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How Ronna McDaniel Backed Trump’s Early Bid to Hold Power

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By the second week of December 2020, the presidential election was decided and heading to a formal vote at the Electoral College. Like President Trump, the Republican Party chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, wasn’t ready to concede.

“Every illegal vote is stealing from a valid vote, and every state that conducted their election fraudulently is stealing from states that conducted their elections fairly,” Ms. McDaniel told Sean Hannity of Fox News on Dec. 8.

At the time, key campaign aides had already told Mr. Trump that he had lost. Advisers had found no credible evidence of fraud or irregularities that could have reversed the outcome. The Electoral College would confirm Joseph R. Biden was the winner six days later.

Yet, Ms. McDaniel’s appearance on Mr. Hannity’s program was part of her concerted efforts to help Mr. Trump dispute his election loss.

Of the major figures involved in Mr. Trump’s bid to keep power, Ms. McDaniel had received relatively scant attention. She is only now facing intense scrutiny after NBC journalists revolted over their network’s decision to hire her as an on-air contributor, leading to an abrupt end to her days-long relationship with the network.

Ms. McDaniel had recently tried to downplay her role. But a review of her record shows she was, at times, closely involved in and supportive of Mr. Trump’s legal and political maneuvering ahead of the violent attempt to block Congress from certifying Mr. Biden’s victory on Jan. 6.

Ms. McDaniel was not the most aggressive or outlandish member of Mr. Trump’s team. Indeed, she fell short of Mr. Trump’s demands and expectations, former aides said, and faced calls from his allies and grass-roots activists to be far more aggressive. And her involvement appears to have fallen off substantially — at least publicly — in the days before Jan. 6, when the R.N.C. focused its efforts on the then-upcoming Senate runoff election in Georgia.

Later, after courts, Republican election officials and state investigations all dismissed Mr. Trump’s claims of fraud, Ms. McDaniel was viewed as insufficiently dedicated to the cause of overturning the election, particularly by the Trump supporters who still considered Mr. Trump the rightful winner.

But before then, Ms. McDaniel, who through intermediaries declined to comment for this article, had done more to dispute a legitimate election result than any other chair of a major American political party in modern history.

In the days after the 2020 election, the R.N.C. under Ms. McDaniel operated in concert with the Trump campaign and his legal team in the initial effort to tilt the outcome for Mr. Trump.

The party set up hotlines, collected accounts of supposed suspicious activities and held meetings at the White House with Mr. Trump’s legal team, Ms. McDaniel later testified to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

At a news conference in Michigan on Nov. 6, the day before news outlets declared Mr. Biden the winner, she announced that the R.N.C. was deploying legal teams in four states to investigate “irregularities.” She listed allegations in Michigan that she claimed were evidence of potential, widespread problems, including supposedly suspect election machine software. The allegations were disputed by election officials and later debunked.

Speaking on Fox on Nov. 10, Ms. McDaniel repeated unsubstantiated and soon-to-be debunked claims of “deceased voters” and “batches of votes that were invalidated,” declaring, “that is stealing.”

And on social media, Ms. McDaniel questioned “irregularities” about the election, posted fund-raising solicitations and promoted hearings in states where Mr. Trump’s allies presented bogus evidence of election malfeasance. She vowed that the R.N.C. would “pursue this process to the very end.”

After Mr. Trump switched his legal team, bringing in outside lawyers led by Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, the R.N.C. also shifted away from the legal involvement with the Trump team. Of the 65 lawsuits that Mr. Trump and his allies filed after the 2020 election, the R.N.C. attached its name only to four, according to Democracy Docket, which tracks the cases.

Still, on Nov. 19, Ms. McDaniel allowed Mr. Giuliani and Ms. Powell to hold a press briefing at R.N.C. headquarters. With dark liquid dripping down his face, Mr. Giuliani promoted wild theories about Dominion voting machines and the deceased Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez.

Ms. McDaniel later told The Times that she regretted her decision. “When I saw some of the things Sidney was saying, without proof, I certainly was concerned it was happening in my building,” she said.

After that news conference, party lawyers told Ms. McDaniel not to repeat the conspiracy theories about election machines, and urged R.N.C. aides to be careful when speaking about the election, suggesting they use phrases like “voting irregularities” rather than “voter fraud,” according to House committee testimony.

Behind the scenes, Ms. McDaniel at times played a more direct role, including helping Mr. Trump’s attempt to block certification of Mr. Biden’s victory in Michigan.

On Nov. 17, two Republican members of the canvassing board in Wayne County, which includes Detroit, initially voted against certifying the county’s results, deadlocking the board until they reversed themselves amid angry protest.

Immediately afterward, the Republican board members, Monica Palmer and William Hartmann, received a phone call from Mr. Trump; Ms. McDaniel was also on the line.

According to The Detroit News, which reviewed audio from the call, Mr. Trump told the two they would look “terrible” if they signed the formal paperwork on their votes, adding, “We’ve got to fight for our country.”

Ms. McDaniel told them, “If you can go home tonight, do not sign it,” adding, “We will get you attorneys.”

With no legal means to rescind their votes, the certification went forward.

Speaking on “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Ms. McDaniel said she had not pressured the two and recalled simply urging them to “vote your conscience.” Deploring threats of violence against them — one of which led to an arrest in New Hampshire — she said the two officials were within their rights to seek further audits of the county results. (The results were affirmed by postelection audit.)

Ms. McDaniel also helped Mr. Trump rally state attorneys general to join a Supreme Court lawsuit originally filed by the State of Texas to challenge results in four states. Considered outlandish by legal experts, it sought to have the court effectively throw out all the votes in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by leaving the results up to their Republican legislatures.

Ms. McDaniel was a booster of the bid. “I’m so happy about this Texas lawsuit,” she told Mr. Hannity on Fox, adding, “there’s going to be more states joining that lawsuit.”

In the background, she joined Mr. Trump on a phone call in which he urged the Republican Party chair of Arkansas, Jonelle Fulmer, to bring the state’s attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, on board. “The president asked me to please relay to our attorney general that he would like her to join that lawsuit and she very promptly did,” Ms. Fulmer told The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which first reported the phone call.

The Supreme Court rejected the Texas suit a few days later.

But Ms. McDaniel still continued to support the overall effort to see the results overturned. In December 2020, she was on a phone call with Mr. Trump and John Eastman, a law professor helping the effort, to discuss the plan to use alternate electors to make Mr. Trump the winner. Ms. McDaniel agreed to work with the Trump campaign to execute the plan, but she was told it was only a contingency in case Republican lawsuits succeeded in invalidating results, she said in her testimony.

A federal indictment of Mr. Trump, filed by special counsel Jack Smith, also asserted Ms. McDaniel was misled to believe that the electors would not be used if the campaign did not succeed in court.

Mr. Trump’s plans included forcing the electors through on Jan. 6 regardless, with help from Vice President Mike Pence, who, the president and his allies hoped, would block certification of Mr. Biden’s victory.

Ms. McDaniel also testified that she was “out of the loop” on plans to pressure Mr. Pence to do so.

On the evening of Jan. 6, she deplored the rioting at the Capitol, saying in a statement: “What these violent protesters are doing is the opposite of patriotism. It is shameful and I condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”

In the months that followed Mr. Biden’s inauguration, Ms. McDaniel went on to oversee a vast expansion of the party’s “election integrity” teams, state groups that often worked with activists still committed to falsehoods about the 2020 election.

In an interview on “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Ms. McDaniel acknowledged, “fair and square he won.”

But she added, “I do think it’s fair to say there were problems in 2020.”

Jonathan Swan contributed reporting.

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