What was going on in the Maga bunker during Trump's final days in the White House? Who was advising him? And where was Melania? Josh Glancy speaks to the aides and allies who were there when things spun out of control.
Just after 2am on election night Donald Trump strode out onto the podium of the White House's East Room and declared victory. The band played Hail to the Chief, the crowd whooped. And Trump, standing on a stage adorned with American flags, tossed his hastily assembled script in the dustbin, as he had done so many times before. "This is a fraud on the American public," he insisted, launching a stream of baseless attacks on the growing perception that Joe Biden had prevailed. "This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win the election. Frankly, we did win this election."
And with those last six words the "big lie" was unleashed. In the early hours of November 4 Trump had planted the flag of election fraud and he would defend it until it became his Alamo, resulting in an unprecedented invasion of the US Congress and a permanent stain on his presidency.
"I think a screw came loose [on election night], I really do," says one friend of Trump. "It was such weird behaviour, the way he couldn't accept defeat. It was bizarre."
It took Trump 30 hours, after several desperate pleas from family members and multiple panicked calls from political allies, to disavow fully the insurrection that took place in his name on January 6. Only on the evening of January 7 did he rouse himself to condemn unequivocally the "violence, lawlessness and mayhem" that had been done in his name; an invasion of Capitol Hill that left five people dead, America's Congress ransacked and its democracy on the brink of total meltdown.
History will mark Trump as the only president to have summoned a violent mob to Washington and ordered them to march on Capitol Hill. He will always be known as the man who inspired the overthrow of the mighty US Congress by a QAnon shaman, a beardy guy in a "Camp Auschwitz" hoodie and a fascist Twitter troll called Baked Alaska. He is the only president to have been impeached twice.
How did things go so wrong? Was the Trump presidency always going to end this way, in violence and humiliation? Or might he have been guided towards a saner denouement? This is the story of the most powerful man on earth giving in to some of his very worst instincts, allowing a group of unhinged fantasists to tempt him towards political infamy. It's the tale of how a face-saving conspiracy theory evolved into a violent movement that shook the very foundations of America. This is how Donald Trump went off at the deep end, told by those who were in the room.
The challenge to November's election result, around which no meaningful fraud has ever been proven, began well before the votes were cast. Trump had primed the pump for months, casting aspersions on the postal balloting process and convincing millions of his supporters that he could lose only if the Democrats cheated.
It goes back to the election in 2016, which Trump insisted was rigged even though he won — that was his explanation for why he lost the popular vote. In fact it goes all the way back to his Darwinian childhood. To prevail in the Trump household, strength and resolve were critical. Truth was irrelevant, weakness a sin and defeat an impossibility.
"If he is rejected it can only be on the basis of something unjust, corrupt and criminal," says Michael D'Antonio, a Trump biographer. "That's why he set up the stolen election scenario — to protect his ego. He can't believe he actually lost, only that he was abused and victimised."
This was the foundation for what happened on November 3 and all that came next. "I've been saying this from the day I heard they were going to send out tens of millions of [postal] ballots," Trump raged on election night. He had indeed predicted it, many times, and others were quick to jump on board. Rudy Giuliani, the president's lawyer, consigliere and partner in crime, had set himself up on a computer at the heart of the White House election night party. "This thing must have been stolen," he ranted, according to the American news website Axios. "Just say we won Michigan! Just say we won Georgia! He needs to go out and claim victory."
The following day Trump's campaign aides gathered to assess the damage. All indications pointed to a relatively comfortable Biden victory in key states: Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan. But the president was having none of it. Could they conjure up a means of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat?
Key aides, including the campaign manager Bill Stepien and the senior adviser Jason Miller, hatched a plan, one that was given the royal seal of approval by Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president's influential daughter and son-in-law. The strategy relied on overturning narrow deficits in the still-counting states of Arizona and Georgia, and challenging the Wisconsin result in court.
It was a long shot, to put it mildly. But it was a plan, one that had the virtue of being at least vaguely grounded in reality. In the end, though, it was a parallel strategy cooked up by a different group that grabbed all the headlines. The second group was led by Giuliani — a celebrated former prosecutor once dubbed "America's mayor" for his heroic leadership in New York City after 9/11 — who had reinvented himself as Trump's madcap political henchman. Along with the campaign aide Jenna Ellis and Sidney Powell, a Texan lawyer with ties to the QAnon conspiracy movement, Giuliani's group took a slightly more imaginative approach to "stopping the steal".
They unleashed a torrent of allegations and bizarre theories: hundreds of dead people had voted in Nevada, they claimed. The Chinese had hacked the election system. Hugo Chavez, the long-dead president of Venezuela, had rigged the Dominion machines used to count the votes as part of a dastardly plot to smuggle communism into America. It was evidence-free. It was bonkers. It was dangerous. And Trump lapped it up.
"The only people who got into the building were those who agreed with him, and encouraged him in his more, umm, creative thinking," says Mick Mulvaney, a former Trump chief of staff, who quit the administration in the wake of the Capitol riot. "The legal team was a major part of the problem: they served him very poorly. They looked at this as a PR campaign not a legal battle — Rudy Giuliani's not a constitutional lawyer, he doesn't know anything about this stuff."
Two factions quickly emerged. Jared and Ivanka along with White House lawyers led the charge for a narrower, more targeted attempt to overturn the election. The wingnuts, captained by Giuliani, advocated a scorched earth approach.
"Ivanka and Jared and the White House lawyers were basically at war with the campaign lawyers," says one Trump legal adviser. "None of these people were what you'd call great legal minds."
Nor did this infighting produce winning results. "It was just really confusing, unfortunately," says one Trump campaign adviser. "There wasn't a coherent legal strategy. It was so inconsistent."
Occasionally Trump appeared to acknowledge defeat. According to a report by Axios, at one point he asked an aide: "Can you believe I lost to that f***ing guy? That f***ing corpse?" Ultimately, though, the president's ego prevailed and he went for broke.
"Trump has a total commitment to being extreme," D'Antonio says. "He believes you succeed by being willing to go further than the other person. He also follows the lesson taught to him by Roy Cohn [the infamous bare-knuckled lawyer who mentored Trump] — never give up, never concede. He's certain that what happens in his head is the only reasonable reality."
Such was Trump's apoplexy at the election result, he remained open to any and all suggestions, however eccentric.
Perhaps this is why Giuliani's clownish press conferences didn't deter the president. On November 7 Giuliani invited the media to Four Seasons Total Landscaping, a gardening outfit on a gritty retail park in northeast Philadelphia. Reporters arrived expecting a luxury hotel but were greeted by a post-industrial scrapyard wedged between a porn shop and a crematorium, which felt to many like an apt metaphor for the Trump presidency. Giuliani's animated diatribe was interrupted by a Sky News reporter, who gently informed him that the election had just been called for Biden. It did not go down well.
The stop-the-steal campaign continued to radicalise. At one point Giuliani called a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security to find out if the White House could seize voting machines. Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser, also joined the cabal and advocated that Trump impose martial law and use the military to rerun the election.
Two weeks after the Four Seasons debacle, the wingnuts surpassed themselves at the headquarters of the Republican National Committee in Washington. In a stifling room, what appeared to be black hair dye started melting demonically down the side of Giuliani's cheek. Powell, meanwhile, looking as though she had stepped off the set of Dynasty in a regal leopard print cardigan, spun a deranged tale that took in Chavez, a US voting server in Germany, the billionaire philanthropist George Soros and a hidden Trump landslide.
This was the "kraken", a vast and compelling conspiracy to steal the election that Powell promised would become clear at any moment. But, staying true to its mythical status, the kraken never emerged.
In the final year of Trump's presidency the United States entered a state of profound crisis. Some 200,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 since election day alone. Unemployment remains stubbornly high — close to 7 per cent. The mass vaccination campaign is off to a stuttering start. Yet from election night onwards, so focused was he on overturning the result, Trump effectively stopped governing. On top of being a Covid super-spreader, the White House became a Mary Celeste as staff submitted early resignations or stayed at home.
With Giuliani and Trump locked in a symbiotic seppuku, Kushner all but checked out, travelling to the Middle East to polish his foreign policy credentials further in Israel and the Gulf States. Melania Trump, who at times acted as a sounding board for the president, had also adjusted her gaze towards post-presidential life. Her focus in the final weeks was on redecorating the Trump living quarters at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida and reportedly overseeing a photoshoot for a coffee table memoir about furnishing the White House.
Meanwhile, an exhausted chief of staff, Mark Meadows, had failed in his doorkeeping duties, allowing Powell and other conspiracists access to the president as they pushed ever wilder theories of a Chinese-Iranian-Venezuelan (pick your poison) plot to rig the election. "Sometimes you need a little crazy," Trump reportedly told aides. The Oval Office had effectively become a QAnon hotbed. Eventually, perhaps when Powell alleged that the CIA itself had masterminded the election plot, Trump realised she was a tad on the extreme side and Giuliani cut her from the legal team.
Did Trump truly believe the election was stolen? Some have argued it was yet another grift, pointing to the estimated $200 million raised from enraged Trump supporters by the various stop-the-steal campaigns. (The ultimate destination for much of this money remains murky.)
Friends and allies are more charitable. "I honestly believe that Trump honestly believes it was stolen from him," says Stephen Moore, an economist and longtime confidante of the former president. "Once it became clear the result wasn't going to change, it would have been smart to concede. This is what I advised him to do. But he didn't want to hear it, so he didn't hear it."
D'Antonio puts the election fraud campaign in the context of Trump's career as a salesman. "It's like asking if a faith healer believes he's curing cancer when he places hands on someone's stomach. He knows it's a grift, he knows it's a lie. But as a super-salesman he persuades himself that it's true in order to believe the lie. He understands that people can see through a pitch that is half-hearted."
What quickly became apparent was that millions of people were buying into Trump's lies, with different versions of the election fraud theory spreading like a malignant tumour through conservative America. A Morning Consult poll conducted in early January found that just 22 per cent of Republicans believe the election was "free and fair". Stop the steal became a movement, tearing through social media and inspiring numerous marches on Washington, several of which ended in violence after dark: an ominous foreshadowing of what was to come.
Two very separate realities enveloped America. In one Biden was preparing to assume the presidency. He gave briefings on his plans to address the pandemic. He picked his cabinet and took congratulatory calls from world leaders. Swing states certified their election results. On December 15 even Mitch McConnell, the ultra-partisan Republican Senate leader, congratulated Biden. It was over.
In the other reality, though, Trump was very much still headed for a second term. He would prevail because he was a fighter. Because 74 million Americans wouldn't allow their voices to be silenced. Because otherwise there would be dire consequences. Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and other far-right militias planned for street warfare. Lawsuit after lawsuit was filed and rejected. It would never be over.
Eventually the two realities had to meet. On January 6 Congress would gather in Washington to count and confirm the results of the electoral college. And the Trump faithful would come together for a huge "Save America" protest march. "Be there, will be wild", the president tweeted.
In the days leading up to January 6 Trump's presidency lost some of its last remaining moorings. On December 23 Bill Barr, the president's previously loyal and pugnacious attorney general, stepped down. The pair's close relationship had collapsed after Barr reportedly told Trump that his election fraud theories were "bullshit". Trump was so outraged he responded in the third person, according to Axios. "Why would you say such a thing? You must hate Trump. There's no other reason for it. You must hate Trump."
As his chances of overturning the result became ever more remote, an increasingly bilious Trump turned against those close to him. First Barr, then Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, and then eventually his most reliable stalwart of all, the vice-president, Mike Pence.
"He kind of lost faith in the legal strategy and felt that he'd been dragged into something he shouldn't have been," says the legal adviser to Trump. "He started blaming those around him. Jared and Ivanka started saying, 'I told you so.' By the end Trump was extremely bitter, cutting people off. He got angrier and angrier and stopped communicating. He isolated himself."
On January 2 Trump made his now infamous call to the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, asking him to overturn the state's election result. It was a flagrant abuse of power that may just have tipped the state's crucial January 5 Senate runoff elections to the Democrats.
After the Republican defeat in Georgia, Trump would be leaving office with the Democrats in total control, a political catastrophe. He was now in full Tony Montana mode, determined to go down firing at his enemies. Aides began to avoid him in the White House, fearing an explosion. "He was very, very angry," says the Trump campaign adviser, "particularly at the Republicans who he felt had betrayed him. He's still aggravated by that."
Trump's final ploy was to put pressure on Pence to block the certification of the electoral college result on January 6. A deeply conservative and religious former governor of Indiana, Pence had spent four years bowing to Trump's increasingly strident demands, attempting to mediate between the president and his cabinet and projecting an image of steadiness to balance Trump's volatility. The pair made for an unlikely duo, but Pence, who harbours his own designs on the presidency and Trump's committed supporter base, remained a steadfast deputy through countless scandals. But for all his previous pliancy, at the key moment Pence refused to buckle, releasing a letter on January 5 confirming that he would do his constitutional duty and weather the inevitable backlash from his boss.
"That's when the president knew it was over," says the Trump campaign adviser. "When Pence sent the letter."
Indulging his penchant for the extreme, Trump still called Pence the following morning and attempted one last arm twist. "You can either go down in history as a patriot, or you can go down in history as a pussy," he told his vice-president, according to The New York Times. Pence demurred.
Despite his dark mood, Trump was buoyed by the large crowd that showed up on January 6. As he waited in a specially constructed tent on the Ellipse, the park to the south of the White House, the familiar Trump rally playlist entertained the masses. "Saturday night's alright for fighting," Elton John warbled over the speakers.
The rhetoric that day was fiery. Giuliani called for "trial by combat". Trump's son Don Jr told the crowd: "You can be a hero, or you can be a zero." Then the president took to the stage, promising to walk down to the Capitol with his diehard supporters. "You'll never take back our country with weakness," he said. "You have to be strong."
Having lit the match Trump slipped back to the White House to watch proceedings from the comfort of his dining room. As manic insurrectionists roamed the halls of Congress with zip ties and Tasers, shouting "Hang Mike Pence" and hunting for the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, Trump didn't appear overly bothered, tweeting about his frustration towards Pence instead of calling to check on his vice-president, who was hiding in the Capitol.
Trump's delay in condemning the violence, and reticence in calling in National Guard reinforcements to restore order, shocked even his allies. "His condemnation that day was really weak," Moore says. "He fell a few rungs. It's also hard to forgive his behaviour towards Pence. That was really low of him."
Trump's initial condemnation video, released on the evening of the insurrection at the urging of Ivanka, was so tepid — even reaffirming his belief in the stolen election — that Twitter suspended his account. It wasn't enough. White House lawyers issued dire warnings about repercussions. Calls came in from supporters, such as the senator Lindsey Graham, urging Trump to back down or risk alienating his political allies for good.
"Republican senators told him you have to tone it down," says the Trump legal adviser.
"They warned him, don't do crazy pardons, don't do 2,000 pardons. Don't pardon yourself or your family. Or you'll lose us."
Conscious of their own futures, Jared and Ivanka emphasised the immense legal and political jeopardy Trump had put himself in and pushed the president to make another — more conciliatory — video. Finally, on the evening of January 7, Trump released a full-throated condemnation of the attack on the Capitol. It was too little too late. "The entire thing really broke down over time," says the Trump legal adviser. "He got out of his depth."
The consequences of January 6 continue to unspool. Indeed Trump may be dealing with them for the rest of his life, particularly where it hurts him most: his wallet. In the wake of the Capitol Hill riot the PGA pulled its high-profile tournament from Trump's golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, and his hopes of hosting the Open Championship at his Turnberry club in Ayrshire have been dashed again. New York City has cancelled its contracts with the Trump Organisation. Deutsche Bank, the only substantial financial institution to have stuck with Trump, has also ended its relationship with him. And Twitter has permanently suspended his influential account.
"In the end he was the master of his own downfall," D'Antonio says.
Lawsuits, an impeachment trial and all manner of debt collection are coming Trump's way fast: he owes well over US$500 million in loan repayments over the next few years. But such is the scale and resilience of his support across America, recouping this money could be relatively straightforward. It has been mooted by Wall Street commentators that a US$100-a-year newsletter with ten million subscribers would cover his costs and more.
As for Trump's political legacy, given the tumult and fury of his time in office, it was always going to be highly controversial. Tens of millions of Americans still view him as the best champion they've ever had, a man who took on China and a supercilious liberal establishment on their behalf. But beyond the base Trump's reputation is radioactive and likely to stay that way.
"Even though he lost the election, we had a résumé of accomplishments we could point to — economic growth, high employment, no foreign wars," says Mulvaney. "But that legacy goes right out the window because of Jan 6. You can't offset armed insurrection with good tax policy. It will always be the first line in the history books, and rightly so."
What does Mulvaney expect next? "I'm honestly unsure, I think he's still deciding," he says. "But Donald Trump is not going to ride off into the sunset. Politics, media, online or broadcast or whatever. He will not slip quietly into the night."
Perhaps even Trump couldn't have imagined how haywire things would go after that fateful election night speech. Seduced by outlandish conspiracy theories, his deep-rooted inability to accept defeat and his contempt for the democratic process led America's strangest president down a truly calamitous path.
Such an ending was maybe inevitable. "He was never going to go graciously," says John Bolton, Trump's former national security adviser. "But I thought maybe even he wouldn't do what we saw on January 6. Not because of any virtues inherent in Donald Trump, but because if he did this then he would damage himself for ever. And he has.
Written by: Josh Glancy
© The Times of London