Yeganeh Torbati, The Washington Post
Jan. 12, 2021
WASHINGTON – An outgoing Trump administration political appointee at the nation’s leading foreign aid agency told staff on Tuesday that the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol was the work of “a few violent people,” and added that “several million” others there were protesting peacefully for electoral reform, according to audio recordings of a staff meeting obtained by The Washington Post.
Tim Meisburger (Lesotho 1988-90) is a Trump appointee and an outgoing deputy assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development’s bureau for development, democracy and innovation. Meisburger made the comments on a video call with approximately 70 to 80 USAID workers, according to one USAID official who was granted anonymity to describe internal communications at the agency.
“What I saw was several million people demonstrating in the Capitol, peaceful protesters in the Capitol,” said Meisburger, according to an audio recording of the video call. “I saw a few violent people and I’m not, I would never endorse violence. But what I saw was a lot of people who were committed to reform. And they were committed to electoral reform.”
A USAID spokeswoman declined to comment. The Washington Post obtained two different recordings of the same meeting, where Meisburger made the comments. When The Post reached Meisburger by phone, he declined to comment and then hung up, and did not respond to subsequent text messages.
There were not several million people protesting at the Capitol last Wednesday, nor at an earlier rally at the Ellipse, near the White House. Organizers had expected up to 30,000 people to attend the rally.
Also, multiple videos of the incident contradict the description that Meisburger gave of the riots, showing that scores of people pushed their way into the Capitol, attacking several police officers, including one who was beaten with a flagpole. More than 60 people have been arrested in connection to the storming of the Capitol. Five people died, and 56 Washington, D.C., police officers were injured.
Republicans and Democrats have denounced the violence. Lawmakers in both parties have called for Trump’s removal because of his role in inciting the mob.
Meisburger also suggested that the fact that some people believe the presidential election was fraudulent was enough to call the overall results into question. There has been no evidence of widespread fraud, with multiple courts across the country dismissing cases that alleged fraud in the November election.
“Whether you believe the elections were free or fair or not, all of you know that in the election game, perception is reality, and if people don’t have confidence in their institutions then it doesn’t matter whether what occurred in the election machine was perfectly correct or whether it was completely false,” he said.
Meisburger also seemed to lament his own professional prospects after serving in the Trump administration. Before joining USAID, he worked at the Asia Foundation for more than two decades, most recently as director for elections and political processes, according to his LinkedIn profile.
“I know that I’ve been blacklisted now by the Lincoln Project and canceled by antifa, so I may not be working in this particular sector in the future,” he said.
It is unclear what Meisburger was referring to. The Lincoln Project did not immediately return a request for comment. For weeks, Meisburger’s private Twitter account has included retweets of election fraud allegations. On Nov. 7, Meisburger tweeted that the “media perpetrated hoax after hoax designed to influence the election in 2018 and 2020, and actively censored my political party, and we are supposed to accept in when THEY call the election? Never!!!”
Meisburger works within the Bureau for Development, Democracy and Innovation at the Center for Democracy, Human Rights and Governance, according to USAID’s website. The website also reports he began his career in international development as a Peace Corps volunteer in Lesotho in 1988 and has worked as a specialist in elections and democratization since 1992.
Several current and former USAID officials pointed out what they saw as the hypocrisy of Meisburger’s comments, given his role as a democracy specialist.
Steven Feldstein, a former USAID and State Department official who served during the Bush and Obama administrations, said Meisburger’s comments were shocking for their “tone deafness.”
“How can U.S. government democracy assistance officials continue to promote peaceful, legitimate and fair elections around the world, while at the same time offering suggestions that the U.S. elections themselves and the violent aftermath are an acceptable conclusion to our electoral process?” asked Feldstein, who is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank.
One official on the call pushed back on Meisburger’s comments, noting that her husband was at the Capitol during the riots. “It was a lot of people, it was enough people to actually break into the Capitol,” said the woman, according to an audio recording of the video chat.
She also pushed back on the idea that “perception” of a supposedly fraudulent election was enough to call the results into question, referring to efforts before the election to sow doubt in the results due to the greater use of mail-in ballots.
Meisburger replied that he was “not going to get into a debate with anyone today.”
Another employee then asked Meisburger if he himself was at the Capitol with the rioters, but was told that Meisburger was no longer on the call. Meisburger later rejoined and said his connection had dropped, but he did not answer whether he had been at the rally.