It’s been nearly a week since CNN first released text messages Republican Sen. Mike Lee sent to then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in the days and weeks following the 2020 elections. The private messages, which the senator probably never expected to reach the public, paint a highly unflattering picture.
As we’ve discussed, the Utahan appears to have engaged in an indefensible plot against his own country’s democracy, partnering with Donald Trump’s team to explore ways to reject American voters’ verdict. Lee invested time and energy into a fake-electors scheme; he touted the work of radical lawyer John Eastman; he personally tried to plot with state legislators; and he practically volunteered to be a puppet for the White House, pleading for a script from which to read.
It reached the point yesterday that Sen. Mitt Romney told reporters, in reference to his home state colleague, “From what I’ve seen so far, I don’t think Sen. Lee has done anything illegal.”
As a rule, it’s not a great sign when, in the midst of a scandal, a politician’s ally feels compelled to say the controversy at hand probably doesn’t include criminal activity — at least “so far.”
Late yesterday, however, the Republican finally spoke to the Deseret News on the record. The good news is, Lee said quite a bit about the controversy. The bad news is, the senator’s comments weren’t exactly persuasive.
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 in an interview 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.
Remember, Lee has had nearly a week to come up with a compelling explanation for his actions. It does not appear that he spent that time wisely.
For example, the senator told the newspaper, “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.”
For goodness’ sake, Lee literally texted the Trump White House, “Please give me something to work with. I just need to know what I should be saying.” Two days later, the senator again texted, “Please tell me what I should be saying.” Later that day, he added, “There are a few of us in the Senate who want to be helpful.”
This wasn’t a senator encouraging Meadows to come up with a message for others; this was a senator awaiting instructions.
In the same 45-minute phone interview with the Deseret News, the newspaper asked whether President Joe Biden was elected in a free and fair election. Lee hedged, conceding that the Democrat was chosen by the electoral college, but failing to concede that the 2020 race was legitimate.
The senator went on to tell the newspaper that he grew “alarmed” in the days leading up to the Jan. 6 certification vote when he learned that the fake-electors scheme hadn’t “blown over.” That appears to be at odds with the texts that show Lee telling Meadows on Jan. 4, “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.... We need something from state legislatures to make this legitimate and to have any hope of winning.”
Also on Jan. 4, Lee texted, “I’ve been spending 14 hours a day for the last week trying to unravel this for [Trump].”
Yesterday, however, the senator told the Deseret News he was merely calling legislators and election officials to figure out what was going on, since he couldn’t get answers from the Trump campaign about “ever-changing rumors.” Lee added, “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.”
In order for a defense to be effective, it has to be plausible. This fails that test.
Broadly speaking, there have been two dimensions to the scandal: Lee worked on a scheme to overturn the election and he appears to have been dishonest about his actions. If the senator thinks yesterday’s interview put the latter to rest, he’s going to be disappointed.