The road to Jan. 6, 2021 began at an August 2016 rally in Columbus, Ohio for former President Donald Trump, according to Jonathan Lemire, POLITICO’s White House bureau chief and the host of “Way Too Early” on MSNBC.
When Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election, it marked the “violent culmination” of a well documented lie, Lemire wrote in his book “The Big Lie,” published this past July. Despite the fact that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election by over 7 million votes and 74 electoral votes, Trump falsely stated that he was the rightful winner — a claim that he still maintains.
But the creation of an environment ready to spread that lie and activate an insurrection stemmed from the 2016 rally in Dayton, when Trump told a crowd that he was “afraid the election is going to be rigged,” Lemire’s book explained. From there, Trump “laid the foundation with a variety of lies big and small to hijack the Republican party and the conservative media to have them prepared to go along with his biggest lie,” he added in an interview with The Herald.
That lie has not run its course yet, Lemire said in a Tuesday afternoon book event at the Watson Institute, flanked by Marc Dunkelman, a fellow in International and Public Affairs, and Wendy Schiller, professor of political science and director of the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy. Roughly 30 people attended the event.
“It’s very much a present-day book,” he said to The Herald. “It shows how we’re going to be living with the legacy of his lie.”
As a reporter, Lemire began to focus on Trump while reporting on politics for the Associated Press in New York. When Trump announced his presidential run at Trump Tower in 2015, Lemire was sent to cover the event with the expectation of writing around 300 words.
“Needless to say, it required more than 300 words,” Lemire said to The Herald.
The next five years created an unprecedented test for the media as Lemire covered the Trump campaign and then the Trump White House for the AP. News about Trump that would have “ended Mitt Romney’s career” broke at “breakneck speed,” he said at the event.
The sheer volume of Trump’s lies required a change in the way media contextualized articles, push alerts and social media posts, Lemire explained. For his entire term, Trump continued lying and shattering norms, according to Lemire.
At a press conference in Helsinki, Finland, Lemire asked Trump if he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin or his own intelligence agencies about Russian interference in the 2016 election. After two years of speculation and discourse about the legitimacy of the 2016 election, “there was nothing else to ask,” Lemire explained.
Trump’s answer, which sided with Putin, dismayed intelligence authorities in the U.S. and briefly turned reliable Trump allies against him, Lemire wrote in his book.
After Jan. 6, Trump’s lie about 2020 remains relevant, he added. Republicans lost their window to push Trump out of the party when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy traveled to Florida weeks later. There, McCarthy apologized to Trump, legitimizing the former president as the party’s leader, Lemire said.
Since then, election denialism has become a “litmus test” for Republicans, he added. Trump, who at one point offered an interview for “The Big Lie” in exchange for a feature on the cover, ultimately decided not to talk to Lemire as the idea gained traction throughout 2021, Lemire said.
“We have big lie candidates, election deniers in Arizona and Pennsylvania among them,” he added during the event, referring to Arizona Senate and gubernatorial candidates Blake Masters and Kari Lake, as well as Pennsylvania governor candidate Doug Mastriano.
In the meantime, Trump’s false claims have also sparked a new wave of voting restrictions in Republican-controlled states, Lemire said.
At the event, attendees — almost none of whom were students — prodded Lemire on potential downfalls for Trump, such as budding lawsuits and investigations. But Lemire responded that if Trump seeks the Republican nomination, he will likely win it. While reporters learned lessons on covering Trump between 2016 and 2020, Lemire said that another Trump campaign will create an even more challenging environment for media coverage.
To ensure proper coverage, “does every story about Trump have to be about how he didn’t accept the results of the election?” Lemire asked. “The answer is probably yes.”
Trump’s long-running campaign of falsehoods has also been amplified by online echo chambers that create conflicting facts rooted in partisan politics, Lemire said.
In an audience question, McConnell Bristol ’26 asked Lemire about fixing the lack of a “shared truth” — a problem Lemire said he did not know how to solve.
“When Trump exits the stage, what happens then?” he said. “Do some of these things fade? … We’re in a new place and we don’t have an answer.”
Schiller offered up one idea that she gives to her introductory political science students — checking in with family members about the source of their news and engaging with politics at the local level.
Despite the lack of clarity on finding a shared truth, Bristol said he still enjoyed the event, which underscored the longevity of Trump’s disinformation campaign.
“Most people imagine that it started in 2020 and don’t know how it starts in 2016,” Bristol said. Lemire “had a really valuable insight into that. It’s important for more people to hear about this.”
Will Kubzansky is a University News editor from Washington, D.C. who oversees the admission & financial aid and staff & student labor beats. In his free time, he plays the guitar and soccer — both poorly.