The Insurrection Was Just Part of the Plot

The full contours of Trump’s effort to overturn the election are coming into view.

A black and white photograph of Donald Trump at the White House, facing away from the camera.
Drew Angerer / Getty

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

For raw emotional content, Tuesday’s hearing of the new House select committee to investigate the January 6 insurrection was nonpareil. Four police officers who fought to hold back armed hordes seeking to disrupt Congress told stories of physical injury, racist abuse, and post-traumatic distress. Even for Americans who paid close attention to the crisis, these stories added new texture and horror.

But the House Oversight Committee shed more light this week on just how and why January 6 happened, releasing handwritten notes by Richard Donoghue, a top Justice Department official in the waning days of the Trump administration. The violence of the day has taken center stage, but these notes help put it in context: The angry crowd was just one part of President Donald Trump’s long-running effort to overturn the results of the election in the House of Representatives.

Trump’s effort to call the election results into doubt began long before the votes were cast, but it accelerated immediately after the election. As I wrote on January 26, Trump’s coup attempt started not on January 6 but in the wee hours of November 4, when Trump said at the White House, “This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election.” He added: “Frankly, we did win this election.” (He did not, and was not being frank.)

In November and early December, the focus of Trump’s efforts was pressuring state officials in places such as Arizona and Georgia to decline to certify results in favor of Biden, and pressing Attorney General William Barr to cast doubt on the results. But Barr declined, breaking with Trump, and so did pivotal Republicans including Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey. Once Barr was pushed aside, The Washington Post reported this week, Trump began a daily campaign to pressure Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen into doing what Barr would not, trying to place new claims of fraud before the Justice Department. Unbeknownst to Rosen, Trump was also orchestrating a plan to topple him.

What Trump hoped to achieve from these efforts has always been a little hazy. The Justice Department doesn’t certify elections, and at most could have pursued fraud claims in court—had there been any credible ones, which there were not. The new releases by the House Oversight Committee, first reported by The New York Times, connect the dots. Donoghue explained to Trump that the DOJ couldn’t overturn the result, but the president was unruffled.

“Don’t expect you to do that, just say that the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me and the R[epublican] Congressmen” is how Donoghue recorded Trump’s response in handwritten notes.

All Trump wanted was some semi-independent arbiter to declare the election fraudulent—whether that was the governor of Arizona, the Georgia secretary of state, or the U.S. Justice Department. This much was clear even then, but Trump’s endgame was not. After all, Democrat Joe Biden’s lead was wide enough that a single state declining to certify or a single fraud case couldn’t have erased it. Trump, despite his weakness for conspiracy theories, understood that. But he didn’t need any of these officials to set aside the results on their own. He just needed enough ammunition, no matter how tenuous, that he could derail certification of the election in Congress.

If the election couldn’t be decided based on the results, then it would go to the House of Representatives. Though Democrats held a majority there, the presidency would have been decided by state delegations, of which Republicans controlled more.

The Justice Department refused to say the election was stolen, of course. Ahead of January 6, Trump tried his last two options. First, he pressured Vice President Mike Pence, both publicly and privately, to refuse to certify the results, but Pence concluded that he had no constitutional authority to do so. Trump also summoned a crowd to Washington and demanded they fight. They did, but it didn’t work. Despite the assault on the Capitol, the election was certified, and Biden was inaugurated 14 days later.

The violence has taken center stage recently. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reportedly feared that Trump was contemplating a military coup, and took measures to ensure he couldn’t misuse troops. Democrats have emphasized the violence because of the visceral reactions it elicits—and because they hope to put pressure on Republicans who profess support for law enforcement by making them choose between the cops who defended the Capitol against the insurrection and the insurrectionists. Republicans, in turn, have tried to downplay the violence and claim the mob was really full of pacific tourists.

What is becoming clear is that the violence, though abhorrent, was simply a part of the bigger and more dangerous plot, not the culmination of it. Although Trump clearly had no problem with the riot, there is no evidence that Trump envisioned a violent coup, and as the attack on the Capitol unfolded, he watched, bemused, from the White House, neither calling off the attackers nor doing anything more to spur them on.

Could Trump’s plan to toss the election to the House have worked, if only Barr or Raffensperger or Rosen or Donoghue or Pence had been willing to go along? The answer is ultimately unknowable, but depends in part on how you define success. Trump knew he had a small group of loyal members of Congress ready to rally to his side. He also knew that a larger faction of the congressional GOP was not automatically Trumpist, but had proved repeatedly spineless and might well go along with him. If there was enough pretense of corruption, and a loud and angry enough crowd on the National Mall, would enough Republicans have succumbed to pressure? It seems unrealistic, though there’s no way to know for sure.

Yet even if the House gambit had failed, a public decree of a corrupt election by the Justice Department or the vice president would have been catastrophic in its own right. Trump had his finger on the pulse of his backers. (“You guys may not be following the internet the way I do,” the extremely online president told DOJ officials, and he was almost certainly right.) Despite the lack of evidence of fraud tainting the 2020 results, huge numbers of Republicans tell pollsters they don’t trust the election system. If Trump had managed to twist some other authority into giving the claims of fraud its imprimatur, the damage to faith in elections would be deeper.

If the country is to reckon with what happened on January 6, the focus will need to be less on the tactical movements—whether by police or by Oath Keepers—around the Capitol, and more on the strategic choices that Trump was making further up Pennsylvania Avenue throughout the postelection period.