(The Hill) — The House committee examining last year’s attack on the Capitol accused former President Trump on Monday of lying purposely to the public in order to stay in power and raise money from sympathetic supporters — an orchestrated effort the panel said led directly to the deadly insurrection of Jan. 6.
Gathered on Capitol Hill for the second in a series of public hearings into its investigation, the select committee leaned heavily on the testimony of some of the leading figures in Trump’s political orbit to hammer home the notion that, not only were Trump’s claims of rampant voter fraud false, but also that he knew them to be so.
Leading the charge was former Attorney General Bill Barr, who delivered a damning portrait of the former president as someone increasingly “detached from reality” following the election.
Barr said his Justice Department was forced to play “whack-a-mole” with the flood of false fraud allegations pouring in from Trump supporters around the country. One by one, the department investigated the claims but found no wrongdoing. The accusation that Dominion Voting Systems, a voting machine company, had installed software to flip votes from Trump to Joe Biden was “idiotic,” Barr said, while another claim — that more people voted in Philadelphia than there are voters in the city — was “absolute rubbish.”
“And I told him that the stuff that his people were shoveling out to the public was bull—-, I mean, that the claims of fraud were bull—-,” Barr told the committee in an earlier interview that was aired during Monday’s hearing. “And, you know, he was indignant about that.”
Testimony presented Monday showed a clear fracture behind the scenes between Trump and some of his top aides, who told the committee they confronted Trump directly about his claims of widespread fraud in the weeks after the 2020 election, only to be ignored.
“The election fraud claims were false. Mr. Trump’s closest advisors knew it. Mr. Trump knew it,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said at the outset of the hearing. “That didn’t stop him from pushing the false claims and urging his supporters to, ‘fight like hell’ to ‘take back their country.’”
The committee used video clips of Trump making fabulous claims of rampant fraud, and contrasted them with interviews with White House and campaign aides disputing those assertions.
They showed Trump laying the groundwork for his ultimate assertion — that only fraud could deal him an election loss — as early as April 2020, a thread he revisited when he claimed victory on election night, then amplified heading into Jan. 6.
Former deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue testified that he personally explained to Trump that DOJ officials had looked into claims of fraud in Georgia, Nevada and elsewhere, but that much of the information the president was receiving was inaccurate. In response, Trump would shift his focus to other claims of fraud.
“There were so many allegations that when you gave him a very direct answer on one of them, he wouldn’t fight you on it, he’d move to another one,” Donoghue said.
Former Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien, who was promoted to that role in July 2020, was scheduled to testify in-person on Monday but backed out after his wife went into labor.
In his absence, the committee used clips of Stepien’s private deposition, in which he discussed his effort to convince Trump of the benefits of mail-in voting, of the amount of time it would take to count ballots and declare a winner in the 2020 election, and of the need to let votes be counted before declaring victory. As part of that effort, he brought in House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to help make the case. It fell on deaf ears.
“My recommendation was to say that votes are still being counted. It’s too early to tell, too early to call the race,” he said.
“I don’t recall the particular words. He thought I was wrong. He told me so. And you know, that they were going to, he was going to go in a different direction.”
Trump instead relied on the counsel of Rudy Giuliani, a key promoter of the Dominion conspiracy theory who emerged as one of the leading public champions of Trump’s lie about a stolen election.
The committee used footage of Giuliani on Fox News and appearing before a Pennsylvania panel claiming dead people had voted for Biden in large numbers and that ballots were brought in to erase Trump’s lead in Michigan — both of which were dispelled by witnesses on Monday.
“There were two groups, my team and Rudy’s team. I didn’t mind being part of ‘Team Normal,'” Stepien told the committee, saying he did not believe the tactics encouraged by Giuliani were “honest or professional.” In a surprising moment in Monday’s hearing, the panel showed former Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller testifying that Giuliani was “definitely intoxicated” on Election Night.
The committee also spent considerable time on the “red mirage” concept, an historic trend predicting that Republicans will perform well early in the vote-counting process due to their preference for same-day, in-person voting, while Democratic vote totals kick up later as early and absentee ballots are counted in the days after the polls close.
Chris Stirewalt, former political editor at Fox News, said that trend was expected again in November in 2020, but Trump’s willingness to use that “quirk” led the network to alter its approach to Election Night coverage.
“Basically, in every election, Republicans win Election Day, and Democrats win the early vote,” Stirewailt testified. “We had gone to pains — and I’m proud of the pains we went to — to make sure that we were informing viewers that this was going to happen. Because the Trump campaign and the president had made it clear that they were going to try to exploit this anomaly.”
Trump’s advisors said they informed him of those vote-counting dynamics, but it did nothing to prevent Trump from claiming immediate victory.
“We want all voting to stop. We don’t want them to find any ballots at 4 o’clock in the morning,” Trump said on Election Night, a clip played during Monday’s hearing.
But what were Trump’s chances of winning at that point, Lofgran asked Stirewalt, who had assisted in the controversial Fox News decision to call Arizona for Biden.
“None,” he responded.
As Trump continued to press his claims of election fraud, his fundraising apparatus kicked into gear, the committee argued. Senior counsel Amanda Wick found the Trump campaign sent more than 1 million emails to supporters soliciting donations under the pretense of fighting election fraud between Election Day and Jan. 6.
Ultimately, Trump and his allies raised roughly $250 million. But a so-called Election Defense Fund that Trump had promoted did not exist, and former campaign staffers admitted it was merely a marketing tool. Instead, millions of dollars were funneled to conservative groups run by Trump allies, including his former chief of staff Mark Meadows.
“Throughout the committee’s investigation we found evidence that the Trump campaign and its surrogates misled voters 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 rip off,” Lofgren said.
Mychael Schnell contributed.