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Tears, Screaming and Insults: Inside an ‘Unhinged’ Meeting to Keep Trump in Power

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The meeting lasted for greater than six hours, past midnight, and devolved into shouting that might be heard outside the room. Participants hurled insults and nearly got here to blows. Some people left in tears.

Even by the standards of the Trump White House, where people screamed at each other and President Donald J. Trump screamed at them, the Dec. 18, 2020, meeting became often known as an “unhinged” event — and an inflection point in Mr. Trump’s desperate efforts to stay in power after he had lost the election.

Details of the meeting have been reported before, including by The Recent York Times and Axios, but at a public hearing on Tuesday of the Jan. 6 committee, participants within the mayhem offered a series of jolting recent details of the meeting between Mr. Trump and rival factions of advisers.

“It got to the purpose where the screaming was completely, completely on the market,” Eric Herschmann, a White House lawyer, told the committee in videotaped testimony. “I mean, you bought people walking in — it was late at night, it had been an extended day. And what they were proposing, I assumed was nuts.”

The proposal, to have the president direct the secretary of defense to seize voting machines to look at for fraud and in addition to appoint a special counsel to potentially charge individuals with crimes, had been hatched by three outside advisers: Sidney Powell, a former lawyer for Mr. Trump’s campaign who promoted conspiracy theories a couple of Venezuelan plot to rig the voting machines; Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser Mr. Trump fired in his first weeks in office; and Patrick Byrne, the previous chief executive of Overstock.com.

On the opposite side were Pat A. Cipollone, the White House counsel; Mr. Herschmann; and Derek Lyons, the White House staff secretary.

The arguing began soon after Ms. Powell and her two companions were let into the White House by a junior aide and wandered to the Oval Office without an appointment.

They were there alone with Mr. Trump for about quarter-hour before other officials were alerted to their presence. Mr. Cipollone recounted receiving an urgent call from a staff member to get to the Oval Office.

“I opened the door and I walked in. I saw General Flynn,” he said in a videotaped interview the committee played on the hearing on Tuesday. “I saw Sidney Powell sitting there. I used to be not joyful to see the individuals who were within the Oval Office.”

Asked to clarify why, Mr. Cipollone said, “To start with, the Overstock person, I’ve never met, I never knew who this guy was.” The very first thing he did, Mr. Cipollone said, was say to Mr. Byrne, “Who’re you?” “And he told me,” Mr. Cipollone said. “I don’t think any of those people were providing the president with good advice.”

Mr. Lyons and Mr. Herschmann joined the group. “It was not an informal meeting,” Mr. Lyons told the committee in videotaped testimony. “At times, there have been people shouting at one another, hurling insults at one another. It wasn’t just type of people sitting around on a couch like chitchatting.”

Ms. Powell, in her videotaped interview, described Mr. Trump as “very keen on hearing” what she and her two cohorts needed to say, things that “apparently no one else had bothered to tell him of.”

Mr. Herschmann said he was flabbergasted by what he was hearing.

“And I used to be asking, like, are you claiming the Democrats were working with Hugo Chavez, Venezuelans and whomever else? And at one point, General Flynn took out a diagram that supposedly showed IP addresses all around the world and who was communicating with whom via the machines. And a few comment about, like, Nest thermostats being attached to the web.”

Updated 

July 12, 2022, 7:17 p.m. ET

When the White House officials identified to Ms. Powell that she had lost dozens of lawsuits difficult the outcomes of the 2020 election, she replied, “Well, the judges are corrupt.”

“I’m like, everyone?” Mr. Herschmann testified. “Each case that you simply’ve done within the country that you simply guys lost? Every one in all them is corrupt? Even those we appointed?”

Ms. Powell testified that Mr. Trump’s White House advisers “showed nothing but contempt and disdain for the president.”

The plan, the White House advisers learned, was for Ms. Powell to develop into the special counsel. This didn’t go over well.

“I don’t think Sidney Powell would say that I assumed it was an excellent idea to appoint her special counsel,” Mr. Cipollone testified. “I didn’t think she ought to be appointed anything.”

Mr. Cipollone also testified that he was alarmed by the insistence of Ms. Powell and the others that there had been election fraud when there was no evidence. “When other people kept suggesting that there was, the reply is, what’s it? In some unspecified time in the future, you have got to place up or shut up. That was my view.”

Mr. Herschmann described a very intense moment. “Flynn screamed at me that I used to be a quitter and every part, kept on standing up and standing around and screaming at me. At a certain point, I had it with him, so I yelled back, ‘Either come over or sit your f-ing ass back down.’”

Cassidy Hutchinson, a top aide to Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, could hear the shouting from outside the Oval Office. She texted a deputy chief of staff, Anthony M. Ornato, that the West Wing was “UNHINGED.”

After the meeting had began, Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, was called in by the White House advisers to argue against Ms. Powell. Eventually the meeting migrated to the Roosevelt Room and the Cabinet Room, where Mr. Giuliani found himself alone at one point, something he told the committee he found “form of cool.”

Finally, the group ended up within the White House residence.

Ms. Powell believed that she had been appointed special counsel, something that Mr. Trump declared he wanted, including that she must have a security clearance, which other aides opposed. She testified that others said that even when that happened, they’d ignore her. She said she would have “fired” them on the spot for such insubordination.

Mr. Trump, she said, told her something to the effect of: “You see what I take care of? I take care of this on a regular basis.”

Eventually Mr. Trump backed down and rejected the skin advisers’ proposal. But early the following morning, Dec. 19, he posted to Twitter urging his supporters to reach on the Capitol on Jan. 6, the day that a joint session of Congress was set to certify the Electoral College results.

“Be there, can be wild!” he wrote.

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