early and often

Trump Always Said He’d Declare Victory Prematurely. Only Giuliani Listened.

Donald Trump claims victory on Election Night 2020 as the First Lady looks on and Mike Pence applauds. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, there was a lot of talk about a “red mirage” scenario, in which Donald Trump would claim victory on Election Night after posting an ephemeral lead based on in-person votes before mail-in ballots could be counted. It made sense given Trump’s long and loud campaign to demonize voting by mail and to claim that any defeat would be the result of a “rigged election.”

My own timeline of Trump’s plot to overturn the 2020 election began right after the 2016 election, when sore winner Trump made the bizarre claim that illegal voting had robbed him of a popular-vote victory. (He lost the popular vote that year by over 2.8 million votes.) But by 2020, Trump’s metronomic prospective claims of fraud had become a regular part of the campaign scene. As early as May of that year, political scientists were laying out hypothetical situations in which Trump might claim victory based on early leads in key states. As the election grew close, there was credible reporting from Axios that Trump was openly discussing plans for a premature victory claim:

President Trump has told confidants he’ll declare victory on Tuesday night if it looks like he’s “ahead,” according to three sources familiar with his private comments. That’s even if the Electoral College outcome still hinges on large numbers of uncounted votes in key states like Pennsylvania …

Trump has privately talked through this scenario in some detail in the last few weeks, describing plans to walk up to a podium on Election Night and declare he has won …

Trump’s team is preparing to falsely claim that mail-in ballots counted after November 3 — a legitimate count expected to favor Democrats — are evidence of election fraud.

On day two of the House select committee hearings on January 6, however, Trump campaign advisers Bill Stepien and Jason Miller testified that they were shocked and appalled when Trump told a cheering Election Night crowd that “we have won this election,” claiming that the mail ballots beginning to roll in for Joe Biden reflected illegal postelection voting. According to Monday’s testimony, the only voice urging Trump to do what he did (and what he had implicitly been threatening to do for a long time) was a “definitely intoxicated” (in Miller’s words) Rudy Giuliani, whose access to the president that night Stepien and Miller had tried to block.

It’s hard to know which version of events to believe. Maybe Axios (and all the other observers discussing the red mirage) were just wrong and Trump never considered declaring victory prematurely until Giuliani suggested it on Election Night. Or maybe Stepien and Miller weren’t the sort of confidants to which Trump had disclosed his plans for the most important moment in the entire campaign. Or perhaps key Trump members did know he kept talking publicly and privately about pulling this incredibly dangerous and anti-democratic stunt, but they didn’t take it seriously. Or possibly, various witnesses from Team Trump aren’t being entirely truthful about what they knew. Drunk Rudy certainly makes a convenient scapegoat, particularly since Giuliani went on to make a ridiculous spectacle of himself when given a key role in the postelection “fraud” litigation.

For the purposes of the House select committee, it doesn’t really matter which version of the story is accurate; its objective is to establish that Trump knew he had lost yet still pursued a mendacious crusade to overturn his defeat, which led to the events of January 6, 2021. Unfortunately, even if Trump staffers believed all along that his election-fraud claims were a crock, they didn’t speak up when they could have prevented him from convincing millions of Americans that our election system was rife with fraud. Trump’s advisers are complicit in his lies even if they didn’t know or didn’t want to think about the lengths to which the president would take his phony narrative of a stolen election. Giuliani might have been the only person telling Trump what he wanted to hear on Election Night, but he’s not the only Trump sycophant who urged him along on his destructive path.

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Trump Said He’d Declare Victory Early. Only Rudy Listened.