Hours after the United States voted, the president declared the election fraud — a lie that unleashed a movement that would shatter democratic norms and upend the peaceful transfer of power.
By Thursday the 12th of November, President Donald J. Trump’s election lawyers were concluding that the reality he faced was the inverse of the narrative he was promoting in his comments and on Twitter. There was no substantial evidence of election fraud, and there were nowhere near enough “irregularities” to reverse the outcome in the courts.
Mr. Trump did not, could not, win the election, not by “a lot” or even a little. His presidency would soon be over.
Allegations of Democratic malfeasance had disintegrated in embarrassing fashion. A supposed suitcase of illegal ballots in Detroit proved to be a box of camera equipment. “Dead voters” were turning up alive in television and newspaper interviews.
The week was coming to a particularly demoralizing close: In Arizona, the Trump lawyers were preparing to withdraw their main lawsuit as the state tally showed Joseph R. Biden Jr. leading by more than 10,000 votes, against the 191 ballots they had identified for challenge.
As he met with colleagues to discuss strategy, the president’s deputy campaign manager, Justin Clark, was urgently summoned to the Oval Office. Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, was on speaker phone, pressing the president to file a federal suit in Georgia and sharing a conspiracy theory gaining traction in conservative media — that Dominion Systems voting machines had transformed thousands of Trump votes into Biden votes.
Mr. Clark warned that the suit Mr. Giuliani had in mind would be dismissed on procedural grounds. And a state audit was barreling toward a conclusion that the Dominion machines had operated without interference or foul play.
Mr. Giuliani called Mr. Clark a liar, according to people with direct knowledge of the exchange. Mr. Clark called Mr. Giuliani something much worse. And with that, the election-law experts were sidelined in favor of the former New York City mayor, the man who once again was telling the president what he wanted to hear.
Thursday the 12th was the day Mr. Trump’s flimsy, long-shot legal effort to reverse his loss turned into something else entirely — an extralegal campaign to subvert the election, rooted in a lie so convincing to some of his most devoted followers that it made the deadly Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol almost inevitable.
Weeks later, Mr. Trump is the former President Trump. In coming days, a presidential transition like no other will be dissected when he stands trial in the Senate on an impeachment charge of “incitement of insurrection.” Yet his lie of an election stolen by corrupt and evil forces lives on in a divided America.
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A New York Times examination of the 77 democracy-bending days between election and inauguration shows how, with conspiratorial belief rife in a country ravaged by pandemic, a lie that Mr. Trump had been grooming for years finally overwhelmed the Republican Party and, as brake after brake fell away, was propelled forward by new and more radical lawyers, political organizers, financiers and the surround-sound right-wing media.
In the aftermath of that broken afternoon at the Capitol, a picture has emerged of entropic forces coming together on Trump’s behalf in an ad hoc, yet calamitous, crash of rage and denial.
But interviews with central players, and documents including previously unreported emails, videos and social media posts scattered across the web, tell a more encompassing story of a more coordinated campaign.
Across those 77 days, the forces of disorder were summoned and directed by the departing president, who wielded the power derived from his near-infallible status among the party faithful in one final norm-defying act of a reality-denying presidency.
Throughout, he was enabled by influential Republicans motivated by ambition, fear or a misplaced belief that he would not go too far.
In the Senate, he got early room to maneuver from the majority leader, Mitch McConnell. As he sought the president’s help in Georgia runoffs that could cost him his own grip on power, Mr. McConnell heeded misplaced assurances from White House aides like Jared Kushner that Mr. Trump would eventually accede to reality, people close to the senator told The Times. Mr. McConnell’s later recognition of Mr. Biden’s victory would not be enough to dissuade 14 Republican senators from joining the president’s last-ditch bid to nullify millions of Americans’ votes.
Likewise, during the campaign, Attorney General William P. Barr had echoed some of Mr. Trump’s complaints of voter fraud. But privately the president was chafing at Mr. Barr’s resistance to his more authoritarian impulses — including his idea to end birthright citizenship in a legally dubious pre-election executive order. And when Mr. Barr informed Mr. Trump in a tense Oval Office session that the Justice Department’s fraud investigations had run dry, the president dismissed the department as derelict before finding other officials there who would view things his way.
For every lawyer on Mr. Trump’s team who quietly pulled back, there was one ready to push forward with propagandistic suits that skated the lines of legal ethics and reason. That included not only Mr. Giuliani and lawyers like Sidney Powell and Lin Wood, but also the vast majority of Republican attorneys general, whose dead-on-arrival Supreme Court lawsuit seeking to discount 20 million votes was secretly drafted by lawyers close to the White House, The Times found.
As traditional Republican donors withdrew, a new class of Trump-era benefactors rose to finance data analysts and sleuths to come up with fodder for the stolen-election narrative. Their ranks included the founder of MyPillow, Mike Lindell, and the former Overstock.com chief executive Patrick Byrne, who warned of “fake ballots” and voting-machine manipulation from China on One America News Network and Newsmax, which were finding ratings in their willingness to go further than Fox in embracing the fiction that Mr. Trump had won.
As Mr. Trump’s official election campaign wound down, a new, highly organized campaign stepped into the breach to turn his demagogic fury into a movement of its own, reminding key lawmakers at key times of the cost of denying the will of the president and his followers. Called Women for America First, it had ties to Mr. Trump and former White House aides then seeking presidential pardons, among them Stephen K. Bannon and Michael T. Flynn.
As it crossed the country spreading the new gospel of a stolen election in Trump-red buses, the group helped build an acutely Trumpian coalition that included sitting and incoming members of Congress, rank-and-file voters and the “de-platformed” extremists and conspiracy theorists promoted on its home page — including the white nationalist Jared Taylor, prominent QAnon proponents and the Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio.
With each passing day the lie grew, finally managing to do what the political process and the courts would not: upend the peaceful transfer of power that for 224 years had been the bedrock of American democracy.