Washington: They called it the “command centre”, a set of rooms and suites in the posh Willard Hotel a block from the White House where some of then-president Donald Trump’s most loyal lieutenants were working day and night with one goal in mind: overturning the results of the 2020 election.
The Willard Hotel in Washington, DC.
The January 6 rally on the Ellipse and the ensuing attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob would draw the world’s attention to the quest to physically block Congress from affirming Joe Biden’s victory. But the activities at the Willard that week add to an emerging picture of a less visible effort, mapped out in memos by a conservative pro-Trump legal scholar and pursued by a team of presidential advisers and lawyers seeking to pull off what they claim was a legal strategy to reinstate Trump for a second term.
They were led by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Former chief White House strategist Stephen Bannon was an occasional presence as the effort’s senior political adviser. Former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik was there as an investigator. Also present was John Eastman, the scholar, who outlined scenarios for denying Biden the presidency during an Oval Office meeting on January 4 with Trump and vice-president Mike Pence.
They sought to make the case to Pence and ramp up pressure on him to take actions on January 6 that Eastman suggested were within his powers, three people familiar with the operation said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. Their activities included finding and publicising alleged evidence of fraud, urging members of state legislatures to challenge Biden’s victory and calling on the Trump-supporting public to press Republican officials in key states.
The effort underscores the extent to which Trump and a handful of true believers were working until the last possible moment to subvert the will of the voters, seeking to pressure Pence to delay or even block certification of the election, leveraging any possible constitutional loophole to test the boundaries of American democracy.
The January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.Credit:AP
“I firmly believed then, as I believe now, that the vice-president – as president of the Senate – had the constitutional power to send the issue back to the states for 10 days to investigate the widespread fraud and report back well in advance of Inauguration Day, January 20,” one of those present, senior campaign aide and former White House special assistant Boris Epshteyn, told The Washington Post. “Our efforts were focused on conveying that message.”
In seeking to compel testimony from Bannon, the congressional panel investigating the riot this week cited his reported presence at the “‘war room’ organised at the Willard”. The House voted last week to hold Bannon in contempt of Congress after he refused to comply with the committee’s subpoena.
The committee has also requested documents and communications related to Eastman’s legal advice and analysis.
Eastman told The Post on Wednesday that he had not yet been contacted by the House select committee investigating the insurrection. Asked about his involvement in the Trump team’s operation at the Willard, Eastman said: “To the extent I was there, those were attorney discussions. You don’t get any comment from me on those.”
The Willard Hotel was used as a “war room” by the effort to overturn the 2020 US election result.
In May, Eastman indicated that he was at the hotel with Giuliani on the morning of January 6. “We had a war room at the Willard … kind of coordinating all of the communications,” he told talk show host Peter Boyles, comments first reported in the newsletter Proof.
Giuliani’s lawyer, Robert Costello, did not respond to requests for comment.
Also present was One America News reporter Christina Bobb, a lawyer by training who was volunteering for the campaign at the time, according to people familiar with the operation. Bobb declined to comment.
Kerik said his firm billed the Trump campaign more than $US55,000 ($73,000) for rooms for the legal team. The former police commissioner, who was helping to head up efforts to collect and investigate allegations of election fraud, was later reimbursed, records show.
The three people familiar with the operation described intense work in the days and hours leading up to and even extending beyond 1pm on January 6, when Congress convened for the counting of electoral votes.
In those first days in January, from the command centre, Trump allies were calling members of Republican-dominated legislatures in swing states that Eastman had spotlighted in his memos, including Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona, encouraging them to convene special sessions to investigate fraud and to reassign electoral college votes from Biden to Trump, two of the people familiar with the operation said.
On January 2, Trump, Giuliani and Eastman spoke to 300 state legislators via a conference call meant to arm them with purported evidence of fraud and galvanise them to take action to “decertify” their election results. “You are the real power,” Trump told the state lawmakers, according to a Washington Examiner report. “You’re the ones that are going to make the decision.”
A participant on the call, Michigan state Senator Ed McBroom, a Republican, recalled listening as Trump, Giuliani, Eastman and others described the power state legislators have over the certification of electors. “I didn’t need any convincing about our plenary powers,” McBroom told The Post. “I was listening to hear whether they had any evidence to substantiate claims” of significant voter fraud that could change the results in Michigan. The callers did not provide additional information, he said, and he did not support a delay in the electoral vote count.
But others appear to have been persuaded. Three days after the call, dozens of lawmakers from Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin wrote to Pence. They asked that he delay certification of Biden’s victory for 10 days to allow “our respective bodies to meet, investigate, and as a body vote on certification or decertification of the election.”
Also on January 2, Eastman, Giuliani and Epshteyn appeared on Bannon’s podcast to make the case directly to Bannon’s pro-Trump listeners. They discussed what Bannon called that day’s “all-hands meeting with state … legislators that the Trump campaign and also others are putting on.” The comments were first highlighted by Proof.
They argued that state lawmakers were legally bound to reexamine their election results. “It’s the duty of these legislatures to fix this, this egregious conduct, and make sure that we’re not putting in the White House some guy that didn’t get elected,” Eastman said. He contended that Congress could itself decide on January 6 to select Trump electors in contested states, but that “it would certainly be helped immensely if the legislatures in the states looked at what happened in their own states and weigh in.”
Eastman was not the first or the only person in Trump’s sphere to argue that Pence was empowered to block or delay certification of Biden’s victory. Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn – and Trump himself – suggested as much on December 23, retweeting a post about the possibility of invoking “the Pence card”.
In happier times: Donald Trump and Mike Pence.Credit:AP
But after other efforts failed, as January 6 neared, the Eastman strategy came into bloom. Eastman, a Federalist Society member, law professor and former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, had the conservative legal credentials to burnish the argument.
Eastman’s first memo, only two pages long, described a six-point plan by which Pence could effectively commandeer the electoral counting process and enable Trump to win. The memo was first revealed last month in the book “Peril,” by Washington Post writers Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.
Eastman has said it was a “preliminary draft” of a more complete and nuanced memo that outlined multiple possible outcomes following the joint session of Congress on January 6. The ideas in the memos were the basis for a discussion of options Pence had with Eastman and Trump in the Oval Office on January 4, he has said.
Eastman has more recently distanced himself from the memos, telling the National Review on Friday that the options he outlined did not represent his advice. He said he wrote the memos at the request of “somebody in the legal team” whose name he could not recall.
In the Sacramento Bee, Eastman wrote on October 7 that he advised Pence to delay counting the electoral votes to give the states time to resolve concerns about voting irregularities.
This was the strategy around which the Trump advisers in the Willard command centre coalesced, according to two of the people familiar with the discussions there in the early days of January. For that scenario to upend Biden’s win, legislatures in those states would investigate alleged fraud and, if they chose, could decertify their results.
“All we are demanding of Vice President Pence is this afternoon at one o’clock he let the legislatures of the states look into this so that we get to the bottom of it and the American people know whether we have control of the direction of our government or not!” Eastman told the crowd gathered at the Ellipse on January 6. “We no longer live in a self-governing republic if we can’t get the answer to this question!”
Pence withstood the pressure. Around 1 p.m., as he prepared to gavel in the joint session, he announced via a letter posted to Twitter that he would count the electoral college votes as they had been cast several weeks earlier.
When the violence erupted a short time later, forcing Congress into recess, some of the most ardent Trump supporters saw an opportunity.
“Congress is adjourned. Send the elector choice back to the legislatures,” Kelli Ward, chair of the Arizona GOP, tweeted at 3:30 p.m., more than half an hour after insurrectionists in tactical gear made their way to the floor of the Senate.
Ward did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Epshteyn told The Post, “In line with President Trump’s position and message, the Trump legal team immediately made it clear that any and all violence is not acceptable.” At 2.30pm on January 6, shortly after the Capitol was breached, Epshteyn tweeted: “To all those protesting, please stay PEACEFUL and respect the LAW.”
After the violence began, Trump used Twitter account to ask his supporters to “Stay peaceful” but notably did not tell them to go home until 4.17pm, when he tweeted a video of himself addressing the Capitol rioters. “I know your pain. I know your hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us,” he said. “We have to have peace. So go home. We love you, you’re very special.”
While the lawyers at the Willard were focused on promoting the legal strategy Eastman outlined, Kerik helped head up efforts to sift through allegations of election fraud. Phil Waldron, a retired Army colonel who specialised in psychological operations, led a team of people who provided Kerik with analyses of state data, which purported to show fraudulent voting, according to two of the people familiar with activities at the Willard.
Waldron was working closely with Russell Ramsland, a Texas Republican who had been spreading election-fraud conspiracy theories for months before the election and submitted sworn affidavits to multiple post-election lawsuits claiming fraud, The Post has previously reported. Ramsland was present in one of the Willard rooms on the evening of January 6, according to photographs posted to Instagram that circulated widely after the congressional committee’s mention of the “war room”.
Waldron and Ramsland did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Kerik said he had been working alongside Giuliani since November 5, two days after the election, and that they continued until January 19. “I believed until Inauguration Day that something could be done – that’s why the fight was still going on,” Kerik told The Post. “There were a lot of people who thought on the 6th that it was over, but I didn’t believe that because the evidence seemed so overwhelming to me.”
Kerik and Giuliani set up shop in Washington in early November at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, according to Kerik, and in the third week in December moved to the Willard, closer to the White House. The Willard attracted many pro-Trump figures around that time, including “Stop the Steal” provocateur Roger Stone. Stone was not part of the Giuliani team at the Willard and did not participate in the team’s efforts, according to the three people with knowledge of the matter.
On January 8, Kerik billed the Trump campaign for $US66,371.54 in travel expenses, including $US55,295 on rooms for legal team members at the Willard from December 18 to January 8, according to Kerik and documents reviewed by The Post. The legal team members referenced in the documents include Kerik, Giuliani and Eastman.
Documents also show that Kerik paid for rooms for William Ligon, a Georgia state senator who had chaired two hearings in Atlanta at which Giuliani aired false claims of election fraud, and Preston Haliburton, at Atlanta attorney who had represented a Coffee County Republican leader who claimed to be a whistleblower with evidence about Dominion voting machines.
Ligon and Haliburton did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Kerik initially sought reimbursement from the Republican National Committee, but said he was told the party would not foot the bills. The bills were eventually submitted to the Trump campaign, which agreed to pay them.
Kerik told The Post he was “furious” with the RNC because it collected tens of millions of dollars in support of Trump’s legal battle, “yet didn’t spend a dime on [Giuliani’s] legal team or their expenses.”
The RNC has previously said that it did not pay the legal bills because neither Giuliani nor Kerik were hired by or represented the organisation.
Eastman stayed at the Willard from January 3 until after breakfast on January 8, according to records showing that the hotel charged $US1407 for his lodging and meals during that time.
His arrival at the Willard came on the same day that Trump convened an Oval Office meeting to discuss replacing then-acting attorney-general Jeffrey Rosen with Jeffrey Clark, a Justice Department official friendly with Eastman who proposed that the department encourage investigation of Trump’s election fraud claims in Georgia and other states. The three-hour meeting with Trump ended after Rosen, other department officials and White House counsel Pat Cipollone threatened to resign if Clark were appointed.
Clark has been subpoenaed by the House panel investigating January 6 and is required to appear for questioning at the end of next week. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Although Clark’s proposal was rebuffed, those working in the Willard command centre continued to push the idea that Pence could intervene on January 6 itself. Other legal scholars disagreed.
Two experts – former federal Judge Michael Luttig and former Justice Department official John Yoo, both known as stalwart conservatives – advised Pence’s staff that there was no basis for the vice-president to intervene in the counting of electoral votes.
“I advised that there was no factual basis for Mike Pence to intervene and overturn the results of the election,” said Yoo, who now teaches law at the University of California at Berkeley. “There are certain limited situations where I thought the vice-president does have a role, for example in the event that a state sends two different electoral results. … But none of those were present here.”
Luttig, a former federal appellate judge well known to Trump and for whom Eastman had clerked early in his career, told Pence’s staff on January 4 that the analysis Eastman offered in his first memo was “incorrect”. Luttig said subsequently that Eastman’s advice was wrong “at every turn”, including his suggestion that the vice-president could delay the electoral vote count.
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