Discover more from The Bulwark
What We Know About What Trump Knew
There’s no need to guess whether Trump really believed what he said about the 2020 election: just look at the record.
WHEN DONALD TRUMP CONSPIRED to overturn the results of the 2020 election, as alleged in this week’s indictment, did he really believe it had been stolen?
The indictment charges Trump with “dishonesty, fraud, and deceit” in his efforts to impede certification of the results. It says his claims about the election “were false, and the Defendant knew that they were false.” The phrase “knowingly false” appears 33 times in the document.
This part of the case—what Trump knew or believed—might be hard to prove, because he routinely insists that he did win the election. And while Trump has a long record of spouting falsehoods, he also has a record of appearing to believe his own bullshit. If you watch or listen to Trump as he fumes that the election was stolen—for example, in his Jan. 2, 2021, phone call with Georgia of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger—he seems quite delusional.
Special Counsel Jack Smith and his team can’t read Trump’s mind and tell us what he truly believed. But the indictment does outline several incidents that illuminate Trump’s dishonesty. Here’s what they reveal.
1. Trump privately admitted that allegations he promoted were untrustworthy.
The indictment notes that on Nov. 25, 2020, “Co-Conspirator 3”—understood to be Sidney Powell, a pro-Trump lawyer—“filed a lawsuit against the Governor of Georgia falsely alleging ‘massive election fraud’ accomplished through [the Dominion Voting Systems] election software and hardware. Before the lawsuit was even filed, the Defendant retweeted a post promoting it.”
As the indictment points out, “The Defendant did this despite the fact that when he had discussed Co-Conspirator 3’s far-fetched public claims regarding [Dominion] in private with advisors, the Defendant had conceded that they were unsupported and that Co-Conspirator 3 sounded ‘crazy.’”
It’s rare to catch Trump conceding such doubts. A few of these concessions have been reported by the press or exposed at hearings of the House January 6th Committee. Smith might be holding these and other Trump comments in reserve as evidence to present at trial.
2. Trump faulted Mike Pence for excessive honesty.
According to the indictment, in a phone call on Jan. 1, 2021, Trump “berated” Pence for openly rejecting the idea that as vice president, he could block electoral votes. Pence “responded that he thought there was no constitutional basis for such authority and that it was improper. In response, the Defendant told the Vice President, ‘You’re too honest.’” After their conversation, Trump repeatedly told the public that Pence did have such authority.
If Trump really believed Pence was wrong—and if Trump valued truth in general—it’s hard to explain why he would have complained that Pence was being “too honest.” (Pence is now selling “Too Honest” merchandise on his presidential campaign website.)
3. Trump told leaders of the Department of Justice to say things he knew they didn’t believe.
The indictment says that on Dec. 27, 2020, in a phone call with Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and Acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, Trump “raised multiple false claims of election fraud,” which Rosen and Donoghue “refuted.”
When the Acting Attorney General told the Defendant that the Justice Department could not and would not change the outcome of the election, the Defendant responded, “Just say that the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.”
What’s significant about this conversation is that here, the question of dishonesty doesn’t revolve around what Trump believed. It revolves around what the two officials believed. They told Trump they didn’t believe that the election was corrupt. And he told them to say it was corrupt anyway. So he knew he was telling them to lie.
Want more of this kind of insightful, careful analysis about the Trump prosecutions? Sign up for a free or paid Bulwark account today.
4. Trump misrepresented several conversations he had witnessed.
The indictment refers to numerous incidents in which Trump’s advisers and allies—among them, his White House lawyers, his senior campaign aides, Attorney General William Barr, and Republican state officials—told him that his allegations of massive fraud were false.
In theory, one could argue that Trump sincerely believed all these people were wrong—that because they had not directly witnessed the incidents in which fraud was alleged, they were misled or mistaken.
But that excuse can’t apply to incidents in which Trump and the people disputing his claims were the central participants. The indictment cites three cases in which Trump falsely described such incidents.
In meetings and phone calls on Dec. 1, Dec. 15, and Dec. 27, the Justice Department’s top officials—Barr, Rosen, and Donoghue—consistently told Trump that his various allegations of fraud had been checked out and discredited. But on Dec. 29, “as reflected in the Vice President’s contemporaneous notes, the Defendant falsely told the Vice President that the ‘Justice Dept [was] finding major infractions.’”
In his Jan. 2 phone call with Trump, Raffensperger patiently listened to the president’s false allegations and debunked each of them. Audio of the conversation confirms this. But the next day, Trump “falsely claimed that the Georgia Secretary of State had not addressed the Defendant’s allegations, publicly stating that the Georgia Secretary of State ‘was unwilling, or unable, to answer questions such as the “ballots under table” scam, ballot destruction, out of state “voters,” dead voters, and more.’”
On Dec. 25, Jan. 1, Jan. 3, Jan. 4, and Jan. 5, Pence told Trump that as vice president, he didn’t have authority to reject or set aside electoral votes. Nevertheless, on the night of Jan. 5, Trump “approved and caused [his] Campaign to issue a public statement that the Defendant knew, from his meeting with the Vice President only hours earlier, was false: ‘The Vice President and I are in total agreement that the Vice President has the power to act.’”
As a direct participant in these conversations, Trump knew what had been said. Yet he asserted just the opposite. So it’s reasonable to infer that when he misrepresented incidents of purported fraud, he was just as indifferent to the truth.
5. Trump refused to look at evidence that contradicted him.
The indictment notes that in their Jan. 2 phone call, Raffensperger explained to Trump that a video from Georgia—which Trump cited as proof of election fraud—had been “sliced and diced” to create that false impression. Raffensperger told Trump that the full video, which discredited the fraud allegation, was available online. “We’ll send you the link,” he told the president.
Trump replied: “I don’t care about the link. I don’t need it.”
TOGETHER, THESE INCIDENTS EXPOSE Trump’s fundamental duplicity. He promoted allegations that he privately doubted or derided. He criticized Pence for being too honest. He told DOJ officials to publicly endorse accusations they didn’t believe. He lied about conversations he had directly witnessed. And when he was offered evidence that would set him straight, he refused to look.
Barr, who also argued with Trump about the fraud allegations, used to wonder whether Trump was sincere. “At first, I wasn’t sure. But I have come to believe that he knew well that he had lost the election,” the former attorney general told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins this week. What persuaded him of Trump’s deceitfulness, he explained, were two things. The first was “comments from people like [Steve] Bannon and [Roger] Stone, before the election, saying that . . . [Trump] was going to claim it was stolen, if he was falling behind on Election Night, and that that was the plan of action.” The second thing was Trump’s behavior on Election Night, which exactly matched that plan. Barr said he’s also disturbed by “the evidence that has come out since then—the press reports and the indictment,” and Trump’s manifest “lack of curiosity as to what the actual facts were.”
A man who routinely lies, tells others to lie, scorns honesty, and refuses to consider contrary evidence forfeits the presumption of sincerity. The only reasonable interpretation of his behavior after the 2020 election—spreading one falsehood after another, in defiance of everything he was told by responsible public officials, including those in his own administration—is that he was practicing deceit.