Trump’s Campaign to Overturn the Election Was Inane

Recently released emails reveal a helter-skelter pressure campaign on the Justice Department.

Illustration of politicians superimposed on an email
Yuri Gripas / Bloomberg / Getty; Michael Reynolds / Getty; MANDEL NGAN / AFP; The Atlantic

About the author: Virginia Heffernan writes regular columns for the Los Angeles Times, Wired, and The Economist. Her new podcast, This Is Critical, is forthcoming from Stitcher.

In October 2006, just as bankers all over Wall Street were realizing that maybe, just maybe, they should be a little more circumspect about their adventures in subprime-mortgage bundling, some financiers at Goldman Sachs dreamed up a code for use in email: LDL. “Let’s discuss live.” In one notorious example, someone on the mortgage-securities desk mentioned Goldman’s urgent need to sell off “junk nobody was dumb enough to take the first time around.” His superior shot back, “LDL.”

The latest rogues freestyling with geopolitics missed that lesson of the financial crisis: Don’t put it in email. Last week, the House Oversight Committee released emails and attachments related to its investigation of Donald Trump’s efforts to reverse his defeat in the 2020 presidential election. The docs reveal a helter-skelter pressure campaign on the Justice Department and a peek into the email folkways of a range of eccentric Trumpites. Above all, they expose inanity, at the highest levels of power, when the republic was fragile.

Although the evidence of voter fraud was a bunch of rhetorical junk, the strong-arming is unnerving. Trump and his gofers seemed to believe that if they bellowed loudly enough about “Dominion” or a missing laptop or Italian satellite lizard people, they might bully the DOJ and maybe the Supreme Court into nullifying the election results or holding some kind of “do-over election,” which would, of course, delegitimize the 245-year-old project of American democracy.

The documents are shameless and hair-raising, and they reek of desperation. By late December, the president’s crew knew that Attorney General Bill Barr was on his way out for failing to turn defeat into victory for Trump. So in their last-ditch exchanges, they are clearly priming Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen for the role of acting attorney general in hopes that, in that job, he would pull off the water-into-wine miracle that Barr could not. The plan seemed to be to swamp Rosen’s brain with such a cacophony of gibberish that he’d do anything to make it stop. In these haranguing documents, the Trump team comes across like jailers playing earsplitting grindcore to drive a detainee insane.

Among the other main players are Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff at the time, and Kurt Olsen, a private attorney hoping to force the Justice Department to let him perform an aria of “Stop the steal” before the Supreme Court. Along for the ride are other DOJ officials and Molly Michael, an assistant who followed Trump to Mar-a-Lago when he finally left the White House.

The first email in the dossier is from Michael to Rosen, and it comes with the subject line “From POTUS.” (Michael, by the way, is the most correct and courteous of the bunch; she’s also the only one to include holiday greetings with her contribution to the cause of ending democracy.) Attached is a PDF full of gonzo talking points alleging voting misdeeds in Antrim County, Michigan (population 23,000). Generalizations are sweeping, evidence is scant, and capitalization is uncertain, in the familiar style of a certain former tweeter. “Laws have been Broken” is one bullet-pointed assertion. “The same Ballots were run it three times and produced three different results.”

The filler in the documents is almost as demoralizing as the evidence-free assertions. The “Antrim Michigan Forensics Report,” another attachment in the email from Michael to Rosen, begins with a lengthy insistence on the qualifications of its author, Russell James Ramsland Jr., a failed Texas politician who evidently majored in political science at Duke in 1975. The talking points sent “from POTUS” likewise hype the credentials of the head of the Antrim County investigation, calling him “a highly decorated military officer.” Whether the distinguished officer and the 1975 poli-sci major are one and the same is not clear.

In the report—again, sent from Trump’s office—Ramsland links to a tweet by one @KanekoaTheGreat for the video it contains showing “how to cheat at adjudication.” Don’t bother to look for the link now. @KanekoaTheGreat has evidently been suspended from Twitter and has moved to Gab, the social-networking site that the Los Angeles Times has called a “safe harbor for white nationalists.

Olsen, who represented Texas in a far-fetched lawsuit charging Pennsylvania and other states with election fraud, is clearly being ghosted. He hasn’t “been able to reach [Rosen] despite multiple calls/texts”—so he tries to enlist the solicitor general, Jeffrey B. Wall, in getting his janky Texas case to the Supreme Court. “This is an urgent matter,” he writes. “Please ask [Rosen] to contact me ASAP.”

Meadows bombards Rosen with the sorriest, most crackpot stuff, including a letter from an Italian “area man” called “Carlo Goria, The Director.” In translation, Goria’s letter addresses “Illustrious Mr. President,” and purports to confirm a “data switch” engineered by Italians to steal the election from Trump using satellite transmitters. Oliver Stone stuff. Now, this is hardly a smoking gun, but Goria, who is associated with a U.S. aerospace company, manages to misspell the name of Via Veneto, the most famous street in Rome, twice—“Via Venetto” appears once in the translated letter, and once in the original Italian. If only that were the fishiest thing about Signore Goria.

Not long after sending the letter, Meadows sends Rosen an uncaptioned YouTube video—a raw link that most of us would delete at a glance, unless, of course, it were a Rickroll. In fact, the video shows a government retiree reprising the Italygate blather, saying with a straight face that “the algorithms were overloaded because Trump got so many votes … record number of votes … among Blacks and Hispanic. Just everybody voted for Trump.” Or something.

Rosen is by this point the acting attorney general. Meadows is the brain-addled chief of staff for a lame-duck one-term president in his final days. So Rosen did what we all do with stalker emails filled with conspiracy palaver: He forwarded it to a pal, in this case DOJ official Richard Donoghue. He asked, “Can you believe this?” and conveyed his intention to keep ghosting.

Many Gen X Justice Department officials with posh pedigrees are represented in the email cache, although how grave they found the administration’s misdeeds is hard to decipher from their casual diction. When asked by Donoghue if he’d like to be “read into” some “antics that could potentially end up on your radar,” Steve Engel, then the assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel, replied, “Sure. I’ll swing by.” Maybe this is an LDL moment. For his part, Donoghue passed on the diciest stuff with the acronym “JFYI,” as if to downplay the significance. To the Italygate video, he responded: “Pure insanity.”

Pure insanity is all this is, and yet the House Oversight Committee’s documents are also a chilling reminder of how determined Trump was to be king, and how committed he was to a coup—the slow-rolling, bloodless, white-collar kind, or the violent kind that took place just five days after Rosen finally shut down Meadows. Reading this stuff over, I recall nothing more than the sublime parody of the Gore-Lieberman campaign logo that popped up in Florida in late 2000 when Bush v. Gore was at the Supreme Court: “Sore-Loserman.”