Sen. Mike Lee says the text messages he sent to then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows after the 2020 election don’t signal advocacy for overturning the results in favor of Donald Trump.

In his first interview since CNN last week revealed dozens of his texts to Meadows, the Utah Republican told the Deseret News on Wednesday his only goal was to figure out Congress’ role in a presidential election and sort through theories the Trump campaign pursued to challenge the outcome.

Lee said he has known Meadows for a long time and characterized his texts from Nov. 7, 2020, to Jan. 4, 2021, as having a level of informality that would be reserved for a friend.

“He knows that when I said things like ‘Tell me what we ought to be saying,’ what I was just trying to figure out was ‘What is your message?’ He knows me well enough to know that that doesn’t mean I will do your bidding, whatever it is,” Lee said in a 45-minute phone interview.

“Conversations I had with him at the time on the phone and in person, he knew that. He knew I was not there to do his bidding,” Lee said of his conversations with Meadows.

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Lee said his texts to Meadows are being used out of context for “political motives” and were “leaked” during an important period of time in his reelection campaign. The messages were obtained by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and reviewed by CNN.

The Utah Republican Party nominating convention is Saturday and Lee has been meeting with delegates this week. Two Republican opponents, Becky Edwards and Ally Isom, have already qualified for a primary election in June, as has Lee.

Edwards, Isom and independent candidate Evan McMullin have blasted Lee over the text messages and demanded the senator give a full accounting of his role in Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election.

Lee consented to the interview Wednesday following days of reports in the Deseret News and elsewhere, including a Tuesday piece by Sam Benson for the Deseret News detailing conversations from a year ago with the senator. 

Was the 2020 election fair?

Lee called for an investigation into election fraud claims but ultimately recognized Joe Biden as president-elect and voted to certify the electoral results on Jan. 6.

Asked Wednesday if Biden was elected in a free and fair election, Lee said: “President Biden is the president of the United States. ... We know that he is the president of the United States because the Electoral College met on Dec. 14 and then cast electoral votes. Those electoral votes signaled the victory for President Biden.”

Lee went on to say there will always be attempts to manipulate the results of any election and that there is a risk of fraud. He said he can’t say what did or didn’t happen in any given state. He said it’s not Congress’ job to figure out if the election in any or every state was fair and free of fraud.

Asked if there was fraud in the 2020 election, Lee said, “I’ve answered your question.”

‘A million theories circulating’

The text exchanges show how Lee initially supported legal challenges to the election but ultimately came to sour on the effort and the tactics deployed by Trump and his lawyers. He ultimately concluded that Congress’ only role in presidential elections is to open and count states’ electoral votes.

Lee said he consistently told the Trump campaign and Trump himself to publicly acknowledge that they would accept the results of the Electoral College vote on Dec. 14, 2020.

“From the outset of this, I spent an enormous amount of time doing my job with only one objective in mind. Particularly once the electoral votes were cast, my objective was to figure out what, if any role, Congress had,” Lee said.

Lee acknowledged, as he has previously, that he encouraged the Trump campaign to explore legal options to challenge the election results, including recounts and audits, and that the time to raise those claims was limited.

In a text to Meadows on Nov. 7, Lee offered his “unequivocal support for you to exhaust every legal and constitutional remedy at your disposal to restore Americans’ faith in our elections.”

“This fight is about the fundamental fairness and integrity of our election system. The nation is depending upon your continued resolve. Stay strong and keep fighting Mr. President.”

During that time, Lee said he did his own legal research and talked to lawyers “aspiring or claiming” to represent Trump.

“There were a million theories circulating at any given moment,” he said.

It was during that period that Lee asked Meadows to get attorney Sydney Powell in to see Trump because “apparently she has a strategy to keep things alive and put several states back in play.”

Lee said he didn’t know Powell and doesn’t remember how he got in touch with her, but that he did not introduce her to the Trump team. He said he had some initial conversations with her, but after seeing her in press conferences became less enamored with her strategy because “the things she said didn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

The senator then turned his attention to John Eastman, a conservative law professor who presented a theory on how to turn the election for Trump. Lee said although he knew Eastman, he did not introduce him to the Trump team, either.

Eastman claimed that then-Vice President Mike Pence could hand the election to Trump if states submitted dueling slates of electors to Congress, split between Biden and Trump. Pence could simply set those states aside on Jan. 6 and count only electors from the remaining states.

Lee said the theory was generally common knowledge, discussed among members of Congress and reported in the media as one of the possibilities, or at least widely speculated as a way to go about keeping Trump in office.

“I don’t know when I first quote-unquote learned about it,” he said.

But Lee said, “That is very strong medicine, and because it’s strong medicine it seemed very unlikely to me all along.”

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Lee said he thought that theory was dead until he received a memo from Eastman on Jan. 2 claiming seven states were sending Congress dueling slates of electors. The memo, he said, didn’t provide any real analysis about the basis on which a state would change its slate of electors or why that would be legitimate.

“That’s when I became alarmed. Honestly, by Jan. 2, I started to think this had blown over and maybe they were not going to try this stunt that I think could be dangerous,” he said.

Still, Lee texted Meadows four times about the theory in Eastman’s letter after receiving it. “Everything changes, of course, if the swing states submit competing slates of electors pursuant to state law. But in the absence of that, this effort is destined not only to fail, but to hurt DJT in the process,” read one text.

What was Mike Lee doing for those 14 hours a day?

Lee said he couldn’t get answers from the Trump campaign about “ever-changing rumors,” so he started cold calling state legislators and elections officials in states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia and Michigan to figure out what was going on.

“I’ve been spending 14 hours a day for the last week trying to unravel this for him,” Lee texted Meadows on Jan. 4. Lee said those long days of investigation came only after receiving the Jan. 2 memo.

Lee said he found that none of the states were changing their electoral votes. And he said he never urged states to do that then or at any time before.

“At no point in any of those was I engaging in advocacy. I wasn’t in any way encouraging them to do that. I just asked them a yes or no question,” he said.

Lee said he counseled the Trump administration all along that it was dealing with “very delicate things” and if it was going to challenge the electoral vote, it must be within the constraints of the law in each state and the Constitution.

“You cannot do this. You can’t treat the Congress as having the authority to undo the certified electoral votes of any state,” he said he told Trump advisers.

Lee said he treated the entire situation like he does all his duties as a senator.

“You research, read, talk it through with your colleagues, you follow the Constitution. This one proved to be a lot more trickier than most because it involved an ever-changing plate of facts. That made it more difficult than it should have been,” he said.

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Lee said he doesn’t expect the release of the text messages to hurt his chance for reelection. “I think it was intended to, but I think it will not,” he said.

He called McMullin’s characterization of his involvement “irresponsible” and “wildly inaccurate.” He said Edwards and Isom have been “reckless” with the truth. He said he doesn’t think most voters will believe their “outlandishly false” statements.

“I’m trusting that Utahns can see through his nonsense,” he said. “I know what happened. I know what my thoughts and intents were in doing this.”