It took 12 days for Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to realize he’d made a huge mistake. Between Nov. 7 and Nov. 19, 2020, it seems Lee went from championing attorney Sidney Powell joining then-President Donald Trump’s legal team to expressing alarm that she may have, on live television, made Trump vulnerable to a costly defamation suit.
Lee’s relatively quick realization of the mistake he’d made is clear in a set of text messages he exchanged with Mark Meadows, Trump’s final White House chief of staff, that CNN released Friday. The texts track Lee’s transition from an advocate to a skeptic of Trump’s methods for trying to overturn the election’s results. But along the way, Lee continued to push Meadows to exploit a potential loophole that would let congressional Republicans vote to keep Trump in office.
Lee also sent some advice that was taken that same day — and would soon prove to be a major blunder.
The first string of texts CNN released were sent on Nov. 7, 2020, the day The Associated Press called the race for Joe Biden. “This doesn't have to come down to a binary choice between (1) an immediate concession, and (2) a destruction of the credibility of the election process,” Lee counseled. “There is a third way exhausting legal remedies while cooperating with the transition procsss.”
While Lee may have believed there was a chance for Trump to succeed in court, it’s a belief that proved incorrect in nearly 60 rulings before the Electoral College cast its votes. Trump also spent weeks not cooperating with the transition process, so that bit of advice from Lee clearly went unheeded.
Lee also sent some advice that was taken that same day — and would soon prove to be a major blunder. “Sydney Powell is saying that she needs to get in to see the president, but she's being kept away from him,” Lee texted Meadows, per CNN. “Apparently she has a strategy to keep things alive and put several states back in play. Can you help her get in?”
It's not clear why Lee thought Powell, known to Trumpworld as the conspiracy-minded lawyer for Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, might have a winning plan. But on Fox News, she proved to be just as much a bomb-thrower about the election as she had been in her filings in Flynn’s case, likely endearing her to Trump.
The idea that Powell was a "straight shooter" was questionable even then.
Lee reportedly kept pushing Powell's case in messages sent to Meadows on Nov. 9: "Sidney told us that the campaign lawyers who I do not know are not focused on this and are obstructing progress," he wrote. "I have no way of verifying or refuting that on my own, but I've found her to be a straight shooter."
The idea that Powell was a "straight shooter" was questionable even then. Lee might have begun to doubt his endorsement of Powell when she appeared on Fox Business on Nov. 13 and told host Lou Dobbs that massive voter fraud had been “organized and conducted with the help of Silicon Valley people, the big tech companies, the social media companies and even the media companies.” She then infamously promised, “I’m going to release the Kraken.”
Trump on Nov. 15 named Powell in a tweet as one member of the “truly great team” working with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to challenge the election results in court. Four days later, she and Giuliani appeared at the Republican National Committee headquarters to update the media on their legal efforts — and in the process basically gave Lee a heart attack, judging by his texts.
“The Dominion voting systems, the Smartmatic technology software and the software that goes in other computerized coding systems here as well, not just Dominion, were created in Venezuela at the direction of Hugo Chávez,” Powell told journalists.
“I'm worried about the Powell press conference,” Lee told Meadows on Nov. 19 in a series of texts, CNN reported. “The potential defamation liability for the president is significant here.”
“For the campaign and for the president personally,” he continued. “Unless Powell can back up everything she said, which I kind of doubt she can.”
“Unless Powell can immediately substantiate what she said today, the president should probably disassociate himself and refute any claims that can't be substantiated,” he later added, according to CNN. “He's got deep pockets, and the accusations Powell made are very, very serious.”
“That is an especially bad combination when you consider the damages that could easily be claimed (and indeed proven) and the deep pockets involved,” he wrote.
Lee was right. A former Dominion employee sued the Trump campaign and others in December 2020 over the claims that Powell and Giuliani spread. Between that and other defamation suits, Powell has been dealing with the fallout of her claims for over a year now. The Trump campaign eventually cut Powell loose on Nov. 22, and Trump pretended to not really know her — but it seems she continued to have his ear. Trump even reportedly considered naming her as special counsel to investigate voter fraud during a White House meeting in mid-December.
That Lee eventually realized his mistake doesn’t mean he’s off the hook here; he still wanted to overturn the election’s results.
That Lee eventually realized his mistake doesn’t mean he’s off the hook here; he still wanted to overturn the election’s results. While Powell’s straight-up conspiracy theories were apparently too rich for his blood, the texts show Lee spent weeks trying to advocate for state legislatures to name slates of “alternate electors” that would support Trump in the Electoral College.
According to his text messages, he was still pushing state legislators as late as Jan. 4, 2021: “We need something from state legislatures to make this legitimate and to have any hope of winning,” Lee texted Meadows, CNN reported. “Even if they can't convene, it might be enough if a majority of them are willing to sign a statement indicating how they would vote.”
Unlike many of Trump’s die-hard supporters, Lee finally realized that effort was going nowhere and admitted defeat. He also seemed to reject the efforts initiated by his colleagues Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to vote against certifying the Electoral College results on Jan. 6, 2021. (Lee had warned Meadows three days earlier that Hawley and Cruz’s efforts would likely hurt Trump in the long run, the CNN report showed.)
What this boils down to, though, is that Lee was completely open to the idea of states going against the majority of their voters. It’s only because state legislatures refused to play along that Lee was forced to accept Biden’s win in the end. And without major changes to federal law, the same cheat code Lee advocated for remains open for future exploitation.