By Kevin Liptak and Jeremy Diamond, CNN
December 22, 2020
(CNN)President Donald Trump has turned to a fringe group of advisers peddling increasingly dubious tactics to overturn the results of the election, creating a dire situation that multiple senior officials and people close to the President say has led to new levels of uncertainty at how Trump will resist the coming end to his tenure.
“No one is sure where this is heading,” one official said on Monday. “He’s still the President for another month.”
Conspiracist lawyer Sidney Powell, disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn, onetime chief strategist Steve Bannon, hawkish trade adviser Peter Navarro and the eccentric founder of the retail website Overstock have all recently found themselves in the Oval Office or on the telephone advising Trump on new last-ditch efforts to reverse his loss.
That’s in addition to Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, who has been feeding the President’s conspiracy theories for weeks and who, along with Powell, was seen again at the White House on Monday.
In the process, Trump has mostly shunned those working inside the government, leading to growing fears of how he may lash out in the four weeks he has remaining in the White House — or at how he may resist leaving the building come Inauguration Day.
Through it all, Trump has mostly abandoned the day-to-day running of government. At a Cabinet meeting last week, he spent much of the time complaining about his suspicions of voter fraud, according to a person familiar with the matter, leaving some attendees puzzled at the point of the gathering.
Indeed, Trump has spent his days singularly focused on the election results.
“We won this election in a landslide,” Trump claimed falsely during a Monday call to the activist Charlie Kirk, who broadcast the conversation using a microphone so attendees at a gathering of young conservatives in West Palm Beach, Florida, could all hear.
“The problem is we need a party that’s going to fight and we have some great congressmen and women that are doing it and we have others, some great fighters,” Trump went on. “But we won this in a landslide, they know it, and we need backing from, like, the Justice Department, and other people finally have to step up.”
Sources close to the President describe particular worry among his advisers over what Powell — who only three weeks ago was unceremoniously dumped from his official legal team — may convince him to do in the coming days.
Trump’s idea, which he floated in a heated Friday meeting at the White House, is for Powell to essentially embed as a special counsel inside the White House Counsel’s Office, a proposal the counsel’s office has not looked kindly at.
“There’s high levels of concern with anything involving Sidney Powell,” one source close to the President said. “The lawyers are very worried.”
Heated Oval Office meeting included talk of special counsel, martial law as Trump advisers clash
Heated Oval Office meeting included talk of special counsel, martial law as Trump advisers clash
Trump’s annual holiday trip to his Mar-a-Lago resort, where he will be surrounded by sycophants and devotees encouraging him to fight on, will likely only add grist to his election fraud fantasies, the official said.
The trip to Florida is set to begin later this week, though Trump’s unpredictability has led some advisers to wonder whether it will remain on the schedule. If he does go, officials say it’s likely he will take meetings, in person and via phone, that his official advisers aren’t aware of.
“It’s scary,” said another administration official, who added that Trump appears “obsessed” with far-flung scenarios to overturn the election results that are seemingly untenable, both feasibly and politically.
One of those includes an effort led by Republican Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama to challenge President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory when Congress meets to formally ratify it on January 6. Trump met with Brooks and a number of other conservative House lawmakers at the White House on Monday for a discussion focused on the President’s baseless claims and conspiracy theories that the election was stolen from him, participants said.
The lawmakers emerged confident that there was a contingent of House and Senate Republicans who would join the effort and prompt a marathon debate on the floor on January 6 that would spill into the next day.
“I believe we have multiple senators and the question is not if but how many,” Brooks said, something that would defy the wishes of Senate Republican leaders, who are eager to move on and are urging senators not to participate since doing so could force them to cast a politically toxic vote against Trump.
In his moments of deepest denial, Trump has told some advisers that he will refuse to leave the White House on Inauguration Day, only to be walked down from that ledge.
The possibility has alarmed some aides, though few believe Trump will actually follow through. How such an episode might unfold isn’t clear, and federal law enforcement agencies have been loath to discuss the possibility.
Heated Oval Office meeting
‘Appalling’: Bolton reacts to Flynn’s pitch for martial law 01:40
After news emerged of a heated Oval Office meeting Friday pitting Powell and Flynn against White House officials, including chief of staff Mark Meadows and White House counsel Pat Cipollone, Powell was seen exiting the executive mansion again on Sunday.
She was also seen at the White House on Monday, though it wasn’t clear with whom she was planning to meet. She has been promoting an executive order allowing the federal government to seize voting machines in order to inspect them for fraud, a proposition that administration officials including acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf have warned is outside their authority.
Powell attended Friday’s meeting alongside Flynn, her client who Trump pardoned last month after he had twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Flynn had suggested in a television interview last week that Trump could use the military to rerun the election in certain states, an idea that again arose during Friday’s meeting.
They were joined by Patrick Byrne, the founder of Overstock.com, who tweeted afterward that he was disappointed in how Trump is being served by his White House team.
“President Trump is being terribly served by his advisers. They want him to lose and are lying to him. He is surrounding by mendacious mediocrities,” Byrne wrote, adding later: “For the first time in my life I feel sorry for Donald Trump. He is standing up to his waist in snakes. Trust Rudy and Sidney only.”
Byrne, who resigned from Overstock in 2019 after his comments about the “deep state” triggered a steep decline in the company’s stock price, did not respond to a request for comment on Monday. He has previously admitted in a series of interviews that he had an intimate relationship with accused Russian agent Maria Butina, which lasted from 2015 to 2018, and ultimately assisted law enforcement in their investigation of her.
More recently, he has emerged as a proponent of the debunked election fraud claims heralded by the President and Powell. He said last month he’d “funded a team of hackers and cyber-sleuths, other people with odd skills” to look into the claims.
Friday’s meeting was a highly charged example of a recurring phenomenon: Trump’s outside advisers raising their voices in anger at White House aides, accusing them of disloyalty and weakness, while Trump looks on.
Meanwhile, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon said Sunday night that he has also advised Trump to appoint special counsels to investigate allegations of election fraud and to investigate matters relating to Biden’s son, Hunter.
“As I strongly recommended to the President, we need a special counsel named immediately — a special prosecutor just on election fraud and voter fraud, they’re two different things — election fraud and voter fraud — you need to do that immediately,” Bannon said during a livestream with conservative pastors on Sunday night. “In addition, he must announce a special prosecutor, name a special prosecutor to look at the Biden hard drive.”
Bannon’s comments suggest that the former White House chief strategist is once again advising the President, even as he is under federal indictment and could be under consideration for a presidential pardon.
On the livestream, Bannon also said he does not believe Trump will attend Biden’s inauguration and that Trump “will never concede.”
“He is not going to back down. He will never concede. And I will tell you in the small chance we don’t win this, he will never sit on that stage and participate in that inauguration, as he should not. This is an illegal effort that’s going on,” Bannon said.
A day later, Bannon spoke on his own program, “War Room,” with Navarro, the trade adviser who officials say Trump is consulting frequently on his election fraud claims.
Navarro said he’d been personally phoning lawmakers in six states where Trump and his team still hope to overturn the results.
“There are a lot of traditional Republicans who don’t want to get on the Trump train. I can’t explain what’s going on in these state legislators except to say they don’t embrace economic nationalism and they’ve turned their back on the President,” Navarro said.
On Monday, the split between the President’s official set of advisers and the informal group currently in his ear exploded into clear view.
Speaking during a news conference at the Justice Department, Attorney General William Barr roundly pushed back against the President’s calls in recent days for a special counsel on voting or his supporters’ requests to consider seizing voting machines. Both are ideas floated by Powell and others who have spoken to the President in recent days.
“I see no basis for seizure of machines by the federal government,” Barr said at his news conference. If he thought there was a need for a special counsel on voting fraud, Barr said, he would have already appointed one.
“There is fraud, unfortunately, in most elections. I think we’re too tolerant of it,” he said. But in this election, Barr said, he stands by the finding that there was no systemic or broad-based fraud, a finding the President refuses to admit.
This story has been updated with additional reporting on Monday.
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