Until this week, the most outrageous thing I’ve seen in my 29 years as a political junkie was the religious right’s four-year campaign to bully the American people into bowing down to Donald Trump. In hindsight, I got a foreshadowing of this when I spent the first six months of my freshman year at the University of North Carolina in the belly of the religious right beast. The mentality that made people willing to do the bidding of a pastor who hid his past in a notorious campus cult was the same mentality that drove the religious right effort to make us bow and pray to the orange god it helped make.
But that looks minor league compared to the spectacle of a president spreading pernicious lies and conspiracy theories claiming that he had been cheated out of victory when he knew full well that he had lost. We now know this not just beyond reasonable doubt, but all doubt thanks to an internal Trump campaign memo obtained by former Dominion executive Eric Coomer for his lawsuit against the Trump campaign and many of Trump’s acolytes. It shows that even as Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, and Jenna Ellis held a press conference airing outlandish claims of a far-reaching plot to “steal” the presidency for Joe Biden, senior Trump campaign officials knew those claims were complete, unadulterated bullshit.
As damning as that memo is by itself, it’s even worse when put in the context of what has already been publicly reported about what Trump likely knew and when he knew it. It was already clear that the insurrection was underway long before the Trumpkin hordes raided the Capitol on Jan. 6. But the more I look at this, the clearer it becomes that we can now put a definitive date on when the insurrection began: Nov. 19, the day of that now-infamous press conference.
Consider the evidence from the published record that already indicated Trump knew he’d lost at some point in November. In February, The New York Times reported that Trump knew as early as Nov. 12 that there was no hope of winning enough legal challenges to overturn Biden’s lead. Back in February, William Saletan of Slate compiled a tranche of articles that moved that date back even further. Specifically, Trump likely knew as early as the weekend of Nov. 7 that his presidency was on life support.
We can now assemble a timeline of events leading up to Giuliani and Powell’s press conference that puts that damning internal memo in context, and shows that the press conference was the first overt act in an insurrection.
- Nov. 7: According to Axios, within hours of Biden being declared president-elect, Trump Campaign Manager Bill Stepien and Deputy Campaign Manager Justin Clark told Trump that he needed the political equivalent of a Hail Mary pass to win a second term. Specifically, he needed to win outstanding ballots in Arizona and Georgia by a landslide, while also winning a court challenge to election practices in Wisconsin. Even then, Clark said, their chances of pulling this off were, at best, 5% to 10%. According to The Washington Post, Trump “signaled that he understood” how long his odds were.
- Nov. 12: According to Axios, Trump’s already long odds of getting to 270 shrank to near-impossible. That night, all remaining news outlets called Arizona for Biden. According to the Times, Trump’s legal team had filed objections to 191 ballots—not even a fraction of Biden’s 10,000-vote lead. The Grey Lady also reported that earlier in the day, Trump’s campaign lawyers concluded that they stood no chance of winning enough legal challenges to overturn Biden’s lead. And yet, despite all of this, Trump was receptive to Giuliani’s claims that Dominion machines were switching votes. As the Grey Lady put it, this was the start of an “extralegal campaign” to overturn Biden’s lead—a term that, in light of what we now know, reads “insurrection” or “attempted self-coup.”
- Nov. 13: Trump names Giuliani and Powell to lead his legal efforts to challenge the election results. On the same day, the Times reported Monday, Deputy Campaign Communications Chief Zach Parkinson asked his team to “substantiate or debunk” the claims about Dominion.
- Nov. 14: Parkinson’s team compiles a memo that thoroughly debunks the most outlandish claims about election fraud. Not only did Dominion have no present relationship with Smartmatic, but it had no ties with Venezuela, George Soros, or antifa.
- Nov. 19: Giuliani, Powell, and Ellis hold a press conference in which they repeat some of the very claims that were thoroughly (if privately) debunked five days earlier.
Let’s review: The Trump campaign knew on Nov. 7 that it was about to shoot its last legal bolt. It knew on Nov. 12 that said bolt had missed. On Nov. 14—within 48 hours of finding out that the campaign’s last legal options had run out—Trump’s campaign team was told in no uncertain terms that the Big Lie was, well, a lie.
So when Giuliani, Powell, and Ellis stepped in front of the cameras on Nov. 19, they knew or reasonably should have known that they were blowing crystal meth smoke. Which means Trump almost certainly knew as well. Even though he reportedly pushed Powell aside soon afterward, the lies continued to percolate. The Trump campaign kept churning out hair-on-fire fundraising emails about fraud, and the deplorable ecosystem kept spreading lies about the election being stolen.
It is now clear that the snowball that ultimately crashed into the Capitol on Jan. 6 started rolling down the hill on Nov. 19. And it is equally clear that Trump’s minions started this attack on democracy while knowing that there was no evidence of fraud.
To my mind, after Nov. 19, we were no longer talking about the fine line between protected speech and unprotected speech. We’re talking about action. We’re talking about sedition and potential wire fraud.
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