Former president Donald Trump’s baseless attacks on mail-in voting during the 2020 election went further than just all-caps rage-tweets and unhinged statements to the media.
In April 2020, as election officials across the country scrambled to scale up their vote-by-mail operations at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, one of Trump’s top political appointees directed the Department of Homeland Security to look into potential voter fraud in the presidential contest later that year, Politico reported Friday, citing a former DHS official.
Ken Cuccinelli, then the acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security, asked a senior official in the department to have analysts in DHS’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis scrutinize the possibility of mail-in voting fraud. The office did not release any findings backing Trump’s claims, the report states, but it did note that Russia — like the president — pushed lies about mail-in voting. Later that summer, employees in the office’s Field Operations Division were told to look into “attempts to alter, destroy, sell, or hide mail-in ballots.” They were also tasked with broader election security issues like campaign hacking attempts and illegal entry into polling places.
Employees voiced concerns about the directive. “People questioned a tasking related to reporting on voter fraud,” read a memo, obtained by Politico, on one of a series of listening sessions held on the matter. “‘Is this criminal activity appropriate for an IC agency?’ Thresholds and priorities are judgment calls from leadership and many people questioned whether taskings were politically motivated.”
The memo continued: “The workforce has a general mistrust of leadership resulting from orders to conduct activities they perceive to be inappropriate, bureaucratic, or political.”
Trump’s baseless attacks on mail-in voting were a constant from the early days of the pandemic up through Election Day. “The United States cannot have all Mail-In Ballots. It will be the greatest Rigged Election in history,” Trump fumed in a May 2020 tweet, even though he himself would vote by mail. That summer, after claiming that an increase in mail-in voting would harm Republicans’ election chances, Trump opposed emergency funding for the U.S. Postal Service. And in a September 29 debate against Democratic nominee Joe Biden, Trump falsely accused postal workers in West Virginia of “selling the ballots.”
The effort by Cuccinelli, an immigration hard-liner and global warming skeptic, to use the government resources to investigate Trump’s voting-related conspiracy theories was not the only controversy caused by Cuccinelli during his time in the administration. (Even the legality of his appointment is disputed.) In September 2020, a former DHS employee filed a whistleblower complaint against him, former DHS heads Chad Wolf and Kirstjen Nielsen, and others, alleging among other things that top Trump officials downplayed the threat of white supremacy and Russian election interference to please Trump and avoid angering him.