I have to admit that I don't have many Republican friends. But when I first joined the board of People for the American Way, the chairman, Ralph Neas, was a Republican-- and a very nice guy. I doubt he's still a Republican but if he is, he certainly isn't a Trumpist. Ralph spoke with Jane Mayer for her new piece in the New Yorker, The Big Money Behind The Big Lie. She noted that he's been involved in voting-rights battles since the nineteen-eighties, when, as a Republican, he served as the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "He has overseen a study of the Arizona audit for the nonpartisan Century Foundation, and he told me that, though the audit is a 'farce,' it may nonetheless have 'extraordinary consequences.' He said, 'The Maricopa County audit exposes exactly what the Big Lie is all about. If they come up with an analysis that discredits the 2020 election results in Arizona, it will be replicated in other states, furthering more chaos. That will enable new legislation. Millions of Americans could be disenfranchised, helping Donald Trump to be elected again in 2024. That’s the bottom line. Maricopa County is the prism through which to view everything. It’s not so much about 2020-- it’s about 2022 and 2024. This is a coördinated national effort to distort not just what happened in 2020 but to regain the House of Representatives and the Presidency.'"
Mayer began her exposé in June at the première of The Deep Rig, a film financed by the multimillionaire founder of Overstock.com, Patrick Byrne, who is a vocal supporter of Señor Trumpanzee. "Styled as a documentary," wrote Mayer, "the movie asserts that the 2020 Presidential election was stolen by supporters of Joe Biden, including by Antifa members who chatted about their sinister plot on a conference call. The evening’s program featured live appearances by Byrne and a local QAnon conspiracist, BabyQ, who claimed to be receiving messages from his future self. They were joined by the film’s director, who had previously made an exposé contending that the real perpetrators of 9/11 were space aliens. But the event, for all its absurdities, had a dark surprise: The Deep Rig repeatedly quotes Doug Logan, the C.E.O. of Cyber Ninjas, a Florida-based company that consults with clients on software security. In a voice-over, Logan warns, 'If we don’t fix our election integrity now, we may no longer have a democracy.' He also suggests, without evidence, that members of the 'deep state,' such as C.I.A. agents, have intentionally spread disinformation about the election. Although it wasn’t the first time that Logan had promoted what has come to be known as the Big Lie about the 2020 election-- he had tweeted unsubstantiated claims that Trump had been victimized by voter fraud-- the film offered stark confirmation of Logan’s entanglement in fringe conspiracies. Nevertheless, the president of the Arizona State Senate, Karen Fann, has put Logan’s company in charge of a 'forensic audit'-- an ongoing review of the state’s 2020 Presidential vote. It’s an unprecedented undertaking, with potentially explosive consequences for American democracy."
...The audit is almost entirely privately funded, and a county judge in Arizona recently ordered the State Senate to disclose who is paying for it. Last week, Cyber Ninjas acknowledged having received $5.7 million in private donations, most of it from nonprofit groups led by Trump allies who live outside Arizona, including Byrne."
Chad Campbell, a Democrat who was the minority leader in the Arizona House of Representatives until 2014, when he left to become a consultant in Phoenix, has been shocked by the state’s anti-democratic turn. For several years, he sat next to Karen Fann when she was a member of the House, and in his view she’s gone from being a traditional Republican lawmaker to being a member of “Trump’s cult of personality.” He said, “I don’t know if she believes it or not, or which would be worse.” Arizona, he added, is in the midst of a “nonviolent overthrow in some ways-- it’s subtle, and not in people’s face because it’s not happening with weapons. But it’s still a complete overthrow of democracy. They’re trying to disenfranchise everyone who is not older white guys.”
Arizona is hardly the only place where attacks on the electoral process are under way: a well-funded national movement has been exploiting Trump’s claims of fraud in order to promote alterations to the way that ballots are cast and counted in forty-nine states, eighteen of which have passed new voting laws in the past six months. Republican-dominated legislatures have also stripped secretaries of state and other independent election officials of their power. The chair of Arizona’s Republican Party, Kelli Ward, has referred to the state’s audit as a “domino,” and has expressed hope that it will inspire similar challenges elsewhere.
...Arizona’s secretary of state, Katie Hobbs, whose office has authority over the administration of elections, told me that the conspiracy-driven audit “looks so comical you have to laugh at it sometimes.” But Hobbs, a Democrat, who is running for governor, warned, “It’s dangerous. It’s feeding the kind of misinformation that led to the January 6th insurrection.” QAnon followers have been celebrating the audit as the beginning of a “Great Awakening” that will eject Biden from the White House. She noted, “I’ve gotten death threats. I’ve had armed protestors outside my house. Every day, there is a total barrage of social media to our office. We’ve had to route our phones to voice mail so that no one has to listen to it. It can be really traumatizing. I feel beaten up.” She added, “But I’m not going to cave to their tactics-- because I think they’re laying the groundwork to steal the 2024 elections.”
Although the Arizona audit may appear to be the product of local extremists, it has been fed by sophisticated, well-funded national organizations whose boards of directors include some of the country’s wealthiest and highest-profile conservatives. Dark-money organizations, sustained by undisclosed donors, have relentlessly promoted the myth that American elections are rife with fraud, and, according to leaked records of their internal deliberations, they have drafted, supported, and in some cases taken credit for state laws that make it harder to vote.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island who has tracked the flow of dark money in American politics, told me that a “flotilla of front groups” once focussed on advancing such conservative causes as capturing the courts and opposing abortion have now “more or less shifted to work on the voter-suppression thing.” These groups have cast their campaigns as high-minded attempts to maintain “election integrity,” but Whitehouse believes that they are in fact tampering with the guardrails of democracy.
One of the movement’s leaders is the Heritage Foundation, the prominent conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. It has been working with the American Legislative Exchange Council (alec)-- a corporate-funded nonprofit that generates model laws for state legislators-- on ways to impose new voting restrictions. Among those deep in the fight is Leonard Leo, a chairman of the Federalist Society, the legal organization known for its decades-long campaign to fill the courts with conservative judges. In February, 2020, the Judicial Education Project, a group tied to Leo, quietly rebranded itself as the Honest Elections Project, which subsequently filed briefs at the Supreme Court, and in numerous states, opposing mail-in ballots and other reforms that have made it easier for people to vote.
Another newcomer to the cause is the Election Integrity Project California. And a group called FreedomWorks, which once concentrated on opposing government regulation, is now demanding expanded government regulation of voters, with a project called the National Election Protection Initiative.
These disparate nonprofits have one thing in common: they have all received funding from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Based in Milwaukee, the private, tax-exempt organization has become an extraordinary force in persuading mainstream Republicans to support radical challenges to election rules-- a tactic once relegated to the far right. With an endowment of some eight hundred and fifty million dollars, the foundation funds a network of groups that have been stoking fear about election fraud, in some cases for years. Public records show that, since 2012, the foundation has spent some eighteen million dollars supporting eleven conservative groups involved in election issues.
It might seem improbable that a low-profile family foundation in Wisconsin has assumed a central role in current struggles over American democracy. But the modern conservative movement has depended on leveraging the fortunes of wealthy reactionaries. In 1903, Lynde Bradley, a high-school dropout in Milwaukee, founded what would become the Allen-Bradley company. He was soon joined by his brother Harry, and they got rich by selling electronic instruments such as rheostats. Harry, a John Birch Society founding member, started a small family foundation that initially devoted much of its giving to needy employees and to civic causes in Milwaukee. In 1985, after the brothers’ death, their heirs sold the company to the defense contractor Rockwell International, for $1.65 billion, generating an enormous windfall for the foundation. The Bradley Foundation remains small in comparison with such liberal behemoths as the Ford Foundation, but it has become singularly preoccupied with wielding national political influence. It has funded conservative projects ranging from school-choice initiatives to the controversial scholarship of Charles Murray, the co-author of the 1994 book “The Bell Curve,” which argues that Blacks are less likely than whites to join the “cognitive elite.” And, at least as far back as 2012, it has funded groups challenging voting rights in the name of fighting fraud.
Since the 2020 election, this movement has evolved into a broader and more aggressive assault on democracy. According to some surveys, a third of Americans now believe that Biden was illegitimately elected, and nearly half of Trump supporters agree that Republican legislators should overturn the results in some states that Biden won. Jonathan Rauch, of the Brookings Institution, recently told The Economist, “We need to regard what’s happening now as epistemic warfare by some Americans on other Americans.” Pillars of the conservative establishment, faced with a changing U.S. voter population that threatens their agenda, are exploiting Trump’s contempt for norms to devise ways to hold on to power. Senator Whitehouse said of the campaign, “It’s a massive covert operation run by a small group of billionaire élites. These are powerful interests with practically unlimited resources who have moved on to manipulating that most precious of American gifts—the vote.”
An animating force behind the Bradley Foundation’s war on “election fraud” is Cleta Mitchell, a fiercely partisan Republican election lawyer, who joined the organization’s board of directors in 2012. Until recently, she was virtually unknown to most Americans. But, on January 3rd, the Washington Post exposed the contents of a private phone call, recorded the previous day, during which Trump threatened election officials in Georgia with a “criminal offense” unless they could “find” 11,780 more votes for him-- just enough to alter the results. Also on the call was Mitchell, who challenged the officials to provide records proving that dead people hadn’t cast votes. The call was widely criticized as a rogue effort to overturn the election, and Foley & Lardner, the Milwaukee-based law firm where Mitchell was a partner, announced that it was “concerned” about her role, and then parted ways with her. Trump’s call prompted the district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, to begin a criminal investigation.
In a series of e-mails and phone calls with me, Mitchell adamantly defended her work with the Trump campaign, and said that in Georgia, where she has centered her efforts, “I don’t think we can say with certainty who won.” She told me that there were countless election “irregularities,” such as voters using post-office boxes as their residences, in violation of state law. “I believe there were more illegal votes cast than the margin of victory,” she said. “The only remedy is a new election.” Georgia’s secretary of state rejected her claims, but Mitchell insists that the decision lacked a rigorous evaluation of the evidence. With her support, diehard conspiracy theorists are still litigating the matter in Fulton County, which includes most of Atlanta. Because they keep demanding that election officials prove a negative-- that corruption didn’t happen-- their requests to keep interrogating the results can be repeated almost indefinitely. Despite three independent counts of Georgia’s vote, including a hand recount, all of which confirmed Biden’s victory, Mitchell argues that “Trump never got his day in court,” adding, “There are a lot of miscarriages of justice I’ve seen and experienced in my life, and this was one of them.”
Mitchell, who is seventy, has warm friendships with people in both parties, and she often appears grandmotherly, in pastel knit suits and reading glasses. But, like Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate, to whom she bears a striking resemblance, she should not be underestimated. She began her political career in Oklahoma, as an outspoken Democrat and a champion of the Equal Rights Amendment. She was elected to the state legislature in her twenties, but then lost a bid for lieutenant governor, in 1986. She told me that she subsequently underwent a political conversion: when her stepson squandered the college tuition that she was paying, she turned against the idea of welfare in favor of personal responsibility, and began reading conservative critiques of liberalism. When I first interviewed her for this magazine, in 1996, she told me that “overreaching government regulation is one of the great scandals of our times.”
On behalf of Republican candidates and groups, she began to fight limits on campaign spending. She also represented numerous right-wing nonprofits, including the National Rifle Association, whose board she joined in the early two-thousands. A former N.R.A. official recently told The Guardian that Mitchell was the “fringe of the fringe,” and a Republican voting-rights lawyer said that “she tells clients what they want to hear, regardless of the law or reality.”
In our conversations, Mitchell mocked what she called the mainstream media’s “narrative” of a “vast right-wing conspiracy to suppress the vote of Black people,” and insisted that the fraud problem was significant. “I actually think your readers need to hear from people like me-- believe it or not, there are tens of millions of us,” she wrote. “We are not crazy. At least not to us. We are intelligent and educated people who are very concerned about the future of America. And we are among the vast majority of Americans who support election-integrity measures.” Echoing what has become the right’s standard talking point, she declared that her agenda for elections is “to make it harder to cheat.”
Mitchell told me that the Democrats used the pandemic as a “great pretext” to “be able to cheat”: they caused “administrative chaos” by changing rules about early and absentee voting, and they didn’t adequately police fraud. She denied that race had motivated her actions in Georgia. Yet, in an e-mail to me, she said that Democrats are “using black voters as a prop to accomplish their political objectives.”
Few experts have found Mitchell’s evidence convincing. On November 12, 2020, the Trump Administration’s own election authorities declared the Presidential vote to be “the most secure in American history.” It is true that in many American elections there are small numbers of questionable ballots. An Associated Press investigation found that, in 2020, a hundred and eighty-two of the 3.4 million ballots cast in Arizona were problematic. Four of the ballots have led to criminal charges. But the consensus among nonpartisan experts is that the amount of fraud, particularly in major races, is negligible. As Phil Keisling, a former secretary of state in Oregon, who pioneered universal voting by mail, has said, “Voters don’t cast fraudulent ballots for the same reason counterfeiters don’t manufacture pennies-- it doesn’t pay.”
What explains, then, the hardening conviction among Republicans that the 2020 race was stolen? Michael Podhorzer, a senior adviser to the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., which invested deeply in expanding Democratic turnout in 2020, suggests that the two parties now have irreconcilable beliefs about whose votes are legitimate. “What blue-state people don’t understand about why the Big Lie works,” he said, is that it doesn’t actually require proof of fraud. “What animates it is the belief that Biden won because votes were cast by some people in this country who others think are not ‘real’ Americans.” This anti-democratic belief has been bolstered by a constellation of established institutions on the right: “white evangelical churches, legislators, media companies, nonprofits, and even now paramilitary groups.” Podhorzer noted, “Trump won white America by eight points. He won non-urban areas by over twenty points. He is the democratically elected President of white America. It’s almost like he represents a nation within a nation.”
Alarmism about election fraud in America extends at least as far back as Reconstruction, when white Southerners disenfranchised newly empowered Black voters and politicians by accusing them of corruption. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, some white conservatives were frank about their hostility to democracy. Forty years ago, Paul Weyrich, who helped establish the Heritage Foundation and other conservative groups, admitted, “I don’t want everybody to vote. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.
...Mitchell became a director at the Bradley Foundation. Among the board members were George F. Will, the syndicated columnist, and Robert George, a Princeton political philosopher known for his defense of traditional Catholic values. By 2017, Will, who has been a critic of Trump, had stepped down from the Bradley board. But George has continued to serve as a director, even as the foundation has heavily funded groups promulgating the falsehood that election fraud is widespread in America, particularly in minority communities, and sowing doubt about the legitimacy of Biden’s win. The foundation, meanwhile, has given nearly three million dollars to programs that George established at Princeton. He has written in praise of Pence’s refusal to decertify Biden’s election, and has lamented that so many Americans believe, “wrongly,” that “the election was ‘stolen.’ ” But he declined to discuss with me why, then, he serves on the Bradley Foundation’s board.
The board includes Art Pope, the libertarian discount-store magnate, who serves on the board of governors at the University of North Carolina. Pope, who has also acknowledged the legitimacy of Biden’s victory, declined to discuss his role at the foundation. Another board member is Paul Clement, a partner at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, who is one of the country’s most distinguished Supreme Court litigators. He could not be reached for comment.
Mitchell argues that the right spends “a pittance” on election issues compared with the left. “Have you looked at the Democracy Alliance?” she asked me. The Alliance, whose membership is secret, distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in dark money to many left-leaning causes. But, when it comes to influencing elections, the contrast with the Bradley Foundation is clear. Whereas the Alliance’s efforts have centered on increasing voter participation, the Bradley Foundation has focussed on disqualifying ostensibly illegitimate voters.
Like most private nonprofits, the Bradley Foundation doesn’t disclose much about its inner workings. But in 2016 hackers posted online some of the group’s confidential documents, which showed that, once Mitchell became a director, she began urging the foundation to support nonprofit organizations policing election fraud. Mitchell has professional ties to several of the groups that received money, although she says that she has abstained from voting on grants to any of those organizations.
One recipient of Bradley money is True the Vote, a Texas-based group that, among other things, trains people to monitor polling sites. Mitchell has served as its legal counsel, and hacked documents show that she advocated to the I.R.S. that the group deserved tax-exempt status as a charity. To earn such a designation, a group must file federal tax forms promising not to engage in electoral politics. In a letter of support, she asserted that “fraudulent voting occurs in the United States,” citing a 2010 case in which the F.B.I. arrested nine Floridians for election violations. But, as with many voter-fraud allegations, the details of the case were less than advertised. The accusation involved a school-board election in a rural Black community in which a campaign had collected dozens of absentee ballots, in violation of the law. The charges were eventually dismissed. The judge found “no intent to cast a false or fraudulent ballot.” True the Vote, which was granted tax-exempt status, has since been the subject of numerous complaints from voters, who have accused it of intimidation and racism.
Last year, a Reuters report characterized Mitchell as one of four lawyers leading the conservative war on “election fraud,” and described True the Vote as one of the movement’s hubs. The story linked the group and three other conservative nonprofits to at least sixty-one election lawsuits since 2012. Reuters noted that, during the same period, the four groups, along with two others devoted to election-integrity issues, have received more than three and a half million dollars from the Bradley Foundation.
...Months before the 2020 vote, Lisa Nelson, the C.E.O. of alec, also anticipated contesting the election results. That February, she told a private gathering of the Council for National Policy about a high-level review that her group had undertaken of ways to challenge “the validity” of the Presidential returns. A video of the proceedings was obtained by the investigative group Documented, and first reported by the Washington Spectator. In her speech, Nelson noted that she was working with Mitchell and von Spakovsky.
Although the law bars charitable organizations such as the Council for National Policy from engaging in electoral politics, Nelson unabashedly acknowledged, “Obviously, we all want President Trump to win, and win the national vote.” She went on, “But it’s very clear that, really, what it comes down to is the states, and the state legislators.” One plan, she said, was to urge conservative legislators to voice doubt to their respective secretaries of state, questioning the election’s outcome and asking, “What did happen that night?”
By August, 2020, when the Council for National Policy held another meeting, the pandemic had hurt Trump’s prospects, and talk within the membership about potential Democratic election fraud had reached a frenzy. At the meeting, Adams, the Public Interest Legal Foundation’s president, echoed Trump’s raging about mail-in ballots, describing them as “the No. 1 left-wing agenda.” He urged conservatives not to be deterred by criticism: “Be not afraid of the accusations that you’re a voter suppressor, you’re a racist, and so forth.”
A younger member of the organization, Charlie Kirk-- a founder of Turning Point USA, which promotes right-wing ideas on school campuses—injected a note of optimism. He suggested that the pandemic, by closing campuses, would likely suppress voting among college students, a left-leaning bloc. “Please keep the campuses closed,” he said, to cheers. “Like, it’s a great thing!”
Five months later, Turning Point Action, a “social welfare organization” run by Kirk’s group, was one of nearly a dozen groups behind Trump’s “March to Save America,” on January 6th. Shortly before the rally, Kirk tweeted that the groups he leads would send “80+ buses full of patriots to DC to fight for this president.” His tweet was deleted after the crowds assaulted the Capitol.
Turning Point, which has received small grants from the Bradley Foundation, is headquartered in Arizona, and it has played a significant role in the radicalization of the state, in part by amplifying fear and anger about voter fraud. Turning Point’s chief operating officer, Tyler Bowyer, is a member of the Republican National Committee and a former chair of the Maricopa County Republican Party. Bowyer’s friend Jake Hoffman runs an Arizona-based digital-marketing company, Rally Forge, that has been Turning Point’s highest-compensated contractor. In the summer of 2020, Rally Forge helped Turning Point use social media to spread incendiary misinformation about the coming elections. In September, the Washington Post reported that Rally Forge, on behalf of Turning Point Action, had paid teen-agers to deceptively post thousands of copycat propaganda messages, much as Russia had done during the 2016 campaign. Adult leaders had instructed the teens to tweak the wording of their posts, to evade detection by technology companies. Some messages were posted under the teens’ accounts, but others were sent under assumed personae. Many posts claimed that mail-in ballots would “lead to fraud,” and that Democrats planned to steal the Presidency.
Turning Point Action denied that it ran a troll farm, arguing that the teen-age employees were genuine, but a study by the Internet Observatory at Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center documented the scheme, along with other dubious practices by Rally Forge. In 2016, the company fabricated a politician—complete with a doctored photograph—to run as an Independent write-in candidate against Andy Biggs, a far-right Republican seeking an open congressional seat in Arizona. The ploy, evidently intended to siphon votes from Biggs’s Democratic opponent, didn’t go far, but it was hardly the company’s only scam. The Guardian has shown how Rally Forge also created a phony left-wing front group, America Progress Now, which promoted Green Party candidates online in 2018, apparently to hurt Democrats in several races.
In October, 2020, Rally Forge was banned from Facebook, and its president, Hoffman, was permanently suspended by Twitter. Undeterred, he ran as a pro-Trump Republican for the Arizona House-- and won. Remarkably, the chamber’s Republican leadership then appointed him the vice-chair of the Committee on Government and Elections. Since getting elected, Hoffman has challenged the legitimacy of Biden’s victory, called for election audits, and, in coördination with the Heritage Foundation, used his position to propose numerous bills making it more difficult to vote.
This past spring, at a private gathering outside Tucson, Jessica Anderson, the executive director of Heritage Action—the politically active arm of the Heritage Foundation—singled out Hoffman for praise. As a leaked video of her remarks revealed, she told supporters that, with the help of Hoffman and other state legislators, the nonprofit group was rewriting America’s election laws. “In some cases, we actually draft them for them, or we have a sentinel on our behalf give them the model legislation so it has that grassroots, from-the-bottom-up type of vibe,” Anderson explained. “We’ve got three bills done in Arizona!” She continued, “We’re moving four more through the state of Arizona right now... simple bills, all straight from the Heritage recommendations.” One of the bills, she noted, was “written and carried by Jake Hoffman,” whom she described as “a longtime friend of the Heritage Foundation.”
Hoffman’s bills have made the Heritage Foundation’s wish list a reality. Voting by mail has long been popular in Arizona, with as many as ninety per cent of voters doing so in 2020, but one of Hoffman’s bills made it a felony to send a mail-in ballot to residents who hadn’t requested one, unless they were on an official list of early voters. Another bill, which Hoffman supported, will, according to one estimate, push as many as two hundred thousand people off the state’s list of early voters. Opponents say that this legislation will disproportionately purge Latinos, who constitute twenty-four per cent of the state’s eligible voters. Another bill by Hoffman banned state election officials from accepting outside donations to help pay for any aspect of election administration, including voter registration. (One of the bill’s targets was Mark Zuckerberg, whose foundation helped county election officials in Arizona handle the pandemic.) In February, at a hearing of the Committee on Government and Elections, a witness from the Washington-based Capital Research Center-- also funded by the Bradley Foundation—testified in support of Hoffman’s legislation. Athena Salman, the ranking Democrat, told me she was incensed that Hoffman-- “a guy who paid teen-agers to lie”-- was put on the election committee. “It’s the fox guarding the henhouse!” she said.
...Kristin Clark, a Democrat who mounted a write-in campaign against him after the news of his troll farm broke, called Hoffman an “unintelligent man who wants to be a big guy.” She told me, “The Republicans here have changed. They were conservative, but now they’ve sold out. It’s money that’s changed it. All these giant, corporate groups that are faceless-- it’s outside money.” In her view, “Jake Hoffman is but a cog.”
...[Republican member of the Maricopa County’s Board of Supervisors, Bill] Gates said that after he received death threats he fled with his family to an Airbnb. At one point, the sheriff sent two deputies to guard Gates’s home overnight. Trump supporters, Gates said, “are basically asking Republican leaders to bow before the altar of the Big Lie—‘You’re willing to do it? O.K., great. You’re not? You’re a rino. You’re a Commie. You are not a Republican.’ It’s been incredibly effective, really, when you think about where we’ve come from January 6th.”
Part of what had drawn Gates to the Republican Party was the Reagan-era doctrine of confronting totalitarianism. He’d long had a fascination with emerging democracies, particularly the former Soviet republics. He had come up with what he admits was a “kooky” retirement plan—“to go to some place like Uzbekistan and help.” He told me, “I’d always thought that, if I had a tragic end, it would be in some place like Tajikistan.” He shook his head. “If you had told me, ‘You’re going to be doing this in the U.S.,’ I would have told you, ‘You’re crazy.’ ”
Some of the political pressure on election officials in Arizona was exerted directly by Trump and his associates, potentially illegally. Interfering in a federal election can be a crime. As the Arizona Republic has reported, the President and his legal adviser Rudy Giuliani phoned state and local officials, including Fann. The White House switchboard tried to connect Trump with the chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, but, even though the chairman was a Republican, he ducked the call, lest the President interfere improperly. Giuliani called Gates’s cell phone when he was shopping at Walgreens on Christmas Eve. Not recognizing the number, Gates didn’t answer. “You can’t make this stuff up,” he told me. Giuliani left a voice mail saying it was a “shame” that two Republicans couldn’t work things out-- he’d come up with a “nice way” to “get this thing fixed up.”
“I never returned the phone call,” Gates said. A week later, when news broke of Trump’s notorious call to officials in Georgia, Gates was more relieved than ever that he hadn’t called Giuliani back. A panel of judges in New York has since suspended Giuliani’s law license, for threatening the public interest by making “demonstrably false and misleading statements” about the Presidential election.
By New Year’s Eve, when Trump tried and failed to reach the chairman of the Maricopa County board, his Administration was in extraordinary turmoil. Attorney General William Barr had resigned from the Justice Department after declaring that it had detected no significant election fraud. Even so, Trump continued to demand that the department investigate a variety of loony conspiracies, including a plot to erase Trump votes using Italian military satellites. According to a leaked e-mail, a Justice Department attorney disparaged the satellite theory as “pure insanity.” A man supposedly involved in the plot issued a denial to Reuters, and Italian police suggested that the allegation was baseless. But the conspiracy theory, which became known as Italygate, had bubbled up from the same pools of dark money that were funding other election misinformation. Records show that Italygate was spread by a “social welfare organization” called Nations in Action, whose directors included von Spakovsky. When Talking Points Memo contacted von Spakovsky, he said that he had resigned from the board on January 8th. But the money trail remains. Crooks and Liars, a progressive investigative-reporting site, dug up tax filings showing that the group’s 501(c)(3) sibling, the Nations in Action Globally Lifting Up Fund, had received thousands of dollars from the Judicial Crisis Network—a nonprofit enterprise, closely tied to Leonard Leo, that also funds Turning Point Action.
While Justice Department officials were fending off conspiracy theories being spread by tax-exempt charities in Washington, the pressure was even more acute on local officials in Phoenix. Trump tweeted relentlessly about the audit. He “clearly has had a fascination with this issue, because he thinks it’s the key to his reinstatement,” Gates told me. “It’s not about Arizona. We’re literally pawns in this. This is a national effort to delegitimize the election system.” Gates predicted that, if “Arizona can question this, and show that Trump won,” the game will move on to Colorado, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Virginia, all of which have sent Republican delegations to observe Arizona’s audit. Noting that both QAnon followers and his own state’s Republican Party chair had referred to “dominoes” in connection with the audit, Gates said, “We know what that game is, and how it works.”
It would be tempting for Gates, a lifetime Republican with political ambitions, to blame only Trump for his party’s anti-democratic turn. But he has few such illusions. What’s really going on, he believes, is a reactionary backlash against Obama: “I’ve thought about it a lot. I believe the election of President Obama frightened a lot of Americans.” Gates argues that the fear isn’t entirely about race. He thinks it’s also about cosmopolitanism, secularism, and other contemporary values that make white conservatives uncomfortable. But in the end, he said, “the diversification of America is frightening to a lot of people in my party.”
Gates believes that his party’s reaction may backfire. Polls show that, although the Arizona audit is wildly popular among Republican voters in the state, it alienates independents, who constitute approximately a third of the state’s electorate-- and whose support is necessary for statewide candidates to win.
For now, though, conservative groups seem to be doubling down on their investments in election-fraud alarmism. In the next two years, Heritage Action plans to spend twenty-four million dollars mobilizing supporters and lobbyists who will promote “election integrity,” starting in eight battleground states, including Arizona. It is coördinating its effort with the Election Transparency Initiative, a joint venture of two anti-abortion groups, the Susan B. Anthony List and the American Principles Project. The Election Transparency Initiative has set a fund-raising goal of five million dollars. Cleta Mitchell, having left her law firm, has joined FreedomWorks, the free-market group, where she plans to lead a ten-million-dollar project on voting issues. She will also head the Election Integrity Network at the Conservative Partnership Institute, another Washington-based nonprofit. As a senior legal fellow there, she told the Washington Examiner, she will “help bring all these strings” of conservative election-law activism together, and she added, “I’ve had my finger in so many different pieces of the election-integrity pie for so long.”
Back in Arizona, where the auditors are demanding still more time, Gates believes that the Big Lie has become a “grift” used to motivate Republican voters and donors to support conservative candidates and political groups. “The sad thing is that there are probably millions of people-- hardworking, good Americans, maybe retired-- who have paid their taxes, always followed the law, and they truly believe this, because of what they’ve been fed by their leaders,” he said. “And what’s so dispiriting is that the people who are pushing it from the top? They know better.”