WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s closest campaign advisers, top government officials and even his family were dismantling his false claims of 2020 election fraud ahead of Jan. 6, but the defeated president was becoming “detached from reality” and clinging to outlandish theories to stay in power, the committee investigating the Capitol attack was told Monday.
On election night itself, Trump was “growing increasingly unhappy” and rejecting the results as they came in, former campaign manager Bill Stepien said in testimony played before the House panel investigating the Capitol riot.
Son-in-law Jared Kushner tried to steer Trump away from attorney Rudy Giuliani and his far-flung theories of voter fraud that advisers believed were not true. Trump would have none of it.
The back-and-forth kept up in the months that followed. Former Justice Department official Richard Donoghue recalled breaking down one claim after another — from a truckload of ballots in Pennsylvania to a missing suitcase of ballots in Georgia —- and telling Trump “much of the info you’re getting is false.”
“He was becoming detached from reality,” said former Attorney General William Barr, who called the voting fraud claims “bull——," “bogus” and “idiotic,” and resigned in the aftermath. “I didn’t want to be a part of it."
The witnesses appeared before the House committee as the panel focused on the “big lie,” Trump's false claims of voter fraud that fueled the defeated Republican president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and provoked a mob of his supporters to lay siege to the U.S. Capitol.
The panel also provided new information about how Trump's fundraising machine collected some $250 million in the aftermath of the November election to keep fighting, mostly from small-dollar donations from Americans. One plea for cash went out 30 minutes before the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.
“Not only was there the big lie, there was the big ripoff,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.
Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., opened Monday's hearing saying Trump “betrayed the trust of the American people” and “tried to remain in office when people had voted him out.”
Stepien was to be a key in-person witness but abruptly backed out of appearing live because his wife went into labor. The ex-campaign manager is still close to Trump, and had been subpoenaed to appear.
But the panel marched ahead after a morning scramble, showing previously recorded testimony from the ex-campaign manager and others close to the president as Trump latched on to repeated false claims about the election although those closest told him the theories of stolen ballots or rigged voting machines were not true.
Stepien and senior adviser Jason Miller described how the festive mood at the White House on election night turned as Fox News announced Trump had lost the state of Arizona to Joe Biden, and aides worked to counsel Trump on what to do next.
But he ignored their advice, choosing to listen instead to Giuliani, who was described as inebriated by several witnesses. Giuliani issued a general denial on Monday, rejecting “all falsehoods” he said were being said about him.
“My belief, my recommendation was to say that votes were still being counted, it’s too early to tell, too early to call the race,” Stepien said in the recorded testimony.
But Trump “thought I was wrong. He told me so.”
And Barr, who had also testified in last week's blockbuster hearing, said that Trump was “as mad as I'd ever seen him” when the attorney general explained that the Justice Department would not take sides in the election.
For the past year, the committee has been investigating the most violent attack on the Capitol since the War of 1812 to ensure such an assault never happens again. Lawmakers hope to show that Trump's effort to overturn Biden's election victory posed a grave threat to democracy.
Monday’s hearing also featured live witnesses, including Chris Stirewalt, a former Fox News Channel political editor who declared on Election Night that Arizona was being won by Biden.
Also appearing was the former U.S. attorney in Atlanta, BJay Pak, who abruptly resigned after Trump pressured Georgia state officials to overturn his defeat. Trump wanted to fire Pak as disloyal, but Pak stepped down after Trump's call urging Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn Biden’s win in the state became public.
The panel also heard from noted Washington elections lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg who discussed the norms of election campaign challenges, and former Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, the only Republican on the city's election board, who told the panel that regardless of how “fantastical” some of the claims that Trump and his team were making, the city officials investigated. He discussed facing threats after Trump criticized him in a tweet.
As he mulls another White House run, Trump insists the committee's investigation is a “witch hunt.” Last week he said Jan. 6 “represented the greatest movement in the history of our country.”
Nine people died in the riot and its aftermath, including a Trump supporter shot and killed by police. More than 800 people have been arrested in the siege, and members of two extremist groups have been indicted on rare sedition charges over their roles leading the charge into the Capitol.
Additional evidence is to be released in hearings this week focusing on Trump’s decision to ignore the outcome of the election and the court cases that ruled against him, and beckon supporters to Washington on Jan. 6 to overturn Biden’s victory as Congress was set to certify the Electoral College results..
The committee has said most of those interviewed in the investigation are coming forward voluntarily, although some have demanded subpoenas to appear in public. Stepien is now a top campaign adviser to the Trump-endorsed House candidate, Harriet Hageman, who is challenging Cheney in the Wyoming Republican primary election.
Lawmakers indicated that perhaps their most important audience member over the course of the hearings may be Attorney General Merrick Garland, who must decide whether his department can and should prosecute Trump. They left no doubt as to their own view whether the evidence is sufficient to proceed.
“Once the evidence is accumulated by the Justice Department, it needs to make a decision about whether it can prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt the president’s guilt or anyone else’s,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif, a panel member. “But they need to be investigated if there’s credible evidence, which I think there is.”
No president or ex-president has ever been indicted. Garland has not said whether he would be willing to prosecute.
Associated Press writers Farnoush Amiri and Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.