As the Jan. 6 committee held its second public hearing Monday, it focused much of its presentation not on the deadly Capitol attack or former President Donald Trump’s statements that allegedly stirred his supporters into violence, but on a more arcane subject: mail-in voting.
The House panel presented evidence showing how Trump sowed the seeds for his efforts to overturn the election by waging a crusade against mail ballots. Despite expectations that the raging pandemic would depress in-person voter turnout in 2020, Trump rejected arguments from his own campaign staff to embrace voting by mail—choosing instead to discourage his supporters from voting absentee.
The move would ultimately manufacture the scenario Trump exploited to contest the election results.
At the committee’s first daytime hearing, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, showed a video clip of Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien recounting a summer 2020 meeting he had with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Trump. Stepien said he and McCarthy “made our case for why we believed mail-in balloting, mail-in voting, not to be a bad thing for his campaign,” Stepien said. “But the president’s mind was made up.”
Stepien, who was originally slated to testify in person, backed out hours before the hearing because his wife went into labor. The committee aired clips from his deposition instead, including one in which he recalled explaining to Trump that urging his supporters to vote on Election Day “leaves a lot to chance” and that Republicans had “an advantage” to enhance turnout under the system.
Absentee voting has, in fact, long been highly popular with Republicans, particularly older ones who live in rural districts. In Colorado’s 2014 election, the first one in which the state sent mail-in ballots to every registered voter, Republican voters outperformed Democratic voters, an independent study later found.
Yet Trump frequently castigated mail voting as rife with fraud. As states dramatically expanded access to that voting method during the pandemic, he successfully convinced many Republican voters to reject it: 59% of Democrats in 2020 voted by mail, whereas only 30% of Republicans did.
This dynamic led many election experts to warn that a “red mirage” might appear on Election Night that would create a misleading impression early in the evening that Trump had won, as Republican-heavy in-person votes were to be counted first in many parts of the country. In key swing states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, however, absentee ballots couldn’t be counted until after the polls closed, leading election results to later swing heavily toward Biden.
Trump made no secret of his plan to file lawsuits after Election Day to stop the counting of mail ballots. In August, he told an audience that the only way he could lose the election was because of fraud. Later, in one of the fall debates, he said he was “counting” on the judiciary to “look at the ballots.” Meanwhile, GOP legislators in three swing states blocked legislation to expedite the counting of mail ballots to purposefully slow down the mail vote count.
One of the witnesses Monday, Chris Stirewalt, was the political editor for Fox News during the 2020 election but was fired soon after, amid pushback from Trump and others over the network’s calling the election for Biden. Stirewalt told the committee that the network tried to shed light ahead of the election on how the vote count would unfold. “We had gone to pains—and I am proud of the pains that 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 would try to exploit this anomaly,” he said.
In one of the most memorable moments of the second hearing, the committee aired a series of clips from taped depositions of former Trump officials who told the story of Election Night from the West Wing. According to the testimonies of Stepien, campaign aide Jason Miller, and Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, aides and advisers repeatedly told Trump he should not declare victory until more results were in.
“My recommendation was to say that votes are still being counted,” Stepien said. “It’s too early to call the race. But we can be proud of the race we ran. We think we’re in a good position and we’ll have more to say in the next day.” But Trump “thought I was wrong,” Stepien added. “He told me so.”
As Rep. Liz Cheney, Republican from Wyoming and vice chair of the panel, said, “President Trump rejected the advice of his campaign experts on Election Night, and instead followed the course recommended by an apparently inebriated Rudy Giuliani.”
In a taped deposition, Miller added that Guiliani—who he said was “definitely intoxicated”—advised the president to “go and declare victory and say that we’d won it outright.” Trump then gave a press conference in the East Room of the White House, the night of Nov. 4, 2020. “Frankly, we did win this election,” he said.
Between Election Night and Jan. 6, 2021, the Trump campaign filed 62 lawsuits across nine states and the District of Columbia, according to the committee. It lost 61 of them. Their claims of voter fraud were shot down by 10 Trump-appointed judges, including three on the Supreme Court.
The panel showed extensive segments of former Attorney General William Barr telling the committee that he explained to Trump how his argument that the election was rigged had no basis of evidence. “He’s become detached from reality if he really believes this stuff,” Barr told the panel. “When I went into this and would tell them how crazy some of these allegations were, there was never an indication of interest in what the actual facts were.”
One of the most explosive findings of the hearing centered around the Trump campaign raising more than $250 million to fund its legal challenges, sending out millions of emails to its voters to raise money for the “Election Defense Fund.” No such fund existed and little of that money went to bolstering Trump’s battles in court.
According to the committee, the money raised went to Trump’s Save America PAC, which later made donations to an assortment of MAGA causes, including $1 million to the Conservative Partnership Institute, former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadow’s organization; $1 million to the America First Policy Institute, a Trump-allied dark money think tank; and $204,857 to the Trump Hotel Collection.
“The Big Lie was also a big ripoff,” Lofgren said.
At the end of Monday’s hearing, the committee showed a video montage with the emails Trump sent out to raise money from supporters, many of which casted doubt on the integrity of mail ballots. “The Democrats are trying to STEAL the election,” he wrote. “We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Polls [sic] are closed.”
The video then showed footage of Trump supporters in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, regurgitating the same points.
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