Trump White House Aides Subpoenaed in Firing of Election Security Expert
The special counsel investigating former President Donald J. Trump’s efforts to cling to power after he lost the 2020 election has subpoenaed staff members from the Trump White House who may have been involved in firing the government cybersecurity official whose agency judged the election “the most secure in American history,” according to two people briefed on the matter.
The team led by the special counsel, Jack Smith, has been asking witnesses about the events surrounding the firing of Christopher Krebs, who was the Trump administration’s top cybersecurity official during the 2020 election. Mr. Krebs’s assessment that the election was secure was at odds with Mr. Trump’s baseless assertions that it was a “fraud on the American public.”
Mr. Smith’s team is also seeking information about how White House officials, including in the Presidential Personnel Office, approached the Justice Department, which Mr. Trump turned to after his election loss as a way to try to stay in power, people familiar with the questions said.
The investigators appear focused on Mr. Trump’s state of mind around the firing of Mr. Krebs, as well as on establishing a timeline of events leading up to the attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob on Jan. 6, 2021. The latest subpoenas, issued roughly two weeks ago, went to officials in the personnel office, according to the two people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Krebs enraged Mr. Trump when his agency, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, released a statement nine days after the 2020 election attesting to the security of the results. The statement added a sharp rebuke — in boldface type — to the unfounded conspiracy theories that Mr. Trump and his allies were spreading about compromised voting machines.
“There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes or was in any way compromised,” the statement from Mr. Krebs’s agency read.
Five days later, Mr. Trump tweeted that Mr. Krebs was “terminated” after releasing a “highly inaccurate” statement about the 2020 election.
Mr. Krebs later testified to the House special committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol that before his firing, he was aware of “skepticism” among Trump allies about his “loyalty to the president.”
It was far more than skepticism. Within the Presidential Personnel Office, a small group of Trump loyalists, led by Mr. Trump’s former personal aide, John McEntee, were on a mission to find and fire people perceived as disloyal to Mr. Trump within the federal bureaucracy. And they had fingered the outspoken Mr. Krebs as among the ranks of the disloyal.
Staff members within the personnel office had drafted a document about Mr. Krebs that outlined reasons to distrust him. The memo, first reported by Jonathan Karl of ABC News, detailed a litany of Mr. Krebs’s alleged sins against Mr. Trump, including: “Wife posted a family photo on Facebook with the ‘Biden Harris’ logo watermarked at the bottom.”
Mr. Smith’s team is asking witnesses about broader efforts made by Mr. Trump’s personnel officials to test the loyalty of federal officials and potential hires, the people briefed on the matter said. Mr. McEntee was seen going into the grand jury in recent months.
Months before the 2020 election, Mr. McEntee, now the head of a dating app for conservatives, and a deputy sought to overhaul the government’s hiring process. They developed what became known by some officials as “the loyalty test” — a new questionnaire for government hires that asked such questions as “What part of Candidate Trump’s campaign message most appealed to you and why?”
Mr. Krebs is among those whom Mr. Smith’s team has interviewed, according to a person familiar with the matter. Mr. Krebs declined to comment when contacted.
Mr. Smith’s team has also been trying to figure out how the personnel office interacted with the Justice Department as Mr. Trump grasped at any available instrument within his bureaucracy that might help him subvert the 2020 election result.
In his final weeks in office, Mr. Trump grew increasingly frustrated with the department’s leaders as one after another rebuffed his pressure on them to falsely declare that large-scale voter fraud had occurred in swing states, such as Georgia, that Mr. Trump had lost to Mr. Biden.
By the time the election took place, Heidi Stirrup, a loyalist close to Mr. Trump’s policy adviser, Stephen Miller, had been installed as the White House liaison at the Justice Department. Mr. Smith’s office has asked questions about her role, one of the people briefed on the matter said.
Ms. Stirrup was banned from entering the Justice Department building a month after the 2020 election, after she tried to glean sensitive information from department officials about efforts to hunt for election fraud, according to officials with knowledge of the episode.
Soon after, Attorney General William P. Barr, whom Mr. Trump had long seen as an ally, resigned after telling Mr. Trump that his election fraud theories were bogus and that the legal team he had assembled to challenge the results was a “clown show.” Jeffrey A. Rosen, who replaced Mr. Barr, also refused to follow Mr. Trump’s orders to use the machinery of the Justice Department to overturn the election.
Jeffrey B. Clark, the acting head of the civil division, was the one senior Justice Department official who embraced Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn President Biden’s victory. Mr. Clark had a relatively low profile, but in the frantic period after the election, Mr. Trump identified him as his most important ally inside the department. Mr. Trump seriously considered firing Mr. Rosen and putting Mr. Clark in charge.
Justice Department leaders were horrified and pledged to collectively resign. Mr. Trump shelved the plan, but during the past two years has spoken warmly of Mr. Clark and hosted him at his Florida home, Mar-a-Lago.
Mr. Clark has been the focus of investigators’ attention as well in connection with his role in helping Mr. Trump’s efforts to reverse the election outcome.
Maggie Haberman is a senior political correspondent and the author of “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.” She was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on President Trump’s advisers and their connections to Russia. @maggieNYT
Jonathan Swan is a political reporter who focuses on campaigns and Congress. As a reporter for Axios, he won an Emmy Award for his 2020 interview of then-President Donald J. Trump, and the White House Correspondents’ Association’s Aldo Beckman Award for “overall excellence in White House coverage” in 2022. @jonathanvswan
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