Senator Mike Lee said text messages he sent to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows after the 2020 election did not signal a plea for overturning the results in favor of Donald Trump.
In his first interview since CNN revealed dozens of his texts last week in Meadows, the Utah Republican told the Deseret News on Wednesday that his only goal was to understand the role of Congress in a presidential election and sort out the theories the Trump campaign has been pursuing to challenge the outcome.
Lee said he has known Meadows for a long time and characterized his texts from November 7, 2020 to January 4, 2021, as having a level of informality that would be reserved for a friend.
“He knows that when I said things like ‘Tell me what we should say’, what I was just trying to figure out was ‘What’s your message?’ He knows me well enough to know that doesn’t mean I’ll make your offer, whatever it is,” Lee said in a 45-minute phone interview.
“From the conversations I had with him at the time on the phone and in person, he knew that. He knew I wasn’t there to do his bidding,” Lee said of his conversations with Meadows.
Lee said his Meadows texts are used out of context for “political motives” and were “leaked” during a significant period of his re-election campaign. The messages were obtained by the House Select Committee investigating the January 6, 2021, uprising at the United States Capitol and reviewed by CNN.
The Utah Republican Party’s nominating convention is Saturday, and Lee met with delegates this week. Two Republican opponents, Becky Edwards and Ally Isom, have already qualified for a primary election in June, as has Lee.
Edwards, Isom and independent candidate Evan McMullin slammed Lee over the text messages and called on the senator to account for his role in Trump’s bid to void the 2020 election.
Lee consented to the interview on Wednesday after days of reporting in the Deseret News and elsewhere, including a Tuesday article by Sam Benson for the Deseret News detailing conversations a year ago with the senator.
Was the 2020 election fair?
Lee called for an investigation into allegations of voter fraud, but ultimately recognized Joe Biden as president-elect and voted to certify the election results on Jan. 6.
Asked Wednesday if Biden had been elected in a free and fair election, Lee said, “President Biden is the President of the United States. … We know he is the President of the United States because the Electoral College met on December 14 and then cast electoral votes. These electoral votes marked the victory of President Biden. »
Lee went on to say that there will always be attempts to manipulate the results of any election and that there is a risk of fraud. He said he can’t say what happened or didn’t happen in any particular state. He said it was not the job of Congress to determine whether the election in any state was fair and free from fraud.
When asked if there was fraud in the 2020 election, Lee replied, “I answered your question.”
“A million theories circulating”
The text exchanges show how Lee initially supported the legal challenges to the election, but ultimately latched onto the efforts and tactics deployed by Trump and his lawyers. He ultimately concluded that the sole role of Congress in presidential elections is to open and count state electoral votes.
Lee said he consistently told the Trump campaign and Trump himself to publicly acknowledge that they would accept the results of the Electoral College vote on Dec. 14, 2020.
“Right from the start, I spent a lot of time doing my job with one goal in mind. Particularly after the electoral votes were cast, my goal was to determine what role, if any, Congress had,” Lee said.
Lee acknowledged, as he has before, that he encouraged the Trump campaign to explore legal options for challenging election results, including recounts and audits, and that time to raise such claims was limited. .
In a text to Meadows on Nov. 7, Lee offered his “unequivocal support for you to exhaust all legal and constitutional remedies available to you to restore Americans’ confidence in our elections.”
“This fight is about the fundamental fairness and integrity of our electoral system. The nation depends on your continued determination. Stay strong and keep fighting, Mr. President.
Meanwhile, Lee said he has done his own legal research and spoken to lawyers “aspiring or claiming” to represent Trump.
“There were a million theories floating around at all times,” he said.
It was during this period that Lee asked Meadows to bring in attorney Sydney Powell to see Trump because “apparently she has a strategy to keep things alive and bring multiple states back into play.”
Lee said he didn’t know Powell and can’t remember how he got in touch with her, but he didn’t introduce her to the Trump team. He said he had a few initial conversations with her, but after seeing her at press conferences he became less enamored with her strategy because “the things she said didn’t have a lot of meaning. makes sense to me”.
The senator then turned his attention to John Eastman, a conservative law professor who pitched a theory on how to flip the election for Trump. Lee said that while he knows Eastman, he hasn’t introduced him to Team Trump either.
Eastman claimed then-Vice President Mike Pence could hand the election over to Trump if the states submitted dueling voter lists to Congress, split between Biden and Trump. Pence could simply set those states aside on Jan. 6 and only count voters in the remaining states.
Lee said the theory was generally public knowledge, discussed among members of Congress and reported in the media as one of the possibilities, or at least widely speculated as a way to keep Trump in power.
“I don’t know when I first heard about it,” he said.
But Lee said, “It’s a very powerful drug, and because it’s a powerful drug, it seemed very unlikely to me from the start.”
Lee said he thought the theory was dead until he received a Jan. 2 memo from Eastman claiming seven states were sending dueling voter lists to Congress. The memo, he said, provided no real analysis on why a state would change its voter list or why it would be legitimate.
“That’s when I started to get alarmed. Honestly, on January 2, I started to think it blew up and maybe they weren’t going to try that stunt which I think could be dangerous,” he said.
Still, Lee texted Meadows four times about the theory in Eastman’s letter after receiving it. “Everything changes, of course, if swing states submit competing voter lists according to state law. But absent that, this effort is destined to not only fail, but hurt DJT in the process,” one text read.
What was Mike Lee doing during those 14 hours a day?
Lee said he couldn’t get answers from the Trump campaign about the “ever-changing rumors,” so he began cold-calling state lawmakers and election officials in states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia and Michigan to figure out what was going on.
“I spent 14 hours a day for the last week trying to sort this out for him,” Lee texted Meadows on January 4. Lee said those long days of investigation only came after he received the Jan. 2 memo.
Lee said he found that none of the states changed their electoral votes. And he said he had never urged states to do so then or at any time before.
“At no time, in any of these instances, did I engage in advocacy. I in no way encouraged them to do so. I just asked them a yes or no question,” he said.
Lee said he had always advised the Trump administration that they were dealing with ‘very delicate things’ and that if they were to challenge the electoral vote, it had to be within the limits of each state’s law and the Constitution. .
“You can’t do that. You can’t treat Congress as having the power to nullify certified electoral votes from any state,” he told Trump advisers.
Lee said he was treating the whole situation as if he was fulfilling all of his duties as a senator.
“You research, read, discuss with your colleagues, you follow the Constitution. This one proved to be much trickier than most as it involved an ever-changing slab of facts. It made things harder than they should have been,” he said.
Lee said he didn’t expect the release of the text messages to hurt his re-election chance. “I think it was planned, but I think it won’t be,” he said.
He called McMullin’s characterization of his involvement “irresponsible” and “grossly inaccurate”. He said Edwards and Isom had been “reckless” with the truth. He said he doesn’t think most voters will believe their “strangely untrue” claims.
“I trust Utahns can see through his nonsense,” he said. “I know what happened. I know what my thoughts and intentions were in doing this.