At around 5 p.m. on Christmas Day in 2020, when many Americans were celebrating with family, President Donald J. Trump was at his Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Florida, on the phone with a little-known conservative lawyer. which encouraged his attempts to nullify the election, according to a memo the lawyer later wrote documenting the call.
The attorney, William J. Olson, was promoting several extreme ideas to the president. Mr Olson later conceded that part of his plan could be seen as tantamount to declaring “martial law” and another aspect could invite comparisons to Watergate. The plan included tampering with the Justice Department and firing acting attorney general Jeffrey A. Rosen, according to Mr. Olson’s Dec. 28 memo, titled “Preserving the Constitutional Order.”
“Our small group of lawyers are working on a memorandum that explains exactly what you can do,” Mr. 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’s ‘fake news’.”
The document highlights Mr. Olson’s previously unreported role in Mr. Trump’s advice as the President increasingly turned to far-right figures outside the White House to prosecute options that many of his official advisers had declared impossible or illegal to him, in an effort to cling to power.
The involvement of someone like Mr Olson, who now represents conspiracy theorist and MyPillow chief executive Mike Lindell, underscores how the system that would normally insulate a president from rogue actors operating outside official channels has collapsed a few weeks after the 2020 election.
This left Mr. 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 – not the officials advising him – were the only ones he could trust.
“During our lengthy conversation earlier this week, I could hear the disgraceful and dismissive attitude of the attorney from the White House Legal Counsel’s office towards you personally — but more importantly towards the office of the President of the United States himself,” Mr. Olson wrote to Mr. Trump. “This is unacceptable.”
It was not immediately clear how Mr. Olson, who practices law in Washington, DC and Virginia, came into Mr. Trump’s orbit. Mr Olson previously worked with Republican super PACs and promoted a conspiracy theory that Vice President Kamala Harris is ineligible to be Vice President, falsely claiming she is not a US citizen of birth. He and his company have long represented Gun Owners of America, an advocacy group.
According to his website, which displays a photo of him shaking hands with President Richard M. Nixon, Mr. Olson was a White House intern in 1971.
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His 2020 memo was written 10 days after one of the most dramatic meetings ever at Trump’s White House, in which three of the president’s White House advisers competed – at one point almost physically – with outside actors to influence Mr. Trump. At that December 18 meeting, attorney Sidney Powell and Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser, pushed Mr. Trump to seize the voting machines and appoint Ms. Powell’s special counsel to investigate wild and baseless allegations of voter fraud. , although White House lawyers fought back.
But the document suggests that even after his aides won that skirmish in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump continued to seek extreme legal advice that went against the recommendations of the Justice Department and the Office of the Attorney General. lawyer.
And the memo says Mr. Trump was acting on outside advice. At one point, he refers to the president urging Mr. Olson to contact the acting attorney general for the Justice Department to lend credibility to Mr. 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 the Capitol said the committee knew Mr. Olson was in contact with Mr. Trump and was exploring Mr. Olson’s role in promoting reversal plans. the 2020 election.
Mr. Olson did not respond to requests for comment.
A spokesperson for Mr. Trump did not respond to a request for comment on the former president’s relationship with Mr. Olson.
According to his memo, Mr. Olson was discussing with Mr. Trump the idea that the Justice Department would intervene with the Supreme Court to overturn his electoral defeat.
The court had declined to hear a case that Trump allies in Texas had brought to challenge Pennsylvania’s election results, saying the plaintiffs lacked standing.
Mr. Olson told Mr. Trump that he believed the Justice Department “wouldn’t do anything except keep running out of time.”
“While the time for action was short when we spoke on Christmas Day, the time is about to run out,” he wrote.
It was unclear which White House lawyer Mr Olson described as dismissive in his memo. At the time, White House attorney Pat A. Cipollone; Patrick Philbin, his assistant; and another lawyer who did not work for the council office, Eric Herschmann, worked in tandem to push back some of the more outlandish ideas recommended. Mr. Cipollone and Mr. Herschmann had played prominent roles in the December 18 meeting at the White House to counter Ms. Powell and Mr. Flynn.
“The feeling I had was that he not only gave you no options, but was there to make sure you didn’t consider any,” Mr Olson wrote, referring to the unnamed lawyer. of the White House. “But you have options.”
Among those Mr. Olson mentioned as speaking to Mr. Trump about the Justice Department’s involvement was Mark Martin, the former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. White House officials believed at the time that Mr Martin had been brought in by Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff.
Mr. Olson urged Mr. Trump to hire another lawyer, Kurt Olsen, who had worked on the Texas case.
“As I emailed Molly Saturday morning,” Mr. Olson wrote, referring to Mr. Trump’s aide, “we began to respond to your question regarding our team reviewing the complaint filed. by Texas in what may be the first draft of a lawsuit filed by the U.S. The attorneys I worked with took on this task, and we now have a draft that could be presented to you for consideration , and by you to Mr. Rosen for editing, improving and filing.
In his memo, Mr. Olson said that during their discussions, he told Mr. Trump that he had followed the president’s suggestion to call Mr. Rosen a few hours earlier to request that the prosecutor Acting General Files Lawsuit in Attempt to Block Joseph R. Victory from Biden Jr. Electoral College.
Mr. Trump, based on Mr. Olson’s memo, was aware that Mr. Rosen was slowing down his request. The lawsuit was never filed; Mr. Rosen testified last month before the Jan. 6 committee that this was outside the bounds of the law.
A spokesperson for Mr. Rosen said he did not recall speaking with Mr. Olson, but it was correct that the acting attorney general was against filing lawsuits to interfere with the results of the trials. elections.
At the time of the memo, Mr. Trump had decamped to Mar-a-Lago, but Mr. Olson encouraged him to return to Washington to fight the election results from his White House perch. Mr. Trump did so soon after, working through the holidays to challenge the election results.
“I don’t believe you can do what needs to be done from Florida,” Mr. Olson wrote to the president. “And that would send a message about your commitment to the task, to let Mar-a-Lago take charge of the White House. I urge you to come back as soon as this can be arranged.
Mr. Olson encouraged Mr. Trump to fire or reassign Mr. Rosen if he did not agree to the plan to use the Justice Department to challenge the election in court, although Mr. Olson acknowledged that such an action would result in negative media coverage.
“This milestone will likely bring a thousand stories analogous to the ‘Saturday Night Massacre’ in 1973, when President Nixon ordered AG Elliot Richardson to fire Archibald Cox as special counsel investigating Watergate,” he wrote.
Mr. Olson also called for changes to the office of the White House legal counsel. He wrote that a new White House lawyer should take steps to ensure a “fair voter count”, although he admitted it would be seen by the media as “martial law”.