Three days before rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, Utah Republican Mike Lee warned White House chief of staff Mark Meadows that some of his Senate colleagues were up to no good. “I have grave concerns with the way my friend Ted [Cruz] is going about this effort,” Lee wrote to Meadows, referring to the Texas senator’s decision to join 13 other Republican senators in objecting to the electoral count. “This will not inure to the benefit of the president.” In another text he suggested that an ongoing effort to replace legitimate state electors with fake ones “could help people like Ted and Josh [Hawley] to the detriment of DJT.”
Lee did, by this point, have concerns about the constitutionality of President Trump’s extreme efforts to reverse a legitimate election, and he ultimately would vote to certify Joe Biden’s victory. But texts obtained by CNN show that Lee, too, had spent months after the election aiding Trump’s futile effort to overturn it. His criticisms of Cruz and Hawley thus were more aesthetic than substantive: While he rightly identified that they were grandstanding in a doomed effort to aid their own political profiles, Lee wanted to overturn the election too—but with the veneer of constitutionality. Only when it became clear that the effort would fail—or that it would take a coup to get it done—did he demur.
The texts confirm what many, including the members of the House committee investigating January 6, suspect: that Republican efforts to overturn the 2020 election went far beyond the 147 GOP congressmen who voted against certifying the results. For months in the lead-up to January 6, 2021, nearly everyone in the party, including self-proclaimed constitutional scholars like Lee, were working in lockstep on Trump’s behalf.
Texts from Texas Representative Chip Roy to Meadows, which were also acquired by CNN, follow a similar arc to those sent by Lee. “We need ammo. We need fraud examples. We need it this weekend,” Roy wrote to Meadows on November 7, 2020, the day nearly every major news outlet called the election for Joe Biden. That same day, Lee wrote to share his “unequivocal support for you to exhaust every legal and constitutional remedy at your disposal to restore Americans’ faith in our elections.
“This fight is about the fundamental fairness and integrity of our election system,” he continued. “The nation is depending upon your continued resolve. Stay strong and keep fighting Mr. President.” Of course, there were no fraud examples; the president’s charges of widespread irregularities have never been substantiated. The 2020 election was both fair and legitimate. Despite this, Roy and Lee both continued to pursue a variety of efforts to overturn the election in the months leading up to January 6.
Lee, meanwhile, was pushing the White House to work with Sidney Powell, a lawyer who makes Rudy Giuliani seem like a sane and sober jurist. “Sidney Powell is saying that she needs to get in to see the president, but she’s being kept away from him,” Lee texted Meadows on November 7. “Apparently she has a strategy to keep things alive and put several states back in play. Can you help get her in?” Lee sent Powell’s contact information to Meadows; two days later, he followed up with the chief of staff, calling her a “straight shooter.” Powell believed, among other things, that CIA Director Gina Haspel had been “hurt” trying to acquire a computer with evidence of election fraud in Germany—a conspiracy popular with the QAnon set. Powell’s solution to the (fake) conundrum? Send a strike force to Germany to bring Haspel back. “They needed to get the server and force Haspel to confess,” she reportedly wrote to one Pentagon official in the lead-up to January 6.
On November 19, 2020, after Powell spouted off insane conspiracy theories involving George Soros and Venezuela at a press conference alongside Giuliani, Lee appeared to have second thoughts. I’m “worried about the Powell press conference,” Lee wrote to Meadows. “The potential defamation liability for the president is significant here. For the campaign and for the president personally unless Powell can back up everything she said, which I kind of doubt she can.” The same day, Roy texted, “Hey brother—we need substance or people are going to break.”
At no point in any of the texts was the blatantly unconstitutional attempt to overturn a presidential election considered a problem. Instead, Lee was worried about propriety: He wanted to aid in the effort but feared Powell was too crazy. (To be fair, he wasn’t wrong.) Roy, meanwhile, kept badgering Meadows about the need to provide evidence of widespread fraud but never seemed to reach the obvious conclusion: There wasn’t any. And after Powell revealed herself to be too unhinged, both Lee and Roy moved on to John Eastman, another lawyer who took an arguably even more extreme approach to overturning the election.
By December 2020, both Lee and Roy had soured on the endeavor, as Trump and his attorneys began to pursue extreme measures, like replacing slates of electors. But the texts between the two congressmen show just how widespread the effort to overturn the election was. Lee and Roy may have voted to certify the election; both condemned the riot at the Capitol. But for weeks in the fall of 2020, both were working on the effort to overturn the election. If given the opportunity—and a less bombastic path than the one followed by Trump, Giuliani, and Powell—it’s easy to imagine they would do so again.