Who's who in Donald Trump's desperate last stand
Posted December 22, 2020 5:40 p.m. EST
CNN — A ragtag team of former aides, lawyers, elected Republicans and sycophants from the outside have grabbed Donald Trump's ear at a time when many of his longtime allies in government have backed away from the President's increasingly extreme ploys for staying in office.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has acknowledged Joe Biden won the election in a speech on the floor of the Senate. Outgoing Attorney General William Barr has said there was no widespread election fraud and insisted there was no need for a special counsel to investigate the election nor for the Justice Department to seize voting machines.
And top White House aides Mark Meadows and Pat Cipollone have pushed back on Trump's consideration of extreme measures to hold onto power -- often by redirecting his attention to less damaging but no more plausible ways of stopping Biden from taking office.
In the face of this resistance and frustrated with his lack of options, Trump is looking for support from his last-ditch kitchen Cabinet, many of whom gathered in the Oval Office late last week for a contentious strategy session. As the President enters his final weeks in office, this remnant of advisers is falsely telling him exactly what he wants to hear: that he can still reverse the election results.
Here is the unofficial team still indulging a President unable to accept reality.
A former federal prosecutor and longtime defense attorney, Sidney Powell has emerged as a leading pro-Trump conspiracist. Powell has been at the White House for three of the previous four days, including during the Friday Oval Office meeting in which she and her client, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, faced off against Meadows and Cipollone.
In that meeting, which sources told CNN devolved into a shouting match, Powell and Flynn raised the idea of naming Powell as a special counsel or in another official role to investigate voting machines as sources of fraud.
Trump's own administration has dismissed such allegations, which Powell had raised in numerous appearances in public and on cable news in the weeks following the election. She has also implicated both the companies who owned and operated those machines and even Republican elected officials in a broad scheme to deny Trump reelection.
It was too much for Trump's campaign, which claimed in a November 21 statement that Powell was acting in her private capacity and not on its legal team. But weeks later, she appears to be back in the President's good graces.
Newly pardoned by Trump for pleading guilty of lying to the FBI, Michael Flynn has returned to the President's inner circle, years after resigning from the White House.
In addition to backing up his attorney Powell's case at the White House last week, Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a retired Army general, has been boosting the cause of reversing the election by extreme means.
On December 1 he tweeted a press release from a pro-Trump group calling on "limited martial law" to conduct a "new election." Flynn made an explicit call for Trump to declare martial law on the right-wing cable network Newsmax last week, and one person told CNN the idea surfaced in the Oval Office on Friday. (Trump, for his part, claimed the discussion of martial law was "fake news.")
Flynn has cultivated his own fervent group of supporters since his resignation as national security adviser in February 2017. His claims of persecution by the FBI in their investigation into Russian meddling have fueled the movement to urge Trump to pardon him.
Flynn has also appeared to co-opt slogans and symbols of the QAnon conspiracy theory, aligning himself with a community of people who believe Trump is taking down a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles within the government.
One standby for Trump has been his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, who was spotted at the White House on Monday, as was Powell. Giuliani did not return multiple questions from CNN on his visit there nor his view on installing Powell or anyone else a special counsel to investigate the election.
Interestingly, he has tried to distance Trump and the campaign from Powell's activities. Giuliani told Newsmax on Monday that Powell is "definitively" not part of Trump's legal team.
The former New York mayor, who served as an attack dog for Trump's reelection, led the legal team's unsuccessful efforts to overturn the results in key states before their certification. He was frequently the public face for the campaign's push against certifying Biden's win, resulting in a few embarrassing displays.
Giuliani has also encouraged the federal government to intervene to help Trump's efforts. Last week, sources told CNN, he called the Department of Homeland Security's Ken Cuccinelli and asked if it was possible for DHS to seize voting machines. Cuccinelli reportedly replied that doing so was beyond the authority of the department.
After Giuliani contracted Covid earlier in December, he receded for about a week as he recovered in a Washington hospital. Since then, he has continued to push conspiracy theories about election fraud to the President.
A relatively new player in Trump's slate of advisers is Patrick Byrne, the founder of online retailer Overstock.com. Byrne tweeted about his attendance at the Friday Oval Office meeting soon after, casting blame at the President's other advisers and telling supporters to trust "Rudy and Sidney only."
Byrne, who resigned from Overstock in 2019 after his comments about the "deep state" triggered a steep decline in the company's stock price, has not responded to a request for comment from CNN about his participation in the meeting.
But the eccentric entrepreneur has emerged as a proponent of debunked conspiracy theories, including election fraud claims heralded by the President and Powell. He said last month he'd "funded a team of hackers and cyber-sleuths, other people with odd skills" to look into the claims.
Byrne has previously admitted in a series of interviews that he had an intimate relationship with accused Russian agent Maria Butina, which lasted from 2015 to 2018, and ultimately assisted law enforcement in their investigation of her.
Among those advising Trump to appoint a special counsel to investigate the election is Steve Bannon. The former White House strategist, who is currently under federal indictment for wire fraud and money laundering, claimed he had told Trump this himself.
"As I strongly recommended to the President, we need a special counsel named immediately -- a special prosecutor just on election fraud and voter fraud -- they're two different things, election fraud and voter fraud -- you need to do that immediately," Bannon said during a livestream with conservative pastors on Sunday night.
Bannon's star has fallen since he was first chief executive of the 2016 Trump campaign and later chief strategist in the White House. Since leaving the administration in August 2017, he has struggled to support populist political movements in Europe and elsewhere. He fell out of Trump's favor following the revelation he spoke extensively with journalist Michael Wolff, but has regained his position after starting a pro-Trump podcast about the investigation and impeachment of the President.
Bannon also joined in a media venture with an exiled Chinese businessman, Guo Wengui. It was on Guo's yacht that he was arrested by federal authorities in August for his involvement in the We Build the Wall fundraising operation, which prosecutors say was fraudulent.
Administration officials say Trump has taken to consulting his top trade adviser Peter Navarro on election fraud claims. Navarro has used his White House perch about unsubstantiated claims of election fraud.
"What we seek here is verifiable ballots, certifiable ballots and an investigation into what are growing numbers of allegations of fraud under signed affidavits by witnesses, and my own view looking at this election, we have what appears in some sense to be an immaculate deception," Navarro said in a November 13 appearance on Fox Business.
Last week, Navarro released his own "Immaculate Deception" report, currently hosted on the website of Steve Bannon's podcast. The 30-page document alleges "election irregularities" but does not demonstrate widespread fraud.
Navarro appeared on Bannon's podcast to discuss the issue, saying he'd been personally phoning lawmakers in six states where Trump and his team still hope to overturn the results.
"There are a lot of traditional Republicans who don't want to get on the Trump train. I can't explain what's going on in these state legislators except to say they don't embrace economic nationalism and they've turned their back on the President," Navarro said.
Mo Brooks and members of the Freedom Caucus
If there remains a longshot chance for Trump to create electoral mischief, it's in Congress. On January 6, both chambers are expected to ratify the Electoral College results, but the President's loyalists hope to make their stand.
Leading the effort is Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, who also spearheaded a letter last week to congressional leadership urging hearings into voter fraud allegations.
Brooks and a contingent that included Reps. Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz and Louie Gohmert met with Trump on Monday at the White House to discuss the option, which is all but certain to fail, given the House Democratic majority and the desire of Senate GOP leadership to avoid a standoff over the results.
The lawmakers emerged from their meeting confident that there was a contingent of House and Senate Republicans who would join the effort and prompt a marathon debate on the floor on January 6 that would spill into the next day.
"I believe we have multiple senators and the question is not if but how many," Brooks said.
Tommy Tuberville, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Madison Cawthorn
The words of a trio of incoming Republican lawmakers suggests that loyalty to Trump and his unfounded claims of a fraudulent election will remain a part of the conversation on Capitol Hill even after Biden is inaugurated.
While most of the devotion to Trump's lost cause is in the House Republican conference, Sen.-elect Tommy Tuberville of Alabama said he will not rule out joining the effort to block ratification of Biden's win.
"You'll see what's coming. You've been reading about it in the House. We're going to have to do it in the Senate," Tuberville said in a video captured from the incoming senator's stumping in neighboring Georgia for the Senate runoff elections in that state.
Another new ally of Trump's in the new Congress will be Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who gained notoriety before her election for spreading conspiracy theories online. Since winning her own election in a heavily GOP district, Greene has baselessly claimed the presidential election in Georgia, which Biden won, was stolen.
That has her fitting right in with the most pro-Trump faction in the House GOP conference. Greene attended the Monday White House meeting with Brooks and other Freedom Caucus members.
And on Monday, Rep.-elect Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, said on Monday he would be among the House members contesting the election results.