“The mayor was definitely intoxicated,” declared Jason Miller, a veteran fixer for Donald Trump who was in the White House on the night of the November 3, 2020, presidential election.
The mayor in question was Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City official who was in the White House on the night when a president who knew he had been defeated began to advance a conspiracy to overturn an election result that he refused to accept. Giuliani was already the tragic figure that he would come to be understood as when his delusional claims became the basis of Saturday Night Live routines—with Kate McKinnon appearing as a wild-eyed “personal lawyer” explaining away a press conference in the Four Seasons Total Landscaping parking lot in northeast Philadelphia.
It is easy to mock Giuliani. But the story of how he became the former president’s chief counselor at a critical juncture in the run-up to the January 6 insurrection, which the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the US Capitol detailed on Monday, is essential to understanding the lengths to which a teetotaling Donald Trump was willing to go to forge the Big Lie. Trump should not be seen as a fool. He should be understood as a desperate man who was willing to do anything to hold on to the presidency, no matter how big the lie.
That was the picture that the select committee painted Monday, as it outlined the details of how Trump’s insurrectionist conspiracy was hatched and advanced. The committee hearing relied on recorded testimony from Miller and other Trump associates, aides, and family members who were in the White House on that election night. They recognized early on that Trump’s reelection bid was in trouble. Initial results, which tend to favor Republicans, had the president only narrowly ahead. The pattern of results was certain to grow worse for Trump—and they would turn out so much worse that Democrat Joe Biden won the popular vote by 7 million ballots and carried the Electoral College by a decisive 306-232 count.
Sober Trump aides and allies knew even in the early stages of the vote counting, as Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien revealed in recorded testimony on Monday, that the president’s chances for winning a second term were “bleak.” But the intoxicated mayor had another idea. He wanted Trump to declare victory, rant and rave about “election fraud,” and begin the “Stop the Steal” movement that would stir Trump backers into a deadly fury.
Giuliani may have been drunk. But Trump wasn’t. He knew what he was doing when he rejected the counsel of what Stepien said had come to be referred to as “Team Normal.” Stepien and others testified that they wanted Trump to wait and see what the results revealed.
Unfortunately, Trump was desperate enough to take the advice of Team Giuliani. And the rest was history.
“This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election,” the president told a crowd of supporters and a national TV audience at a point when the counting in key battleground states was far from finished. He began to spin the Big Lie that his own attorney general, William Barr, told the committee was “completely bogus and silly and usually based on complete misinformation.”
That Big Lie formed the basis for Trump’s call on his insurrectionist supporters to “fight like hell” to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in what US Representative Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat who chairs the select committee, rightly described as “an attempted coup.”
Trump embraced what Barr told him was “bullshit,” not because the president had any credible evidence that would lead him to believe it was true. He clung to it because he knew he needed to spin an outrageous conspiracy theory in order to build an army of insurrectionists that would be willing to disregard the rule of law and attempt a coup.
Even in the sordid underworld of Republican politics, there were few serious players who would promote complete fantasies about the election. So the president turned to Giuliani, and Giuliani gave Trump what he wanted.
Among the witnesses at Monday’s hearing was B.J. Pak, a former US Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, who explained how he resigned after the Trump White House pressured him to investigate a ridiculous claim by Giuliani that “tens of thousands of absentee ballots were illegally cast and counted”—some of them allegedly moved about in mysterious suitcases—in Georgia’s Fulton County. “Mr. Giuliani’s claims were simply untrue and making such a claim was reckless,” explained Pak.
Trump’s recklessness was deliberate.
US District Judge David Carter, who earlier this year found evidence that Trump “more likely than not” committed felony crimes in seeking to overturn the election results, referred to the former president’s approach following the 2020 election as “a coup in search of a legal theory.”
Monday’s hearing illustrated how far the former president was willing to go to advance that coup.