WASHINGTON — An Oval Office meeting over Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election became so heated that staff could hear shouting from outside the room and participants nearly came to blows, the Jan. 6 committee revealed during Tuesday's hearing.
"The meeting has been called 'unhinged,' 'not normal' and the 'craziest meeting of the Trump presidency,'" said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., who led part of the hearing.
The explosive hours-long meeting became the focal point of the hearing, in which the committee made the case that a group of outside advisers tried to persuade the former president to invoke a national emergency to stop himself from being ousted from office while White House aides argued forcefully in opposition.
On one side of the fight White House lawyers argued there was no evidence of widespread election fraud and no ground to challenge the results. On the other was a colorful cast of outside Trump advisers exploring ways to keep the 45th president in power — by any means necessary.
In video-taped depositions, at least a half dozen participants described in vivid detail what transpired in the more than six-hour marathon meeting that stretched late into the night on Dec. 18, 2020, and ultimately spurred Trump’s tweet calling his supporters to Washington on Jan. 6 for a "wild" rally.
Earlier that evening, then-White House counsel Pat Cipollone got a call that he should head to the Oval Office immediately. When he walked in, he told the committee he was “not happy” with the characters he saw in the room.
There was attorney and conspiracy theorist Sidney Powell, disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and a man named Patrick Byrne, whom he would later find out was the former CEO of Overstock.
“I walked in and said, ‘Who are you?’ and he told me,” Cipollone testified in reference to Byrne. “I don’t think any of these people were providing the president with good advice so I didn’t understand how they had gotten in.”
Powell told the committee her group had been granted a meeting with Trump without an appointment. They met with Trump for about 10 to 15 minutes discussing baseless conspiracy theories including that votes had been illegally switched on Dominion voting machines, which were used to rig elections in Venezuela, before Cipollone burst into the room.
She says Trump was “very interested” in her theories.
At one point, Eric Herschmann, an attorney who served as a senior adviser to Trump, asked Flynn if he thought the “Democrats were working with Hugo Chavez, Venezuelans, and whomever else?”
“General Flynn took out a diagram that supposedly showed IP addresses all over the world, and who was communicating with whom via the machines,” Herschmann said. “And some comment about, like, Nest thermostats being hooked up to the internet.”
Flynn pleaded the Fifth when asked by the committee about the Dominion voting machines.
Powell told the panel that Cipollone and Herschmann “showed nothing but contempt and disdain of the president.” And she said, at one point in the meeting, Trump had actually granted her security clearance and appointed her special counsel to investigate the election, though Cipollone disputed that she had any authority.
Cipollone said that Powell and her allies were “forcefully attacking” him “verbally.” He and his team pushed back, repeatedly asking: “Where is the evidence?”
Herschmann said both he and Derek Lyons, the White House staff secretary, reminded Powell that the Trump campaign had lost roughly 60 cases challenging the results of the 2020 election.
“And she was, like, ‘Well, the judges are corrupt.’ And I was like, ‘Everyone? Every single case that you’ve done in the country, you guys lost. Every one of them is corrupt? Even the ones we appointed?’” Herschmann said, recounting the argument.
The argument devolved into a screaming match, both sides testified. At some point, alcohol began “flowing” in the outer Oval Office, White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified. “The west wing is UNHINGED,” she texted someone.
“The screaming was completely — completely out there. … I’m telling them to shut the F up. I mean, it really was unprecedented,” Herschmann said. “It was late at night, and it had been a long day. And what they were proposing, I thought, was nuts.”
“It was late at night, and it had been a long day. And what they were proposing, I thought, was nuts.”
Eric Herschmann Trump Senior aide
Giuliani resorted to name calling, saying the White House legal team was “not tough enough.”
“Or maybe I put it another way: You’re a bunch of p------ — excuse the expression — I’m almost certain the word was used,” Giuliani told the panel.
Flynn and Herschmann nearly got into a physical altercation. A retired Army lieutenant general, Flynn screamed at Herschmann that he was “a quitter,” Herschmann said.
“He kept on standing up and turning around and screaming at me,” Herschmann recounted to the committee. “And at a certain point, I had it with him. So I yelled back: ‘Either come over or sit your f’ing ass back down.’”
Eventually, the meeting broke up. Trump and the White House team went upstairs to the part of the residence known as the Yellow Oval. Powell’s group might have gone to the Roosevelt Room and Giuliani stayed in the Cabinet Room by himself, he said.
“At the end of the day, we landed where we started the meeting … which was Sidney Powell was fighting, Mike Flynn was fighting. They were looking for avenues that would enable — that would result in President Trump remaining President Trump for a second term,” Lyons testified. “And there were me and Eric and Pat and Mark [Meadows] that were saying that these ideas were not very good and would only cause more problems.”
After midnight, Hutchinson texted someone a photo: It was her boss, Meadows, escorting Giuliani off the White House grounds “to make sure he didn’t wander back to the Mansion.”
A short while later, at 1:42 a.m., Dec. 19, 2020, Trump — frustrated by the options presented to him — tweeted what Jan. 6 panel members say was a “call to arms” to his millions of loyalists around the country:
“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”