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Trump had role in weighing proposals to seize voting machines

Giuliani did so, calling the department’s acting deputy
secretary, who said he lacked the authority to audit or impound the machines.

Trump pressed Giuliani to make that inquiry after rejecting
a separate effort by his outside advisers to have the Pentagon take control of
the machines. And the outreach to the Department of Homeland Security came not
long after Trump, in an Oval Office meeting with Attorney General William Barr,
raised the possibility of whether the Justice Department could seize the
machines, a previously undisclosed suggestion that Barr immediately shot down.

The new accounts show that Trump was more directly involved
than previously known in exploring proposals to use his national security
agencies to seize voting machines as he grasped unsuccessfully for evidence of
fraud that would help him reverse his defeat in the 2020 election, according to
people familiar with the episodes.

The existence of proposals to use at least three federal
departments to assist Trump’s attempt to stay in power has been publicly known.
The proposals involving the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland
Security were codified by advisers in the form of draft executive orders.

But the new accounts provide fresh insight into how the
former president considered and to some degree pushed the plans, which would
have taken the United States into uncharted territory by using federal
authority to seize control of the voting systems run by states on baseless
grounds of widespread voting fraud.

The people familiar with the matter were briefed on the
events by participants or had firsthand knowledge of them.

The accounts about the voting machines emerged after a weekend
when Trump declared at a rally in Texas that he might pardon people charged in
connection with the storming of the Capitol on Jan 6, 2021, if he were
reelected. In a statement issued after the rally, Trump also suggested that his
vice president, Mike Pence, could have personally “overturned the election” by
refusing to count delegates to the Electoral College who had vowed to cast
their votes for Joe Biden.

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The new information helps to flesh out how the draft
executive orders to seize voting machines came into existence and points in
particular to the key role played by a retired Army colonel named Phil Waldron.

According to people familiar with the accounts, Waldron,
shortly after the election, began telling associates that he had found
irregularities in vote results that he felt were suggestive of fraud. He then
came up with the idea of having a federal agency like the military or the
Department of Homeland Security confiscate the machines to preserve evidence.

Waldron first proposed the notion of the Pentagon’s
involvement to Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, whom he
says he served with in the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The plans were among an array of options that were placed
before Trump in the tumultuous days and weeks that followed the election,
developed by an ad hoc group of lawyers like Sidney Powell and other allies
including Flynn and Waldron. That group often found itself at odds with
Giuliani and his longtime associate Bernard Kerik, as well as with Trump’s
White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, and his team.

Around the same time that Trump brought up the possibility
of having the Justice Department seize the voting machines, for example, he
also tried to persuade state lawmakers in contested states like Michigan and
Pennsylvania to use local law enforcement agencies to take control of them,
people familiar with the matter said. The state lawmakers refused to go along
with the plan.

The meeting with Barr took place in mid to late November
when Trump raised the idea of whether the Justice Department could be used to
seize machines, according to two people familiar with the matter. Trump told
Barr that his lawyers had told him that the department had the power to seize
machines as evidence of fraud.

Trump mentioned a specific state that had used machines
built by Dominion Voting Systems, where his lawyers believed there had been
fraud, although it is unclear which state Trump was referring to. Barr, who had
been briefed extensively at that point by federal law enforcement officials
about how the theories being pushed by Trump’s legal team about the Dominion
machines were unfounded, told Trump that the Justice Department had no basis
for seizing the machines because there was no probable cause to believe a crime
had been committed.

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It was only after several early options were exhausted that
Waldron pitched the idea of using other parts of the federal government to
seize the machines to both Giuliani and members of the Trump legal team, and to
Flynn and his own associates, including Powell and Patrick Byrne, a wealthy
business executive who funded many of the efforts to challenge the election.

Waldron, who owns a bar and distillery outside Austin,
Texas, was previously best known for having circulated a 38-page PowerPoint
presentation to lawmakers and White House aides that was filled with extreme
plans to overturn the election.

Giuliani was vehemently opposed to the idea of the military
taking part in the seizure of machines, according to two people familiar with
the matter. The conflict between him and his legal team, and Flynn, Powell and
Byrne came to a dramatic head on Dec 18, 2020, during a meeting with Trump in
the Oval Office.

At the meeting, Flynn and Powell presented Trump with a copy
of the draft executive order authorising the military to oversee the seizure of
machines. After reading it, Trump summoned Giuliani to the Oval Office,
according to one person familiar with the matter. When Giuliani read the draft
order, he told Trump that the military could be used only if there was
clear-cut evidence of foreign interference in the election.

Powell, who had spent the past month filing lawsuits
claiming that China and other countries had hacked into voting machines, said
she had such evidence, the person said. But Giuliani was adamant that the
military should not be mobilised, the person said, and Trump ultimately heeded
his advice.

Shortly after the Oval Office meeting, Waldron amended the
draft executive order, suggesting that if the Defense Department could not
oversee the seizure of machines then the Department of Homeland Security could,
the person said.

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Around that time, Trump asked Giuliani to call Kenneth T
Cuccinelli II, the acting deputy secretary at the Department of Homeland
Security, to ask about the viability of the proposal, according to two people
familiar with the matter. Cuccinelli said that homeland security officials
could not take part in the plan.

All of this was playing out amid open acrimony among White
House aides and outside advisers about how best — and how far — to proceed with
efforts to pursue Trump’s claims of fraud in the election. That same month,
during a meeting on another matter, Trump asked Cuccinelli what he thought of
appointing a special counsel to investigate election fraud. Cuccinelli,
according to two people briefed on the conversation, said it was not a good
idea for a variety of reasons.

When Flynn, Powell and Byrne arrived at the White House to
discuss their plan to use the military to seize voting machines, they were not
let into the Oval Office by a typical gatekeeper, like Mark Meadows, Trump’s
chief of staff. Rather, they were escorted in by Garrett Ziegler, a young aide
to another Trump adviser, Peter Navarro, according to Ziegler’s account.

“I waved in Gen Flynn and Sidney Powell on the Friday night
of the 18th — for which Mark Meadows’ office revoked my guest privileges,”
Ziegler said on a podcast, adding that he had done so because he was
“frustrated with the current counsel” Trump was getting.

Even Giuliani, who had spent weeks peddling some of the most
outrageous claims about election fraud, felt that the idea of bringing in the
military was beyond the pale.

After Flynn and Powell left the Oval Office, according to a
person familiar with the matter, Giuliani predicted that the plans they were
proposing were going to get Trump impeached.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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