Even before day two of the January 6 committee hearing began, it broke news: Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Bill Stepien canceled his planned testimony at the last moment. The news launched a thousand jokes invoking The Godfather movies and dark humor suggesting Stepien had been threatened, perhaps by Trump; it turned out his wife had unexpectedly gone into labor. The last-minute news forced the committee to scramble a bit, but the day’s agenda had always been clear: to showcase the sober white men around Trump who would testify that they told him the truth in real-time—that he’d lost the election. Stepien was one of many Trump aides and lawyers who came to be known as “Team Normal.”
Instead, Trump listened to crackpots and grifters like Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, Cleta Mitchell, Jenna Ellis, John Eastman, Michael Flynn, and others promoting increasingly outlandish claims that election fraud stole the White House from him. Representative Liz Cheney blamed “an apparently inebriated” Giuliani for pushing Trump out on election night to claim victory, even as his legal and campaign staff saw no basis for doing so. “It was far too early to be making proclamations like that,” Stepien told investigators in a videotaped deposition presented at the hearing. The president defied him. “Frankly, we did win the election,” an angry Trump said late election night.
“He knew he lost and he decided to attack our democracy. In doing so, he lit the fuse to the horrific violence of January 6,” chair Bennie Thompson said in an opening statement.
As early as April 2020, the committee explained, Trump was laying the groundwork to argue that the election would be stolen from him, and he kept up that drumbeat for the next nine months. Through today, in fact. Leaving aside the devastation of our democracy, Representative Zoe Lofgren noted that Trump has also raised an estimated $250 million with these false claims, even collecting donations to an “Official Election Defense Fund” that turned out not to exist. “The Big Lie was also the big ripoff,” she said. But some of that money went into planning the January 6 “rally to stop the steal,” which turned into a violent riot.
When Chris Stirewalt’s Fox News decision desk called Arizona for Joe Biden, he expected the angriest people to be his competitors at MSNBC and CNN. Stirewalt spoke with pride about the superior work he and his colleagues put into their models. But Trump and his allies exploded in anger when Fox made its call, and Stirewalt eventually lost his job (the company claims the decision was related to restructuring). That was just the beginning of Trump’s denial.
It’s not that Stepien and Trump’s lawyers ignored the president’s bizarre claims of voter fraud and Democratic chicanery. In videotaped interviews, he and dozens of lawyers and staffers talk about trying to drill down on the president’s false claims. Giuliani produced a video of alleged fraud—an alleged suitcase full of ballots—in State Farm Arena in Atlanta. The “suitcase” was actually a secure lockbox designed to secure the ballots, preventing fraud. We hear about Trump’s repeated attempts to blame Dominion Voting systems, about alleged interference from nefarious but nonexistent groups in Germany and Italy. “He wouldn’t fight us” when officials told him his theories were wrong; “he just moved on to the next thing,” then–Acting Assistant Attorney General Richard Donahue told investigators. Former attorney general Bill Barr repeated his statement that all Trump’s claims turned out to be “bullshit,” adding that “it was like playing Whac-A-Mole—all the early claims were bogus and silly.”
Increasingly, Trump turned exclusively to Giuliani and Team Abnormal. “Gradually our lawyers disengaged from the campaign,” Stepian said. “I did not mind being characterized as part of Team Normal,” he added. Courts rejected 60-plus false claims. In these videotaped interviews, Team Normal members came off as earnest public servants, unwilling to support Trump’s dishonesty. But there’s a bit of gaslighting going on; none of these men who worked for Trump opened their mouths at the time. Stepien, in fact, is working for Liz Cheney’s GOP primary opponent in Wyoming—who supports the Big Lie.
Interestingly, only Barr went on the record to tell an Associated Press reporter at the end of November that he saw no evidence of irregularities that could overturn the election result. But Barr had also encouraged Trump’s delusions on many occasions. After the election, he insisted the Justice Department did not work for the president or his campaign. But he had in fact worked for the president on numerous occasions, distorting the conclusions of Robert Mueller’s investigation, collaborating on a crackdown on lawful protesters so Trump could pose with a Bible.
But when Barr refused to echo his bosses’ election theft lies, “that was as angry as I’d ever seen him,” the man who’d frequently served as Trump’s Roy Cohn said. “He told me, ‘You must hate Trump.’” It’s always about Trump with Trump.
Upcoming hearings, Cheney promised, will lay out Trump’s “plan to corrupt the Department of Justice,” his effort to get Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the election results, and his work inspiring the January 6 insurrection. Monday we were reminded of how much garbage Trump and Team Abnormal threw at the system, unsuccessfully—but that wasn’t the end of it. Cheney and Johnson made clear their goal is exposing what led to the January 6 insurrection. Judging from these two days, I’m feeling more confident that they will.