The Six Main Strands of the Trump Coup Attempt
Donald Trump’s actions to overturn the 2020 election were dedicated, intentional, and sustained over time. The insistent notion that Trump and his allies are “too stupid to coup” should not be reassuring. Like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park, shake enough door handles, and eventually one opens. By the end of the 2020 story, Trump had learned just how loose are the dusty old frameworks like the Electoral Count Act.
From the summer of 2020 through January 6, 2021, Trump’s buffoonish plans evolved—ultimately taking shape as a multipronged plot to rob Joe Biden of the presidency, one that descended into bloody violence at the United States Capitol. It happened fast, but not all at once: Lawsuits were filed in state and federal courts, up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Strategies changed. Officials inside the Department of Justice clashed over whether to enable Trump or hem him in. His team rallied activists to swarm the homes and workplaces of election officials. Trump pressured state officials to “find the votes.” More than one hundred members of Congress were organized to object to the Electoral College votes on Jan. 6th. In several states that Biden won, Republicans went so far as to submit fake Electoral College paperwork to “certify” Trump as the 2020 winner.
It’s a lot to process. Given all the details that have been emerging in recent months from journalists, from the House Jan. 6th Committee and other congressional investigations, from the Department of Justice, and from memoirs, there is a need for an overview that tries to bring it all together—not a comprehensive report on every detail, but an explanation of the six strands of the plot and how they are entwined.
Because a sequel may be on its way.
1. The Conspiracy Theories
Trump began promulgating election-related conspiracy theories at least as early as June 2020, when he and his team started questioning the legality of mail-in voting, especially as the practice was being more widely adopted because of COVID:
That month, Attorney General Bill Barr told the New York Times that foreign governments might conspire to mail in fake ballots. Those conspiracy theories escalated dramatically in the wee hours of election night. Before votes were done being counted, as results appeared to be moving in Biden’s favor, Trump stood in the East Room of the White House, declared himself the winner, and warned that fraud was underway:
This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election. We did win this election. So our goal now is to ensure the integrity for the good of this nation. This is a very big moment. This is a major fraud in our nation. We want the law to be used in a proper manner. So we’ll be going to the US Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop. We don’t want them to find any ballots at four o’clock in the morning and add them to the list. Okay? It’s a very sad moment. To me this is a very sad moment and we will win this. And as far as I’m concerned, we already have won it.
Vice President Mike Pence stood beside Trump and gave all indications he agreed. “I truly do believe as you do that we are on the road to victory, and we will make America great again,” Pence said.
From there, Trump surrogates blitzed the internet and airwaves, pushing all manner of theories in an attempt to prove the president’s words to be true. The various grab-bag conspiracies were best represented in a wild ninety-minute November 19, 2020 press conference held by Trump’s legal team at the Republican National Committee headquarters (the press conference most famous for Rudy Giuliani’s sweatily dripping hair dye). They alleged that foreign countries were counting votes; that votes were being illegally “manufactured” and “overcounted”; and that Dominion and Smartmatic voting machines could “flip” votes.
Much later, we learned that some members of Trump’s own campaign internally warned the lawyers before the press conference that many of their claims, particularly about the voting machines, weren’t true. It didn’t stop them.
2. The Lawsuits
Many of the conspiracy theories became the basis of courtroom challenges by Trump’s legal team, which filed roughly sixty losing lawsuits, most of them in battleground states that Biden won: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
One of those lawsuits, which went straight to the Supreme Court as Trump foreshadowed, is especially significant.
In early December, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, at the behest of the Trump campaign, filed a suit seeking the nullification of the election results in four key states that Biden won: Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin. As Kimberly Wehle summarized:
It makes a slew of audacious factual allegations that are unestablished and untested. Basically, he argues that the state defendants shouldn’t have allowed mail-in balloting the way they did, and cites “mysterious late night dumps of thousands of ballots at tabulation centers; illegally backdating thousands of ballots,” and videos of “poll workers erupting in cheers as poll challengers are removed from vote counting centers,” among an avalanche of other unsubstantiated and previously repudiated factual claims. (My favorite is the “expert analysis” that allegedly calculated the “probability of former Vice President Biden winning the popular vote in the four Defendant States” as “less than one in a quadrillion, or 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000.”)
It was a ridiculous gambit, but a shocking number of Republicans took it seriously enough to pledge their names. Trump whipped support, and within a day, 127 Republican House members, including House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, signed an amicus brief. Seventeen Republican state attorneys general, the chief law enforcers in their respective states, also signed on. Trump asked Texas Sen. Ted Cruz if he would argue the case before the Supreme Court. Cruz agreed.
Cruz never had to argue the case, though, because the Supreme Court, which by this point included three Trump appointees, refused to hear it. Yet Paxton’s suit still had a galvanizing effect. It put a convincing number of elected Republican elites on record with their willingness to reject millions of votes without any proven evidence of fraud.
3. Fake Federal Investigations
As Trump pressed his case in court, he simultaneously pushed government lawyers to launch investigations to lend some credibility to his charges. In an unsettling departure from Department of Justice precedent, Attorney General Bill Barr on November 9, 2020 gave federal prosecutors approval to investigate the president’s unfounded claims.
By the next month, Barr said nothing had been found, telling an Associated Press reporter that “we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome of the election.” Trump reportedly screamed at Barr for this, and soon the attorney general announced his resignation.
Around that time, Trump secretly met with Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey B. Clark to discuss a plan for Republican state legislatures to launch their own investigations as a means to eventually overturn Biden’s win.
Why did Trump go through Clark instead of Jeffrey Rosen, the man who assumed Barr’s position when he left? Acting Attorney General Rosen wasn’t willing to play ball. Rosen later testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee about how he was pressured by Trump directly. Acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue submitted notes he took during one December 27, 2020 phone call between Rosen and the president. According to the notes, Rosen told Trump he must “understand that the DOJ can’t + won’t snap its fingers + change the outcome of the election, doesn’t work that way.”
“[I] don’t expect you to do that,” Trump is said to have answered, “just say that the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me and the R. Congressmen.”
More worrisome, Rosen also testified that Clark circulated a draft letter on December 28, 2020 he wanted Rosen to approve. It was to be delivered to Republican officials in Georgia, asking them to hold a special legislative session to investigate voter fraud. It said:
The Department of Justice is investigating various irregularities in the 2020 election for President of the United States. The Department will update you as we are able on investigatory progress, but at this time we have identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election in multiple States, including the State of Georgia.
While the Department of Justice believe[s] the Governor of Georgia should immediately call a special session to consider this important and urgent matter, if he declines to do so, we share with you our view that the Georgia General Assembly has implied authority under the Constitution of the United States to call itself into special session for [t]he limited purpose of considering issues pertaining to the appointment of Presidential Electors.
Rosen refused to sign the letter, and then, according to Rosen, Clark told him that Trump offered to make Clark attorney general. But Clark said that he would decline if Rosen would sign. On January 3, 2021, Clark told Rosen he would accept Trump’s offer to replace Rosen as acting attorney general. But Rosen quickly organized with others and threatened to resign if Trump did so. Clark’s plan then fell apart.
4. “Stop the Steal” Whips Up the Base
Initially centered on the lawsuits, activists waged a nationwide grassroots “Stop the Steal” advocacy campaign that embraced the conspiracy theories and pressured Republicans reluctant to go along with Trump’s schemes. It also attracted the more violent parts of Trump’s base and provided them several opportunities to recruit and train members twice in the nation’s capital before Jan. 6th.
They mobilized fast. Immediately after the election, protests demanding that election workers “Stop the Count” materialized in Michigan as Trump supporters sought to discount mail-in ballots that took longer to count and largely favored Biden. On November 14, 2020, thousands of Trump supporters rallied in Washington. The events descended into street violence that evening, leaving two officers injured.
A group called Women for America First embarked on a multi-week, twenty-city “March for Trump” bus tour to stoke anger and fear over the election nationwide.
Later that month, protesters began swarming outside the homes of state officials in Georgia and Michigan. Georgia elections official Gabriel Sterling warned: “Someone’s going to get hurt, someone’s going to get shot, someone’s going to get killed, and it’s not right.”
Thousands of pro-Trump protesters returned to Washington for a December 12 rally, just two days before the Electoral College would be assembling in state capitals across the country to certify the results of the November vote. Trump tweeted his encouragement:
The Washington Post reported: “In helmets and bulletproof vests, Proud Boys marched through downtown in militarylike rows, shouting ‘move out’ and ‘1776!’” They clashed with counterprotesters and at least four people were stabbed. The report continued: “D.C. police said that as of 9 p.m., 23 people were arrested Saturday, including 10 who were charged with misdemeanor assaults, six with assaulting police officers and four with rioting. Police said one person had an illegal Taser.”
Women for America First secured the permits for both the November and December protests that ended in violence. By the end of December, the same group was working to organize the Jan. 6th rally, which Trump promoted.
Meanwhile, the Georgia runoff election became another staging ground for “Stop the Steal” advocacy under the banner of helping Republicans win re-election. Trump made two trips to Georgia ostensibly to campaign for incumbent GOP senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, but in reality to continue to push his grievances about the election. In Valdosta on December 5, 2020 he told the crowd, “Let them steal Georgia again, you’ll never be able to look yourself in the mirror.”
That month, after losing so many court cases, Trump’s legal team shifted into public-relations mode. Trump adviser Bernard Kerik recently provided the House Jan. 6th Committee with a 22-page document titled “Strategic Communications Plan” that described how to “educate the public on the fraud numbers, and inspire citizens to call upon legislators and Members of Congress to disregard the fraudulent vote count and certify the duly-elected President Trump.”
The timeline for the plan to be carried out was Dec. 27th to Jan. 6th. The campaign’s targets were swing-state Republican senators in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, as well as House Republicans.
The memo asserted that “massive corruption in the election process led to a vote tally that is fraudulent” and contained a laundry list of allegations: underage and ineligible people voted, and votes were cast in the name of dead people. It mentioned “illegalities,” fraudulent ballots, mail-in ballot fraud, “Dominion machines fraud,” and “election officials’ illegal actions.”
The memo’s recommended messaging emphasized accusatory questions, such as “What do you elections officials have to hide?” and “Why are you defending this corruption?”
The memo also called for protests at the homes of members of Congress (among other public officials), something disturbing that had already happened and that the Trump team apparently wanted more of.
The pressure worked.
For example, Trump returned to Georgia for another rally on January 4, 2021, a day before the runoff. Standing alongside Trump on stage in Dalton, Kelly Loeffler said that she would oppose certifying Biden as president when Congress tallied Electoral College votes the next day.
5. Fake Electors and Objectors
On December 10, 2020, the Conservative Action Project, headed by Ken Blackwell, proposed a clear-cut way to flip the Biden votes to Trump. A memo detailing the proposal was signed by many well-known conservative leaders, including Al Regnery, Tony Perkins, Jim DeMint, and Brent Bozell.
Collectively, this group recommended that legislatures in the battleground states appoint new electors who would provide the Electoral College votes needed for Trump to be certified as president on Jan. 6th:
There is no doubt President Donald J. Trump is the lawful winner of the presidential election. Joe Biden is not president-elect.
Accordingly, state legislatures in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Michigan should exercise their plenary power under the Constitution and appoint clean slates of electors to the Electoral College to support President Trump. Similarly, both the House and Senate should accept only these clean Electoral College slates and object to and reject any competing slates in favor of Vice President Biden from these states.
State legislatures did not take up the idea to appoint new electors, but rogue groups of Republicans in seven states created phony electoral certificates to that effect and sent them to Congress. In two of the states, the phony elector certificates included a caveat saying that the ballots would only take effect if Trump won those states. Not so in the the other five states, as Philip Rotner pointed out this week:
The phony Trump electors from each of the other five states—Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin—certified that they were in fact the “duly elected and qualified Electors for President and Vice President of the United States of America” from their respective states.
These phony certificates supposedly from competing slates of electors were not a sideshow, an irrelevant gimmick. They were key to the coup plan, forming the basis of the law professor John Eastman’s infamous memo, first obtained by Robert Costa and Bob Woodwood for their book Peril. The short version of the Eastman memo outlined a six-step “January 6 scenario” to overturn the election, starting with the assertion that “7 states have transmitted dual slates of electors to the President of the Senate.” Eastman envisioned Vice President Pence making an announcement on Jan. 6th that “because of the ongoing disputes in the 7 States, there are no electors that can be deemed validly appointed in those States.” The long version of the Eastman memo is similarly dependent on the fraudulent electoral slates.
Looking to the courts to assist on this point, Rep. Louie Gohmert and a slate of fake electors from Arizona filed a suit in late December 2020 that asked for Pence to be given “exclusive authority and sole discretion under the Twelfth Amendment to determine which slates of electors for a State, or neither, may be counted.” The district court tossed out Gohmert’s suit.
But Trump still wanted Pence to act. In Oval Office meetings on Jan. 4 and 5, 2021, he tried to foist Eastman’s idea on Pence. In a Jan. 6 tweet, Trump called on Pence to show “extreme courage.” And in his speech at the Ellipse on Jan. 6, he made his expectations of the vice president crystal clear. In addition to encouraging the crowd to “fight like hell,” Trump said:
I hope Mike is going to do the right thing. I hope so. I hope so.
Because if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election. All he has to do, all this is, this is from the number one, or certainly one of the top, Constitutional lawyers in our country. He has the absolute right to do it. We’re supposed to protect our country, support our country, support our Constitution, and protect our constitution.
States want to revote. The states got defrauded, They were given false information. They voted on it. Now they want to recertify. They want it back. All Vice President Pence has to do is send it back to the states to recertify and we become president and you are the happiest people.
And I actually, I just spoke to Mike. I said: “Mike, that doesn’t take courage. What takes courage is to do nothing. That takes courage.” And then we’re stuck with a president who lost the election by a lot and we have to live with that for four more years. We’re just not going to let that happen.
Pence didn’t go through with it.
Ultimately, on Jan. 6th some 147 Republican senators and representatives—more than half of the Republicans in Congress—joined in objecting to the final certification of the Arizona and Pennsylvania electoral slates. Trump adviser Peter Navarro bragged about having provided ”research” to members to back up their objections. Donald Trump approved; he ordered Navarro’s reports to be issued to House and Senate offices.
6. Pressure on State and Local Officials
Trump also worked furiously behind the scenes to get state and local Republicans to do his bidding.
In mid-November 2020, he phoned two members of a local canvassing board in Detroit, Michigan after they rescinded their votes to certify the election. Elated, Trump’s legal adviser Jenna Ellis tweeted:
BREAKING: This evening, the county board of canvassers in Wayne County, MI refused to certify the election results. If the state board follows suit, the Republican state legislator will select the electors. Huge win for @realDonaldTrump
This was one of the first public indications that Team Trump was thinking about using state legislators to select alternate slates of electors.
Ahead of Michigan’s deadline to certify the election, Trump invited a group of Michigan Republican lawmakers to the White House. A meeting was held, but afterward the lawmakers said they were committed to letting the certification process play out.
Trump’s main focus, however, was on Georgia.
On December 23, 2020, Trump called Georgia’s lead elections investigator, Frances Watson, and encouraged her to find the “dishonesty” in Cobb County’s mail-in ballot signatures audit. “The people of Georgia are so angry at what happened to me,” he told her. “They know I won, won by hundreds of thousands of votes. It wasn’t close.”
He then called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on January 2, 2021 and was far more aggressive. During the one-hour call, Trump demanded that Raffensperger “recalculate” the vote totals and “find” enough votes to award him the win in Georgia.
“All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state,” Trump said.
And that’s just what happened during the calls that were leaked.
Many questions, both big and small, about the Trump coup remain unanswered—including questions about how much (if any) of the mob violence at the Capitol was anticipated by Trump’s advisers; who (if anyone) coordinated the efforts of the Republicans who submitted fraudulent Electoral College certificates; and why it took more than three hours for the Capitol to be secured.
But enough is known already that we can say this: Although Trump wasn’t successful in overturning the election, his schemes captured the hearts and minds of the Republican base, many members of the Republican elite, conservative media, and fringe militia groups alike. Those groups worked in concert toward an end goal of rejecting Electoral College votes on Jan 6th.
Hardly anyone could have predicted that after the election was called for Biden, such a sweeping GOP machine would insist that Trump won and work to make the fantasy come true. Especially after each state met to certify their elections on December 14, 2020. What should have been a moment to make a firm break from Trump, to repudiate the defeated president, instead became a reason to unite behind his losing cause.
Don’t think they won’t try again.