JULY 17, 2022
The influence of fringe voices on former President Trump, highlighted by the Jan. 6 House select committee, is raising new questions about who would surround him in a second term.
The hearings have landed some tough blows on Trump, including showing how even conservatives close to the president were unnerved by the credence he gave to 2020 conspiracy theories coming from political characters well outside the mainstream.
The revelations are giving some second thoughts about putting Trump back in the White House, given the company he might keep.
“I would be surprised if he can pull many people from the A-team of Republican operatives and Republican staffers, from the chief of staff-type people all the way down to lower-level employees,” said John Sides, an author and professor of political science at Vanderbilt University.
“That was a challenge for him in his presidency the first time, and I think his actions around Jan. 6 and what has happened since then that the hearings have brought to light — I can’t imagine it makes working there any more appealing,” Sides added.
Should Trump enter the race, Sides noted, he would receive the backing of numerous Republican lawmakers and elected officials, some of whom — or their staffs — would be willing to make the jump to the White House.
The question of whose voices are most in Trump’s ear was thrust into the spotlight during a hearing this week for the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.
One major focus of the hearing was on an explosive, hours-long Dec. 18, 2020, White House meeting in which prominent election deniers such as Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani, Michael Flynn and Patrick Byrne, the founder of Overstock.com, gained access to the Oval Office and were pushing baseless theories about fraud.
The committee detailed how easily Powell and her cohort, several of whom are facing litigation over their election claims, were able to meet with Trump alone before someone alerted then-White House counsel Pat Cipollone.
Powell and others were arguing to Trump that votes had been switched from him to President Biden because of fraudulent election machines, part of a conspiracy theory involving Venezuela and the hacking of smart thermostats, witnesses told the committee.
“I was asking, like, are you claiming the Democrats were working with Hugo Chavez, Venezuelans and whomever else?” said Eric Herschmann, a former White House lawyer who, along with Cipollone, got into a heated back-and-forth with the outside advisers to Trump.
“And at one point, Gen. Flynn took out a diagram that supposedly showed IP addresses all over the world and who was communicating with whom via the machines. And some comment about, like, Nest thermostats being hooked up to the internet,” Herschmann added.
A photo displayed by the committee showed then-Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows walking with Giuliani after the meeting had broken up in order to ensure Giuliani did not meander back to the White House residence to talk to Trump more.
The meeting, which former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson described in a text at the time as “unhinged,” illustrated the types of voices with easy access to Trump in his final weeks in office as he sought to cling to power.
But multiple sources connected to Trump told The Hill that they were not aware of the former president having contact with Powell or Flynn. Trump still has occasional contact with Giuliani, one source said, and he gave a shoutout to the former New York mayor at a recent Nevada rally.
Byrne, the Overstock.com founder, told reporters Friday that Trump had not reached out to him leading up to a meeting with the Jan. 6 committee.
Many of the lawmakers who are Trump’s biggest cheerleaders and who may find influence in a future Trump administration have continued to sow doubt about the results of the 2020 election. Trump’s preferred candidates in key Senate and House races have also in many cases avoided acknowledging President Biden won in 2020.
Trump’s post-election rhetoric has also shown he is a major spreader of falsehoods about the vote, and Justice Department officials testified to the House committee that the former president largely ignored their blow-by-blow dismantling of various theories about how the election might have been fraudulent.
And the Jan. 6 hearings emphasized the critical role Justice Department officials and White House lawyers such as Cipollone and Herschmann played in pushing back on attempts by Trump allies to get in the president’s attention and circulate conspiracy theories.
Experts and watchdogs raised concerns that career Republican lawyers might stay away from a second Trump administration or that Trump would avoid hiring those such as Cipollone who pushed back on his impulses.
“I think the biggest issue for Trump to some extent is the kind of … the adults in the room were Don McGahn, Pat Cipollone, people whose legal training was meaningful and guided their thinking, and they acted in their best interest,” said Sides, the Vanderbilt professor.
“So I’m a little worried that the Republican lawyers who would fulfill that role are going to say I’m not setting foot on Pennsylvania Avenue for $1 million a year, and, moreover, I’m especially afraid that Trump, having seen what lawyers in the White House were unwilling to do to help him, he’ll be even more conscious of installing loyalists,” Sides added.