acquitted.
The committee is offering a richer account of what happened that day. During the first hearing, Rep. Liz Cheney, R., Wyo., vice-chair of the Jan. 6 committee, said that Trump began yelling and got “really angry at advisers who told him he needed to be doing something more” to call off the attack.