WASHINGTON — For weeks at the end of 2020, Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, applauded President Donald J. Trump’s efforts to fight his election defeat, privately offering “a group of lawyers ready and loyal ones who will fight for him”.
In text messages to then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Mr. Lee encouraged the Trump campaign to embrace Sidney Powell, a pro-Trump lawyer whom the senator described as a “straight shooter,” and said that the president should “hire”. the right legal team and release them immediately.
But when Ms. Powell advanced outlandish allegations of foreign rigging of election machines at a widely ridiculed press conference in November, Mr. Lee was chagrined and quietly began to wonder what Mr. Trump was up to.
“I’m worried about Powell’s press conference,” Mr. Lee wrote in another text message to Mr. Meadows. “The president’s potential libel liability is significant here.”
This message and several others from Mr. Lee, as well as a series of separate exchanges between Representative Chip Roy, Republican of Texas, and Mr. Meadows, trace an about-face by the two Republican lawmakers. The couple began as enthusiastic supporters of Mr Trump’s claims of a stolen election, but grew increasingly alarmed at his efforts to invalidate the results and eventually opposed his attempt to get Congress to overturn them on January 6, 2021.
The text messages, which are in the possession of the House committee investigating the Capitol riot, were obtained by CNN and authenticated by The New York Times.
They provide a window into the eagerness of Republicans — even some who ended up voting Jan. 6 to affirm Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory — to believe Mr. Trump’s false allegations of widespread fraud and their willingness to go to great lengths, including attempts to exploit the country’s electoral laws, to keep him in power. They also illustrate how quickly those efforts spun out of control, and they show a keen awareness on the part of at least some Republicans involved that the effort had become unsustainable to the point of being dangerous.
The text messages were sent to and from Mr Meadows, who gave them to the House committee while he cooperated with the panel. Mr. Meadows then refused to sit down for an interview with the committee, and the House voted to recommend that the Justice Department prosecute him for criminal contempt of Congress.
A lawyer for Mr. Meadows did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the committee declined to comment.
Text messages with Mr Meadows show Mr Lee repeatedly tried to offer advice and support for the effort to overturn the election, using several strategies.
Mr Lee suggested Mr Trump should ‘dissociate himself’ from Ms Powell’s misrepresentations after her performance at the November press conference, but even after that the senator vouched for conservative lawyer John Eastman , who penned a memo outlining plans to overturn the election that members of both parties likened to a coup plot.
Mr. Lee then endorsed a plan to have legislatures in “a very small handful of states” that Mr. Biden had won to nominate pro-Trump voters, as part of a plan proposed by Mr. Eastman to allow Vice President Mike Pence to reject Mr. Biden’s victory.
But Mr. Lee abandoned the effort after no state legislature met to certify the so-called alternate voters, and he began to criticize the plans of Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri , both Republicans, to use the official congressional vote tally on Jan. 6 to challenge the election result.
“I have serious concerns about how my friend Ted is going about this,” Mr Lee wrote to Mr Meadows.
Mr. Lee eventually voted to confirm Mr. Biden’s victory. More than half of Republicans in Congress – eight senators and 139 House members – voted to invalidate it, after a mob of Mr Trump supporters, enraged by the lie of a stolen election, took to protests. stormed the Capitol to demand that it be cancelled.
A spokesperson for Mr. Lee confirmed the authenticity of the text messages and said they told “the same story Senator Lee told from the Senate floor the day he voted to certify the election results. of each state in the country”.
“They tell the story of a United States senator fulfilling his duty to Utah and the American people by upholding the Constitution,” spokesman Lee Lonsberry said, quoting the senator’s remarks after the deadly riot, which injured more than 150 police officers.
Mr. Roy’s text messages with Mr. Meadows tell a similar story of a lawmaker who seemed keen to fight alongside Mr. Trump but ultimately backed down when evidence of a stolen election failed to surface.
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“Man, we need ammunition,” Mr. Roy wrote to Mr. Meadows on Nov. 7, before the Texas lawmaker traveled to Georgia to try to help fight that state’s election results. “We need examples of fraud. We need it this weekend.
But Mr Roy also warned against inflammatory allegations without evidence.
“We must urge the president to tone down the rhetoric and approach the legal challenge with firmness, intelligence and efficiency without resorting to desperate fanatics or sending his base into a conspiracy frenzy,” Roy wrote Nov. 9.
Text messages show that Mr. Roy was also initially supportive of Mr. Eastman’s efforts, but grew more skeptical as the weeks progressed and evidence of widespread fraud failed to materialize.
“The president should remind everyone,” Mr. Roy wrote to Mr. Meadows on December 31. “It’s the only way.”
“If we substitute the will of the states through the voters with a vote of Congress every 4 years,” he added, “we have destroyed the Electoral College.”
The next day, Mr. Roy followed up. If Mr. Trump “allows this to happen,” he wrote to Mr. Meadows, “we are driving a stake through the heart of the federal republic.”
On Jan. 6, the day rioters stormed the Capitol, Mr. Roy once again reached out to Mr. Meadows.
“It’s a sh*tshow,” he wrote. “Fix that now.”
Mr Meadows replied: “We are.”
Friday, Mr. Roy wrote on Twitter that he would make “no apologies for my private texts or my public stances – to those on the left or the right”.
“I support the search for truth, the fight against nonsense, then the defense of the Constitution,” he wrote.