President Donald Trump escalated his bid to overturn the results of the Nov. 3 election during a contentious White House meeting on Friday night — telling advisers he wanted to name a special counsel to investigate his loss and pressing for the seizure of voting machines he has falsely suggested were manipulated to rig the outcome against him.
As the clock ticks down on the remainder of the president’s term, top officials are growing alarmed by his fixation with reversing his defeat, according to a senior administration official. Many are concerned that he is turning to fringe characters for advice and support, this person added, while dismissing the views of officials who have expressed skepticism about the effort.
Another person familiar with the Oval Office meeting said it included Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani as well as former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who has suggested in recent days that the president could invoke martial law as he seeks to pursue baseless allegations of voter fraud.
In one heated exchange, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows pushed back against the idea of tapping Sidney Powell — an attorney who has promoted numerous conspiracy theories about the election — as a special counsel to probe the claims.
Giuliani also has urged top Department of Homeland Security official Ken Cuccinelli to confiscate voting machines, a request Cuccinelli has turned down because he lack the authority to do so, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
The Friday meeting was first reported by the New York Times, and Giuliani’s lobbying effort was first reported by the Times and Axios.
Powell, a conservative firebrand who represented Flynn in his long-running fight against a criminal charge for lying to the FBI, has amplified calls for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, an 1807 law that enables the president to deploy troops to suppress domestic uprisings. Since early November, Powell has spearheaded a wide-ranging legal campaign to overturn the 2020 election results that has been sharply rejected in courts across the country.
According to the person familiar with Friday’s meeting, the animated gathering featured yelling and screaming, with the lawyers often accusing each other of failing to sufficiently support the president’s efforts. Flynn and Powell both said they needed the Trump administration to do more to support their efforts to reverse President-elect Joe Biden’s win. Giuliani and Powell also turned their ire on each other. The source said National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, a successor to Flynn, participated by phone.
Powell was briefly a formal adviser to Trump’s campaign in the aftermath of the election but was cut from the official team early in the legal push. Powell, Giuliani and Meadows did not respond to requests for comment.
Appointing a special counsel through the Justice Department under current regulations would require the concurrence of the attorney general. Amid some tension with Trump over election-related issues, Attorney General William Barr has announced plans to step down effective Wednesday. After that, the task would fall to Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen.
In an interview last week, Rosen declined to say whether he had plans to name any special counsels during the waning days of the administration, but he portrayed a business-as-usual atmosphere that seems at odds with him taking such a dramatic move.
A Justice Department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for comment on whether any department personnel were involved in the Friday talks at the White House.
Trump could name Powell or someone else as a special counsel without Justice Department buy-in, but that person would lack the powerful tools federal prosecutors have to demand evidence and compel testimony through grand juries and other legal mechanisms available only to formally appointed Justice Department attorneys.
Senior U.S. Army officials said Friday, in response to Flynn’s recent calls, that the military would have “no role” in determining the outcome of the U.S. election. Late Saturday, Trump appeared to deny reports that the subject of martial law has arisen in the Oval Office conversation, calling them “Fake News.”
Alex Isenstadt, Meridith McGraw and Lara Seligman contributed.