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Former President Donald Trump’s election lies are finding both refuge and rebuke in an increasingly fractured political landscape.
It’s a dizzying reality playing out in split-screen fashion as the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, insurrection warns of the dangers tied to voter fraud lies while election deniers capture political nominations across the country.
Take Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony on Tuesday before the committee investigating the US Capitol attack. The aide to then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows offered an explosive look at the lead up to the insurrection and the role that election lies played in the violence:
Trump allegedly lunged at Secret Service agents following Ellipse speech. Hutchinson testified that a White House official, Tony Ornato, recounted Trump screaming, “I’m the f**ing President. Take me up to the Capitol now,” following his speech on January 6. Trump then “reached up toward the front of the vehicle to grab at the steering wheel,” Hutchinson remembered learning.
She added that, according to Ornato, Trump used his other hand to “lunge” at Robert Engel, who was the Secret Service agent in charge that day.
After the testimony, a Secret Service official familiar with the matter told CNN that Ornato denies telling Hutchinson that the former President had grabbed the wheel or an agent on his detail.
The Secret Service, through the Department of Homeland Security Office of Legislative Affairs, notified the committee Tuesday afternoon that it will make the agents involved available to testify under oath, the official said. The agents are prepared to say under oath that the incident itself did not occur.
Apathy about supporters with weapons. “I overheard the President say something to the effect of, ‘I don’t f**king care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me,’” Hutchinson said in previously taped testimony aired on Tuesday. She said she heard Trump call for metal detectors to be removed.
“Take the f**king mags away. Let my people in, they can march to the Capitol from here. Let the people in, take the F-ing mags away.”
The White House anticipated chaos. On January 2, 2021, Hutchinson said that Meadows “was scrolling through his phone; I remember leaning against the doorway and saying, ‘I just had an interesting conversation with Rudy, Mark. It sounds like we’re going to go to the Capitol.’ He didn’t look up from his phone and said something to the effect of, ‘There’s a lot going on, Cass, but I don’t know, things might get real, real bad on January 6.’”
She added: “That evening was the first moment that I remember feeling scared and nervous for what could happen on January 6.”
Days before the riot, Rudy Giuliani previewed plans. “Cass, are you excited for the 6th? It’s going to be a great day. … We’re going to the Capitol. It’s going to be great. The President is going to be there, it’s going to look powerful,” Giuliani said, according to Hutchinson.
Now, consider the 2022 primaries to this point
In state after state, Republican candidates are advancing to general elections with campaigns anchored in election lies. Should enough of them win in November, the GOP will be in a far better position to attack the results of the 2024 presidential election if it doesn’t go their way. What’s even more troublesome is that some of these Republicans are running to be the chief elections administers in their states, potentially giving them great oversight of the 2024 election.
Just this month, for example, Republican Jim Marchant, who has said he would not have certified Joe Biden’s victory in his state, won his party’s nomination for secretary of state in Nevada, a key presidential battleground.
In Texas, the state Republican Party adopted a resolution that rejects Biden as the winner of the 2020 election. And in New Mexico, a Republican-led county commission earlier this month refused to certify the results of the June 7 primary election in the county, citing concern about Dominion voting machines and questions about a handful of individual votes in this month’s primary. (The majority of the commission has since voted to certify the results, ending a standoff with state officials after the Democratic secretary of state had sought a state Supreme Court order to force the certification.)
Last month, Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a leading voice advancing Trump’s lies about election fraud, won the crowded Republican primary for governor.
The next critical measure of Republican tolerance for election denialism came Tuesday night.
Indicted Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, Colorado’s most prominent election denier, lost the GOP nomination in the state’s primary to become secretary of state. Pam Anderson, a former Jefferson County clerk, will win the Republican nomination, CNN projects.
Anderson, who will face Democratic incumbent Jena Griswold in November, received endorsements from current and former elected officials including three former secretaries of state.
Even in the illogical world of election denial, Peters has been a remarkable figure.
She and her top deputy were indicted in March after an investigation by local authorities into a security breach that resulted in confidential voting machine logins, and forensic images of their hard drives, being published in a QAnon-affiliated Telegram channel in early August 2021.
In May, a district judge stripped Peters of her duties overseeing this year’s elections in Mesa County. She has pleaded not guilty.
Peters has also repeatedly aligned herself with far-right figures who have advanced Trump’s lies about widespread election fraud. She appeared at the “Cyber Symposium,” a gathering of election deniers last year in which a host of debunked conspiracy theories about the 2020 election were promoted, and in Colorado with MyPillow chief executive Mike Lindell.
Even when they don’t prevail, candidates like Peters – and there are many – only add pressure to the January 6 committee to try to reach the same voters that election deniers are targeting.
Can anything break through the election denial noise?
The task is a tall one. But if there’s anything so far from the January 6 hearings that could resonate with Trump loyalists who subscribe to his election lies, it could be testimony like Hutchinson’s.
Far from a Trump critic, Hutchinson worked in the White House in close proximity to the then-President at the time he was challenging the 2020 election – something that gives her account a unique credibility.
Trump attempted to cast Hutchinson’s testimony as revenge on Tuesday, claiming she was “very upset and angry that I didn’t want her” to join his post-presidency staff at his Palm Beach residence. But those around the former President had very different takeaways.
Read this report from CNN’s Gabby Orr and Pamela Brown. Aides to the former President were left speechless during Tuesday’s hearing.
- “This paints a picture of Trump completely unhinged and completely losing all control which, for his base, they think of him as someone who is in command at all times. This completely flies in the face of that,” one Trump adviser said.
- “This is basically a campaign commercial for (Florida Gov.) Ron DeSantis 2024,” another Trump ally told CNN.
- “Anyone downplaying Cassidy Hutchinson’s role or her access in the West Wing either doesn’t understand how the Trump [White House] worked or is attempting to discredit her because they’re scared of how damning this testimony is,” former White House deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews tweeted.
Additionally, one GOP lawmaker told CNN they weren’t able to catch the whole hearing but that it was “enough to make me throw my lunch against the wall” – a reference to how Trump, according to Hutchinson’s Tuesday testimony, threw his lunch against the wall in anger after then-Attorney General William Barr told the Associated Press in December 2020 there was no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
Whether Republican voters have a similar reaction remains to be seen. But it’s hard to imagine a more convincing rebuke of election denialism than what the January 6 committee presented on Tuesday.
This story has been updated with additional reporting Tuesday.
CNN’s Josh Campbell, Gabby Orr and Eric Bradner contributed to this report.