Former president Donald Trump’s “false narrative that the election was stolen” in 2020 and evidence that his election lies were a “big rip-off” took center stage on the second day of public hearings of a select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and Trump’s role in it.
“The Trump campaign legal team knew there was no legitimate argument of fraud, irregularities or anything to overturn the election,” committee Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said. “And yet President Trump went ahead with his plans for Jan. 6 anyway.”
Committee member Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) led a key line of questioning, which was a contrast from last Thursday’s hearing. Lofgren homed in on Trump’s effort, which raised $250 million ostensibly to fund legal challenges to the 2020 election results, but which in fact went into his own organization’s coffers, according to the committee’s findings. “The ‘Big Lie’ was also a big rip-off,” Lofgren said.
The daytime hearing featured a parade of former Trump campaign and Trump administration officials — notably extensive prerecorded testimony from former Trump 2020 campaign manager Bill Stepien and former attorney general Bill Barr. “He’s become detached from reality if he really believes this stuff,” Barr said in videotaped testimony. The hearing also included attention-grabbing moments including allegations that Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani was “apparently inebriated” on election night as he advised Trump not to concede.
Former congressional investigators Anne Tindall, who is now counsel at the nonprofit group Protect Democracy, and Justin Rood, investigations editor at Grid, discussed their reactions to the hearing in a Twitter Spaces conversation on Monday. The conversation, moderated by Grid Investigative Reporter Steve Reilly, has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: What were your key takeaways on what’s new and what’s important from today’s hearing?
Anne Tindall: I think that what was new today was not necessarily the specific content, but the volume of it. It was hard not to just see the surround sound on Trump with all the reasonable voices in the room saying that he had lost and that the claims to the contrary were nonsense or bulls---. And he ignored that advice and went with a Rudy Giuliani who, you know, inebriated or not, has shown himself not to be wise counsel for quite some time now. It was really notable that the likes of Bill Stepien and [former Trump political adviser] Jason Miller, in addition to Bill Barr, were sending this message.
Justin Rood: I think that’s right, and just to take it a step further, I think a lot of what they spent a couple of hours on were things that we’d seen. Claims that Trump made on television regarding what he believed — or what he claimed at the time to believe — as credible incidents of fraud in the election. What we weren’t as much a party to were the conversations that Trump was having off-camera at that same time.
That was what they really brought into stark relief. Anne’s “surround sound” comment I think was really apt. From his campaign manager, from his campaign’s lawyers — if there’s anyone in the world invested in a win, it’s your campaign manager and those lawyers. That’s what they’re there to do, to win for you. They were not in any manner the objective referees on the sidelines making a call here. If anybody was going to want to see an incident of fraud that can help explain a loss, they are definitely incentivized.
His own Department of Justice, Bill Barr, and then looking into some of the specifics with BJay Pak in Atlanta and the local official in Philadelphia, it was just really overwhelming how solid, reality-based feedback was in his world and how many folks were telling him that the facts did not align with what his claims were.
That, I think, becomes so much more resonant as we start to go back into those facts that we already knew. When you know that they were presenting those claims as clearly, patently false — could not find a shred of evidence to support these things — and yet, the president would go out again and make those statements on the air.
Fox News is another one we should get into here. Maria Bartiromo got a little cameo in there. But we did have one of their referees, Chris Stirewalt, who had been their political editor who called it and really gave testament to the fact that so many of these kinds of facilitators — these right-wing media figures and others — continued to push these messages out, even as the evidence that they were seeing privately disprove those claims was just really, really startling.
G: To your points about this drum beat of evidence and this parade of witnesses today — nearly all of whom were Republicans — testifying to the fact that Trump was informed again and again he did not win the election, did any witnesses in particular stand out to you?
AT: Bill Barr was, once again, a star witness. He’s a pretty sophisticated actor. And he had taken a lot of heat up until the election acting as if he were Trump’s personal lawyer instead of as the attorney general the United States. And he took his opportunity here to say, at least in this instance, “That is absolutely not what I was doing.” And he really stood out as a voice of reason. And I think that it’s interesting to see him both serving as such an effective witness against former president Trump while also serving as such an effective witness for himself and his own reputation.
JR: One of the strongest voices in the hearing was one that we didn’t actually hear testify, and that was Trump’s. And all of these voices that we heard from — whether it was his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, or Bill Barr, his attorney general: If there were legitimate claims of fraud that were coming up in the states and in these districts, they would theoretically come up [to them]. Prosecutors would find out about them, investigators, campaign lawyers. They would be flagged to them by poll workers and observers, and they would kind of bubble up to Trump.
What we heard instead was that this was very much a top-down [operation]. This is not my observation, I should say — Benjy Sarlin at NBC noted this on Twitter. But this was very much Trump pushing this story out and down, to try to find a way to get it to take hold and stick. We heard folks telling him this isn’t true, none of these things are happening. The voice that we heard consistently throughout this hearing was Trump’s voice saying, “No, these things are happening.” We need to get the word out. We need to get this in people’s minds.
AT: Yeah, that’s right. And I think it was [former acting deputy attorney general Richard] Donoghue, whose testimony they played describing the way in which with each newly debunked fraud theory, Trump would move on to the next one. Barr I think called it “Whac-A-Mole,” and that game of Whac-A-Mole was being driven by the president himself. It sounded as if that was the case.
G: What was unique today is we heard a lot from Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who is in the unique position of being the only committee member who was an investigative staffer in the Watergate hearings. Did anything stand out to you about the congresswoman’s strategy and the way she laid out the evidentiary building blocks today?
AT: I thought she did a really nice job of letting the evidence speak for itself. In court and in a congressional hearing, often you have an opening statement and summary remarks. But what can be missing is that making of an evidentiary case, and she didn’t she didn’t skip that part. She didn’t do a lot of opining or summarizing. She raised a question, and then the committee staff had done a nice job, I believe, of pulling together the witness statements that would make the case rather than having the congresswoman do it herself.
G: One of the points the committee seemed to really emphasize today was the idea that the “Big Lie” was “a big rip-off” and the idea of raising money off of this election lie. Do you think the committee was effective in making that point, and what role do you think that point is going to play in these hearings going forward?
AT: I think they were effective in raising it. They didn’t have a chance to fully flesh it out here, and maybe we’ll hear more of it. I have to think that they’re including it here for two reasons. Both because it may go to culpability and the need for accountability for ripping people off, but also — people don’t like to feel like they were ripped off and don’t like cheaters. And if this is in part about persuading a conflicted middle of America that may believe that [President Joe] Biden rightfully won but may not believe that Trump was a scoundrel and deserving to be politically exiled as a result, the notion that he’s ripping off his supporters, I think, could be a particularly salient one.
JR: The honeymoon period for me and the Jan. 6 committee is over. I’m willing to openly cast aspersions on some of the approaches they’re taking here. And I’m gonna start with that point: I think that this issue of a sitting president raising a quarter of a billion dollars from private donors — from political supporters — for a fund that did not exist is just mind-boggling to me. Setting aside all the other context of this, they appeared to be using just unmitigated lying to support that campaign. At the end of the day, they didn’t even use the money for the specious legal campaign that they had promised! To me that is just a much, much bigger deal and worth much more focus.
I hope that we’ll see that in the report, because it seemed very much like an afterthought to this hearing. For me, the conservative view that you send your money to Washington and it just disappears down a black hole, this is pretty much exactly what conservatives would get upset about. That the president was running — appeared to be, anyway, according to the committee — that very scheme on his own supporters was just, to me, amazing.
G: We have two of these public hearings under our belt at this point. Do you sense that the audience here is the American people, or is it Attorney General Merrick Garland, or perhaps both?
AT: I would suggest that the audience is both and that they’re interrelated. Because while prosecutors and the attorney general like to say they look at the facts and just the facts and follow the law, nothing is that simple, and there is all sorts of discretion inherent in the exercise of legal judgment. And part of the calculus for the Department of Justice will be: How unsettling will this be to the American people if we charge a former president? And so the more the committee can persuade a chunk of the population that the criminality here is patent and if no one’s above the law, the Department of Justice needs to hold people accountable, the easier it will be for the Justice Department to actually make that decision itself.
JR: I think that’s right. The committee is trying to reach both Merrick Garland and DOJ as well as the American people. That said, the Department of Justice is going to watch this hearing, regardless of when they put it on and how they form it. They can look at findings that come through a report that is released to them on paper. They certainly don’t need the show of a hearing to get some information. These hearings, I think, really are set pieces to help tell the story to the American people.
We saw some interesting figures on the viewership for the first hearing with something like 20 million in prime time. So we’ll see what a daytime hearing does to this and where it goes regarding people’s attentions. We’ll see if folks are gonna stay tuned into this and follow the narrative through this week or not. I think we’ll know a lot more Thursday or Friday, if the American people are still following this the way they were last week.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.