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Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.
Episode 3: The conspiracy goes too far. Trump's outside lawyers plot to seize voting machines and spin theories about communists, spies and computer software.
President Trump was sitting in the Oval Office one day in late November when a call came in from lawyer Sidney Powell. "Ugh, Sidney," he told the staff in the room before he picked up. "She's getting a little crazy, isn't she? She's really gotta tone it down. No one believes this stuff. It's just too much."
He put the call on speakerphone for the benefit of his audience. Powell was raving about a national security crisis involving the Iranians flipping votes in battleground states. Trump pressed mute and laughed mockingly.
"So what are we gonna do about it, Sidney?" Trump would say every few seconds, whipping Powell more and more into a frenzy. He was having fun with it. "She really is crazy, huh?" he said, again with his finger on the mute button.
It was clear that Trump recognized how unhinged his outside legal advisers were. But he was becoming increasingly desperate about losing to Joe Biden, and Powell and her crew were willing to keep feeding the grand lie that the election could be overturned.
They were selling Trump a seductive but delusional vision: a clear and achievable path to victory. The only catch: He'd have to stop listening to his government and campaign staffs, to cross the Rubicon and view them as liars, quitters and traitors.
Trump's new gang of advisers shared some common traits. They were sycophants who craved an audience with the president. They were hardcore conspiracy theorists. The other striking commonality within this crew was that all of them had, at one point in their lives, done impressive, professional, mainstream work.
Rudy Giuliani once was "America's Mayor," hailed for his handling of 9/11. Powell was a successful attorney who defended Enron. Michael Flynn was a decorated three-star general whom Obama fired and then Trump brought back as his national security adviser, before firing him and ultimately pardoning him. Lin Wood was a nationally known defamation lawyer. Patrick Byrne made a small fortune launching the internet retailer Overstock.com.
One exception was Jenna Ellis. She had a thin legal resume, and had in the 2016 campaign season used adjectives like "idiot," "boorish," "arrogant," "bully," and "disgusting" to characterize Trump and his behavior. But during Trump's presidency, she pushed her way into his inner circle, powered by levels of televised obsequiousness remarkable even for Trumpworld.
Powell and Wood distinguished themselves with their extremism. Even Giuliani began distancing himself, telling anyone who'd listen that Powell didn't represent the president. But Trump promoted Powell as part of his team, and even though he had privately admitted to aides that he thought she was "crazy," he still wanted to hear what she had to say.
"Sometimes you need a little crazy," Trump told one official.
While Trump's campaign team — experienced attorneys such as Justin Clark and Matt Morgan — were scrutinizing issues such as signature verification and access to room monitoring for vote counting, Powell was appealing to Trump's personal mantra to "Think Big!"
She presented the president with a sweeping, multinational conspiracy of foreign interference at a scale never seen before in American history. The fact that she had no evidence that could hold up in court was a minor detail.
Powell and Flynn told Trump he couldn't trust his team. That appealed to a paranoid mentality that always lurked beneath his surface: The FBI was corrupt. His CIA was working against him, and his intelligence community was, too. Why else weren't they showing him the evidence that China, Venezuela, Iran and various other communists had stolen his election win?
To help him bypass these obstacles, they'd need Trump to give them top-level security clearances so they could get to the bottom of the "stolen" election. Trump liked this idea. Why not make Powell a special counsel in charge of election fraud? Why not give her and Flynn the clearances?
Trump's professional staff had learned over time that they had to pick their moments to fight back. On the question of Powell, chief of staff Mark Meadows and White House counsel Pat Cipollone were of one mind: No way was she getting a top secret clearance.
Powell and Flynn sent Trump advisers documents they said contained the evidence of this far-reaching conspiracy. To the White House staff, it was gibberish — the rantings of a QAnon devotee. But these documents — perhaps the most deranged materials to reach a modern U.S. president — found their way to the West Wing.
According to documents obtained by Axios, Powell and her crew advised Trump that a foreign conspiracy to steal the election involved a coordinated cyberwarfare attack from China, Russia, Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
In arguments in front of Trump in the Oval Office, White House officials pushed back aggressively.
What Powell was claiming to have uncovered would have been the greatest foreign attack in American history. Yet the U.S. intelligence community had seen no evidence of it.
But Powell had an answer for that too: The reason Trump hadn't heard about this from his intelligence officials was because they were actively subverting him and hiding crucial information from him.
His dog whistle to QAnon conspiracy theorists — a curiosity prompted once he learned they "love Trump" — dated back to at least the summer.
On July 1, 2020, Trump met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Todd Young of Indiana and top political aides in the Oval Office for an update on Senate races. Trump was holding a printed slide deck showing the latest key data points, like polling and cash on hand, for the closely watched Colorado Senate race between Republican Cory Gardner and Democrat John Hickenlooper.
Trump looked at the deck and immediately said, "How about that primary last night?"
QAnon-enthusiast Lauren Boebert had won the Republican primary for Colorado's 3rd Congressional District. Consensus in the room was that Boebert's victory was a stunner. The president then addressed McConnell. "You know she’s a believer in that QAnon," he said. "Are you familiar with that, Mitch?" McConnell sat there stone-faced. He didn't move a muscle.
"You know, people say they're into all kinds of bad things and say all kinds of terrible things about them," Trump added. "But, you know, my understanding is they basically are just people who want good government."
The room fell silent. Nobody knew how to respond.
Then all of a sudden Meadows burst out laughing. "I have heard them described a lot of ways, but never quite like that," he said. The meeting participants broke down laughing. "In terror, quite candidly," said a source in the room.
Powell filled the Trumpian Venn diagram between conspiracy theorists and sycophants. She offered the comforting deceptions that Trump was craving in his desperate post-election days and that the people on his team who had actual experience in election law refused to serve him.
In the false and baseless theory she crafted, America's enemies had used two CIA programs — a foreign surveillance program called the "Hammer" and a cyberwarfare weapon called "Scorecard" — to steal U.S. elections.
Her evidence was based on claims from a California computer programmer with a long track record of hawking fantastic-sounding technology. Powell and Flynn claimed that the CIA had been using these programs nefariously since 2009.
Documents her team shared with Trump advisers falsely claimed that top Obama administration intelligence officials John Brennan and Jim Clapper — both enemies of Trump's — had illegally commandeered Hammer to advance Obama's supposed ambition of turning America into a communist client state. They further claimed that Brennan and Clapper had taken the program's source code with them when they left office. China had now mysteriously acquired Hammer, Powell argued.
They described this as an act of war in an Oval Office appearance on Dec. 18. No response should be considered too bold, they said. Trump needed to use the full force of the U.S. government to seize Dominion voting machines and catch the "traitors."
That an American president was even entertaining any of this, raised questions about the state of his mind and his capacity to fulfill his duties.
The evening before that meeting, Giuliani had phoned his old friend, Ken Cuccinelli, second in command at the Department of Homeland Security, asking him whether DHS could seize voting machines. "No," Cuccinelli told Giuliani, politely but firmly. His department did not have that legal authority.
By this point, Trump was mainlining conspiracies. Many of his longest-serving advisers had all but given up trying to reason with him.
His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, billed once by Newsweek as the most influential presidential relative since Bobby Kennedy, receded from the discussions when it came to countering the crazies. Once Giuliani took over, Kushner subsided from view, trying to cut last minute deals in the Middle East and burnish his foreign policy legacy. This frustrated some of his colleagues. Serious intervention was required on the domestic front.
Whether Trump himself was still in charge, or had ceded decision-making to the bottom feeders, was at least an open question.
🎧 Listen to Jonathan Swan on Axios' new investigative podcast series, called "How it happened: Trump's last stand."
About this series: Our reporting is based on interviews with current and former White House, campaign, government and congressional officials as well as eyewitnesses and people close to the president. Sources have been granted anonymity to share sensitive observations or details they would not be authorized to disclose. President Trump and other officials to whom quotes and actions have been attributed by others were provided the opportunity to confirm, deny or respond to reporting elements prior to publication.
"Off the rails" is reported by White House reporter Jonathan Swan, with writing, reporting and research assistance by Zach Basu. It was edited by Margaret Talev and Mike Allen and copy edited by Eileen O'Reilly. Illustrations by Sarah Grillo, Aïda Amer and Eniola Odetunde.