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Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s private texts complicate his public statements

I sat down with Sen. Lee last year to discuss the 2020 election investigation. But newly released texts complicate the narrative he told to me then

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Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, meets with reporters and members of the the Deseret News and KSL editorial board in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 29, 2016.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, meets with reporters and members of the the Deseret News and KSL editorial board in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 29, 2016.

Hans Koepsell, Deseret News

Over one year ago — on Feb. 4, 2021 — I sat down with Sen. Mike Lee to discuss his investigations into the 2020 election. We spoke at length in his Washington office, and our 45-minute conversation covered what he characterized as his early curiosities about election fraud claims, his communications with Trump’s legal team and his eventual decision to certify the electoral votes in all states.

Most of our discussion was on background, though the senator went on the record frequently (often at my request). The Lee team has pointed to this lengthy interview — published in UT POL Underground — as an important account of Lee’s involvement in the election investigation.

Until recently, all we knew about Lee’s actions came from Lee himself or those close to him. In addition to my interview, Lee spoke to Bob Woodward and Robert Costa for their book, “Peril.” He also discussed his involvement with Dennis Romboy at the Deseret News, as well as during town hall meetings and on the Senate floor.

But much changed last week, when CNN released over 100 text messages between Lee and then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. The texts suggest Lee was more involved — and more invested — in Trump’s efforts to invalidate the 2020 election than he portrayed during our interview last year. 

The Lee camp denies this. Lee’s office turned down my request for a follow-up interview. Spokesman Lee Lonsberry instead sent a lengthy response.

“When Senator Lee reviewed evidence and legal arguments related to the 2020 presidential election, his principal concern was for the law, the Constitution, and especially the more than 150 million Americans who voted in that election,” Lonsberry wrote in an email. “From the moment the electoral college cast its votes in mid-December, he made clear that Joe Biden had won, and would within weeks become the 46th president of the United States absent a court order or state legislative action invalidating electoral votes.” 

Lonsberry’s statement continued: “Once it became clear — based on his own thorough investigation — that no state would be rescinding its electoral votes, (Lee) advised Mark Meadows that the effort to challenge the election in Congress would end badly and to let the country move on.”

Lonsberry concluded: “That’s it. That’s what happened. And that’s what the CNN story confirms. Senator Lee affirmed the outcome of the presidential election on January 6th, and later attended President Biden’s inauguration.”

And yet, comparing Lee’s statements, unanswered questions remain. During my original conversation with Lee, he stated that his investigations stemmed from curiosity, not an attempt to aid the Trump legal team’s efforts to investigate or overturn electoral results. But the newly released text messages complicate this narrative.

In our interview, Lee said he kept close tabs on the Trump team’s progress because he “was genuinely curious about where it would go.” He said he explored legal theories that could swing electoral results in Trump’s favor “more out of curiosity, than anything.” 

But in his texts to Meadows, Lee seems to express support for Trump’s efforts, urging Trump to give more access to attorney Sidney Powell. He offers ideas that would possibly allow Trump to be declared the election’s winner and he suggests the Trump team pursue audits in closely decided swing states. 

Does Lee believe these texts fall under the scope of “curiosity”?

Utah Sen. Mike Lee is pictured.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, meets with members of the Senate Minority Caucus at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

There are other unanswered questions.

At multiple points throughout my original interview with Lee, he was adamant he never considered joining his Senate colleagues in objecting to Electoral College votes. When I asked him if the thought ever crossed his mind, he laughed: “No. Who does that?”

But on Dec. 16 – two days after Lee publicly recognized the electoral votes — he asked Meadows in a text message for advice on how to object to those same votes: “Also, if you want senators to object, we need to hear from you on that ideally getting some guidance on what arguments to raise.”

What was Lee’s true position? 

In early 2021, a legal scholar advising Trump named John Eastman wrote a memo that outlined the Trump camp’s last-ditch efforts to overthrow the election. When Lee received the so-called Eastman memo on Jan. 2, which claimed seven states had “submitted dual slates of electors,” Lee told me he found it “ridiculous.”

“I don’t know whether some fifth-grader hacked into their account and created a dummy document and they sent this to me by accident, but this is a lost cause,” he told me last year. Woodward and Costa wrote that Lee was “shocked” upon receiving Eastman’s memo and “had heard nothing about alternative slates of electors.”

But now we know Lee texted Meadows four times about the theory outlined in Eastman’s letter — the day after receiving Eastman’s memo. “Everything changes, of course, if the swing states submit competing slates of electors pursuant to state law,” one text read. So, even though Lee called the dual slates theory a “lost cause” to me, he apparently texted Trump’s chief of staff saying it was the president’s best legal pathway.

Why did Lee text Meadows about Eastman’s dual slate theory if he believed it was “a lost cause”?

In a rally in Georgia on Jan. 4, 2021, Trump publicly chided Lee and said he was “angry” at the senator. Days earlier, Lee circulated a statement from Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, that called on Congress to certify the electoral results (a fact which Lee readily admitted to me).

Trump’s anger likely stemmed from this. But Meadows texted Lee on Jan. 4, presumably about this same letter, stating: “Apparently, (Trump) was told that you came out with a letter against the electoral objections. I told him that you were being very helpful. Bad intel.”

Instead of confirming that he had, in fact, circulated the Roy letter, the senator seemed to underscore his ongoing support for Trump’s efforts. “I’ve been spending 14 hours a day for the last week trying to unravel this for (Trump),” Lee said. “To have (Trump) take a shot at me like that in such a public setting without even asking me about it is pretty discouraging.” 

Why did Lee continue to spend hours working on issues related to the Trump team’s legal efforts, even after he personally expressed support for certifying the election and encouraged his Senate colleagues to do the same?

Less than 40 hours before Trump supporters would storm the Capitol on Jan. 6, Lee was still apparently searching for a way to provide Trump an electoral victory, texting the following: 

But I’ve been calling state legislators for hours today, and am going to spend hours doing the same tomorrow. I’m trying to figure out a path that I can persuasively defend, and this won’t make it any easier, especially if others now think I’m doing this because he went after me. This just makes it a lot more complicated. And it was complicated already. We need something from state legislatures to make this legitimate and to have any hope of winning. Even if they can’t convene, it might be enough if a majority of them are willing to sign a statement indicating how they would vote.

The texts released by CNN are just snippets of dialogue, but they often complicate Lee’s public narrative. There are things that cannot be reasonably surmised by the texted conversations alone, but questions remain about Lee’s motives. Was he trying to ensure Trump remained on his side by placating his requests and aiding his efforts — while secretly objecting to them — or was he genuinely trying to help Trump overturn the election until the very last days leading up to Jan. 6 and then publicly telling a different story? 

“It was a coup in search of a legal theory,”a federal judge wrote of Eastman and Trump’s maneuvers — which Lee now appears to have encouraged. The full extent of Lee’s role or support is not yet completely understood, but the text messages revealed last week raise far too many questions — and, for now, Lee has declined to answer them.