COMMENTARY

How Trump blew his chance to steal the election: The clock was ticking; he was tweeting

Trump committed abundant crimes in trying to steal the election. Being Trump, he was impulsive and disorganized

By Lucian K. Truscott IV
Published August 11, 2021 9:00AM (EDT)
Former President Donald Trump (Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump (Getty Images)

The months leading up to Nov. 3, 2020, were for Donald Trump almost a carbon copy of what he had done going into the presidential election four years previously: He thumbed tweets, whined at his rallies and complained to anyone who would listen that the election had been "rigged" by Democrats. Of course, after election eve in 2016, we never heard another peep out of him about the dastardly Democrats and the wily ways they had rigged the election against him, because he won.

But from the moment that his network of pet poodles at Fox News called Arizona for Joe Biden in November of 2020, causing a series of eruptions in the private quarters at the White House, culminated in a call to Fox executives to demand that the network reverse its Arizona projection, Trump understood that this time it would be different. He would lose.

Trump turned immediately to the courts, filing more than 60 federal lawsuits in the battleground states he lost claiming that the election had been "stolen" from him. But as one case after another went down to defeat or outright dismissal, he turned to loyalist loons like former general Michael Flynn, online conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka, My Pillow guy Mike Lindell and — wait for it — the Proud Boys to push his obsession that he hadn't lost, and that the election had been rigged by nefarious forces. 

See if this doesn't sound familiar. On Dec. 12, several thousand pro-Trump demonstrators showed up in Washington for at least two rallies, one on the Mall and the other on the steps of the Supreme Court, to protest its decision the previous day to throw out a lawsuit filed by the attorney general of Texas seeking to bar the states of Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania from casting their electoral ballots for Biden. The court issued a brief unsigned order on Dec. 11 saying that Texas had no "interest in the manner in which another state conducts its elections" and dismissed the lawsuit. A few days earlier, the court had dismissed another suit filed by Pennsylvania Republicans seeking to throw out that state's Biden electors, thus disenfranchising millions of voters.

Trump was watching closely. With Proud Boys marching through downtown Washington in mock-military formations shouting "Move out!" and "1776!" Trump tweeted "Wow! Thousands of people forming in Washington (D.C.) for Stop the Steal. Didn't know about this, but I'll be seeing them! #MAGA." A bit later, he tweeted, "WE HAVE JUST BEGUN TO FIGHT!!!" 

He must have liked what he saw on the streets of the nation's capital that Saturday, because seven days later, on Dec. 19, Trump was tweeting "Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!" The next week, on Dec. 26, he tweeted "The 'Justice' Department and the FBI have done nothing about the 2020 Presidential Election Voter Fraud, the biggest SCAM in our nation's history, despite overwhelming evidence. They should be ashamed. History will remember. Never give up. See everyone in D.C. on January 6th."

After seven hours of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last Saturday by former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, and five hours of testimony before the same committee on Friday by Rosen's former acting deputy, Richard Donoghue, we now know that behind the scenes, Trump was very busy. 

On Dec. 15, the day after Bill Barr announced that he would be leaving his post as attorney general, Trump summoned Rosen to the Oval Office and told him he wanted the DOJ to file legal briefs supporting the lawsuits he had not yet lost challenging election results in battleground states. He demanded that Rosen appoint special counsels to investigate Dominion Voting Systems, which had provided voting machines in multiple states. Rosen demurred, citing what Barr had already reported to Trump, which was that the DOJ had investigated his charges and had found no evidence of widespread or significant voter fraud.

Rosen told the Judiciary Committee that Trump called him almost daily trying to get him to have the Department of Justice declare that the presidential election was "corrupt" and announce that the department was initiating investigations of "election irregularities" in multiple states, including Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — all states Trump had lost narrowly to Biden.

Rosen continued to defer and delay on the phone, and Trump started talking with the acting head of the DOJ's civil division, Jeffrey Clark, who was more amenable to Trump's conspiracies. Rosen described to the Judiciary Committee five separate "encounters" with Clark over his plotting behind Rosen's back with Trump, all of which took place between Dec. 23 and Jan. 3. 

Trump became fixated on his narrow defeat in Georgia, placed a now-famous phone call to Gov. Brian Kemp on Dec. 5, trying to get him to pressure the state legislature to overturn Biden's victory in the state. Kemp deflected, telling him that he had no power to call for investigations into signatures on absentee ballots or any of the other things Trump was urging him to do. 

On Dec. 27, at Trump's urging, Clark produced a letter dated the following day he wanted Rosen and Donoghue to sign. Aware that the governor of Georgia had rejected Trump's entreaties, Clark's letter amounted to a DOJ legal analysis that the state legislature could call itself into session without the governor's authority, reject the electors pledged to Joe Biden and appoint its own slate of Trump electors. "Time is of the essence," the Clark letter pleaded, because Congress would convene in joint session to certify the election on Jan. 6. 

Rosen and Donoghue refused to sign the letter, telling Clark "this is not even within the realm of possibility."

That didn't end it. Clark apparently demanded a meeting with Rosen and Donohue, which took place at the DOJ on New Year's Eve. Clark told them Trump was planning on firing Rosen and replacing him with Clark so he could carry out his plan to manipulate the Georgia legislature into appointing a new slate of Trump electors. Clark told his two bosses that he was meeting with Trump the next week to carry this out.

Instead, Clark met with Trump a day later and showed him the letter, discussing their plan for a Trumpian "Saturday Night Massacre." Rosen and Donoghue demanded a meeting with Trump, at which they planned on telling him that the entire senior leadership of the Justice Department would resign en masse if Trump appointed Clark as acting attorney general. 

Before that meeting took place, news emerged that Trump had placed a lengthy call to the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, demanding that the latter "find" enough votes to overturn the election results in his state. "I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have," Trump said, according to a tape of the call obtained by the Washington Post.

The Oval Office meeting between Trump, Rosen, Donoghue and Clark went on the next evening, attended by White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who advised the president not to fire Rosen because such a move would trigger congressional investigations and distract from Trump's attempts to overturn the election. After three hours, the meeting broke up, with Rosen and Donoghue still in their jobs. 

Rosen and Donoghue told the Senate Judiciary Committee that with only 17 days remaining until the presidential inauguration, they believed they had avoided a constitutional crisis. But we all know what happened three days later, on Jan. 6, when a violent mob of Trump supporters breached the Capitol building and delayed for several hours the certification of the electoral ballots which made Joe Biden president.

Between the early hours of Nov. 4, when Trump first realized he had lost the election, and Jan. 6, when the assault on the Capitol dominated every news cycle until the inauguration (and beyond), Trump was all over the place in his attempts to overturn the election. He was consumed with the lawsuits being filed around the country on his behalf — but was losing them, one after another. He was obsessed with following conspiracy theories about Biden ballots being carried by Special Forces soldiers from Germany and stuffed into ballot boxes in battleground states, about mysterious computers and satellites controlled by Italy switching Biden votes for Trump votes in battleground states, and multiple other outlandish conspiracies.

But beginning on Dec. 12, with the Proud Boys march through Washington and the demonstrations on the Mall and at the Supreme Court, Trump became fixated on holding a rally on Jan. 6 that he believed could prevent the certification of electoral ballots taking place that day. Two days later, he began his campaign to get the Department of Justice to join his plan to pressure state legislatures in a handful of states he had lost to throw out Biden electors and appoint their own slates of Trump electors. 

He tweeted on Dec. 19, 26, 27 and 30, all dates coinciding with his pressure on Rosen and Donoghue to use the Department of Justice to help him overturn the election. On Jan. 1, the day he met with Jeffrey Clark to discuss firing Rosen, he tweeted "The BIG Protest Rally in Washington, D.C. will take place at 11:00 A.M. on January 6th. Locational details to follow. StopTheSteal!" On Jan. 4, Trump traveled to Georgia to hold a rally, nominally in support of the two Republican candidates in the U.S. Senate runoff election, but really to put pressure on Georgia legislators to overturn the election.

Practically every move Trump made in December and January in advance of Jan. 6 was a crime. Pressuring Jeffrey Rosen to misuse the Department of Justice to support his private lawsuits was a crime. Conspiring with Jeffrey Clark to fire Rosen so Clark could send the letter to the Georgia legislature was a crime. Calling Brad Raffensperger and Brian Kemp and pressuring them to "find" votes and use the legislature to overturn the election was a crime. Meeting with his own White House staff and outside advisers to plan the rally on the Ellipse at which he would incite the assault on the Capitol was a crime.

Trump's problem, to put it frankly, was that he didn't start committing crimes early enough. The crimes he committed in December and January were largely impulsive, not carefully planned or focused. He exploded with tweets and phone calls and meetings and rallies.

In short, Trump was Trump, as incompetent a criminal conspirator as he was a president. The only question left to be answered at this point is whether Merrick Garland and the Biden Department of Justice will have the courage to charge him and his co-conspirators with the felonies they committed: defrauding the United States by attempting to illegally influence the outcome of the 2020 election. 

If that crime sounds familiar, that is because it is the same one special counsel Robert Mueller charged 24 Russian nationals with committing in 2016, when they illegally hacked into Democratic National Committee servers, stole campaign emails and set up fake accounts to influence voters on American social media platforms. With Donald Trump, nothing is ever new. Just watch him. He's out there right now raising $100 million to do it all over again in 2024. And the entire Republican Party is right there with him.  


Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives on the East End of Long Island and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. You can read his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

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