In 2020, when a reporter asked Utah Senator Mike Lee about the extent of his involvement in then President Donald Trump’s push to overturn that year’s election results, Lee chalked up his own investment in the president’s scheme to a benign curiosity.
His recently published text messages to Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows at the time, however, tell a far different story. The texts appear to show Lee pledging himself to find every “legal and constitutional remedy” to assist Trump’s mission. He was quick with a suggestion—like an audit of ballots in swing states—and stumped for Trump to use conspiracy theory peddling lawyer Sidney Powell to take up the cause in court.
And when Lee received a copy of John Eastman’s memo laying out a scheme to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the election just four days before the insurrection, he publicly derided it as “ridiculous.”
Yet in private, Lee appeared to strongly advocate for that strategy and lamented the hours he otherwise spent searching for ways to “unravel” a pathway to victory for a clearly defeated president.
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Samuel Benson over at Utah’s Deseret News published an article on Wednesday raising questions—and rightly so—over Lee’s track record of conflicting positions. Benson interviewed Lee at length before and after the assault on the Capitol.
And when CNN published the text messages, Benson followed up, asking for an interview. Where once Lee was willing to speak on the subject at length, he has now clammed up. Instead, he dispatched his spokesman, Lee Lonsberry, to do damage control.
Lonsberry told Benson:
“When Senator Lee reviewed evidence and legal arguments related to the 2020 presidential election, his principal concern was for the law, the Constitution, and especially the more than 150 million Americans who voted in that election. From the moment the electoral college cast its votes in mid-December, he made clear that Joe Biden had won, and would within weeks become the 46th president of the United States absent a court order or state legislative action invalidating electoral votes.”
Further, “once it became clear” to Lee that no states would be rescinding their electoral slates, he told Meadows any effort to reverse the election results would “end badly.”
Lee, Lonsberry said, just wanted to “let the country move on.”
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Lee publicly acknowledged that Biden won the Electoral College on Dec. 14, the final deadline for states to send their slate of electors to the National Archives. But he also delicately couched his statement with a nod to Trump’s “fraud” claims.
There were still “concerns regarding fraud and irregularities in this election remain active in multiple states,” Lee said at the time.
Then-Attorney General Bill Barr had already declared two weeks earlier there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud. Trump too had been on a losing streak in various courts around the U.S. as his team of attorneys bumbled through lawsuits demanding election results be thrown out or electors decertified.
Nevertheless, in the two days after Lee proclaimed Biden was the rightful winner, in a text to Meadows, the Utah Republican was still exploring alternatives.
“Also, if you want senators to object, we need to hear from you on that ideally getting some guidance on what arguments to raise,” Lee wrote on Dec. 16.
Right up to Jan. 4, the senator was “calling state legislators for hours” and planning to do the same, or so he told Mark Meadows, on Jan. 5.
“We need something from state legislatures to make this legitimate and to have any hope of winning. 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,” Lee fretted to Meadows just a day before.
In the end, but only after Trump incited a mob that stormed the Capitol and hundreds of police officers—including those sworn to protect Lee and others—were violently assaulted and one woman was killed, Lee voted to certify Biden as the winner.
In his remarks from the House floor on Jan. 6, Lee said his initial speech for proceedings had looked a little different. But, he said, he would keep his message mostly the same.
“Our job is open and then count. Open, then count. That’s it. That’s all there is to it,” Lee said of electoral college votes.
He noted how he spent “the last few weeks” meeting with lawyers representing “both sides of the issue” and representing the Trump campaign.
“I didn’t initially declare my position because I didn’t yet have one,” he added. “I wanted to get the facts first and I wanted to understand what was happening.”
However, when Trump was impeached for incitement of insurrection, Lee voted against it. He could not “condone the horrific violence” of Jan. 6, he said. Lee also said he could not condone Trump’s “words, actions or commissions on that day.”
“But the fact is that the word incitement has a very specific meaning in the law, and Donald Trump’s words and actions on Jan. 6 fell short of that standard,” Lee remarked before also calling the impeachment a “politically suspicious process.”
Less than six months after the insurrection, Lee also opposed to the formation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack. He voted against a bill for a bipartisan commission that was equally divided between five Republicans and five Democrats. Both sides, according to the resolution he opposed, would have had equal subpoena power.
Lee opposed the bill 24 hours after meeting privately with U.S. Capitol Police officers who were attacked as well as Gladys Sicknick, the mother of U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick. Sicknick died one day after the insurrection. A coroner’s office said Sicknick, 42, experienced multiple strokes.