WASHINGTON – With his allegations of widespread voter fraud rejected by dozens of judges and GOP leaders, President Donald Trump has turned to a group of conspiracy theorists, media-hungry lawyers and other political misfits in a desperate attempt to overcome his election loss.
The president's job has become more extreme as his more mainstream allies, including Attorney General William Barr, have rejected his increasingly radical plans to overthrow the will of voters. Trump's unofficial election advisory board now includes a criminal, supporters of QAnon conspiracy theory, a White House trade adviser, and the former lover of a Russian agent.
Members of the group gathered in the Oval Office on Friday for a marathon meeting that lasted more than four hours and included discussion of tactics ranging from imposing martial law in swing states to confiscating voting machines via executive fiat. The meeting exploded into screaming contests when outside White House advisers and aides clashed over the lack of a cohesive strategy and disagreed on the constitutionality of some of the proposed solutions.
Trump's desire to remain in power was further tempered on Monday when Barr said he saw no reason for the federal government to seize voting machines and that he had no intention of appointing special counsel to investigate allegations of voter fraud. .
“If I thought that a special counsel was the right tool and appropriate at this stage, I would name one, but I don't have, nor will I,” Barr said at a press conference.
Barr, who will leave his post on Wednesday amid disagreements with Trump, is the last government official to go to the exit or fall out of favor with the president after failing to support his baseless allegations.
In the place of the allies, Trump has welcomed figures from the political periphery who have offered him optimism and ideas for staying in power. Their brutal proposals have confused some of the president's aides and allies, who have warned that attempting to enlist the military or challenge states' electoral processes through executive power would run counter to the constitution and politics would backfire, said officials who, like others, on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy.
However, Trump was not deterred – despite losing last month's election to President-elect Joe Biden by more than 7 million votes and a 306 to 232 margin in the electoral college.
After meeting with his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani on Monday, Trump met in the Oval Office with a group of Republicans from the House Freedom Caucus, including elected Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., A public supporter of the QAnon conspiracy theory. whose campaign was characterized by racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic statements. That was followed by a second meeting in the Cabinet Room with Giuliani, House lawmakers and Vice President Mike Pence, an administrative official said.
Aides said Trump has frantically sought ways to undo his loss – sidelining officials who are trying to help him over it and those who claim to have embraced a solution.
"They've dropped hundreds of thousands of ballots in every state. It's all documented," the president falsely claimed on Monday in a call to a rally of the pro-Trump youth organization Turning Point USA in West Palm Beach, Florida. “The problem is we need a party that is going to fight. And we have some great congressmen doing it. And we have others, some great fighters. But we won this in a landslide. They know it and we have it. Need support from – like the Justice Department and other people should finally come forward. ”
Greene is one of the members of the House who has indicated that they would try to challenge the certification of the Jan. 6 election result by Congress. Trump has encouraged the move despite the long odds, in an attempt to persuade GOP lawmakers to sign up.
"He is reaching for straw," said a senior official. & # 39; If you come in and tell him he's lost and it's over, he doesn't want to hear from you. He's looking for people who can tell him what he wants to hear. & # 39;
The White House and the Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Monday's meeting at the White House followed an Oval Office meeting on Friday that was one of the most controversial to date in Trump's seven-week post-election attempt to turn his fate.
Around the Resolute Desk on Friday was Sidney Powell, the lawyer who has promoted an unfounded claim that hostile nations manipulated voting machines to flip votes for Biden; Michael Flynn, the recently pardoned former national security adviser who has publicly proposed invoking martial law to "essentially repeat an election"; former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne, who now promotes election conspiracy theories; and White House officials including Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Secretary of Staff Derek Lyons and Counsel Pat Cipollone. Giuliani called into the meeting by phone.
After hours, the Oval Office erupted in raw bitterness when the outside advisers suggested some extreme measures to reverse the results, while White House officials pointed out that such actions would be unconstitutional or otherwise unworkable.
Powell and others told the president on Friday that they had evidence that the voting machines had been tampered with, although White House officials said the evidence was nonsense. Powell & # 39; s presence in the West Wing – and her return for additional meetings, including on Monday – are an indication that the outsiders are gaining power.
Powell had been publicly fired from Trump's legal team last month, with several Trump advisers saying the president felt a conspiracy-filled press conference she held on Nov. 19 had been too bizarre. Trump has since pulled back to her because other advisers don't give him paths to victory – and she claims to have paths, aides said. At Friday's rally, Trump considered appointing Powell as special counsel to investigate voter fraud, officials said.
Trump also relies heavily on White House trade adviser Peter Navarro for information on the election, officials say.
Giuliani suggested that the federal government seize and inspect voting machines from states where the president is disputing his loss.
Flynn, who had said on Newsmax the day before that Trump could order the military to repeat elections in key swing states, was on hand to discuss his idea.
White House aides strongly pushed back the idea of invoking martial law, officials said, but the raw sentiments of the rally have since spilled over into the public mind.
Powell, who has repeatedly told the president that his aides are too shy and should take stronger steps, has made some of her criticism public since the meeting.
While Powell, Flynn and Giuliani were well-known advisers to Trump before the election, Byrne has emerged as a relatively new character in the president's orbit. He has filled a void left after years of aides including Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner, campaign manager Bill Stepien and his deputy, Justin Clark, have largely disappeared from the scene.
Byrne wasted no time sparring with Trump's remaining advisers.
He has taken to social media to taunt the other officials present at Friday's rally, accusing Cipollone of being a "leaker" and saying the president is surrounded by "lying mediocrities" who want to lose him – including his senior attorney and his chief of staff. .
As founder and CEO of Overstock, Byrne was known as an eccentric but often prophetic financial forecaster. For years he kept a blog called Deep Capture, in which he made up wild conspiracy stories and claimed he was a target of Russian mobsters because of his exposure to short-selling Wall Street stock schemes.
He resigned from the shopkeeper in August 2019, after revealing that he was in a multi-year romantic relationship with Maria Butina, the Russian graduate who pleaded guilty in April 2019 to a conspiracy to act as a Russian agent and tried to indict build on behalf of the Kremlin with prominent Republican politicians and conservative organizations, including the National Rifle Association.
Butina spent five months in federal prison and was deported to Russia in October 2019.
Byrne has said he came to believe Butina was just a nosy student, claiming that the allegations against her were part of a "deep state" plot to hurt Trump. The allegations, which he initially brought up on Overstock's stationery, caused the company's stock to plummet last year and was eventually impeached as CEO.
In interviews with conservative media personalities in recent weeks, Byrne has promoted the same conspiracy theories about the 2020 election that were backed by Powell. He has claimed that he is working with hackers who have shown that massive security flaws can be used to manipulate votes in key provinces, stealing Trump's presidency.
"This is a soft coup, make no mistake," he told conservative radio personality Glenn Beck this month.
Byrne, who did not respond to interview requests, says he spent millions of dollars investigating the election out of concern for the country. He describes himself as a libertarian who did not vote for Trump.
But speaking at a pro-Trump rally in Washington this month, he called the election an operation of hostile foreign states, including China and Iran.
On Sunday, Byrne turned his anger on Trump's aides. The president, he wrote on Twitter, was "terribly served" by White House officials – a comment endorsed Monday by former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale.
Byrne said Trump is "in hoses up to his waist" and that he should trust only Giuliani and Powell.
Trump has also complained that he doesn't get enough loyalty from his allies, a coping mechanism when he finds himself losing, said Nancy Rosenblum, a professor of ethics in politics and government at Harvard University.
"When he feels humiliated, he naturally claims that his allies are weak, that there is no one with any courage," said Rosenblum, co-author of "A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy." "So it is not surprising that he had to go to more extreme measures."
On Monday, Trump criticized a conservative judge in Wisconsin who sided with him in a fraud case. Although Biden's victory has been certified in Wisconsin and upheld by state and federal courts, Trump called on the state-led Republican legislature to step in and reverse the results.
"Major Republicans in Wisconsin should make these three powerful decisions in front of their state legislatures and quash these ridiculous state elections," Trump wrote on Twitter, referring to the dissent in the 4-on-3 case against him.
He ended the tweet with a false statement made repeatedly: "We won in a LANDSLIDE!"
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The Washington Post's Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.
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