Before a group of supportive lawyers entered the Oval Office for a photo opportunity with then-President. Donald Trump in December 2020, they received a clear instruction, according to one participant: don’t expect Trump to overturn the election.
A lawyer, Jim Troupis, toed the line. He had just managed Trump’s electoral defeat in Wisconsin and told the president in no uncertain terms that it was over in the state.
But when the conversation shifted to Arizona, attorney Kenneth Chesebro deviated from the plan. He told Trump he could still win — and explained how the “alternate voters” he helped gather in Arizona and six other states gave Trump the chance to continue contesting the election until for Congress to certify the results on January 6, 2021.
Chesebro’s optimistic comments immediately created problems by seemingly giving Trump new hope that he might still, somehow, stay in power. Former RNC Chairman Reince Priebus left the meeting “extremely concerned” about the Jan. 6 conversation. Priebus, a Wisconsin native who served as Trump’s first chief of staff, then warned Troupis and Chesebro not to tell anyone about what happened.
This dramatic account comes from Chesebro, who spoke last week with Michigan state prosecutors investigating the fake voter plot. CNN has exclusively obtained audio of this interview, which includes previously unseen details about the crucial Oval Office meeting.
Michigan’s attorney general has already charged all 16 Republican electors who cast bogus ballots in Lansing, and CNN recently reported that the investigation is still ongoing. Fifteen of the voters pleaded not guilty; one had his charges dropped as part of a cooperation agreement.
The “photo op…went south,” as Chesebro called the December 16, 2020 meeting, reveals a previously unknown instance where Trump heard directly that he had lost – which could factor into his lawsuit subversion of federal elections. But it also shows how others in Trump’s orbit relied on his illusions and aided his quixotic efforts to cling to power.
As has often happened, Trump heard what he wanted, ignoring Troupis and embracing Chesebro’s theories. Trump continued to falsely claim victory in Wisconsin and elsewhere, including on Jan. 6, when he attempted to weaponize illegitimate Republican Party voters to “disenfranchise millions of voters,” according to his filing. federal charge.
CNN has previously identified Chesebro as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Trump federal case. His cooperation in Michigan and other states could strengthen the prosecution of special counsel Jack Smith, although it is not yet clear whether Chesebro intends to cooperate directly with Smith.
Giving false hope to Trump
On December 14, 2020, the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected Trump’s lawsuit seeking to overturn the state’s election results. A few days later, Troupis and other Republican Party lawyers involved in the case traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in a Senate hearing on election issues, and also got a conciliatory photo opportunity in the office oval with Trump.
“There was a conscious effort to distract him from feeling any possibility that he could take away the election,” Chesebro told Michigan prosecutors of the thinking during the meeting with Trump. “…Our marching orders were: Don’t say anything that makes him feel more positive than he did at the beginning of the meeting. »
It is not clear who gave the so-called “marching orders” to the group of pro-Trump lawyers.
Nonetheless, Chesebro told Trump he could still win in Arizona. He also explained the basics of the fake voter scheme, whereby Trump supporters in seven critical states cast fake ballots and signed fake certificates claiming they were the legitimate voters.
“I ended up explaining that Arizona was still hypothetically possible — because the alternate electors had voted,” Chesebro told Michigan state investigators, later adding that it made “clear (to Trump) d ‘a way that perhaps it had never been before, that we had until January 6 to win.
“And that, you know, created a real problem,” Chesebro added.
A source told CNN that a visibly angry Priebus, who had set up the photo op for his home state’s delegation, intervened to end the conversation after seeing Chesebro whispering to Trump about election procedures .
“It was a photo op and Trump talked to a lot of people. I don’t think the event lasted very long,” a lawyer for Chesebro told CNN when asked about the whispers.
The fallout was rapid. Right after the meeting, Priebus was “extremely concerned” about Chesebro’s comments about Jan. 6, according to Chesebro, who told Michigan investigators that Priebus was “going to do damage control…to dampen the optimism that I imagine I had created”.
Two days later, Chesebro received a stern email from Troupis. The message, obtained by CNN, said: “Reince was very explicit in his warning that nothing from our meeting with the president can be shared with anyone. The political crosscurrents run deep and fast and neither you nor I have the capacity to navigate them.
Some details of the meeting have already been reported by the Washington Post.
Michigan investigation casts wide net
CNN previously reported that Chesebro was cooperating with state investigators in Michigan, Nevada, Wisconsin and Georgia, where he was indicted alongside Trump and 17 others, and pleaded guilty in October to participating in the voter conspiracy. (Trump has pleaded not guilty.) Chesebro hasn’t been charged anywhere else, and he hopes his cooperation at the state level will keep things that way.
During several hours of interviews last week, Chesebro provided Michigan investigators with extraordinary details about how a legal memo he wrote for Troupis in Wisconsin turned into a nationwide operation to quash the results of a presidential election, according to audio obtained by CNN.
CNN reported last week that the investigation was still active. It is led by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, who has faced intense criticism from Republicans for what they see as a partisan attempt to criminalize legally protected political activity.
According to the audio, members of Nessel’s team peppered Chesebro with questions about top Trump campaign officials and focused on how they directed fake voters in Michigan.
Investigators asked about former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, his ally and former NYPD Commissioner Bernie Kerik, Trump campaign official Mike Roman, current Trump lawyer Boris Epshteyn, Trump campaign lawyers 2020 Matt Morgan and Justin Clark, and others.
Chesebro said “it was very fluid,” but all of these players were involved.
Michigan investigators asked Chesebro detailed questions, including: Who designed the fake certificates signed by GOP voters? Who was responsible for recruiting the Michigan participants? How did signed certificates get from Lansing to DC?
He pointed investigators to Giuliani, who was “very strongly pushing the idea of alternative electors,” and said Kerik “did a lot of” the organizational activity in Michigan. Roman was “really good at carrying out operational matters,” Chesebro said, which is why he was chosen to be the point person to help with the state-by-state “whipping” operation.
Kerik and Clark had no comment for this story. A representative for Epshteyn could not be reached for comment. Giuliani, Roman and Morgan did not respond to CNN’s inquiries.
Giuliani and Roman were indicted in Georgia in connection with the election conspiracy. They pleaded not guilty. Giuliani is also an unindicted co-conspirator in the federal Trump case.
“Zero hope” in Wisconsin
In Trump’s federal case, prosecutors pointed out that Trump’s allies repeatedly told him that he lost the election. This forms the basis of Smith’s allegation that Trump “widely disseminated his false claims of election fraud for months, despite the fact that he knew, and in many cases had been directly informed, that they did not were not true.
New revelations from Chesebro’s meeting with Michigan investigators add to the list. He said Troupis, a former judge, told Trump to his face that there was nothing more he could do in Wisconsin, where the state Supreme Court narrowly threw out his case.
“It is clear that Troupis personally told the president that there was no hope for Wisconsin,” Chesebro reminded Michigan prosecutors. “Part of that message, I think, (was) designed to try to get him to concede or just, you know, give up on this long-term challenge.”
He said: “This was an effort to convey information to the customer in a way that was not completely candid.” He thought Troupis had exaggerated the finality of Wisconsin’s challenge.
Troupis did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Despite being told there was no way to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in Wisconsin, Trump pressured then-Vice President Mike Pence to reject the state’s Democratic voters on Jan. 6, as he presided over congressional certification of the 2020 results.
During the infamous January 6 speech, Trump told the crowd that “we won Wisconsin” and falsely claimed that Democrats facilitated 91,000 “illegal votes” via drop boxes and 170,000 “illegal” votes via postal ballots. Many of these same allegations were raised – and rejected – in the lawsuit Troupis filed in the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
CNN’s Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.
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