“Amoral leaders have a way of revealing the character of those around them,” former FBI head James Comey wrote of his experience of working for former president Donald Trump. Comey might have had an indirect role in Trump winning the White House when he revealed he was reopening an investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server just before the 2016 presidential election. Yet between Trump’s inauguration and Trump firing him in May 2017, Comey saw firsthand how Trump could corrupt those in his employ, making them “co-conspirators,” as he put it, in his attempts to erode American democracy.
The exchanges explored how they might pull off what would have been the biggest illegal action in U.S. political history.
Comey’s reflections on corruption came to mind when I read the text messages that Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, exchanged with Mark Meadows. The exchanges between the lawmakers and Meadows, then Trump’s White House chief of staff, explored how they might pull off what would have been the biggest illegal action in U.S. political history: overturning Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election to keep Trump in office.
The two lawmakers would soon abandon their efforts to help Trump, but on Nov. 7, 2020, when it had become clear that Trump, despite the election having been called for Biden, would not be conceding, Lee assured Meadows in a text, “You have in us a group of ready and loyal advocates who will go to bat for him.”
The casual tone the men used over the next few months when discussing how to interrupt the peaceful and democratic transfer of power testifies to their immersion in a cult-like world in which loyalty to Trump, regardless of what he asked them to do, was all that mattered.
Thanks to tenacious work by journalists and the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, we are learning the details and scope of how busy Republican elites toiled on Trump’s behalf between November 4, 2020, the day after the election, and the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol. Lee, in particular, admitted at one point to putting in 14 hours a day of diligent work for his leader.
Lee told the Deseret News Wednesday that his text exchanges with Meadows had been taken out of context and were “leaked” by people with “ political motives.” Speaking of Meadows, he told the newspaper, “He knew I was not there to do his bidding.” Despite describing himself as an advocate for Trump in the text message, Lee told the newspaper that he didn’t support overturning the election.
When CNN published the text messages on April 15, Roy tweeted: “I’ll say this once. No apologies for my private texts or public positions – to those on the left or right. I stand behind seeking truth, fighting nonsense, & then acting in defense of the Constitution.”
“This doesn’t have to come down to a binary choice between (1) an immediate concession, and (2) a destruction of the credibility of the election process,” Lee texted Meadows on Nov. 7 after Biden was declared the winner. His matter-of-fact mention of an autocratic outcome — destroying faith in elections — is chilling. So is the supposed “middle-road option” Lee favored and first mentioned on that November 23. That option was attorney John Eastman’s subversive scheme to submit slates of alternate (meaning Trump-supporting) electors to Vice President Mike Pence, who was expected to approve them and reject the original slates of electors.
The job of would-be authoritarians like Trump is to lead his followers to debase themselves on his behalf. It is only late in the game that many of them realize that they are in over their heads and there is no limit to what the leader might ask them to do. This is perhaps the most dramatic story these texts tell.
“We need ammo. We need examples of election fraud,” Roy texted breathlessly on Nov. 7. But as Jan. 6 nears Roy evolves from being a frantically active collaborator to trying to put some distance between himself and the “more flamboyant members” of Trump’s team.
But by Dec. 31, Roy’s texts reveal him as having second thoughts. “The president should call everyone off. It’s the only path. If we substitute the will of states through electors with a vote by Congress every 4 years…. we have destroyed the electoral college….,” he texts Meadows. On Jan. 1, 2021, he texted, “If POTUS allows this to occur…we’re driving a stake into the heart of the federal republic…”Perhaps he was too blinded by his service to Trump to see that destroying American democracy, at least ignoring the clear will of American voters, was the plan.
By Jan. 3, 2001, Roy was out, texting Meadows, “I don’t think the president is grasping the distinction between what we can do and what he would like us to do.” Similarly, Lee did not seem to understand at first that he was dealing with someone who had no limits or checks on his behavior, who expected those around him to do whatever was necessary to keep him in office, no questions asked. It’s significant that in his last known texts to Meadows, sent that Jan. 4, Lee expressed dismay at Trump’s repaying Lee’s “14 hours a day for the last week” with public criticism. At a Jan. 3 rally in Dalton, Ga., where Trump promised to “fight like hell” to stay in the White House, he said he was a “little angry” that Lee had said he wouldn’t join an effort led by Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri to oppose the certification of Biden’s victory. He told his supporters he hoped Lee would change his mind because “we need his vote.”
We would be smart to see the anti-democratic schemes floated in these texts as options for 2024, and to plan accordingly.
“To have him take a shot at me like that in such a public setting without even asking me about it is pretty discouraging,” Lee told Meadows in a text. “So very sorry. I told him that you and I have been working it hard on his behalf,” Meadows responded.
These texts matter because the coup attempt may have failed but Steve Bannon, Lee, Eastman and others involved in it are apparently unrepentant. More than a year after the attack on the U.S. Capitol, and with all the participants in these attempts at democratic subversion still at liberty, we would be smart to see the anti-democratic schemes floated in these texts as options for 2024, and to plan accordingly.
When Lee and Meadows text each other about finding “remedies” to Trump’s situation, they are discussing how to undo a free and fair election. When they pledge to work for “election integrity,” they are considering ways to protect elections against defeats like that of 2020.
“You use his language, praise his leadership … And then you are lost. He has eaten your soul,” Comey wrote in 2019 in describing how Republicans serve Trump. That process of corruption, which made the GOP Trump’s personal tool, created the right psychological and political climate for Lee, Meadows, Roy and others to follow Trump’s bidding as he sought to attempt the most audacious crime in American electoral history.