Around 5 within the afternoon on Christmas Day in 2020, as many Americans were celebrating with family, President Donald J. Trump was at his Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Fla., on the phone with a little-known conservative lawyer who was encouraging his attempts to overturn the election, in keeping with a memo the lawyer later wrote documenting the decision.
The lawyer, William J. Olson, was promoting several extreme ideas to the president. Mr. Olson later conceded that a part of his plan might be thought to be tantamount to declaring “martial law” and that one other aspect could invite comparisons with Watergate. The plan included tampering with the Justice Department and firing the acting attorney general, Jeffrey A. Rosen, in keeping with the Dec. 28 memo by Mr. Olson, titled “Preserving Constitutional Order.”
“Our little band of lawyers is working on a memorandum that explains exactly what you may do,” Mr. Olson wrote in his memo, obtained by The Recent York Times, which he marked “privileged and confidential” and sent to the president. “The media will call this martial law,” he wrote, adding that “that’s ‘fake news.’”
The document highlights the previously unreported role of Mr. Olson in advising Mr. Trump because the president was increasingly turning to extreme, far-right figures outside the White House to pursue options that lots of his official advisers had told him were unattainable or illegal, in an effort to cling to power.
The involvement of an individual like Mr. Olson, who now represents the conspiracy theorist and MyPillow chief executive Mike Lindell, underscores how the system that might normally insulate a president from rogue actors operating outside of official channels had broken down inside weeks after the 2020 election.
That left Mr. Trump in direct contact with individuals who promoted conspiracy theories or questionable legal ideas, telling him not only what he desired to hear, but additionally that they — not the general public servants advising him — were the one ones he could trust.
“In our long conversation earlier this week, I could hear the shameful and dismissive attitude of the lawyer from White House Counsel’s Office toward you personally — but more importantly toward the Office of the President of the USA itself,” Mr. Olson wrote to Mr. Trump. “That is unacceptable.”
It was not immediately clear how Mr. Olson, who practices law in Washington, D.C., and Virginia, arrived in Mr. Trump’s orbit. Mr. Olson previously worked with Republican super PACs and promoted a conspiracy theory that Vice President Kamala Harris will not be eligible to be vice chairman, falsely claiming she will not be a natural-born U.S. citizen. He and his firm have long represented Gun Owners of America, an advocacy group.
In line with his website, which displays a photograph of him shaking hands with President Richard M. Nixon, Mr. Olson was a White House intern in 1971.
Key Revelations From the Jan. 6 Hearings
His 2020 memo was written 10 days after some of the dramatic meetings ever held within the Trump White House, during which three of the president’s White House advisers vied — at one point almost physically — with outside actors to influence Mr. Trump. In that meeting, on Dec. 18, the lawyer Sidney Powell and Michael T. Flynn, the previous national security adviser, pushed for Mr. Trump to seize voting machines and appoint Ms. Powell special counsel to research wild and groundless claims of voter fraud, whilst White House lawyers fought back.
However the document suggests that, even after his aides had won that skirmish within the Oval Office, Mr. Trump continued to hunt extreme legal advice that ran counter to the recommendations of the Justice Department and the counsel’s office.
And the memo indicates that Mr. Trump was acting on the skin advice. At one point, it refers back to the president urging Mr. Olson to contact the acting attorney general about having the Justice Department lend its credibility to Mr. Trump’s legal efforts to invalidate the election results.
An individual aware of the work of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol said the committee was aware that Mr. Olson was in touch with Mr. Trump and that it was exploring Mr. Olson’s role in pushing forward plans to overturn the 2020 election.
Mr. Olson didn’t reply to requests for comment.
A spokesman for Mr. Trump didn’t reply to a request for comment concerning the former president’s relationship with Mr. Olson.
In line with his memo, Mr. Olson was discussing with Mr. Trump the notion that the Justice Department would intercede with the Supreme Court to reverse his electoral defeat.
The court had declined to listen to a case that allies of Mr. Trump in Texas had brought difficult the election ends in Pennsylvania, saying the plaintiffs lacked standing.
Mr. Olson told Mr. Trump that he believed the Justice Department “will do nothing except proceed to expire the clock.”
“While time to act was short after we spoke on Christmas Day, time is about to expire,” he wrote.
It was unclear which White House lawyer Mr. Olson referred to in his memo. On the time, the White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone; Patrick Philbin, his deputy; and one other lawyer who didn’t work for the counsel’s office, Eric Herschmann, were working in tandem to ward off on a number of the more outlandish ideas being really helpful. Mr. Cipollone and Mr. Herschmann had taken lead roles throughout the Dec. 18 White House meeting in countering Ms. Powell and Mr. Flynn.
“The sensation I had was that not only was he not offering you any options, but that he was there to ensure you probably did not consider any,” Mr. Olson wrote, referring to the unnamed White House lawyer. “But you do have options.”
Amongst those whom Mr. Olson mentioned as talking to Mr. Trump concerning the Justice Department getting involved was Mark Martin, the previous chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. White House officials believed on the time that Mr. Martin was brought in through Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff.
Mr. Olson urged Mr. Trump to rent one other lawyer, Kurt Olsen, who had worked on the Texas case.
“As I emailed Molly Saturday morning,” Mr. Olson wrote, referring to Mr. Trump’s assistant, “we began acting in your query about our team revising the grievance filed by Texas into what might be the primary draft of a grievance filed by the USA. The lawyers with whom I even have been working took on that task, and we now have a draft that might be presented to you to review, and by you to Mr. Rosen to edit, improve and file.”
In his memo, Mr. Olson recounted that in their discussions, he had told Mr. Trump that he had followed the president’s suggestion to call Mr. Rosen just a few hours earlier requesting that the acting attorney general file a lawsuit to attempt to block Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s Electoral College victory.
Mr. Trump, based on Mr. Olson’s memo, was aware that Mr. Rosen was slow-walking his request. The suit was never filed; Mr. Rosen testified last month before the Jan. 6 committee that doing so was out of the bounds of the law.
A spokesman for Mr. Rosen said that he didn’t recall speaking with Mr. Olson, but that it was accurate that the acting attorney general was against filing any lawsuits to interfere with the election results.
On the time of the memo, Mr. Trump had decamped to Mar-a-Lago, but Mr. Olson encouraged him to return to Washington to fight the election results from his perch within the White House. Mr. Trump did so shortly thereafter, working through the vacations on difficult the election results.
“I don’t imagine you may do what’s required to be done from Florida,” Mr. Olson wrote to the president. “And, it could send a message about your commitment to the duty, to depart Mar-a-Lago to take charge on the White House. I urge you to return as soon as it may well be arranged.”
Mr. Olson also encouraged Mr. Trump to fireplace or reassign Mr. Rosen should he not go together with the plans to make use of the Justice Department to challenge the election in court, though Mr. Olson acknowledged such motion would draw negative news coverage.
“This step will likely bring on a thousand stories making an analogy to ‘Saturday Night Massacre’ in 1973 when President Nixon ordered AG Elliot Richardson to fireplace Archibald Cox as a special counsel investigating Watergate,” he wrote.
Mr. Olson said a recent White House counsel should take steps to make sure a “fair election count,” though he conceded that might be seen by the news media as “martial law.”
After Mr. Trump left office, Mr. Olson joined the legal team of Mr. Lindell, who has promoted a series of conspiracy theories concerning the election and has been sued for defamation by a former worker of Dominion Voting Systems. Mr. Lindell, who crashed the Oval Office in the ultimate days of the presidency hoping that Mr. Trump would still take motion related to the election, was adamant that Mr. Trump can be reinstated as president in 2021, something that was impossible.
Mr. Lindell sued the Jan. 6 committee, looking for to block the panel’s subpoena to Verizon for his call logs. The suit, which Mr. Olson filed together with other lawyers, argued that Mr. Lindell’s communications about his objections to the 2020 election were protected speech, partly because they were tied to his religious beliefs.
“Mr. Lindell has widely publicized that his 2020 election integrity activities are motivated, partly, by his strongly held religious beliefs,” the lawyers wrote within the suit.