Lee condemns Trump indictments, but once questioned 2020 election strategies

Sen. Mike Lee speaks to a crowd of supporters at the Hyatt Regency in Salt Lake City on Nov. 8, 2022. Lee condemns Donald Trump's latest indictment, but he once questioned some of Trump's allies' 2020 election strategies.

Sen. Mike Lee speaks to a crowd of supporters at the Hyatt Regency in Salt Lake City on Nov. 8, 2022. Lee condemns Donald Trump's latest indictment, but he once questioned some of Trump's allies' 2020 election strategies. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Sen. Mike Lee has been a consistent voice in condemning the recent series of indictments leveled against former President Donald Trump.

Lee called the most recent charges — brought by a Georgia grand jury this week against Trump and 18 alleged co-conspirators in connection with election subversion efforts in the battleground state — "political weaponization of criminal law," echoing a talking point repeated often by ardent Trump supporters.

While Lee's recent statements have regularly downplayed any potential criminality by the former president and his allies, the senator's leaked text messages from late 2020 and early 2021 suggest he viewed at least some of their theories and strategies as not fully above board.

The senator is not mentioned in either of the recent indictments, but he was in contact with at least one high-ranking defendant in the weeks leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection. And text conversations between Lee and the White House chief of staff referred to two others indicted in the new Georgia case.

Through a spokesman, Lee again criticized Fulton County District Attorney Fani Wallis for what he said was a politically motivated prosecution.

"After a thorough examination in January 2021, Sen. Lee ascertained that no states had contested electors; therefore, Congress did not have the authority to challenge the authenticity of electors," Lee spokesman Billy Gribbin told KSL.com in a statement Wednesday. "Sen. Lee made his belief clear. Two things can be true at once. While Sen. Lee firmly believes in preserving the Constitution and preventing any federal institution from overstepping its bounds, especially when counting electors, there is a difference between constitutional authority and what constitutes a crime. Each has its place, and each should be addressed appropriately and free of political malice. In her indictment, the Fulton County DA is clearly attempting to use her office to prosecute a political opponent."

Lee texts top Trump aide following 2020 election

A lawyer by trade, Lee began to review Trump's claims of widespread election fraud — for which there is no evidence — but ultimately concluded that Congress' only role in the presidential election is to open and count the electoral votes submitted by the states.

Last year, CNN published a series of text messages between Lee and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows from Nov. 7, 2020, to Jan. 4, 2021, in which Lee encouraged Trump's team to pursue legal options for challenging election results, before eventually acknowledging President Joe Biden's Electoral College win.

Meadows is charged with racketeering and solicitation of violation of oath by a public officer in the Georgia indictment that was returned Monday. He was on the infamous recorded phone call between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Jan. 2, 2021, in which Trump asked Raffensperger to "find" 11,780 votes — enough to overturn Biden's victory in the state.

Lee texted Meadows on Nov. 7 in support of investigations into alleged voter fraud, and pledged his "unequivocal support for you to exhaust every legal and constitutional remedy at your disposal to restore Americans' faith in our elections."

He also urged Meadows to get Sidney Powell — another defendant in the Georgia case — in to see the president, saying, "Apparently she has a strategy to keep things alive and put several states back in play." Lee later told the Deseret News he didn't know Powell and doesn't remember how he got in touch with her, and denied introducing her to the Trump team.

The senator later seemed to grow skeptical of Powell, after she and Trump's personal attorney Rudy Guiliani touted a wide array of election conspiracy theories in a press conference on Nov. 19.

"Unless Powell can immediately substantiate what she said today, the president should probably disassociate himself and refute any claims that can't be substantiated," he texted Meadows that day, after saying he doubted the claims could be proven.

Lee then turned to a theory promoted by conservative law professor John Eastman — who is also charged in the Georgia indictment — claiming that then-Vice President Mike Pence could hand Trump the election on Jan. 6 by setting aside electors from swing states that submitted dueling slates of electors.

But Lee acknowledged in texts that such a theory would only be tenable if legislatures voted to submit alternate electors according to state law, which didn't happen.

"I know only that this will end badly for the president unless we have the Constitution on our side," Lee texted to Meadows on Jan. 3, 2021. "And unless these states submit new slates of Trump electors pursuant to state law, we do not."

The indictment accuses Eastman, along with Trump and Guiliani, of conspiracy to commit impersonating a public officer and conspiracy to commit forgery and false filings by trying to "cause certain individuals to falsely hold themselves out as the duly elected and qualified presidential electors from the state of Georgia."

Is challenging elections illegal?

Although much of what is alleged in the criminal charges surrounding 2020 election subversion stems from the former president's attempts to stay in power by repeating baseless claims of election fraud, questioning the results of an election — or even lying about voter fraud — isn't a crime, said attorney and KSL NewsRadio legal analyst Greg Skordas.

Politicians on both sides have used court challenges to question outcomes, but the Georgia defendants are accused of using illegal means to force a fraudulent outcome after numerous lawsuits failed.

"If you go to an election registrar and say, 'You need to change these votes,' that's illegal. If you go to the Georgia Supreme Court and say, 'Hey, your election registrar is doing their job wrong' and you lose, then you're just a bad lawyer," Skordas said.

He said Lee appeared to realize Trump's team was running out of legal options and avoided the alleged conspiracy to change the votes in Georgia led by Trump, Eastman, Powell, Guiliani and others.

Another Utah Republican, Attorney General Sean Reyes, arguably went further than Lee in trying to challenge the results, Skordas said, by taking time off in late 2020 to pursue lawsuits against alleged "voting irregularities" in Nevada, to the chagrin of Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford.

But, like Lee's, Reyes' actions appear to follow the normal path of challenging results and leaving the courts to weigh the evidence on both sides.

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Utah congressional delegationJan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrectionU.S. electionsPoliticsUtahSalt Lake CountyU.S.
Bridger Beal-Cvetko covers Utah politics, Salt Lake County communities and breaking news for KSL.com. He is a graduate of Utah Valley University.


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