It turns out that “The Kraken” might be Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s fault—and if then-President Trump had listened to the GOP senator, he might have actually succeeded in creating a real constitutional crisis in challenging the 2020 election.
Lee reached out right after the election to Mark Meadows, then-President Trump’s chief of staff, to push for conspiracy-minded attorney Sidney Powell to take a major role in Trump’s fight to overturn his election loss. That was just the first in a series of steps he took to try to help Trump challenge his loss before growing uneasy that the president’s actions might backfire on him, according to text messages given to the House Jan. 6 Select Committee and obtained by CNN.
The text messages show that Lee was significantly more involved in trying to help Trump overturn his loss through legal means after the 2020 election than was previously known—even as he balked at some Hail Mary attempts. And Lee tried to get Trump’s team to get GOP-controlled state legislatures to overturn their own states’ election results—a move that could have triggered post-election chaos that would make the Jan. 6 riot pale by comparison.
After Lee soured on Powell, he apparently made another significant connection, suggesting that the Trump campaign look into work being done by John Eastman, who would famously draft the “coup memo” that gave a legal justification for Trump’s attempts to block Congress from certifying Biden’s election win on Jan. 6.
And while Lee, a constitutional lawyer by training, repeatedly blanched at overtly extralegal efforts to undo the election (including disagreeing with Eastman’s memo), he repeatedly pushed for Trump’s team to try to overturn the election by other means. His focus was trying to get Republican state legislators to submit alternate electors to the Electoral College that backed Trump, a move that could have led to a constitutional crisis.
Here’s the timeline.
Nov. 7: Lee texts Meadows about Powell
“Sydney Powell is saying that she needs to get in to see the president, but she’s being kept away from him. Apparently she has a strategy to keep things alive and put several states back in play. Can you help her get in?” Lee texted Meadows on Nov. 7. “It was at the president’s request that Sydney has been working on a strategy and has been trying to get in to see him. But she’s being kept out.”
Lee sent those texts to Meadows day that news outlets called the election for President Biden, and a day that Trump and his allies were scrambling for a strategy on how to contest the election.
Two days later, Lee again brought up Powell to Meadows, saying he’d met with her and other GOP senators to let them know Trump “needs to pursue his legal remedies.” Lee called Powell a “straight shooter,” said she’d told him that Trump’s attorneys had been “obstructing” the efforts to challenge the election through legal means, and warned Trump needed to “hire the right legal team and set them loose immediately” or risk losing momentum.
Lee’s infatuation with Powell didn’t last very long, however. After she and Rudy Giuliani gave a wild press conference full of baseless conspiracy theories on Nov. 19, Lee texted Meadows that he was “worried about the Powell press conference” because it opened the president up to potential defamation charges.
“Unless Powell can immediately substantiate what she said today, the president should probably disassociate himself and refute any claims that can’t be substantiated,” he warned.
Lee spent the next few days begging Meadows for guidance on what he should be saying.
Nov. 23: Lee calls for state audits, touts John Eastman
Lee had groused earlier that mail ballots in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin looked suspicious to him. So on Nov. 23, even after Wisconsin had begun a recount of all its ballots, he suggested to Meadows that the campaign call for an “audit” of four states that Trump had lost.
“I have an additional idea for the campaign. Something is not right in a few states. I think it could be proven or disproven easily with an audit (a physical counting of all ballots cast) in PA, WI, GA, and MI,” Lee texted Meadows.
He then made a suggestion: That team Trump look into John Eastman, who would later devise the plan to try to get Vice President Mike Pence to block Congress from certifying Biden’s election victory on Jan. 6. Both Pence and Lee opposed that plan, leading Trump to call a rally and have his supporters march on Congress to pressure them to go along with his scheme. That turned into a full-blown riot and ransacking of Capitol Hill.
“John Eastman has some really interesting research on this. The good news is that Eastman is proposing an approach that unlike what Sidney Powell has proposed could be examined very quickly. But to do this, you’d have to act very soon. Some believe today might be the deadline for some of this in PA,” Lee texted Meadows.
Dec. 8: Lee pushes for state GOP legislators to back Trump over their election results
On Dec. 8, less than a week before the Electoral College met to confirm Biden’s election victory, Lee made another dangerous suggestion: That the Republican legislators in a handful of states who had voted for Biden should ignore their states’ election results and instead back Trump’s electors.
This was exactly the thing constitutional scholars most feared could trigger an actual election crisis heading into the 2020 election.
“If a very small handful of states were to have their legislatures appoint alternative slates of delegates, there could be a path,” he said.
“I am working on that as of yesterday,” Meadows replied.
Less than a week later, as states convened to cast their official Electoral College votes, Trump allies did just as Lee had suggested, meeting and claiming they were the state’s real electors—what many thought would be a final Hail Mary attempt to sow chaos into the process and try to get the Supreme Court to overturn Biden’s win.
But what Lee wanted was something more dangerous. If GOP-controlled state legislatures had actually gone along with this plan and backed Trump’s electors rather than just Trump supporters play-acting at being electors, there would have been a legal argument for why they should be picked, creating a constitutional crisis because of some vagueness in federal election law.
Even weeks after the Electoral College voted, giving Biden the clear majority on Dec. 14, Lee refused to give up on that plan.
“Everything changes, of course, if the swing states submit competing slates of electors pursuant to state law,” he texted Meadows on Jan. 3, while warning that the efforts of GOP Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley to try to block Biden’s win in Congress would fail and only serve to help those senators’ political fortunes.
“Again, all of this could change if the states in question certified Trump electors pursuant to state law,” Lee continued. “But in the absence of that, this effort is destined not only to fail, but to hurt DJT in the process.”
Lee opposed Trump’s most slapdash and obviously illegal efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss. But these texts make clear he was all about the effort—he just wanted a smarter, more dangerous plan that could have succeeded.
“I know only that this will end badly for the president unless we have the Constitution on our side,” he texted Meadows on Jan. 3. “And unless these states submit new slates of Trump electors pursuant to state law, we do not.”