Special counsel Jack Smith’s office has asked former US officials about a February 2020 Oval Office meeting where then-President Donald Trump praised improvements to the security of US elections, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.
In the meeting with senior US officials and White House staff, Trump touted his administration’s work to expand the use of paper ballots and support security audits of vote tallies. Trump was so encouraged by federal efforts to protect election systems that he suggested the FBI and Department of Homeland Security hold a press conference to take credit for the work, four people familiar with the meeting told CNN.
Those details offer a stark contrast to the voter-fraud conspiracy theories Trump began spreading publicly just weeks later and continued to use to question the 2020 election results.
Smith’s office has in recent months interviewed multiple former US officials with knowledge of the February 2020 Oval Office briefing, sources said, though not everyone who attended the meeting and has talked to the special counsel was asked about it. In their questions to at least one of those former officials, investigators were interested in how Trump reacted to information from his advisers that US election systems were secure, and whether Trump was well informed on the topic, one of the sources said.
Investigators seemed particularly interested in understanding Trump’s mindset about election security before he embarked on a monthslong campaign to cast doubt on elections, the source added. Investigators have also asked multiple witnesses about whether Trump retaliated against top officials for contradicting his narrative about election security, two sources familiar with the matter told CNN.
Smith’s interest in the February 2020 meeting, which has not been previously reported, is the latest indication that the special counsel is seeking testimony from a range of witnesses about Trump’s mindset surrounding his voter fraud claims, including what he was told or understood about election security.
Trump’s private expressions of confidence in US elections could offer prosecutors insight into Trump’s thinking and potentially undercut his defense that he truly believed the election was stolen.
Details from the February 2020 Oval Office meeting are likely relevant to Smith’s election interference investigation because they speak to Trump’s “knowledge and intent” around the security of US elections, said Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor and CNN legal analyst.
“Should [Trump] reasonably have known that there was no fraud and he lost?” Honig said, describing the prosecutorial angle. “Or does he have some sort of claim that he was acting in good faith, or acting on the reasonable advice of his advisers in contesting the election?”
Testimony from the February 2020 meeting suggests that at least in the early part of 2020, Trump embraced the notion that the election would be secure and that he was heeding the advice of his own experts.
“It’s one more piece of the larger, ‘[Trump] knew or should have known’ puzzle,’” Honig said. “It’s one more indicator that Jack Smith has looked under every rock.”
By early April 2020, as states started adjusting voting rules amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Trump was making baseless attacks on voting by mail, falsely claiming it was fraudulent and dangerous.
After losing the 2020 election, Trump repeatedly made false claims that contradicted what he was told at the White House briefing about the security of voting systems. He said “massive fraud took place with machines” and falsely claimed millions of votes were “deleted.” Trump’s allies also made wild claims about foreign election interference by from countries including Venezuela and Italy.
On Nov. 12, 2020, nine days after the election, DHS’s cyber agency released a statement describing the election as “the most secure in American history.” The statement was based on the exact security programs officials presented to Trump during the February 2020 briefing. Trump soon fired Chris Krebs, the top cyber official at DHS who had rejected Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud.
A spokesman for the special counsel’s office declined to comment. A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.
The February 2020 briefing from senior US national security officials was attended by White House staff and covered a range of actions federal agencies were taking to secure the election.
The briefing grew tense when the topic turned to Moscow’s preference for Trump over Joe Biden in the 2020 election, the sources said.
Trump was irate with acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire over a briefing intelligence officials had held days earlier for lawmakers on Russia’s preference for Trump.
Maguire formally resigned as spy chief the following week.
Michigan charges participants in fake elector plot
Over the next few months, Trump embraced a host of baseless conspiracy theories about voter fraud, beginning a monthslong campaign to discredit election security that intensified in the weeks before and after the November election, and continued through the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
CNN has also reported that during the transition, Trump considered signing an executive order authorizing the military to seize voting machines to search for “systemic fraud.” Special counsel investigators have recently asked key witnesses about the December 2020 White House meeting where this idea was pitched directly to Trump.