At around 5 p.m. on Christmas Day 2020, as many Americans celebrated as a family, President Donald Trump was at his Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Florida, on the phone with a little-known conservative attorney. that encouraged him. his attempts to nullify the election, according to a memo the attorney wrote later documenting the call.
The attorney, William Olson, was promoting various extreme ideas to the president. Olson later admitted that part of his plan could be considered equivalent to declaring “martial law” and that another aspect could invite comparisons with Watergate. The plan included manipulating the Justice Department and firing acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, according to Olson’s Dec. 28 memo titled “Preserving Constitutional Order.”
“Our small group of attorneys is working on a memorandum that explains exactly what you can do,” Olson wrote in his memo, obtained by The New York Times, which he marked “privileged and confidential” and sent to the president. “The media will call this martial law,” he wrote, adding that “it is ‘fake news.’”
The document highlights Olson’s previously unreported role in advising Trump, as the president increasingly turned to extreme right-wing figures outside the White House to pursue options that many of his official advisers had told him were either impossible or impossible. illegal, in an effort to cling to power.
The involvement of someone like Olson, who now represents conspiracy theorist and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, underscores how the system that would normally isolate a president from rogue actors operating outside official channels fell apart just weeks later. of the 2020 elections.
That left Trump in direct contact with people promoting conspiracy theories or questionable legal ideas, telling him not only what he wanted to hear, but also that they, and not the public servants advising him, were the only ones he could trust.
“In our lengthy conversation earlier this week, I was able to hear the White House Counsel’s Office counsel’s shameful and dismissive attitude toward you personally, but more importantly toward the Office of the President of the United States itself,” he wrote. Olson to Trump. “This is unacceptable.”
It was not immediately clear how Olson, who practices law in Washington, DC and Virginia, came into Trump’s orbit. Olson previously worked with Republican super political action committees and promoted a conspiracy theory that Vice President Kamala Harris is ineligible to be vice president, falsely claiming that she is not a US citizen by birth. He and his firm have long represented Gun Owners of America, an advocacy group.
According to his website, which features a photograph of him shaking hands with President Richard Nixon, Olson was a White House intern in 1971.
His 2020 memo was written 10 days after one of the most dramatic meetings ever held at the Trump White House, during which three of the president’s White House advisers competed, at one point almost physically, with outside actors to influence Trump. At that meeting on December 18, attorney Sidney Powell and Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, pushed for Trump to seize the voting machines and appoint Powell as a special prosecutor to investigate wild and unfounded claims of voter fraud, even when White House lawyers were fighting back.
But the document suggests that even after his aides won that skirmish in the Oval Office, Trump continued to seek extreme legal advice that went against the recommendations of the Justice Department and the attorney’s office.
And the memo indicates that Trump was acting on outside advice. At one point, he refers to the president urging Olson to contact the acting attorney general so that the Justice Department lends credibility to Trump’s legal efforts to invalidate the election results.
A person familiar with the work of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on Capitol Hill said the committee knew Olson was in contact with Trump and was exploring Olson’s role in pushing plans to overturn the Trump election. 2020.
Olson did not respond to requests for comment.
A Trump spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about the former president’s relationship with Olson.
According to his memo, Olson was discussing with Trump the idea that the Justice Department would intercede with the Supreme Court to reverse his election loss.
The court refused to hear a case that Trump allies in Texas had brought to challenge the Pennsylvania election results, saying the plaintiffs lacked standing.
Olson told Trump that he believed the Justice Department “won’t do anything except keep running out time.”
“While the time to act was short when we spoke on Christmas Day, the time is running out,” he wrote.
It was unclear which White House attorney Olson described as dismissive in his memo. At the time, White House counsel Pat Cipollone; Patrick Philbin, his deputy; and another attorney who did not work for the attorney’s office, Eric Herschmann, were working together to reject some of the more outlandish ideas being advocated. Cipollone and Herschmann had assumed leading roles during the December 18 White House meeting to counter Powell and Flynn.
“The feeling I got was that not only was he not offering you any options, but he was there to make sure you didn’t consider any,” Olson wrote, referring to the unnamed White House attorney. “But you have options.”
Among those Olson mentioned speaking with Trump about the Justice Department’s involvement was Mark Martin, a former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. White House officials believed at the time that Martin was hired through Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff.
Olson urged Trump to hire another attorney, Kurt Olsen, who had worked on the Texas case.
“When I emailed Molly on Saturday morning,” Olson wrote, referring to the Trump aide, “we began to respond to her question about our team reviewing the complaint filed by Texas in what could be the first draft of a complaint filed by the United States. The attorneys I have been working with have taken on that task, and now we have a draft that can be submitted to you for review and you to Mr. Rosen for editing, enhancement and filing.”
In his memo, Olson recounted that during their discussions, he had told Trump that he had followed the president’s suggestion to call Rosen a few hours earlier to request that the acting attorney general file a lawsuit to try to block the Electoral College victory. Joe Biden.
Trump, according to Olson’s memo, knew Rosen was making slow progress on his application. The lawsuit was never filed; Rosen testified last month before the Jan. 6 committee that doing so was outside the bounds of the law.
A spokesman for Rosen said he did not recall speaking with Olson, but that it was true that the acting attorney general was against filing lawsuits to interfere with election results.
At the time of the memo, Trump had moved to Mar-a-Lago, but Olson encouraged him to return to Washington to fight the election results from his position in the White House. Trump did so soon after, working through the holidays to challenge the election results.
“I don’t think I can do what is required to be done from Florida,” Olson wrote to the president. “And he would send a message about his commitment to the task, leaving Mar-a-Lago to take over the White House. I urge you to come back as soon as it can be fixed.”
Olson also encouraged Trump to fire or reassign Rosen if he doesn’t agree to plans to use the Justice Department to challenge the election in court, though Olson acknowledged such action would lead to negative news coverage.
“This step is likely to spawn a thousand stories that draw an analogy to the ‘Saturday Night Massacre’ in 1973, when President Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Archibald Cox as special counsel investigating Watergate,” he wrote. .
Olson also called for changes in the White House Counsel’s Office. He wrote that a new White House lawyer should take steps to ensure a “fair electoral recount,” though he admitted the media would view it as “martial law.”
After Trump left office, Olson joined the legal team of Lindell, who has promoted a number of election conspiracy theories and been sued for defamation by a former Dominion Voting Systems employee. Lindell, who stormed the Oval Office in the final days of the presidency hoping that Trump would still take action related to the election, insisted that Trump would be reinstated as president in 2021, something that was not possible.
Lindell sued the committee on Jan. 6, seeking to block the panel’s subpoena on Verizon over its call records. The lawsuit, which Olson and other attorneys filed, argued that Lindell’s communications about her objections to the 2020 election were protected speech, in part because they were tied to her religious beliefs.
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