Bill Stepien—campaign manager for former President Donald Trump for the last 115 days of the 2020 campaign—was the most anticipated witness scheduled to appear at Monday’s hearing of the House of Representatives committee investigating January 6.
A Trump loyalist whose consulting firm is leading the campaign of committee Vice Chair Rep. Liz Cheney’s pro-Trump primary challenger Harriet Hageman, he was expected to be more adversarial than other witnesses. And unlike other witnesses, he had not voluntarily agreed to testify but was complying with a subpoena.
But less than an hour before the scheduled start of the hearing, reporters learned that Stepien would not be showing up because his wife had gone into labor. Yet Stepien’s testimony—in the form of video and audio of previous depositions in the committee’s investigation—was still at the center of lawmakers’ case that Trump and his campaign apparatus engaged in what Rep. Zoe Lofgren called “a sustained effort to deceive millions of Americans with knowingly false claims of election fraud” that, in turn, directly inspired the January 6 mob.
The committee’s goal Monday was to show that Trump had no standing to make the false election claims he has continued to peddle, and he heard as soon as Election Night 2020 that the claims were baseless. The committee tried to prove the case inside and out—inside by highlighting testimony from some of Trump’s closest campaign advisers and administration officials, and outside by calling on the on-the-ground officials across the country (all Republicans) who debunked the Trump campaign’s election lies.
In her opening remarks Monday, Cheney said the audience would “hear firsthand testimony that the president’s campaign advisers urged him to await the counting of votes and not to declare victory on election night. The president understood even before the election that many more Biden voters had voted by mail—because President Trump ignored the advice of his campaign experts and told his supporters only to vote in person.”
Stepien’s pre-recorded video testimony provided key evidence for these claims.
He recalled a summer 2020 meeting between himself, Trump, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, in which Stepien and McCarthy argued that getting Trump supporters to vote by mail would give them less time to change their minds or decide not to vote, and also reduce the magnitude of a “red mirage” on Election Night—the phenomenon of a Republican leading in early returns only to be overtaken later in the night as mail-in ballots are tallied.
Instead, Trump continued to rail against mail-in votes ahead of Election Day.
Stepien said that on Election Night in the White House, he told Trump to hold off on declaring victory in his speech. “It was far too early to be making any sort of calls like that,” he said in his testimony.
Trump rebuffed the advice, told Stepien he was wrong, and chose instead to heed the recommendation of Rudy Giuliani—who, according to campaign adviser Jason Miller’s testimony to the committee, was noticeably drunk at the time. Trump went on to claim in his speech that night that “frankly, we did win this election.”
On November 7, the day most news networks called the race for Joe Biden, Stepien said his assessment of the Trump campaign’s chances of winning the election through realistic legal challenges were “very, very, very bleak,” between 5 and 10 percent.
But specific claims of fraud continued to funnel to Trump’s campaign staff. At one point, Stepien enlisted campaign lawyer Alex Cannon to investigate what he thought was a “wild” claim of “illegal citizens” voting in Arizona. It turned out that the group of ballots in question belonged to citizens voting from overseas. Frustrated by reports like these, Trump soon replaced his campaign’s legal team with a new team led by Giuliani and Sidney Powell, who trafficked in some of the wildest conspiracy theories. After Powell was sued by Dominion Voting Systems for defamation, her lawyer said that “no reasonable person” would have considered her statements factual.
Monday’s hearing also featured extensive video testimony from former Attorney General William Barr, who announced his resignation from Trump’s administration on December 14, 2020. Barr described Trump as “detached from reality” and with “no interest in what the facts actually were.” When he first mentioned the claims made in the recent Dinesh D’Souza film 2,000 Mules, Barr laughed out loud.
“It didn’t establish widespread illegal harvesting,” he said, adding that “[t]he other thing people don’t understand is that it’s not clear that even if you can show harvesting that that changes the results of the election.”
Barr went on to describe his sense of the state of the president’s mind and his willingness to accept advice both before and after the election. “I felt that before the election it was possible to talk sense to the president—and while you sometimes had to engage in a big wrestling match with him, that it was possible to keep things on track. But I felt that after the election, he didn’t seem to be listening … I was inclined not to stay around if he wasn’t listening to advice from me or his other cabinet secretaries.”
In addition to the video testimony from Stepien, Barr, and others, the committee heard live testimony from former Fox News politics editor (and current Dispatch contributing editor) Chris Stirewalt, who explained and defended the process that went into his team’s decision to call Arizona for Biden on Election Night—the first major network to do so. Stepien said the call caused surprise, anger, and disappointment for Trump and his inner circle in the White House.
The second part of the hearing included testimony from a panel of witnesses outside the Trump apparatus who were deeply familiar with aspects of the fraud claims Trump was pushing.
BJay Pak, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia during most of the Trump administration, said he was asked by Barr on December 4, 2020, to look into an allegation raised by Giuliani about an alleged suitcase stuffed with ballots in Fulton County. In his investigation, Pak found that the “suitcase” was actually a secure lockbox used to store ballots over the course of the counting process. He said the full, unedited video footage that inspired the false allegation shows election workers locking the box and putting it away, thinking they were done for the night, before returning, reopening it, and continuing their work. At no point in that process were any ballots scanned more than once. Pak said FBI interviews of the people in the video confirmed this account.
Al Schmidt, at the time the only Republican on the three-member City Commission of Philadelphia (which manages elections in the city), said that he and his colleagues were also asked to investigate claims of fraud, including Giuliani’s assertion that there were more than 8,000 votes from dead voters. The board found no evidence to support them. After an angry Trump tweeted about him by name, Schmidt began receiving specific, graphic threats toward his family.
Benjamin Ginsberg, a lawyer famous for his work representing George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore, explained the normal process for targeted, post-election litigation—which springs from analysis of credible reports of discrepancies—and contrasted it with the Trump campaign’s shotgun approach to the false fraud claims. Trump’s team filed 62 post-election lawsuits. It lost 61.
In her closing statement, Lofgren paired the “Big Lie” with what she termed the “Big Rip-Off,” in which the Trump campaign solicited small-dollar individual contributions to an Official Election Defense Fund before funneling that money into various unrelated conservative PACs and organizations (including the group that organized that January 6 rally at the Ellipse). Whether or not this activity constituted a crime is unclear—but what is clear is that these donors, like the Capitol rioters, were responding to the mound of election lies.
Cheney put the overarching message most succinctly in her opening statement: “Mr. Chairman,” she said, “hundreds of our countrymen have faced criminal charges, many are serving criminal sentences, because they believed what Donald Trump said about the election, and they acted on it. They came to Washington, D.C., at his request. They marched on the Capitol at his request. And hundreds of them besieged and invaded the building at the heart of our republic.”
Two more hearings scheduled for later this week, the third and fourth of an expected total of six, will focus on Trump’s efforts to weaponize the Justice Department and pressure former Vice President Mike Pence. Wednesday’s hearing is expected to feature in-person testimony from former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and former acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, both of whom were featured in video and audio evidence on Monday. Thursday’s hearing is expected to feature Michael Luttig, a former conservative federal judge, and Greg Jacob, former counsel to Pence.