Meadows and the band of loyalists: How they fought to keep Trump in power

The New York Times
Washington, USWritten By: Katie Benner, Catie Edmondson, Luke Broadwater and Alan Feuer ©️ 2021 The New York TimesUpdated: Dec 16, 2021, 10:21 PM IST
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FILE - The House of Representatives reconvenes to continue the process of certifying the 2020 Electoral College results after the storming of the Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2021. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times ©️ 2021 The New York Times). Photograph:(The New York Times)

Story highlights

Trump had been handing out Donoghue’s cellphone number so that people could pass on rumors of election fraud. Who could be calling him now? 

Two days after Christmas last year, Richard P. Donoghue, a top Justice Department official in the waning days of the Trump administration, saw an unknown number appear on his phone.

Donoghue had spent weeks fielding calls, emails and in-person requests from President Donald Trump and his allies, all of whom asked the Justice Department to declare, falsely, that the election was corrupt. The lame-duck president had surrounded himself with a crew of unscrupulous lawyers, conspiracy theorists, even the chief executive of MyPillow — and they were stoking his election lies.

Trump had been handing out Donoghue’s cellphone number so that people could pass on rumors of election fraud. Who could be calling him now?

It turned out to be a member of Congress: Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., who began pressing the president’s case. Perry said he had compiled a dossier of voter fraud allegations that the department needed to vet. Jeffrey Clark, a Justice Department lawyer who had found favor with Trump, could “do something” about the president’s claims, Perry said, even if others in the department would not.

The message was delivered by an obscure lawmaker who was doing Trump’s bidding. Justice Department officials viewed it as outrageous political pressure from a White House that had become consumed by conspiracy theories.

It was also one example of how a half-dozen right-wing members of Congress became key foot soldiers in Trump’s effort to overturn the election, according to dozens of interviews and a review of hundreds of pages of congressional testimony about the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.

The lawmakers — all of them members of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus — worked closely with the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, whose central role in Trump’s efforts to overturn a democratic election is coming into focus as the congressional investigation into Jan. 6 gains traction.

There was Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the pugnacious former wrestler who bolstered his national profile by defending Trump on cable television; Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, whose political ascent was padded by a $10 million sweepstakes win; and Rep. Paul Gosar, an Arizona dentist who trafficked in conspiracy theories and spoke at a white nationalist rally.

They were joined by Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, who was known for fiery speeches delivered to an empty House chamber and unsuccessfully sued Vice President Mike Pence over his refusal to interfere in the election certification; and Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, a lawyer who rode the Tea Party wave to Congress and was later sued by a Democratic congressman for inciting the Jan. 6 riot.

Perry, a former Army helicopter pilot who is close to Jordan and Meadows, acted as a de facto sergeant. He coordinated many of the efforts to keep Trump in office, including a plan to replace the acting attorney general with a more compliant official. His colleagues call him General Perry.

Meadows, a former congressman from North Carolina who co-founded the Freedom Caucus in 2015, knew the six lawmakers well. His role as Trump’s right-hand man helped to remarkably empower the group in the president’s final, chaotic weeks in office.

Congressional Republicans have fought the Jan. 6 committee’s investigation at every turn, but it is increasingly clear that Trump relied on the lawmakers to help his attempts to retain power. When Justice Department officials said they could not find evidence of widespread fraud, Trump was unconcerned: “Just say that the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me and the R. Congressmen,” he said, according to Donoghue’s notes of the call.


On Nov. 9, two days after The Associated Press called the race for Biden, crisis meetings were underway at Trump campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

Perry and Jordan huddled with senior White House officials, including Meadows; Stephen Miller, a top Trump adviser; Bill Stepien, the campaign manager; and Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary.

According to two people familiar with the meetings, which have not been previously reported, the group settled on a strategy that would become a blueprint for Trump’s supporters in Congress: Hammer home the idea that the election was tainted, announce legal actions being taken by the campaign, and bolster the case with allegations of fraud.

Gosar embraced the fraud claims so closely that his chief of staff, Tom Van Flein, rushed to an airplane hangar parking lot in Phoenix after a conspiracy theory began circulating that a suspicious jet carrying ballots from South Korea was about to land, perhaps in a bid to steal the election from Trump, according to court documents filed by one of the participants. The claim turned out to be baseless.


On Dec. 1, 2020, Attorney General William Barr said publicly what he knew to be true: The Justice Department had found no evidence of widespread election fraud. Biden was the lawful winner.

The attorney general’s declaration seemed only to energize the six lawmakers. Gohmert suggested that the FBI in Washington could not be trusted to investigate election fraud. Biggs said that Trump’s allies needed “the imprimatur, quite frankly of the DOJ,” to win their lawsuits claiming fraud.

They turned their attention to Jan. 6, when Pence was to officially certify Biden’s victory. Jordan, asked if the president should concede, replied, “No way.”

On Dec. 21, Trump met with members of the Freedom Caucus to discuss their plans. Jordan, Gosar, Biggs, Brooks and Meadows were there.

“This sedition will be stopped,” Gosar wrote on Twitter.


On Jan. 5, Jordan was still pushing. That day, he forwarded Meadows a text message he had received from a lawyer and former Pentagon inspector general outlining a legal strategy to overturn the election.

“On January 6, 2021, Vice President Mike Pence, as President of the Senate, should call out all the electoral votes that he believes are unconstitutional as no electoral votes at all — in accordance with guidance from founding father Alexander Hamilton and judicial precedence,” the text read.

On Jan. 6, Washington was overcast and breezy as thousands of people gathered at the Ellipse to hear Trump and his allies spread a lie that has become a rallying cry in the months since: that the election was stolen.

Brooks, wearing body armor, took the stage in the morning, saying he was speaking at the behest of the White House. The crowd began to swell.

“Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass,” Brooks said. “Are you willing to do what it takes to fight for America?”

Trump approached the dais soon after. “We will never give up,” Trump said. “We will never concede.”

Roaring their approval, many in the crowd began the walk down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol, where the certification proceeding was underway. Amped up by the speakers at the rally, the crowd taunted the officers who guarded the Capitol and pushed toward the building’s staircases and entry points, eventually breaching security along the perimeter just after 1 p.m.

By this point, the six lawmakers were inside the Capitol, ready to protest the certification. Gosar was speaking at 2:16 p.m. when security forces entered the chamber because rioters were in the building.

As the melee erupted, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, yelled to his colleagues who were planning to challenge the election: “This is what you’ve gotten, guys.”

When Jordan tried to help Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., move to safety, she smacked his hand away, according to a congressional aide briefed on the exchange.

“Get away from me,” she told him. “You fucking did this."

A spokesman for Jordan disputed parts of the account, saying that Cheney did not curse at the congressman or slap him.

The back-and-forth was reported earlier by Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker in their book “I Alone Can Fix It.”

The Aftermath

Perry was recently elected leader of the Freedom Caucus, elevating him to an influential leadership post as Republicans could regain control of the House in 2022. The stolen election claim is now a litmus test for the party, with Trump and his allies working to oust those who refuse to back it.

All six lawmakers are poised to be key supporters should Trump maintain his political clout before the midterm and general elections. Brooks is running for Senate in Alabama, and Gohmert is running for Texas attorney general.Some, like Jordan, are in line to become committee chairs if Republicans take back the House.

In many ways, they have tried to rewrite history. Several of the men have argued that the Jan. 6 attack was akin to a tourist visit to the Capitol. Gosar cast the attackers as “peaceful patriots across the country." A Pew research poll found that nearly two-thirds of Republicans said their party should not accept elected officials who criticize Trump.

Still, the House select committee investigating the Capitol attack appears to be picking up steam, voting this week to recommend that Meadows be charged with criminal contempt of Congress.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. and the chairman of the committee, said the panel would follow the facts wherever they led, including to members of Congress.

“Nobody,” he said, “is off-limits.”