Donald Trump mulled naming Sidney Powell, who floated election conspiracy theories, as voter fraud special counsel

During a White House meeting, the outgoing president also asked about deploying the military to 'rerun' the election. Ex-NSA Michael Flynn, whom Trump recently pardoned, called on the president to declare martial law

The New York Times December 20, 2020 16:31:03 IST
Donald Trump mulled naming Sidney Powell, who floated election conspiracy theories, as voter fraud special counsel

Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on 3 December, 2020. Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Donald Trump on Friday discussed naming Sidney Powell, who as a lawyer for his campaign team unleashed conspiracy theories about a Venezuelan plot to rig voting machines in the United States, to be a special counsel overseeing an investigation of voter fraud, according to two people briefed on the discussion.

It was unclear if Trump will move ahead with such a plan.

Most of his advisers opposed the idea, two of the people briefed on the discussion said, including Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer. In recent days Giuliani has sought to have the Department of Homeland Security join the campaign’s efforts to overturn Trump’s loss in the election.

Giuliani joined the discussion by phone initially, while Powell was at the White House for a meeting that became raucous and involved people shouting at each other at times, according to one of the people briefed on what took place.

Powell’s client, retired Lieutenant General Michael T Flynn, the former national security adviser whom the president recently pardoned, was also there, two of the people briefed on the meeting said. Some senior administration officials drifted in and out of the meeting.

During an appearance on the conservative Newsmax channel this week, Flynn pushed for Trump to impose martial law and deploy the military to “rerun” the election.

At one point in the meeting Friday, Trump asked about that idea.

Powell’s ideas were shot down by every other Trump adviser present, all of whom repeatedly pointed out that she had yet to back up her claims with proof. At one point, one person briefed on the meeting said, she produced several affidavits, but upon inspection they were all signed by a man she has previously used as an expert witness, whose credentials have been called into question.

The White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, and the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, repeatedly and aggressively pushed back on the ideas being proposed, which went beyond the special counsel idea, those briefed on the meeting said. Cipollone told Trump there was no constitutional authority for what was being discussed, one of the people briefed on the meeting said.

Other advisers from the White House and the Trump campaign delivered the same message throughout the meeting, which stretched on for a long period of time.

Trump was defeated in the election by President-elect Joe Biden by more than seven million votes. The states have confirmed Biden’s Electoral College victory by a margin of 306-232.

But Trump, egged on by supporters like Powell, has never conceded, and, holed up inside the White House, he continues to assert that he actually won — even though the baseless claims Powell and others have made of widespread fraud have been thoroughly debunked, and even many of Trump’s closest allies have dismissed as preposterous her tale of an international conspiracy to rig the vote.

Trump tends to think of justice department appointees when he describes special counsels, but those briefed on the meeting said the idea was for Powell to serve as a special counsel within the White House, appointed by the president, according to those briefed on it.

Trump also asked about Powell being given security clearances to pursue her work, two of the people briefed on the meeting said.

Powell accused other Trump advisers of being quitters, according to the people briefed.

But the idea that Trump would try to install Powell in a position to investigate the outcome sent shock waves through the president’s circle. She has repeatedly claimed there was widespread fraud, but several lawsuits she filed related to election fraud have been tossed out of court.

A White House spokesperson, Powell and a spokesperson for Giuliani did not respond to requests for comment.

Trump has been in contact with Powell at other times in recent days, even though his campaign last month sought to distance itself from her as she aired wild and baseless claims about Dominion Voting Systems machines, which were used in some states, somehow being connected to a Venezuelan plot to control the election.

Dominion officials have demanded that Powell retract her claims. The Trump campaign on Saturday sent a memo to campaign officials telling them to preserve documents related to Powell and Dominion in case of legal action by the company against Powell, according to a report by CNN that a campaign official confirmed.

Since the election, Trump had pushed the outgoing Attorney-General, William Barr, to appoint a special counsel to look into election fraud as well as one to investigate Hunter Biden, the President-elect's son. Barr, people briefed on the matter, has been unwilling to do what Trump wanted.

Trump and Giuliani have been pushing for data that would provide evidence of widespread election fraud. Barr has said the justice department has found no evidence of fraud on a scale that would change the outcome of the election.

Part of the White House meeting Friday night was a discussion about an executive order to take control of voting machines to examine them, according to one of the people briefed on the discussion.

Giuliani has separately pressed the Department of Homeland Security to seize possession of voting machines as part of a push to overturn the results of the election, three people familiar with the discussion said. Giuliani was told the department does not have the authority to do such a thing.

The conversation between Giuliani and Ken Cuccinelli II, the acting deputy secretary of the Homeland Security Department, took place in the past week, according to the people familiar with the discussion, who were granted anonymity because they were not authorised to describe the conversation.

The department oversees the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the agency responsible for safeguarding critical systems, such as elections and hospitals.

Cuccinelli is said to have told Giuliani that there is no authority by which the agency, which spent the year working with state election officials to prepare for the election, could assert control over voting machines in those states.

It was unclear whether Trump facilitated the phone call.

Giuliani called Cuccinelli this week to push the department to reexamine the machines to find evidence of what the Trump campaign has called widespread fraud, two of the people briefed on the discussion said.

The effort by Trump’s campaign to use the cybersecurity agency in the push to overturn the results of the election comes after the president last month fired the head of that agency, Christopher Krebs. Before he was ousted, Krebs joined other top election officials in calling the 2020 election “the most secure in American history.”

State and local governments take the lead in managing elections in the United States, while the cybersecurity agency primarily provides support, guidance and intelligence to the local leaders on potential threats to the voting system.

“We don’t own those networks, and we do not have independent legal authority to go in and start combing through those networks,” said Suzanne Spaulding, an undersecretary for cybersecurity and critical infrastructure in the Obama administration.

“Efforts that appear to be driving a partisan agenda, particularly completely unfounded allegations, significantly undermine the hard work these men and women have been engaged in for years."

Cuccinelli, who led the federal government’s legal immigration agency before rising to become the second-highest ranking official in the Homeland Security Department, emerged as one of the public faces of the department’s cybersecurity efforts in the weeks before the election, joining Krebs in urging patience when it comes to counting the votes.

Maggie Haberman and Zolan Kanno-Youngs  c.2020 The New York Times Company

 

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