Donald Trump was the most powerful man in the world. But he was also a paranoid fantasist who did not care how his lies destroyed people’s lives.
That was the picture of the former US president that came into focus with startling clarity at Tuesday’s hearing of the congressional committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
Dead people, shredded ballots and a USB drive that was in fact a ginger mint were all part of the delusional narrative of election fraud peddled by Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani. They would have been as comical as flat-earthers but for the way they posed a danger to both individual citizens and American democracy.
“The president’s lie was and is a dangerous cancer on the body politic,” committee member Adam Schiff said at the hearing into how Trump pressured state officials to overturn overturn results.
It was worth remembering that Trump once boasted that he had passed a cognitive test by reciting the words, “Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV,” in the right order. And that, according to the Washington Post, he made 30,573 false or misleading claims during his four-year presidency.
Even on Tuesday, he was repeating the biggest lie of all. Just before the hearing he issued a statement claiming that witness Rusty Bowers, the speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, told him “the election was rigged and I won Arizona”.
Bowers, a Republican who had wanted Trump to win the election, told the committee that this was false: “Anyone, anywhere, anytime I said the election was rigged, that would not be true.”
Bowers also recalled a conversation with Giuliani and lawyer Jenna Ellis about allegations of voter fraud in Arizona. In a phrase that captured the president’s own mindset, Giuliani allegedly said: “We’ve got lots of theories but we just don’t have the evidence.”
But the centerpiece of the big lie is Georgia, which Trump narrowly lost and which became his all-consuming obsession for wild conspiracy theories.
The committee heard testimony from its secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, and his deputy Gabe Sterling, who observed that competing against Trump’s false statements was like a “shovel trying to empty the ocean. I even had family members I had to argue with about some of these things.”
The Cannon Caucus Room resounded with Trump’s own voice from a 67-minute phone call with Raffensperger in which the president claimed the people of Georgia “know” he won the state by hundreds of thousands of voters.
Not true, Raffensperger told the committee definitively, explaining that Trump had “come up short”.
One by one, Trump could be heard making ludicrous assertions without foundation. One by one, Raffensperger and Sterling calmly demolished them.
The president was heard claiming that votes were “in what looked to be suitcases or trunks, suitcases but they weren’t in voter boxes”. Schiff asked: “Were they just the ordinary containers that are used by election workers?” Sterling testified: “They’re standard ballot carriers that allow for seals to be put on them so they’re tamper proof.”
Trump went on during the call: “But they dropped a lot of votes in there late at night. You know that, Brad.” Raffensperger told the committee: “There were no additional ballots accepted after 7pm.”
The president insisted: “The other thing, dead people. So dead people voted and I think the number is close to 5,000 people. And they went to obituaries. They went to all sorts of methods to come up with an accurate number and a minimum is close to about 5,000 voters.”
Raffensperger observed: “No, it’s not accurate … We found two dead people when I wrote my letter to Congress that’s dated January 6 and subsequent to that we found two more. That’s one, two, three, four people, not 4,000.”
More sinister yet, Trump claimed that election workers had been shredding ballots, “a criminal offense” that could put Raffensperger at risk. “So look. All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have because we won the state.”
Raffensperger told the hearing: “What I knew is we didn’t have any votes to find.”
Tuesday’s hearing spelled out how the big lie has caused hurt way beyond Washington on 6 January 2021. Trump told Raffensperger on the call: “When you talk about no criminality, I think it’s very dangerous for you to say that.”
The Georgia secretary of state took this as a threat. And sure enough, his family was targeted by Trump supporters.
“My email, my cell phone was doxxed and I was getting texts all over the country and then eventually my wife started getting texts. Hers typically came in as sexualized texts which were disgusting … They started going after her I think just to probably put pressure on me: ‘Why don’t you quit and walk away.’”
He was far from alone.
In a deposition, Michigan secretary of state Jocelyn Benson talked about how her “stomach sunk” when she heard the sounds of protesters outside her home one night when she was putting her child to bed. She wondered if they had guns or were going to attack her house. “That was the scariest moment,” Benson said.
But no story better illustrated the callousness of Trump’s assault than Georgia election workers Wandrea “Shaye” Moss and her mother Ruby Freeman, two African American women described by committee chairman Bennie Thompson as “unsung heroes” of democracy.
Giuliani accused the pair of passing a USB drive to each other; Moss told the committee that her mother had actually been handing her a ginger mint. With astonishing cruelty, Trump was heard in a phone call describing Freeman as “a professional vote scammer and hustler”.
It was false but it was the cue for an onslaught of racist hatred from Trump supporters. Moss, nervous and at times shaking, recalled: “A lot of threats wishing death upon me. Telling me that, you know, I’ll be in jail with my mother and saying things like, ‘Be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920.”
Moss, who left her position, added in wrenching testimony: “It’s turned my life upside down. I no longer give out my business card. I don’t transfer calls. I don’t want anyone knowing my name. I’ve gained about 60 pounds. I just don’t do nothing anymore. I don’t want to go anywhere. I second-guess everything that I do.”
Her mother Ruby Freeman said in a deposition: “I’ve lost my name, and I’ve lost my reputation. I’ve lost my sense of security – all because a group of people … scapegoat[ed] me and my daughter, Shaye, to push their own lies about how the presidential election was stolen.”
At the end of his call to Raffensperger, Trump could be heard saying: “It takes a little while but let the truth comes out.”
Now, finally, the truth is coming out, but not the one that occupies his fantasies.