WASHINGTON – Donald Trump’s closest campaign advisers, top administration officials and even his family were debunking his bogus claims of voter fraud in 2020 on election night, but the defeated president was “distancing himself from reality” and clinging to bizarre theories in order to stay in power, according to several people.
Former Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien testified Monday before the House Jan. 6 committee that Trump was “increasingly unhappy” with the election results as the night wore on.
Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, tried to keep him away from attorney Rudy Giuliani and his theories about voter fraud that advisers deemed false.
Richard Donoghue, a former Justice Department official, recalled going through one claim after another — from a truckload of ballots in Pennsylvania to a suitcase of lost ballots in Georgia — and telling Trump that “much of the information you’re getting is false. ”.
“He was distancing himself from reality,” said former Attorney General William Barr, who has resigned. “I didn’t want to be a part of that.”
The witnesses appeared before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 assault on Capitol Hill as the panel zeroes in on the “big lie,” Trump’s false claims of voter fraud that fueled the defeated Republican president’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election and caused a mob of their supporters to storm the US Capitol.
Most of those who appeared did so through prerecorded testimony from closed-door interviews conducted over the course of the panel’s year-long investigation. The committee has interviewed some 1,000 witnesses and collected about 140,000 documents, and some members say they have uncovered enough evidence for the Justice Department to consider an unprecedented criminal indictment against the former president.
Congressman Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi and chairman of the committee, opened Monday’s hearing by saying Trump “betrayed the trust of the American people” and “tried to stay in office when the people had voted him out.”
Stepien was to be a key witness on Monday, but abruptly announced that he would not appear at the hearing because his wife was in labor. The former campaign manager remains close to Trump and had been subpoenaed to appear.
But the panel went ahead and presented prerecorded testimony from the former campaign manager and others close to the president as Trump latched onto repeated false claims about the election, even though his inner circle warned him that theories of stolen ballots or rigged voting machines they were not true.
Stepien described how the festive mood at the White House changed on election night when Fox News announced that Trump had lost the state of Arizona to Joe Biden, and aides worked to advise Trump on what to do next.
But Trump turned a deaf ear and preferred to listen to Giuliani, whom several witnesses described as drunk. Giuliani issued a blanket denial Monday, rejecting “all the falsehoods” he said were being told about him.
Stepien, in recorded testimony, said: “My belief, my recommendation was to say that the votes were still being counted, it’s too early to tell, too early to declare a winner.”
But Trump “thought I was wrong. He told me”.
Kushner testified that he told Trump that the approach Giuliani was taking was not the one he would take. But the president replied that he trusted the lawyer.
And Barr, who had testified during last week’s hearing that he told Trump the allegations raised were nonsense, revealed in detail how the president was “angry as I’ve never seen him before” when the attorney general explained that the Justice Department would not take sides in the elections.
Monday’s hearing also featured other in-person witnesses, including Chris Stirewalt, a former Fox News Channel political editor who testified on election night that Biden had won Arizona.
Thompson and the committee’s vice chair, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, were leading the audience after last week’s blockbuster session drew nearly 20 million Americans to view its findings in prime time.
For the past year, the committee has investigated the most violent attack on the Capitol since the War of 1812 to ensure it never happens again. Lawmakers hope to show that Trump’s attempt to overturn Biden’s electoral win posed a serious threat to democracy.
A second group of witnesses set to testify Monday is made up of election officials, investigators and experts who are likely to discuss Trump’s responses to the election, including dozens of failed court challenges, and how his actions departed from American norms.
Among these witnesses is former Atlanta Attorney General BJay Pak, who abruptly resigned after Trump pressured Georgia state officials to overturn his presidential loss. Trump wanted to fire Pak as disloyal, but Pak resigned after Trump called on Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to nullify Biden’s victory in the state.
The panel will also hear from former Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, the only Republican on the election board and who came under fire when it was announced that Biden had won the state’s election, and prominent Washington attorney and election attorney Benjamin Ginsberg. .
As he weighs another White House bid, Trump insists the committee’s investigation is a “witch hunt.” Last week he said that January 6 “represented the greatest movement in the history of our country.”
Nine people were killed in the unrest and its aftermath, including a Trump supporter who was shot to death by police. More than 800 people have been arrested in the assault, and members of two extremist groups have been charged with rare sedition charges for their roles in leading the Capitol storming.
In its prime-time hearing, the committee exposed how trusted advisers and officials at the highest levels of government told Trump over and over again that there was no voter fraud on a scale that could have changed the outcome. of the vote. But Trump continued his false claims about the election, urging his supporters to gather in Washington on Jan. 6 to overturn Biden’s win as Congress prepared to certify the Electoral College results.
Additional evidence will be released at this week’s hearings focused on Trump’s decision to ignore the election result and the court cases that ruled against him.
Monday’s hearing also focused on the millions of dollars in fundraising that Trump’s team put up before Jan. 6, according to a committee aide who insisted on anonymity to discuss details.
Associated Press writers Farnoush Amiri and Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.
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