Politico

Inside Trump’s pressure campaign to overturn the election


It started with a phone call.

In mid-November, President Donald Trump rang Monica Palmer, the Republican chair of an obscure board in Michigan that had just declared Joe Biden winner of the state’s most populous county.

Within 24 hours, Palmer announced she wanted to “rescind” her vote. Her reasoning mirrored Trump’s public and private rants: The Nov. 3 election may have been rife with fraud.

“The Wayne County election had serious process flaws which deserve investigation,” she wrote in an affidavit. “I continue to ask for information to assure Wayne County voters that these elections were conducted fairly and accurately.”

The reversal came too late — the results were already confirmed. But Trump was just getting started.

Over the next month, the president would conduct a sweeping campaign to personally cajole Republican Party leaders across the country to reject the will of the voters and hand him the election. In his appeals, he used specious and false claims of widespread voter fraud, leaning on baseless allegations that corrupt Democrats had conspired at every level to steal a presidential election.

In total, the president talked to at least 31 Republicans, encompassing mostly local and state officials from four critical battleground states he lost — Michigan, Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania. The contacts included at least 12 personal phone calls to 11 individuals, and at least four White House meetings with 20 Republican state lawmakers, party leaders and attorneys general, all people he hoped to win over to his side. Trump also spoke by phone about his efforts with numerous House Republicans and at least three current or incoming Senate Republicans.

And it all occurred in parallel to his campaign’s quixotic efforts to launch recounts and file lawsuits demanding ballots be tossed.

Trump’s efforts to cling to power are unprecedented in American history. While political parties have fought over the results of presidential elections before, no incumbent president has ever made such expansive and individualized pleas to the officials who oversee certification of the election results. Trump even used his presidential perch to compel officials to talk with him, summoning state officials to the White House on a few-hours notice and insisting that his outreach was simply part of his presidential duties.

This recounting of that pressure campaign is based on interviews with 22 Trump aides, local and states officials, Republicans and elections experts. POLITICO also reached out to the Republicans Trump contacted, but all requests for comment except one went unanswered. The White House referred questions to the Trump campaign, which declined to comment or make an attorney available for an interview.

Over the last month, many of Trump’s allies urged him to give up the fight. But the president did not listen. Instead, Trump did what he has done time and again over the last four years: listen to himself. He largely shut out his campaign team. And he relied on the advice of the few people who told him what he wanted to hear, including his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York.

In the end, however, Trump, a wealthy businessman and reality TV star who startled the world when he won the presidency in 2016, failed. The election results stood everywhere he tried to overturn them. But he did succeed in undermining Biden’s legitimacy and sowing doubt about the integrity of U.S. institutions in the eyes of millions of Americans.

“There was always this feeling of supreme confidence that no matter how it looks it’s all going to work out for him, something will happen and it will all work out for him because it did once before,” said Scott Jennings, who worked in the George W. Bush White House and is close to Trump’s team. “I think that sort of magical confidence or magical thinking, persisted right through Election Day and right through this post-election.”

Last Monday, the Electoral College voted to make Biden the 46th president of the United States, all but ending Trump’s attempts at reversing the 2020 election results. And on Jan. 6, a joint session of Congress will formalize those results. While some Republicans have said they will lodge challenges that day, it is expected to simply delay the inevitable.

For all practical purposes, Trump’s historic campaign to overturn the election has ended. But the reverberations will linger for years, providing Trump with a platform to continue his political career on the falsehood that his second term was stolen from him.

“His principal interest time and again has proven to be his political fortune,” said Jeffrey Engel, founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.

Tuesday, November 17

Trump’s first goal was to stop election certification at the local level. And two weeks after Election Day, he had his eyes trained on Michigan.

The Wayne County Board of Canvassers had just met to certify the election results for the longtime Democratic stronghold, which included the populous Detroit. The initial vote resulted in a 2-2 deadlock among partisan lines, with the board’s two Republican members — Palmer and William Hartmann — opposing certification.

After some discussion, though, the two agreed to certify the results under the condition that an audit would be conducted to explain any discrepancies. The following morning, however, Palmer tried to walk back that agreement.

The reversal came just hours after Trump made a personal phone call to both her and Hartmann, praising them both and acknowledging that he had been closely following the certification process.

Palmer said the call was merely a check-in on her welfare, saying she had been receiving threats. It was not, she said, an attempt to pressure her. But the unusual outreach in what is traditionally a mundane process caught the attention of even some Republicans, who quickly realized direct interference would be the next step in Trump’s quest to overturn the 2020 election.

“It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American president,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said in a blunt statement at the time.

One Trump campaign official said some aides had urged the president not to contact Palmer and Hartmann. Their advice was ignored then, and it would be ignored in the weeks to come.

“I have never seen anything like Trump’s efforts to get election administrators or governors to call their own elections fraudulent, engage in recounts or other activities intended to flip the vote totals,” said Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine School of Law.

Friday, November 20

Having lost at the local level in Michigan, Trump went a step further that Friday, inviting at least half-dozen of the most influential Republican lawmakers in Michigan to the White House.

His goal: To stop the state from certifying its overall results.

The lawmakers who showed up said they discussed financial assistance for their coronavirus-ravaged states, but conceded that they also talked about the election results in Michigan, which Biden won by 150,000 votes. There were at least six lawmakers in attendance, including Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany dismissed the meeting as routine and declared it was “not an advocacy event.” She said no one from the Trump campaign would be present, failing to note that attorneys running Trump’s legal effort to overturn the election were calling in.

Trump wanted the Michigan lawmakers to subvert the normal process states use to appoint the electors who certify results.

Traditionally, each state’s electoral votes go to the popular vote winner in that state. But Trump hoped to generate enough uncertainty about various outcomes that states such as Michigan would reach their certification deadline without a clear winner. That could, in theory, pave the way for Republican state lawmakers to step in and appoint electors to certify the result Trump wants — a Trump win.

It didn’t work with the Michigan lawmakers. After the meeting, Shirkey and Chatfield released a joint statement saying they had “not yet been made aware of any information that would change the outcome of the election in Michigan.”

The following Monday, Michigan certified its results.

Wednesday, November 25

Two days later, Trump changed tactics, yet again.

The day before Thanksgiving, the president secretly decided to fly to Gettysburg to attend a Pennsylvania state Senate meeting of Republicans, one in a series of pseudo-hearings state Republicans were planning across the country to discuss Trump’s allegations of voter fraud.

Having failed in Michigan, Trump was now focused on Pennsylvania, another key state Biden had flipped in the election.

But hours before Trump was expected to leave, he abruptly canceled. For once, he had listened to the urgings of multiple aides and allies around him, who were advising that his attendance would not be well received.

Trump couldn’t stay away completely, though. In the middle of the meeting, which featured testimony from the president’s own attorneys, Trump dialed up one of his lawyers, Jenna Ellis, who put her cell phone on speaker and held it up to the microphone while the president monologued about voter fraud.

Following the meeting, Trump asked the group of Pennsylvania legislators to come directly to the White House.

Once again, he was asking a state legislature to intervene. Pennsylvania, which Trump lost by 80,000 votes, has a Democratic governor but a Republican-controlled legislature, giving Trump hope that his supporters in the legislature could go around the Democratic governor.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman and House Speaker Bryan Cutler, who later received two calls from Trump in the first week of December about the far-fetched plan, both shot down the idea. Trump also called Kim Ward, the state’s Senate majority leader.

Ned Foley, director of election law at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, said Trump was essentially trying to convert 2020 into 1876, arguably the most contentious election in U.S. history.

That year, three states — Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina — produced different sets of electors, forcing Congress to create a commission that would award the presidency. It voted along party lines to make Republican Rutherford B. Hayes president.

“This was an attempt to replicate that fight when there wasn’t really anything to fight about. It’s just fabricated nonsense,” Foley said.

Wednesday, November 30

The following week, Trump was still stewing over election night, smarting at Fox News’s early decision to put Arizona in Biden’s column.

That anger overflowed on Nov. 30, when Trump saw Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey certifying the state’s general election results.

The president’s attorneys and campaign aides had spent weeks pressuring Ducey to echo Trump’s election-fraud claims and cast doubt on his state’s election results, only to be met with resistance from the GOP governor, according to two people familiar with their conversations.

So when Ducey appeared at a news conference to sign off on documents certifying Biden’s election victory by 10,000 votes, it was the last straw for the president, who felt his pleas had been ignored by a former ally.

Trump started rage-tweeting about Ducey. Then, moments later, in the middle of Ducey’s news conference, the governor’s phone rang, playing “Hail to the Chief.” Ducey had previously told reporters he had assigned the tune to the president’s contact in his phone.

Ducey rejected the call. Arizona certified Biden’s win.

Four days later, Trump met at the White House with the chair of the Arizona Republican Party, Kelli Ward.

It was too late.

Saturday, December 5

Next, Trump turned his attention to Georgia.

Biden had won the state by 12,000 votes, flipping the new battleground state to Democrats for the first time in nearly three decades and angering Trump.

And since Election Day, Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, had stayed away from Trump’s more extreme claims of voter fraud in Georgia.

Trump took notice.

On Dec. 5, as he was getting ready to fly to Georgia to hold a campaign rally for Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue — who both face runoffs on Jan. 5 that will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate — Trump called Kemp. He had also previously called Loeffler and Perdue to encourage them to lean on Kemp. He also called Loeffler and Perdue at some point to encourage them to lean on Kemp.

The president pressed Kemp to convene a special session of the Georgia legislature to appoint Trump electors, essentially overturning Biden’s win. Trump also wanted to ask Kemp to order an audit of absentee ballot signatures.

After the call, Kemp explained — again — that he had no power to mandate an audit, even though he wanted one. And he refused to embrace Trump’s more outlandish proposal to call a special session of the legislature.

That night at his rally, Trump went off.

“Your governor could stop it very easily if he knew what the hell he was doing,” Trump told the crowd. “So far we haven’t been able to find the people in Georgia willing to do the right thing.”

Tuesday, December 8

Trump wasn’t done with Georgia.

On Dec. 8, he singled out Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr.

Carr, a Republican himself, had recently questioned the merits of a Trump-promoted lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asking the U.S. Supreme Court to block a handful of 2020 battleground states — including Georgia — from casting their electoral votes for Biden, claiming massive fraud with little credible evidence.

Publicly, Carr excoriated the suit, denouncing it as “constitutionally, morally and factually wrong.” And privately, he encouraged other state attorneys general to oppose it. The move infuriated the president, particularly given Carr’s influence as incoming chair of the Republican Attorneys General Association, according to a person close to Trump.

“It was just the last straw for the president,” the person said, noting the president was already intensely frustrated with other Georgia officials like Kemp for rebuffing his overtures.

So Trump got Carr on the phone and told him to knock it off. He wanted every Republican state attorney general signing onto the lawsuit.

Yet again, it didn’t work. While 17 joined, nine stayed away.

Wednesday, December 9

As the Texas lawsuit percolated, Trump turned next to the House of Representatives.

There, he found an eager ally.

On Dec. 9, Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson circulated an email to all 196 of his Republican colleagues, asking them to sign onto an amicus brief supporting the Texas-led lawsuit. Trump is “anxiously awaiting the final list” of Republican lawmakers who support him in his fight, Johnson’s email read.

Johnson’s antics caught the president’s attention. Trump rang up Johnson that afternoon with a message of gratitude.

Then Trump got to work, calling an unknown number of other House Republicans and asking them to rally behind the long-shot challenge and sign the amicus brief, according to a person familiar with the conversations.

In the end, 126 members of Congress signed.

Thursday, December 10

The next day, Trump hosted a dozen Republican state attorneys general at the White House for lunch.

Ten of the 12 attorneys general who made the invite list had signed onto the Texas lawsuit, with Arizona and Kentucky as the two holdouts.

A White House official said the group was in town for a pre-planned meeting. But a Trump friend confirmed the president thanked the state officials for “standing with him” during the gathering.

Their support didn’t get Trump the result he wanted, though. The next day, the Supreme Court roundly rejected the suit, ruling in an unsigned order that Texas lacked standing to pursue the case.

Once again, Trump’s arm-twisting had failed.

Monday, December 14

Two days after the Supreme Court quashed the Texas suit, the Electoral College voted in all 50 state capitals across the country to make Biden the 46th president of the United States, formalizing a victory that had been all but settled for a month.

The moment caused even Trump loyal Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to break and finally recognize Biden as the president-elect.

But Trump has shown no signs of dropping his pressure campaign, even if it was, effectively, over.

“He has a grieving process, a mourning process,” said a former White House aide. “When we go through something traumatic, we have our own ways to deal with it, and this is his own way and how he’s working through it.”

On Friday, Trump went on a Twitter blitz lauding incoming Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville for suggesting he may join House members in objecting to the election results when Congress meets on Jan. 6 to accept the votes. On Sunday, Trump told New York radio station WABC that he had called Tuberville the night before to encourage the senator.

It won’t change the outcome. Election experts say the smattering of protests will only delay the process by a matter of hours, harming the integrity of America’s electoral system along the way.

“I hope both parties don’t learn, ‘Oh, this is how to do it,’” said presidential historian Gil Troy. “I hope both parties say, ‘Woah, we’ve been playing with fire. This is getting increasingly volatile. We have responsibilities as Americans citizens, let alone American leaders, to start lowering the temperature.’”

“It’s not a prediction,” he added. “That is a prayer.”

Meredith McGraw contributed to this report.

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