It was late at night on Dec. 18, 2020, and White House officials could hear screaming coming from inside the Oval Office.
“[Michael] Flynn is still here,” Cassidy Hutchinson, the Mark Meadows aide who has testified extensively and publicly before the Jan. 6 committee. wrote in a text. “And Sidney. there’s a brawl.”
That brawl pitted some of Trump’s most aggressive and conspiracy-minded supporters ( Powell, Flynn, Trump official Emily Newman, and Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne) against those around Trump who would have preferred not to burn down the edifice (White House counsel Pat Cipollone and adviser Eric Herschmann).
The meeting reportedly involved hours of screaming and insults, with some participants on the verge of tears from frustration and rage.
At the center of it was a battle to persuade Trump to do one thing: appoint Sidney Powell as special counsel to investigate the election, setting off a chain of events that would include the federal government seizing voting machines.
It came five days after Trump ran out of legal options to reverse his win and, as the Jan. 6 committee showed, the vast majority of his advisers and staff recognized that their boss had lost.
But on Dec. 18, the four Trumpers shuffled into the White House.
Powell admitted to the Committee that on that day, she “had no idea” that she would even be able to get an appointment with Trump.
Raskin said at the Tuesday hearing that the group “gain[ed] access to the building through a junior White House staffer,” and walked into the Oval Office to greet Trump.
To get there, Powell had to pass by Herschmann, the Trump adviser.
“How the hell did Sidney get in the building?” Herschmann asked at the time, according to an account published in Axios in February 2021. He called Cipollone.
In a recorded interview, Powell told the Jan. 6 committee through swigs of Diet Dr. Pepper that she and her entourage – including Flynn, a former general advocating for military intervention to keep Trump in power – only had around 10 or 15 minutes alone with Trump before Cipollone showed up.
“He set a new land speed record,” Powell deadpanned.
Powell began to lay out her argument: Trump needed to seize the voting machines, and he had the authority to do it. A 2018 executive order about sanctioning foreign actors for election interference would fit the purpose – all Trump needed to do was assert his authority, and, perhaps, appoint Powell herself special counsel.
In his own videotaped interview with the committee, Cipollone described walking in to the Oval Office and finding Powell, Flynn, and a character unknown to him sitting around Trump. The new guy was Byrne, the Overstock.com CEO who later wrote a blog post about the meeting and the “bottle cap-sized Swedish meatballs” that he and Trump shared during the meeting.
“The first thing I did was I walked in and I looked at [Byrne] and I said, ‘Who are you?” Cipollone recalled to the panel. “And he told me. I don’t think any of these people were providing the president with good advice and so I didn’t understand how they had gotten in.”
The brigade of the saner had arrived.
It was Cipollone, Trump adviser Derek Lyons, and Herschmann, who recalled asking Powell whether she was “claiming the Democrats are working with Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelans, whoever else?”
“At one point, Gen. Flynn took out a diagram that supposedly showed IP addresses all over the world, who was communicating with who over the machines, and some comment about Nest thermostats over the internet,” Herschmann added in his interview with the committee.
That particular conspiracy theory – that the enemies of the United States threw the election for Biden via hacking Nest thermostats – burrowed its way into the DOJ via Jeffrey Clark, the Trump flunkie who mounted a failed attempt to enlist federal law enforcement in Trump’s attempt to stay in power.
From there, the meeting devolved into shouting and screaming.
“You’re quitting! You’re a quitter! You’re not fighting!” Flynn screamed at Herschmann, per Axios, before adding to Trump: “Sir, we need fighters.”
Herschmann, Axios reported, at first tried to ignore Flynn, before losing his temper.
“Why the fuck do you keep standing up and screaming at me?” he shouted at the former general. “If you want to come over here, come over here. If not, sit your ass down.”
Byrne also joined in, telling Herschmann that he was a “quitter” and addressing Trump directly: “They’ve already abandoned you,” the Overstock CEO said, referring to Cipollone, Herschmann, and Lyons.
“Do you even know who the fuck I am, you idiot?” Herschmann told Byrne, per Axios.
“Yeah, you’re Patrick Cipollone,” Byrne reportedly replied.
To which Herschmann retorted: “Wrong! Wrong, you idiot!”
Rudy Giuliani had ambled in by that point, and recalled the exchanges to the committee.
“I’m going to categorically describe it as, ‘you guys are not tough enough,'” Giuliani said. “Or maybe I put it another way, ‘you’re a bunch of pussies.'”
Meanwhile, the three lawyers were pressing Powell as Trump looked on: If she was so certain, why had 60 judges – many of them Trump appointees – rejected her and Trump’s claims about fraud in the election?
“Where is the evidence?” Cipollone asked, describing Powell’s response as a “general disregard for the importance of backing up what you say.”
Herschmann recalled Powell saying that “the judges are corrupt.”
“I was like, ‘every one? Every single case in the country that you guys have done in the country? That you have lost? Every one of them is corrupt?'” Herschmann asked Powell. “Even the ones we appointed?”
Flynn and Powell, per Axios, started attacking the DOJ and the FBI at that point, saying that they were corrupt and out to get Trump.
Herschmann, per Axios, brought it closer to home for Flynn, who undid his guilty plea as Trump’s DOJ intervened to try to exonerate him.
“Listen, the same people that you’re trashing, if they didn’t produce the Brady material to Sidney, your ass would still be in jail!” Herschmann reportedly said.
Powell, in her testimony, seemed hurt by the interaction.
“If it had been me sitting in [Trump]’s chair, I would’ve fired them all that night and had them escorted out of the building,” Powell whimpered to the committee, adding that the attorneys “showed nothing but contempt and disdain for the President.”
Trump and his White House advisers migrated to the Yellow Oval Room – an upstairs room.
“At the end of the day we landed where we started the meeting at least from a structural standpoint which was Sydney Powell was fighting, Mike Flynn was fighting,” Lyons recalled. “They were looking for avenues that would enable and result in President Trump remaining President Trump for a second term.”
Trump was still pushing to name Powell special counsel. He, the committee said, asked Cipollone whether he had the authority to appoint her, whether she could get the needed security clearances.
Cipollone purportedly said yes, but told the committee that he wasn’t certain whether Powell thought she had already been appointed.
The committee was mostly silent on how Trump reacted to all this. Axios reported that he said of Powell, “At least she’s out there fighting.”
Powell, in turn, recalled Trump turning to her after being told that everyone would ignore Powell as special counsel.
“You see what I deal with? I deal with this all the time,” she recalled Trump saying.