Bill Stepien broke with Trump after 2020, but not all his candidates did

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
A video clip of testimony from President Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, at left on the screen, is played during a hearing of the House Jan. 6 committee on June 13, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

Months after privately breaking with Donald Trump over his challenges of the 2020 election, former campaign manager Bill Stepien began landing new political clients – including several seeking Trump’s endorsement who openly entertained false claims that the election had been stolen.

Stepien signed a challenger to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Kelly Tshibaka, who had called for a “prudent pause in declaring a winner” to investigate unfounded claims of election irregularities. He signed Harriet Hageman, a challenger to Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who told a Wyoming reporter this year that “we don’t know” whether Joe Biden was legitimately elected. He continued to work with House candidates such as Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, who had baselessly insisted that Trump won a second term.

And Stepien found a way to remain in Trump’s good graces, continuing his work as a consultant to the former president’s political operation, Save America PAC, which has done more than any other political group since 2020 to spread falsehoods about the election’s outcome.

Stepien’s delicate dance – privately rejecting much of Trump’s post-election strategy, while publicly staying quiet and even benefiting from it – was put on display Monday, when deposition recordings revealed by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol showed that Stepien had concluded in the days after the election that Trump was almost certain to lose and that those pushing his legal strategy were misleading him.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time – 25 years – and I’ve spanned political ideologies from Trump to McCain to Bush to Christie, and I can work under a lot of circumstances for a lot of varied candidates and politicians,” Stepien said in videotaped testimony that was played during Monday’s hearing. “I think on the way, I’ve built up a pretty good, I hope, a good reputation for being honest and professional. And I didn’t think what was happening was necessarily honest or professional at that point in time. So that led to me stepping away.”

Stepien was not alone in trying to back away from Trump’s embrace of some electoral delusions while at the same time retaining his personal favor. Trump advisers such as daughter Ivanka Trump; his son-in-law, Jared Kushner; former senior counselor Kellyanne Conway; and former attorney general William Barr have all been revealed in recent months to have opposed or distanced themselves from Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results.

Stepien, who skipped Monday’s hearing because his wife went into labor, could not be reached for comment.

But a person close to him, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, said that Stepien’s disagreements with Trump were over legal strategy and that they did not contradict the views of Stepien’s other political clients.

Jason Miller, another senior adviser to Trump’s 2020 campaign, said Stepien had remained an adviser in good standing despite the disagreements that led him to back away from the Trump campaign team after the election – and has repeatedly briefed Trump since the former president left office.

“Bill is one of the most hardcore supporters of President Trump, and he’s consistent anytime you speak with him, either in front of the cameras or talking to respective clients,” Miller said. “There are many of us who remain concerned about the various reports of fraud and irregularity over the election, who should have gotten a better hearing. Different people have different levels of intensity in expressing those positions.”

Trump’s own spokesman dismissed the Jan. 6 committee’s use of Stepien’s testimony as a political ploy, suggesting that it was motivated by a desire to help Cheney’s reelection hopes in Wyoming. Cheney is vice chair of the committee.

“The day after a poll was released showing @Liz_Cheney getting destroyed by Trump-endorsed @HagemanforWY, the committee just happened to subpoena Stepien, who is running Harriet’s campaign,” Taylor Budowich wrote in a tweet Sunday. “This circus is beyond an embarrassment and will forever stain the integrity of congress.”

Stepien’s firm, National Public Affairs, has been paid nearly $1.6 million, including expenses for advertising, this election cycle by Republican campaigns and political committees, according to public filings. This includes $220,609 from two Trump-run political committees.

Leading up to the 2020 election, Stepien regularly complained that the Trump campaign had been in rough shape when he took over in the summer of that year, and he told others that the campaign was likely to lose, according to people who spoke to him. But he sometimes painted a more optimistic picture for Trump, according to people who heard his presentations.

In the days after the election, Stepien regularly convened calls in which he urged donors and supporters to keep fighting, and even promised potential protests to be staged throughout the country, according to audio reviewed by The Washington Post. He also helped to reassign staff in the days after the vote to mount election challenges.

But his view of Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, and Trump’s ad hoc legal team after the election was dim. He soon began reducing his time at campaign headquarters and his visibility to Trump, advisers say. Yet he did not want to be seen as publicly critical of Trump’s chances at the time and tried to “just quietly back away,” in the words of a person with knowledge of his actions. He bought a house in another state and left Washington, D.C., by Inauguration Day, and soon married a former Republican political operative.

“He was out of there as soon as he could,” a senior campaign official said. “He didn’t want to stay around for any of it.”

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
President Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, is seen on a screen during the House Jan. 6 committee’s hearing on June 13, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

Stepien complained privately that Trump was no longer listening to legal advice from figures such as Justin Clark, Stepien’s business partner, and was instead focused on conspiracy theorists such as Sidney Powell, a former assistant U.S. attorney. Trump and others complained in turn about how quickly Stepien had removed himself, according to a person who has spoken to Trump.

Outside the hearing room Monday, Stepien attorney Kevin Marino defended his client.

“The way Mr. Stepien always conducts himself is by following the numbers and being completely truthful and accurate about where they are,” Marino said. “He has been very clear about his view as to what happened in the 2020 election, and you can rest assured that he isn’t advising anyone to suggest anything to the contrary.”

Stepien has worked since the 2020 election for six members of Congress who voted on Jan. 6, 2021, to reject electors who would have certified Biden’s victory: Jackson and Reps. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio; Jason Smith, R-Mo.; Mary Miller, R-Ill.; Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla.; and Jeff Van Drew, R-N.J.

Jackson, Trump’s former White House doctor who left amid a Pentagon misconduct investigation, was quick to start repeating Trump’s false claims of fraud shortly after the 2020 election.

Last November, Jackson called the omicron of the coronavirus wave a “Midterm Election Variant,” suggesting that the new strain of the virus was an excuse for Democrats to “CHEAT” through mail ballots. A spokesman for Jackson did not immediately respond to a phone message.

In his testimony to the Jan. 6 committee, Stepien said he had tried to convince Trump about the value of mail-in ballots during the campaign, even enlisting the support of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. “But the president’s mind was made up,” Stepien said in his testimony.

Smith, the Missouri congressman, demanded a federal investigation of alleged election fraud shortly after Election Day in 2020. He supported Texas’s lawsuit seeking to overturn the election at the Supreme Court and called Trump’s impeachment on charges of inciting the insurrection a “show trial.”

Miller, the Illinois Republican, claimed it was “impossible” for Trump to lose. The day before the Jan. 6 riot, she quoted Hitler while speaking a rally outside the Capitol, prompting calls for her resignation. She later apologized. She was also criticized when her husband, a state legislator, parked a truck on Capitol grounds displaying a decal for the anti-government Three Percenters movement.

Mullin called Biden “illegitimate,” and Davidson wrote an op-ed asserting Congress’s authority to decide the election on Jan. 6. Van Drew, who switched parties during Trump’s first impeachment, joined 125 other House Republicans in supporting the Texas lawsuit seeking to overturn the election but later acknowledged Biden as “duly elected.”

Stepien has also worked for Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich R, whom Trump has criticized for not doing more to challenge the election results in that state, and Mike Gibbons, a failed candidate for Senate in Ohio whom Trump also passed over for an endorsement.

His most high-profile clients, however, have been two challengers to Trump’s principal antagonists inside the Republican Party – Cheney and Murkowski, who both voted to impeach Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 attack.

Stepien’s clients in those races, Hageman and Tshibaka, have stopped short of publicly calling the election result fraudulent, while at the same time inviting the support of voters who doubt its legitimacy and calling for changes to election administration.

In Hageman’s first paid campaign ad, the candidate is compared to cowboys who would “ride for the brand,” or the trademark of the ranch where they worked.

“In the Old West, when a cowboy rode for the brand, it meant they were loyal to their outfit, to the person who hired them, to the one who paid them,” a cowboy says in the spot.

“Liz Cheney doesn’t know what riding for the brand means,” a second cowboy adds.

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., vice chair of the House Jan. 6 committee, departs during a break in the panel’s hearings June 13, 2022, in Washington, D.C.