In the weeks after he lost the 2020 election, then-President Donald Trump had a plan to stay in office – and he wanted Mitch McConnell to know about it.
If Trump could successfully pressure Republican Gov. Brian Kemp to de-certify Biden’s narrow win in Georgia, that would lead to a domino effect: Officials in Pennsylvania and Michigan would follow suit and overturn Biden’s electoral victory, Trump believed, a stunning reversal that could keep him in the White House for a second term.
And Trump was certain he could subvert the election outcome, telling McConnell, then the Senate majority leader, and other top Republicans that he had personally been on the phone with officials in Pennsylvania and Michigan – and they told him they would move to keep him in power, despite the results showing Biden had won their states.
“I’ve been calling folks in those states and they’re with us,” Trump is reported to have told the Senate GOP leaders in a private December 2020 phone call, according to a soon-to-be-released book by New York Times political reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, both CNN political analysts.
The book, “This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America’s Future,” offers insight into the former President’s mindset in the weeks after the election, a topic of high interest to House investigators now probing the roots of the January 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection. While Trump’s plan was never successful, the private pressure campaign showcases the length he was willing to go to stay in office, even as election officials in both parties certified Biden’s victory and courts across the country turned away dozens of Trump-inspired lawsuits.
An excerpt of the book, provided to CNN, also underscores the difficult political spot in which Trump’s conspiracies left McConnell, who was hoping to shift the focus away from the 2020 election and instead put the weight of the party behind the races for two Senate seats in Georgia, both of which were headed to January 2021 runoffs and would determine the next Senate majority. McConnell maintained a strategic silence over Trump’s lies in an attempt to prevent him from sabotaging the GOP’s chances ahead of the runoffs, the book said.
“We’ve got to stay focused on Georgia,” McConnell said to his colleagues right after they got off the phone with Trump in December 2020.
A McConnell spokesman declined to comment. A Trump spokesman did not dispute the account and said the former President has been consistent in his belief about widespread fraud in the 2020 election, though there’s been no evidence to support that claim.
“President Trump has been clear and consistent about the indisputable evidence of fraud in the 2020 presidential election and the need to hold those criminals accountable,” said Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich.
The phone call was one of the final conversations McConnell had with Trump. Their relationship that effectively ended after McConnell went to the Senate floor on December 15, 2020, and acknowledged Biden’s victory following states’ certification of the electoral results. The two haven’t spoken since, the GOP leader’s aides have told CNN, and the tension has only grown since McConnell pointedly blamed Trump for the Capitol attack, even as he voted to acquit the former President in his second impeachment trial last year.
McConnell bashes ‘clowns’ around Trump
But in the days before the mid-December speech, McConnell avoided any criticism of Trump’s “stolen” and “rigged” election claims, even as he was privately scoffing at the then-President.
Speaking to reporters in an ornate room just off the Senate floor on December 1, 2020, McConnell was asked by CNN why he had been quiet about Trump’s claims given the GOP leader’s long-standing concerns over electoral integrity.
“As I’ve said repeatedly we have this government for the next three weeks for sure,” he said. “And what I’m focusing on is trying to accomplish as much as we can during this three-week period, which requires dealing with the government that we have right now. The future will take care of itself. As I’ve said repeatedly, we’re going to go through these processes. The Electoral College is going to meet December 14, there’ll be an inauguration on January 20.”
But privately, McConnell was far more candid about his views.
According to the book, McConnell was worried that if he said anything to anger Trump, the President would take out his fury and effectively derail the runoff campaigns of then-Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, the two Republicans battling to hang on to the Georgia seats. In the December call, Trump had told McConnell and GOP senators that Georgia voters would not tolerate Kemp’s assurance that the November election was safe and secure – and contended that Perdue and Loeffler shouldn’t tolerate it either or otherwise they’d lose their races — as the GOP leader stayed quiet on the call.
In an interview with the two reporters in December 2020, McConnell said Trump was looking for a scapegoat ahead of the crucial Georgia runoffs.
“What it looks to me like he’s doing is setting this up so he can blame the governor and the secretary of state if we lose,” McConnell said. “He’s always setting up somebody to blame it on.”
And McConnell didn’t mince words to the reporters about some in Trump’s inner orbit – such as attorneys Sidney Powell and Lin Wood – who were advancing far-fetched conspiracies about the election.
“Everybody around him, except for clowns like Sidney Powell and Lin Wood, are trying to get him to do the right thing,” he said in the interview, referring to the effort to get Trump to accept the fact that he lost and concede the race.
Efforts to reach Powell and Wood for comment were unsuccessful.
But McConnell and his wife, Elaine Chao, who served as Trump’s transportation secretary until she resigned in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack, were at a loss with how to deal with Trump after the elections.
“Every day the leader and I wake up saying, ‘How do we manage the president?’” Chao told a friend in December 2020, according to the book.
A Chao spokesperson declined to comment.
A year and half later, Trump continues to berate McConnell, who avoids talking about the former President as their party once again faces a high-stakes November election with control of Congress at stake.
And in this election, there are GOP candidates across the country parroting Trump’s lies of a stolen election, something that has perplexed McConnell.
“It’s important for candidates to remember we need to respect the results of our democratic process unless the court system demonstrates that some significant fraud occurred that would change the outcome,” McConnell told CNN recently.
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.