Randy Pullen was in dire need of a lawyer. A former chairman of the state’s Republican Party, Pullen was helping run the sham election “audit” underway in Arizona’s largest county. The state Democratic Party had just filed a lawsuit to block the self-styled audit, and so Pullen contacted Reince Priebus, the former Republican National Committee chairman who was Trump’s first White House chief of staff. If anyone knew the best lawyer to hire, surely it was Priebus.
“Please call when you can,” Pullen texted Priebus on April 22nd. “Legal fight started. Need a strong legal firm to be co-counsel.”
“OK,” Priebus replied, adding a thumbs-up for good measure. A few days later, Priebus reached out to Pullen again: “Lets talk tomorrow when u get time. Text me when u are available.”
For most of this year, Maricopa County, Arizona, has been the scene of one of the more absurd and destructive election stunts in recent memory. An army of untrained volunteers, led by a cadre of Republican activists and advised by a pro-Trump forensics firm, with funding from Trump allies, has operated what it claims is an audit of the 2020 election result in Maricopa, where Joe Biden won by a narrow margin. In reality, the so-called Arizona “audit” — or “fraudit,” as state Democrats call it — is anything but, ignoring auditing standards, allowing for serious security lapses, and indulging conspiracy theories about unproven voter fraud.
As Arizona’s phony audit has devolved into a farce and a laughingstock, many state and national Republicans have distanced themselves from it, preferring the audit be described as the work of a bumbling crew of local party figures and fringe activists. In reality, the paper trail connected to the sham audit leads back to some of the most senior figures in the GOP.
Newly obtained documents from Arizona state lawmakers and leaders of the phony audit show that top Republican officials, Trump advisers, and other senior party figures were pushing for the “audit” in late 2020 and went on to aid its progress in the months that followed, offering legal advice, making connections, and raising millions in funding. The documents include a trove of emails and text messages to “audit” leaders sent by Reince Priebus, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Trump 2020 campaign chief operating officer Jeff DeWit, and Trump campaign legal adviser Cleta Mitchell. That outreach from GOP high-ups, combined with angry constituents who’d bought into Trump’s “Big Lie” about a stolen election, goaded Arizona Republican lawmakers into launching the “audit” in early 2021. (Priebus, Giuliani, and Mitchell didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
“Republican legislators faced pressure from above and pressure from below to carry out their phony audit,” says Rick Hasen, an election-law expert and professor at the University of California–Irvine law school. “This is just another example of how the effort to push the big lie is becoming more widespread.”
By now, the myth of a stolen election has infected every level of the post-Trump Republican Party. “Either we win or we got cheated” is fast turning into the party line — look no further than California Republican Larry Elder’s recent voter-fraud antics — but in the process this Big Lie is undermining trust in democratic elections while at the same time being used by Republican state legislators as justification for making it harder for non-Republicans to vote.
And, yes, the Big Lie is a lie. Despite Attorney General Bill Barr’s conclusion that there was no widespread fraud in the 2020 election, and despite the Arizona state government’s own vetting of the vote tally, Trump and his followers view Maricopa County as an epicenter of election fraud in 2020 that cost Trump the presidency. It was one of two states that Republican members of Congress voted to overturn in the hours after the January 6th insurrection. To keep that “Big Lie” alive, Fann and Republicans in the Arizona Senate pressed ahead with their plan to recount all 2.1 million votes cast in Maricopa even if they had to find private funders to underwrite the effort.
Arizona’s sham audit of Maricopa County has produced one embarrassing headline after another, from wildly inaccurate claims of fraud tossed around to confidential materials handled with disregard for security and privacy. At one point, a leader of the “audit” told a reporter that volunteers had begun to scrutinize ballots for bamboo fibers as evidence of possible Chinese election interference. (There is no evidence of Chinese interference.) In August, the office of Arizona secretary of state Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, released a 122-page report that concluded the audit was riddled with “security lapses, delays, disorganization, and lack of transparency.”
The “audit,” which was ordered by the GOP-led Arizona state senate, was meant to last a few months but instead has dragged on for most of 2021. Arizona officials initially estimated the “audit” would cost $150,000. They’ve long since blown past that figure and have raised millions of dollars in private funds, emails and texts show, provided by nonprofit groups that don’t disclose their donors. The new trove of documents, first obtained by Washington, D.C.-based transparency group American Oversight as part of a public-records lawsuit, shines some light on an effort that has otherwise been cloaked in secrecy.
One name that appears often in the trove of new records is Karen Fann. Fann is the president of the Republican-led Arizona state senate. In the aftermath of Trump’s 2020 defeat, Fann was a driving force behind the push to launch an audit into the vote count in Maricopa County.
In Arizona, Fann was the public face of the successful push for a review of the 2020 election, first calling for an “independent review” only a week after the election took place. But in private, as the new documents reveal, Fann had the ear of the Trump campaign.
A few weeks after the election, a constituent emailed Fann about “2020 General Election fraud” and asked Fann to do everything she could to “reverse this travesty of corruption.” Fann replied on November 28, 2020, that she had “been in contact with the Trump legal team many times this week.” As for what to do about that supposed fraud, Fann said it was “difficult for our legislative body to move forward without clear legal advise [sic].”
The Trump campaign, however, was happy to provide Fann with all the ammunition she and Arizona Republicans needed to make their case for challenging the vote count. About a week after her email exchange that mentioned her interactions with the Trump legal team, Fann wrote to another person that she had spoken with Rudy Giuliani, one of the president’s lawyers, six times in the past two weeks as she tried to find a “legal path forward to resolve these allegations.”
Two days later, Fann received an email from Christina Bobb, a TV host for One America News network, a fringe far-right channel with a history of amplifying political conspiracy theories. “Mayor Giuliani asked me to send you these declarations,” Bobb wrote. Attached was a document titled “Arizona Election Anomalies and Concerns.” The document’s cover page said it was “Provided by: Donald J. Trump for President” and was “To be Presented by: Attorney for President Trump, Rudy Giuliani.”
In December 2020, Fann and her Republican counterparts settled on their audit scheme. On December 28th, in response to an angry email from a voter, Fann wrote: “I have been in numerous conversations with Rudy Giuliani over the past weeks trying to get this done. I have the full support of him and a personal call from President Trump thanking us for pushing us to prove any fraud.”
A few weeks after that, Fann announced that she had hired CyberNinjas, a digital forensics firm with no election-related experience whose CEO said he voiced support for the Stop the Steal efforts by Trump supporters. The audit was underway, and eventually Randy Pullen, a former state GOP chairman and longtime activist, was named as a co-chairman of the “audit.”
Pullen, like Fann, looked to influential Republicans outside of Arizona for help. In early December, before the audit had gotten underway, he texted Reince Priebus, the former RNC national chairman, to keep him updated about what was going on in Arizona. On the day the audit was given the go-ahead, Pullen texted Priebus, “We won. Doing forensic audit in AZ.”
“What? Call u tomorrow am??” Priebus wrote back.
The two men kept in touch in the months that followed. On March 2nd, Pullen asked Priebus if he could recommend an election audit firm. Priebus said he would check but later added he couldn’t come up with any names. Pullen also asked Priebus if he personally wanted to help out with any of the legal work related to Arizona’s “audit.” Priebus didn’t write back.
Pullen had the ear of Jeff DeWit, a Republican operative who worked as the Trump campaign’s chief operating officer in 2020. At one point, DeWit sent Pullen the name of one of the many groups raising money supposedly for the “audit” and asked: “So are they ok to donate to? Trump asking.” (DeWit later clarified to the Arizona Capitol Times that he meant the “Trump orbit,” not Trump specifically.) Yes, Pullen replied that the group was a 501(c)(4) nonprofit group with ties to Patrick Byrne, the founder of Overstock.com who has promoted baseless theories about the 2020 election. The group had already raised $1.2 million, Pullen claimed.
It’s unclear if Trump ever made a donation. However, DeWit and Pullen also exchanged texts about where DeWit should send $175,000 to support the “audit”; Pullen suggested Guardian Defense Fund, another nonprofit that was originally created to raise legal defense money for Jan. 6th insurrectionists in trouble with the law.
Cleta Mitchell, a legal adviser to Trump long predating his presidency, also appears in the new batch of documents. Mitchell, who joined the infamous phone call during which Trump asked Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” votes so Trump would win the state, has apparently played a role in raising money for the “audit.”
In a July 28th email, Mitchell acts as a conduit for more than $1 million to be paid to people and firms working on the “audit.” “Just heard that the bank President wanted to review the release of funds,” Mitchell wrote. “So he held up the wires until tomorrow…Hopefully they will go out first thing in the morning. Or we will find a new bank.”
Mitchell wasn’t the only Trump adviser rustling up cash for the “audit.” On Wednesday, Politico reported on text messages sent by Stephanie Grisham, the former White House press secretary and aide to First Lady Melania Trump, which showed Grisham trying to help raise money for the audit.
Despite the shoddiness of Arizona’s “audit,” Republican legislators in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are following suit with “audits” of their own. Indeed, the new Arizona documents show Karen Fann, the Arizona senate president, asking for the phone number of former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, who previously said the presidency “was stolen” and is now leading his state’s “audit.” Reince Priebus has also given interviews about details involving Wisconsin’s “audit.”
Rick Hasen, the election-law expert, says that while these sham audits may be partisan schemes, they can still have a real effect on access to the ballot box and on trust in fair elections going forward. “This is the most dangerous moment for democracy in our lifetime,” he says.