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Trump's strategy to overturn the 2020 election didn't work. Next time it might

Supporters of President Trump protest outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Alex Edelman
AFP via Getty Images
Supporters of President Trump protest outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

On the night before the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Washington Post reporter Robert Costa walked through the streets of D.C., surrounded by a throng of Trump supporters. He says he remembers a particular energy in the crowd that night.

"They were clashing with police officers. They were fighting with each other. There was a euphoria," Costa says. "The mob ... it was loud."

Costa's new book Peril, which he co-wrote with journalist Bob Woodward, centers on President Trump's final days in office — specifically the events leading up to and following the Capitol siege.

As the crowd agitated outside, Costa says, inside a "war room" at the nearby Willard hotel, Trump lawyers and allies, including Rudy Giuliani, Steve Bannon andJason Miller, were laying out a strategy to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

According to Costa, Trump attorney John Eastman drafted a memo suggesting that an alternate slate of electors be used as a tactic to stop the certification of the election results.

"They were trying to get [Vice President] Pence and others to move the election to the House of Representatives to block Biden from taking office," Costa explains.

Costa says that Pence declined to go along with the plan — mostly because there were no alternate slates of electors on hand. But, Costa adds, "Imagine if in January 2025, Republicans are much more organized and they have alternate slates of electors ready in many states. What happens then?"

Ten months later, hundreds of members of the mob who stormed the Capitol are facing prosecution for their actions. But it remains to be seen whether anyone from the Willard war room will be charged.

"The looming question for Merrick Garland, the attorney general, is: Is he going to go at the key players, who may not be directly tied to the violence or may not have their fingerprints on the steel bars that were used against the Capitol Police officers that day, but [who] were part of planning an effort to defraud the United States?" Costa says. "I'm not a lawyer, but I think raising the question is certainly understandable based on all of this reporting."

Interview highlights

On the scene on the street the night of Jan. 5 and into Jan. 6

<em>Peril</em> by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa
/ Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster
Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa

[The crowd] was so loud that Trump could hear them. And Trump doesn't like being outside — from what I've witnessed over the years, he's more of an indoor person — but he keeps the door to the Oval Office open on the night of the 5th after Pence leaves just so he can hear the mob. And Woodward said to me, it's almost like when he was writing The Final Days with Carl Bernstein, when [Richard] Nixon was talking to the pictures on the wall, Trump is talking to the mob. A few aides come in from the press shop, and say, "Mr. President, Mr. President, it's cold. We closed the door. Why is the door open?" [And Trump says,] "I want to hear my people. Listen. They have courage. Listen." And he keeps the door open for the whole meeting on the night of Jan. 5.

On Trump's direct calls to the Willard war room

The fact that the calls happened is very important in the context of the whole insurrection because for months, as reporters, we know that Trump was pressuring Pence in the Oval Office. That's been well-documented, and we knew that Giuliani and Bannon were up to a lot of stuff in Washington that night. What we wanted to figure out when we were looking at this book is was there a connection between the two? And the fact that Trump calls Bannon and Giuliani after Pence leaves the White House around 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 5 to update them, it shows that there is at the very least coordination between these two power centers on the eve of an insurrection. It will be up to the DOJ to decide whether this is a conspiracy, a crime to defraud the United States.

On the statement the Trump campaign issued Jan. 5 about Pence's support, which wasn't true — and the resulting tension between the president and the vice president

It was a campaign statement on Trump campaign letterhead saying, in Donald Trump's words, that Mike Pence fully agrees with me. The quote that stunned the Pence people was "Mike Pence is in total agreement that on Jan. 6, the election should be overturned and he should move it to the House." It was issued on a formal statement.

This is where you start to see the crack in the American democratic system — when the vice president and president are not in sync, and the president starts to speak for other constitutional officers. This is where Pence and his team really go into a bunker mode and they don't even share the letterPence ultimately releases on Jan. 6, explaining his decision to not try to do anything crazy on Jan. 6. They don't even share it with the White House counsel or with Trump. That was the level of tension between the president and the vice president.

On a possible criminal charge of defrauding the U.S. for those who organized the insurrection

It's a well-known part of the U.S. Code, and if someone wants to look it up, it's 18 U.S. Code 371. It means that if you have one or two people conspiring to commit an offense against the United States, to defraud the U.S., then you have committed a crime and you shall be fined or imprisoned for possibly up to five years. This is a crime, and it's been prosecuted many, many times.

On the perils that remain and the threats to our democracy

You have a former president in Donald Trump who refuses to share documents to give any kind of information to an investigation about an insurrection that his friends and allies were part of, at least on the legal and political level, in trying to force the election to be overturned. There is violence and connections that need to be explained at a grassroots level and potentially at a higher level. And these unanswered questions are part of the peril that remains. If we don't have accountability in truth and answers in a democracy, then what kind of democracy is it?

There are so many things that we just still don't know. ... What else don't we know about the domestic side of things? The QAnon movement, the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers seem to be growing by the day across the country. There's a violence and extremism and a lot of the rhetoric now, publicly. You see Trump out there ... he's as active as ever. ... There is a huge effort, whether it's the Arizona "audit" — isn't an audit at all. But the Arizona effort to maybe say Trump won the state. All these Republican-controlled states have people in them, in the Legislature's key leaders who are doing a lot to try to change election laws, change voting rights. And [House Majority Whip] Jim Clyburn ... says in our book that "democracy is on fire" because, on the federal level, Democrats won't break the filibuster and pass voting rights legislation that they all agree on. But Republicans are very busy passing their voting laws in different states. And what I just see on the horizon is a collision of some sort on the voting rights issue and on the foundation of democracy. If the system's not functioning and people aren't accepting reality and pushing to change the laws, who knows what happens next?

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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