‘Unhinged’: The White House meeting that preceded Trump’s ‘will be wild’ tweet

Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman
A tweet by Donald Trump encouraged people to come to D.C. and protest on Jan. 6, 2021.

WASHINGTON – Late on a Friday night about six weeks after Donald Trump lost his reelection, a fistfight nearly broke out in the White House between the president’s fired national security adviser and a top White House aide.

A motley crew of unofficial Trump advisers had talked their way into the Oval Office and an audience with the president of the United States to argue the election had been stolen by shadowy foreign powers – perhaps remotely via Nest thermostats.

For hours, the group tried to persuade Trump to take extraordinary, potentially illegal action to ignore the election results and try to stay in power. And for hours, some of Trump’s actual White House advisers tried to persuade him that those ideas were, in the words of one lawyer who participated, “nuts.”

There was shouting, insults and profanity, former White House lawyer Eric Herschmann testified to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Herschmann said he nearly came to blows with Michael Flynn, a former national security adviser who was part of the Trump’s group of impromptu visitors.

“Flynn screamed at me that I was a quitter and everything. . . . At a certain point I had it with him,” Herschmann recalled in taped testimony that played at a Tuesday hearing. “So, I yelled back: Either come over, or sit your effing ass back down.”

Even for a White House known for its unconventional chaos, the Dec. 18, 2020, meeting was an extraordinary moment, demonstrating how Trump invited fringe players advocating radical action into his inner sanctum, as he searched for a way to remain in office despite losing an election.

“The west wing is UNHINGED,” declared Cassidy Hutchinson, a top aide to Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, in a text message sent as the meeting unfolded.

The rolling, hours-long shouting match was absurd, said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a committee member. But nevertheless, the night was “critical,” he argued, since it provided a forum for Trump to watch as his own advisers shot down, one by one, the false theories to which he had been clinging in hopes of staying in office.

“President Trump got to watch up close for several hours as his White House counsel and other White House lawyers destroyed the baseless factual claims and ridiculous legal arguments being offered by . . . Mike Flynn and others,” Raskin said.

Still, Trump was not dissuaded.

The wild session – during which Trump weighed seizing voting machines from key counties, deploying the National Guard to potentially rerun the election or appointing lawyer Sidney Powell as a special counsel to investigate the election – had been widely reported in past accounts of Trump’s final weeks in office.

But the committee, at its seventh public hearing on Tuesday, brought forward powerful and vivid personal testimony from six different participants – both those who wanted the president to act and those begging him not to do so – weaving them together in a video montage that intercut voices from both sides.

It took place four days after the electoral college met and, confirming the popular vote in key states, formally elected Joe Biden the next president. The committee showed clips of testimony demonstrating that Trump was told by everyone from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to Attorney General William Barr to Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia – a lawyer and son of a deceased conservative Supreme Court justice – that there was no longer a legal path for him to remain in office, and it was time to concede.

Yet somehow, the delegation that included Flynn and Powell prevailed on a junior staffer to escort them into one of the country’s most secure facilities, where the group met for a time with Trump alone before any White House staffer even realized they were in the building.

Testifying to the committee via remote video, wearing oversized glasses and an animal print top and sipping periodically from a can of Diet Dr Pepper, Powell – who had filed several unsuccessful lawsuits challenging the election – wryly explained that Trump’s aides came running when they realized what was happening.

“I bet Pat Cipollone set a new land-speed record,” she said, referring to the White House counsel.

For his part, Cipollone testified that he got a call that he needed to be in the Oval Office and rushed into the room. There, he spotted Flynn and Powell and another man he did not recognize

“I walked in, I looked at him and I said, ‘Who are you?'” said Cipollone, in one of a number of clips played by the committee of testimony given by Cipollone last week, after months of negotiations.

The man was Patrick Byrne, the former chief executive of the discount furniture outlet Overstock.com, who was helping to organize and fund Powell and Flynn’s efforts. Cipollone told the committee he was chagrined. “I don’t think any of these people were providing the president with good advice. And so I didn’t understand how they had gotten in,” he testified.

Cipollone was joined by other White House aides including Herschmann and staff secretary Derek Lyons, and the group listened as Flynn, Powell, Byrne and another lawyer working with Powell named Emily Newman assured Trump the election had been stolen. Meadows arrived eventually. Trump at times called other campaign aides and placed them on speaker phone.

“At one point, General Flynn took out a diagram that supposedly showed IP addresses all over the world, and who was communicating with whom via the machines and some comment about, like, Nest thermostats being hooked up to the internet,” Herschmann recalled.

The group recommended that Trump sign an executive order – they had brought a draft – that would appoint Powell as special counsel and instruct the Defense Department to seize voting machines, testimony showed.

But, according to Cipollone, the group was unable to answer one key question from Trump’s White House advisers.

“We were pushing back and asking one simple question as a general matter: Where is the evidence?” he recounted.

According to Cipollone, Powell and the others reacted with anger, suggesting that even asking the question was a sign that Trump’s White House team was insufficiently loyal to him. The committee emphasized the point by then showing a clip of Powell.

“If it had been me sitting in his chair, I would have fired all of them that night and had them escorted out of the building,” she testified.

All parties agreed the meeting was heated.

Three people familiar with the hours-long session told The Washington Post that the committee’s presentation captured the broad outlines of the meeting. They each spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe the private meeting.

“The only thing that they didn’t quite capture was how loud and how profane it was. It was literally people just screaming and swearing and yelling at each other for hours,” one person said.

“Sidney Powell was screaming at the president that we were trying to undermine him the whole time,” said another person, who added that much of the meeting revolved around discussion of voting machines and Powell’s promise that if she could seize the machines, she could prove her theories.

A third person told The Post that Cipollone had his jacket on to leave for dinner with his family when he got the call about the meeting. “He thought he was going to be there for a few minutes, and he was there for many hours,” the person said.

It was Lyons’ last day as a White House official, and he planned to go to dinner with friends but was unexpectedly delayed in the Oval Office. Shouting could be heard from down the hall, the person said.

Herschmann testified that the screaming got “completely, completely out there.”

“It’d been a long day. And what they were proposing, I thought was nuts,” he testified.

The committee then immediately played a video of Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, who had made his way to the White House that night and joined the meeting already in progress. Seated jacketless in a leather armchair and speaking in gravelly tones, Giuliani explained to the committee what he told Trump’s closest advisers that day: “I’m going to categorically describe it as, ‘You guys are not tough enough.’ Or maybe I put it another way, ‘You’re a bunch of pussies.'”

At some point, the meeting migrated to the Yellow Oval Room in the White House residence, where Trump served the group Swedish meatballs. (Byrne was “nonstop housing meatballs – he ate so many meatballs,” one person familiar with the gathering told The Post.) There the fighting continued.

By the end, after midnight, Powell testified that she believed that Trump had agreed to name her special counsel and extend her top secret clearance. Cipollone declined to explain to the committee what Trump said in the meeting but insisted no paperwork was ever filed to complete the appointment. Regardless, Lyons said Trump came away convinced the outsiders were working to keep him in office, as he desired. The meeting ended as it had started, Lyons testified: “Sidney Powell was fighting, Mike Flynn was fighting. They were looking for avenues that would enable it would result in President Trump remaining President Trump for a second term.”

At 12:11 a.m., with apparent relief, Hutchinson texted Anthony Ornato, then deputy chief of staff, that Powell, Flynn and Giuliani had left the building. She expressed amazement that Byrne – the former Overstock CEO – had been with the group. “Dream team!!!!” she wrote.

She then sent someone a photograph she had just taken of her boss, Trump’s chief of staff, escorting Giuliani from the building “to make sure he didn’t wander back to the Mansion.”

The White House aides might have been relieved to bring the meeting to a close. But at 1:42 a.m., Trump made clear which side in the debate had won his heart.

“Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election,” he tweeted. “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild.”