We woke up Friday morning to a bombshell report from CNN, which had obtained text messages sent by Utah Sen. Mike Lee to then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows discussing efforts to overturn the 2020 election and keep Donald Trump in the White House.
The text messages take us on a roller coaster, where Lee initially embraces the conspiracy theories of Trump lawyer Sidney Powell before coming to the realization that she could potentially expose the president to legal liability for her defamatory statements.
They show a senator pledging to be a team player, pleading for proof to back up the election challenges and trying to coordinate talking points with the White House.
It’s a wild ride, but here are four key takeaways from the messages.
Lee’s been dishonest about the extent of his involvement in the plot
Publicly, the senator’s explanation of his involvement in the plot to overturn the election was that he got a memo from attorney John Eastman a week before the election was to be certified that suggested that states could appoint alternate slates of electors, thus creating an opening for Republican senators to count the pro-Trump alternates over those pledged to Biden.
Lee has said that he made some calls to officials in those states and quickly saw that it was unlikely alternate electors would be appointed and moved on. That was that.
But these text messages give us a different story. They show that Lee was strategizing with Eastman and promoting him to the White House as early as Nov. 23 — less than three weeks after the election. By Dec. 8, the plan had already taken shape, when Lee texted Meadows that, “If a very small handful of states were to have their legislatures appoint alternative slates of delegates, there could be a path.”
He pressed the issue again with Meadows in January after his friend Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and others announced that they would vote against certifying the election. Trump had hurt Lee’s feelings by taking a shot at Lee at a rally, but Lee told Meadows they needed a stronger constitutional footing.
And it turns out, Lee had been working frantically to create the constitutional crisis Trump and Republican senators needed to overturn the election.
“I’ve been calling state legislators for hours today, and am going to spend hours doing the same tomorrow. I’m trying to figure out a path that I can persuasively defend,” Lee wrote to Meadows. “We need something from state legislatures to make this legitimate and to have any hope of winning.”
So what have we learned? Basically, Lee was a very active participant in this plot to overturn an American presidential election. He wanted to throw the “constitutional” switch to invalidate the election, regardless of how the voters voted, and keep Trump in office.
Politically, how much does this damage Lee? Probably not much.
Lee’s opponents, as one would expect, were quick to condemn the senator’s role in the attempt to reverse the election outcome.
“Sen. Mike Lee researched overturning a lawful, democratic election for partisan and political gain,” Republican Becky Edwards said in a statement.
Republican Ally Isom said the tests show Lee “is more concerned with playing D.C. games — with the politics of politics — rather than the people of Utah.”
Democrat Kael Weston said Lee was acting as Trump’s lawyer in the 2020 election, not in the interest of the country.
“Instead of plotting with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to further divide our nation [and] undermine our democracy, Lee should have been working on behalf of Utahns who pay his salary,” Weston said. “Lee’s indefensible actions helped move our country toward the violent insurrection of [Jan. 6].”
And independent challenger Evan McMullin said the texts show that Lee was “far more involved in the effort to overturn American democracy than we previously knew, even advocating for key states to appoint fake electors as early as Dec. 8. He lied about what he knew and when he knew it.”
Unfortunately, I suspect the vast majority of Lee’s supporters won’t care, unconcerned if the senator’s actions were illegal, undemocratic or unconstitutional. They’ll see Lee as a team player trying to keep their guy in office.
It falls into the same category as Trump’s endorsement of Lee’s re-election, which the campaign seems to want no part of and still hasn’t acknowledged publicly. Trump supporters were already backing Lee and his opponents were already looking elsewhere.
Maybe this drives a few people who were truly on the fence away from the senator, but I suspect the vast majority of his supporters have already found some twisted rationalization to justify almost anything the senator might do.
We can’t say if Lee was part of a criminal conspiracy or not
Last month, a federal judge ruling on Eastman’s refusal to turn over a series of documents to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol said that Trump and Eastman “more likely than not” corruptly conspired to disrupt an official proceeding and “defraud the United States by interfering with the election certification process.”
This was not a criminal trial, obviously, so there are different standards and nobody has gone to jail — at least not yet. But the judge didn’t mince words: “The illegality of the plan was obvious.”
“It was a coup in search of a legal theory,” the judge wrote. “If Dr. Eastman and President Trump’s plan had worked, it would have permanently ended the peaceful transition of power, undermining American democracy and the Constitution.”
Based on these texts, it appears Utah’s senior senator can be included among the list of co-conspirators. Not a good look.
Lee should cooperate with the Jan. 6 investigators
These text messages give us a fuller view of Lee’s involvement and coordination in attempting to overthrow the democratic election. But it’s still not complete.
When the House committee asked Eastman about his communication with Lee, Eastman invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Lee’s public version of events, we now know, was filled (and this is putting it generously) with half-truths.
As McMullin said, the senator “put our Constitution and our freedoms at risk and he must be held accountable. He has a responsibility to tell Utahns the truth about his role in this dark episode in American history.”
At a minimum, Lee owes it to his constituents to provide a full, honest account of his involvement, and the best way he can do that is to provide documents and testimony to the committee investigating the insurrection.
It could go a long way toward bringing about accountability and closure. It could prove healing to our country and beneficial to our democracy. Given his pattern of behavior, however, none of those things seem to be priorities for Sen. Mike Lee.
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