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….
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.
Attorney General Bill Barr stood behind a chair in the private dining room next to the Oval Office, looming over Donald Trump. The president sat at the head of the table. It was Dec. 1, nearly a month after the election, and Barr had some sharp advice to get off his chest. The president’s theories about a stolen election, Barr told Trump, were “bullshit.”
White House counsel Pat Cipollone and a few other aides in the room were shocked Barr had come out and said it — although they knew it was true. For good measure, the attorney general threw in a warning that the new legal team Trump was betting his future on was “clownish.”
Trump had angrily dragged Barr in to explain himself after seeing a breaking AP story all over Twitter, with the headline: “Disputing Trump, Barr says no widespread election fraud.” But Barr was not backing down. Three weeks later, he would be gone.
The relationship between the president and his attorney general was arguably the most consequential in Trump’s Cabinet. And in the six months leading up to this meeting, the relationship between the two men had quietly disintegrated. Nobody was more loyal than Bill Barr. But for Trump, it was never enough.
The president had become too manic for even his most loyal allies, listening increasingly to the conspiracy theorists who echoed his own views and offered an illusion, an alternate reality.
By the late summer of 2020, Trump and Barr were regularly skirmishing over how to handle the rising Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the death of George Floyd while in police custody. As the national movement unfurled, some protests had given way to violence and looting. Trump wanted the U.S. government to crack down hard on the unrest.
The president wanted to invoke the Insurrection Act and send the military into U.S. cities. He wanted troops in the street. Some hardcore outside allies, including Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton, were egging him on. The thankless job of pushing back fell to Barr.