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Jan. 6 committee to suggest Trump didn’t believe his own election lies

Ivanka Trump, daughter of former president Donald Trump, who served as a senior advisor during his administration, appeared on screen during a hearing by the Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 attack on Capitol Hill.Pool/Getty

Update: The committee announced Monday morning that Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien would no longer testify due to a family emergency.

WASHINGTON—Did Donald Trump believe his own lies?

It’s a slippery question that lies at the heart of a House committee’s investigation into the Capitol riot, which is holding its second hearing on Monday focused on Trump’s role in spreading falsehoods about fraud in the 2020 election.

The committee will use the testimony of Trump’s former campaign manager Bill Stepien on Monday to make the case that the president intentionally lied about winning the election in order to hang onto power, as part of a larger illegal plan to conspire to overturn the 2020 election.

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“Monday is really focusing on a deep dive in... all of those things that showed he knew this was a lie but he continued to act on that,” said Representative Elaine Luria, a committee member from Virginia, on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday.

The January 6th Committee, which held its initial bombshell hearing in prime time last week, will question Stepien about Trump’s conduct on election night in 2020, when he prematurely declared victory despite being told he did not have the votes to do so. The committee will rely on witness testimony to show Trump was told again and again that he did not actually win the election or have a chance at changing that result with legal challenges and will suggest he must have known that fact, a finding that could place Trump in greater legal peril.

Other witnesses on Monday will include Chris Stirewalt, the former political editor for Fox News who faced a conservative firestorm after calling Arizona for Biden, and BJay Pak, a federal prosecutor in Atlanta who resigned shortly before Jan. 6 after Trump called him a “never Trumper.”

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That Trump frequently lied while in office is not in doubt. Fact checkers for the Washington Post tallied a shocking 30,573 untruths over his four years in office, averaging about 21 lies per day, that ranged from the ridiculous (insisting the small crowd at his inauguration was enormous) to the nefarious (endorsing ineffective “cures” for COVID).

But the question of whether the former president was purposely attempting to deceive Americans, instead of just reflecting what he believed in his own warped and conspiracy-steeped reality, has important implications for both Trump’s own legal standing as well as how the American public views his attempts to hang onto power after he lost the 2020 election.

Last week, the committee kicked off its first prime time hearing with footage of former attorney general Barr recalling that he told Trump his claims of fraud were “bullshit,” before airing a clip of Ivanka Trump saying she accepted her father’s loss. Trump campaign official Jason Miller also said Trump had been told unequivocally by his own campaign’s data analyst that he had lost the election.

“The committee was trying to make the argument that if those closest to the president knew the claims of a rigged election were false, then he must have known as well,” said Robert Mintz, a former Justice Department prosecutor who focused on organized crime. Mintz added that the argument appeared aimed at destroying the case that Trump had a “good faith belief” that widespread fraud really did prevent from him winning.

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Whether Trump knew he had lost the election when he told his supporters to “fight like hell” on Jan. 6, 2021, has important legal implications, given that the committee, which can make recommendations to the Justice Department to criminally prosecute, is trying to make the case that Trump knowingly engaged in a “seditious conspiracy,” or coup. Much of the committee’s work appears aimed at Attorney General Merrick Garland, who some committee members have said should launch a criminal case against the ex-president.

“If he knew that he lost the election, then he had the requisite corrupt intent to be prosecuted for multiple federal and state crimes,” said Norm Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute think tank. “And the committee began laying out powerful evidence to that effect.”

But in Trump’s case, to prove he knew he lost at the moment he was trying to stay in office could prove daunting.

“In some ways, [proving intent] could be an impossible task if Trump never actually acknowledges his defeat out loud,” wrote former US attorney Barbara McQuade in an e-mail. “However, juries are typically instructed to apply the willful blindness doctrine. This doctrine provides that a person may not ignore with a high probability that a fact is true simply by turning a blind eye to that fact.”

The committee is establishing that many people around Trump knew he lost, and many told him so, in order to show that he must have known the truth.

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But Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio said he thinks it will be “challenging” for the committee to prove Trump knew that he didn’t actually win the election, in part because of what he described as Trump’s ability to shift his own reality to suit his business or political needs. It’s unclear if the committee, which conducted more than 1,000 interviews, will be able to present evidence that Trump admitted to someone at the time that he knew he had lost.

“A con man has to believe his own con, at least while he’s playing it out,” D’Antonio said. “He has no concern for the truth because he doesn’t believe that the truth matters.”

Trump has dismissed the committee’s allegations and pushed back hard on its finding that his own daughter knew he lost the election, writing on Friday that she was “checked out” and had not studied the election results. He also attacked Barr, calling him “scared” of being impeached.

Miller, Trump’s former adviser, argued that Trump did not believe his data analyst’s take on his loss, and continued to believe his legal challenges could win him the election. " I think it’s safe to say he disagreed with Matt’s analysis,” Miller claimed he said in his deposition.

Democrats, however, think the committee is powerfully making the case that Trump knew, and they hope that the Justice Department is watching closely and will decide to prosecute him for it.

“They all told him he’d lost, his staffers his family — everyone told him he lost,” said Representative Jim McGovern, chairman of the Rules Committee. “So he knew he’d lost. There’s no question. But he didn’t want to accept the will of the American people and that’s what January 6 is all about.”

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Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.