Before Tuesday’s House Jan. 6 hearing, Congressman Jamie Raskin teased that we would learn about “the fundamental importance” of a Dec. 18, 2020 White House meeting. And indeed, that marathon Dec. 18 meeting and what transpired less than two hours after its end was a critical piece of the committee’s presentation. As Raskin explained:
That night, a group showed up at the White House including Sidney Powell, Retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, and former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne.
After getting access to the building from a junior White House staffer, the group made their way to the Oval Office. They were able to speak with the president by himself for some time, until White House officials learned of the meeting. What ensued was a heated and profane clash between this group and President Trump’s White House advisers who traded personal insults, accusations of disloyalty to the president, and even challenges to physically fight.
Why exactly did members of Team Trump almost come to blows? Because, as then-White House lawyer Eric Herschmann testified, Powell, Flynn and Byrne continued to peddle the “big lie,” armed only with a series of half-baked, increasingly bizarre theories in lieu of evidence. They claimed, for instance, “Democrats were working with Hugo Chavez, Venezuelans, and whomever else” to hack internet-enabled voting machines and that “Nest thermostats” had been used for the same purpose.
Those same outside voices, who Trump campaign aide Katrina Pierson dismissively referred to as the “crazies,” also refused to back down when confronted with the fact of their more than 60 court losses, insisting, according to Herschmann, that the judges were universally “corrupt.” And their proposed solutions were even more frightening: Trump should authorize the military to “seize the voting machines” while appointing Powell “special counsel” with broad powers to investigate and punish voter fraud.
To hear them tell it, Herschmann, then-White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, and then-White House staff secretary Derek Lyons were alternately astonished, appalled and exhausted by what amounted to a multi-hour crossover between “The Apprentice” and “The Office.”
Eventually, sometime after Flynn and Herschmann’s near-duel, the meeting fragmented into at least three pieces: Powell, Flynn and company went to one ceremonial White House room; Giuliani, who had been summoned to the meeting by Trump, ended up in another, alone and self-impressed; and the “White House team went upstairs to the residence” with Trump. And the whole “UNHINGED” episode, as Cassidy Hutchinson described it by text, ended only “in the early hours of the morning,” when, according to Raskin, “President Trump turned away from both his outside advisors’ most outlandish and unworkable schemes and his White House Counsel’s advice to swallow hard and accept the reality of his loss.”
Instead, “shortly after the last participants left,” Trump turned to Twitter: At 1:42 a.m., he invited his followers to a “big protest” in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.
What the Jan. 6 investigation did well on Tuesday was highlight the temporal link between the Dec. 18 meeting — where White House lawyers repeatedly pressed for proof of fraud and left with none — and Trump’s infamous “Be there, will be wild!” tweet heard ‘round the far-right web. But what they have yet to explain was why and how Trump, who was known to be persuaded by the last person with whom he spoke, went in an entirely different direction from every reported attendee of the meeting — and all within two hours or less.
To be clear, I don’t know what happened either. But there is one person who might, and he’s probably not yet on your radar screen.
His name is Garrett Ziegler, and in late 2020, he was a policy aide to then-White House trade adviser Peter Navarro. Today, Ziegler is best known for publishing emails and documents from Hunter Biden’s hard drive (and a transcribed version of Ashley Biden’s journal) on his website. But before Ziegler became a Biden family troll, he helped write “The Navarro Report,” a three-part election fraud manifesto. The first volume was, perhaps not coincidentally, released just one day before the Dec. 18 meeting.
And both because of his involvement with that report, and the portion of the Dec. 18 meeting he attended, Ziegler might be able to help map Trump’s mental journey from contemplating voting machine seizures to promoting a “big protest” no one had organized.
First, while Trump’s Dec. 19 tweet is best remembered for launching the Jan. 6 rally, that tweet began with Navarro and his report. This is how it reads in its entirety:
Peter Navarro releases 36-page report alleging election fraud ‘more than sufficient’ to swing victory to Trump. https://t.co/D8KrMHnFdk . A great report by Peter. Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!
That the Navarro Report and the Jan. 6 protest are linked in that tweet is itself curious.
Second, public reporting has long established that Ziegler played a role in the Dec. 18 meeting, even if only peripherally. It was Ziegler who let Flynn, Powell and Byrne into the Oval Office. And we know this because Ziegler himself has acknowledged this publicly, noting he did it because “he was ‘frustrated with the current counsel’” Trump was receiving and revealing that White House chief of staff Mark Meadows revoked his guest-admitting privileges as a result.
But third, and perhaps most importantly, Ziegler has bragged that he advised Trump as part of the migrating Dec. 18 meeting. Specifically, in a July 2021 interview, for which Ziegler helpfully provides a transcript, Ziegler explained that of all the meetings he attended with Trump, the one on the 18th “sticks out to me the most” because “that’s the most that I had spoken to him one-on-one and he directly listened to me. Peter [Navarro] was actually ill at the time, so he was on the phone. They conference him in. And, you know, Cipollone was there, Kushner was there, Meadows was there.”
Ziegler has asserted that the real crux of the argument that night wasn’t about “martial law,” but how extensively they would examine 2020 ballots in the contested states: “Are we going to do an actual count of the votes, or are we going to do a ‘Eric Coomer, Risk-Limit[ing] Audit’ special, where we get to pick which batches we’re going to check?” According to Ziegler, Meadows’s opposition to “look[ing] at the actual ballots,” combined with the incompetence of the White House legal team, were Trump’s doom:
Mark [Meadows] had said that they’d already done a couple audits in Georgia. And he says—he has absolutely no clue what he’s talking about. The audits that he’s talking about are Eric Coomer-designed, Dominion “Risk-Limited Audits” that simply don’t look at the actual ballots. They just count the tally not realizing that, if it’s perfectly filled in, it’s probably by a machine. So that’s what I always keep coming back to you. And I think that it was tragic that—not tragic, but a travesty—that it ended the way it did. But I’m glad I had that opportunity on the 18th as a final like, “This is what I believe and most of your staff are incompetent.” And he believed that, especially about his lawyers. He would—I’m not betraying any trust by saying— privately bitch about his lawyers. They’re all “no men.” What we need are people who when they get a task figure out how to do it.
To be fair, Ziegler remembers this meeting as having occurred on Jan. 18, not Dec. 18. (We attempted to reach Ziegler to clarify his recollection; we did not hear back.)
Ziegler’s account also diverges somewhat from that of Navarro, his former boss, who has told MSNBC’s Ari Melber that he had “no knowledge” of any proposal to seize voting machines, that Ziegler was “working off the reservation” when he let Powell, Flynn and Byrne into the White House, and that it was “unfortunate that he’s got implicated in that.” Navarro’s sole focus, he insisted, was his “Green Bay Sweep” plan, through which the election results in six states would be challenged on Jan. 6 over 24 hours, and then Pence would give those states’ legislatures 10 days to take “a second look.”
But is it possible that by the time Ziegler (and Navarro) entered the discussion, it was, in fact, no longer about martial law or voting machines, and was instead focused on whether and how to demonstrate widespread election fraud in service of overturning the election in a new way? And, if so, did Navarro’s report light the match for convening a mass protest during the last gasps of that December 18 meeting?
Unlike series regulars Meadows, Cipollone and Kushner, Ziegler was just an accidental guest star that night. But where it comes to connecting the madness of Dec. 18 with the most infamous presidential invitation in history, he just might hold the key.
P.S.: Patrick Byrne, who was part of the Powell and Flynn group, is testifying to the Jan. 6 investigation today. And while he may have more information about the Dec. 18 meeting, he was likely separated from Trump before the “official” White House group. Still, watch this space.