Off the rails: Trump leads to election conspiracies as Oval Office goes mad
Donald Trump started on election night 2020 and continued his final days in office. He unraveled and dragged America with him until his followers looted the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his tenure. This Axios series takes you into the collapse of a president. Episode 3: The conspiracy goes too far. Trump’s outside lawyers plan to seize voting machines and theories about communists, spies and computer software. President Trump was in the Oval Office one day in late November when a call came in from attorney Sidney Powell. “Ugh, Sidney,” he said to the staff in the room before picking up. “She’s going a little crazy, doesn’t she? She really needs to tone it down. Nobody believes this stuff. It’s just too much.” Be Smart: Sign Up For The Most Influential Newsletter In America For FREE. He called on speakerphone for the benefit of his audience. Powell raved about a national security crisis in which the Iranians cast votes in battlefield states. Trump silently pressed and laughed mockingly. “So what do we do about it, Sidney?” Said Trump every few seconds, and Powell got more and more frenzied. He was having fun with it. “She’s really crazy, isn’t she?” he said again with his finger on the mute button. It was clear that Trump realized how awkward his outside legal advisers were. But he grew desperate about losing to Joe Biden, and Powell and her crew were ready to further nurture the big lie that the election might be overturned. They sold Trump a seductive but delusional vision: a clear and achievable path to victory. The only catch: He had to stop listening to his government and election campaign workers, crossing the Rubicon and viewing them as liars, slackers and traitors. Trump’s new gang of advisors shared some common features. They were sycophants who longed for an audience with the President. They were hardcore conspiracy theorists. The other notable commonality within this crew was that at some point in their lives they had all done impressive, professional mainstream work. Rudy Giuliani was once “America’s Mayor” and was celebrated for dealing with September 11th. Powell was a successful lawyer who defended Enron. Michael Flynn was an excellent three-star general whom Obama fired and then brought back to Trump as his national security adviser before firing and finally pardoning him. Lin Wood was a nationally known defamation attorney. Patrick Byrne made a small fortune starting the internet retailer Overstock.com. Jenna Ellis was an exception. She had a thin legal résumé and had used adjectives such as “idiot”, “rude”, “arrogant”, “tyrant” and “disgusting” to characterize Trump and his behavior during the 2016 campaign season. But during Trump’s presidency, she pushed her way into his inner circle, fueled by a television submissiveness that was remarkable for Trumpworld. Powell and Wood were distinguished by their extremism. Even Giuliani began to distance himself, telling anyone who would listen that Powell was not representing the president. But Trump promoted Powell as part of his team, and even though he had privately admitted to aides that he thought she was “crazy,” he still wanted to hear what she had to say. “Sometimes it takes a little crazy,” said Trump. While Trump’s campaign team – seasoned lawyers like Justin Clark and Matt Morgan – were reviewing issues like signature verification and access to room surveillance for vote counting, Powell appealed to Trump’s personal mantra, “Think Big ! ” President with a widespread multinational conspiracy of foreign interference on a scale never seen before in American history. The fact that she had no evidence to stand up in court was a minor detail. Powell and Flynn told Trump he couldn’t trust his team. That appealed to a paranoid mentality that always lurked beneath its surface: the FBI was corrupt. His CIA worked against him and his intelligence community as well. Otherwise, why not show him the evidence that China, Venezuela, Iran, and various other communists had stolen his election victory? To help him circumvent these obstacles, they needed Trump to give them top-level security clearances so that they could get them to the bottom of the “stolen” election. Trump liked this idea. Why not make Powell a special lawyer specializing in electoral fraud? Why don’t you give her and Flynn the clearance? Trump’s professional staff had learned over time that they had to choose their moments to fight back. On Powell’s question, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and White House attorney Pat Cipollone agreed: there was no way it was getting a top-secret clearance. Powell and Flynn sent Trump advisory documents containing the evidence of this far-reaching conspiracy. For White House staff, it was gibberish – the abuse of a QAnon supporter. But these documents – perhaps the most perturbed material for reaching a modern day US president – found their way to the west wing. According to documents received by Axios, Powell and her crew advised Trump that a foreign conspiracy to steal the elections included a coordinated cyberwar attack from China, Russia, Iran, Iraq and North Korea. In arguments in front of Trump in the Oval Office, White House officials aggressively pushed back. What Powell claimed to have exposed would have been the largest foreign attack in American history. However, US intelligence agencies had seen no evidence of this. But Powell had an answer to that too: The reason Trump hadn’t heard from his intelligence officials was because they were actively infiltrating him and hiding important information from him. His dog whistling at QAnon conspiracy theorists – a curiosity sparked when he learned they “love” Trump – dated back to the summer, at least. On July 1, 2020, Trump met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Indiana Senator Todd Young, and senior political aides in the Oval Office for information about the Senate races. Trump was holding a printed slide deck showing the latest key data points like polls and cash for the Colorado Senate’s closely watched race between Republican Cory Gardner and Democrat John Hickenlooper. Trump looked at the deck and immediately said, “How about that?” primary last night? “QAnon enthusiast Lauren Boebert had won the Republican primary for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District. Agreement in the room was that Boebert’s victory was insane. The president then turned to McConnell.” They know she believes in this QAnon, ” he said. “You know that, Mitch?” McConnell sat stone-faced. He hasn’t moved a muscle. “You know, people say they like all kinds of bad things and say all kinds of horrible things about them,” added Trump added. “But I understand that it’s basically just people who want good government.” The room fell silent. Nobody knew how to react. Then suddenly Meadows laughed. “I heard, that they described many species, but never quite like that, “he said. The participants at the meeting burst out laughing.” In horror, frankly, “said a source in the room. Powell filled in the Trumpian Venn diagram between conspiracy theorists and others nd sycophants. She offered the comforting deceptions that Trump cried for in his desperate post-election days and the people on his team who actually had experience in voting rights refused to serve him. In the false and unfounded theory she had put forward, America’s enemies had used two CIA programs – a foreign surveillance program called “Hammer” and a cyberwar weapon called “Scorecard” – to steal US elections. Their evidence was based on claims made by a California computer programmer with a long track record of handling great-sounding technology. Powell and Flynn alleged the CIA had viciously used these programs since 2009. Documents her team shared with Trump advisors falsely alleged that Obama administration’s top intelligence officials John Brennan and Jim Clapper – both enemies of Trump – illegally ordered Hammer to advance Obama’s presumption of ambition to turn America into a communist customer state transform. They also claimed that Brennan and Clapper took the source code of the program with them when they resigned. China has now mysteriously acquired Hammer, argued Powell. They described this as an act of war during a performance in the Oval Office on December 18. Neither answer should be considered too bold, they said. Trump had to use the full force of the US government to seize Dominion voting machines and catch the “traitors”. That an American president entertained any of these at all raised questions about his state of mind and his ability to perform his duties. The evening before that meeting, Giuliani had called his old friend Ken Cuccinelli, the second in command of the Department of Homeland Security, and asked if the DHS could seize voting machines. “No,” Cuccinelli said politely but firmly to Giuliani. His department did not have this legal authority. At this point, Trump was instrumental in conspiracies. Many of his senior advisors had almost given up arguing with him. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, once billed by Newsweek as the President’s most influential relative since Bobby Kennedy, stepped back from the discussions when it came to countering the mad. After Giuliani took power, Kushner disappeared from view, trying to do last-minute deals in the Middle East and polish his foreign policy legacy. This frustrated some of his colleagues. Serious intervention was required domestically. Whether Trump himself was still responsible or had ceded decision-making to the lower feeders was at least an open question. “Hear Jonathan Swan on Axios’ new investigative podcast series entitled“ How It Happened: Trump’s Last Point of View. ”About This Series: Our coverage is based on interviews with current and former representatives of the White House, the campaign, the government and of Congress, as well as eyewitnesses and people close to the President. Sources have been anonymized to share sensitive observations or details that they would not be authorized to disclose. President Trump and other officials who were credited with quotations and actions by others were given the opportunity to approve, decline, or respond to any report item prior to publication. “Off the Rails,” reports White House reporter Jonathan Swan, with assistance from Zach Basu. It was edited by Margaret Talev and Mike Allen. Illustrations by Sarah Grillo, Aïda Amer and Eniola Odetunde. 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