In the days after Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump, no conspiracy was too outlandish, no report too unfounded, and no source too shady for the then-president or his aides, who, as emails and documents made public this week show, aggressively pushed Justice Department officials for help overturning the results of the 2020 election.
But Trump’s aggressive efforts to push election conspiracies were more than just a headache for Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and others at the Justice Department — a report from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and D.C.’s Bipartisan Policy Center, also released this week, suggests they contributed to an increasingly hostile environment that endangered the lives of election officials around the country.
Combined, the two reports show how, months later, experts are still trying to understand both the extent of the damage done by the former president’s lies, and the possible solutions to keep disinformation and political pressure from wreaking havoc on future elections around the country.
New internal emails, obtained and made public by the House Oversight Committee as part of its investigation into the January 6th attack on the Capitol, indicate that Rosen and others were under constant pressure from the president and his allies to substantiate any and all conspiracy theories that might cast doubt on Biden’s victory. In one particularly embarrassing exchange, Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, shared one letter addressed to “Illustrious Mr. President,” purporting to be from an Italian named Carlo Goria. In the letter, Goria claims to have “direct knowledge” of the fact that the Italian aerospace company Leonardo, “using advanced military encryption capabilities, changed the U.S. election result from President Trump to Joe Biden.”
Apparently, the claim was good enough for Meadows, who forwarded the letter, along with a YouTube video (later taken down for violating the site’s terms of service), to Rosen. Rosen forwarded the thread, which included a request to look into another conspiracy, this time about signature-match anomalies in a Georgia county, to a DOJ colleague.
“Can you believe this?” Rosen wrote to Richard Donoghue, the acting deputy attorney general, adding that he was not going to respond to Meadows’ request to have Assistant Attorney General Jeff Clark personally investigate claims about the Georgia signature claims. “Pure insanity,” Donoghue replied.
“Yes,” Rosen wrote back. “After this message, I was asked to have FBI meet with Brad Johnson [creator of the YouTube video], and I responded that Johnson could call or walk into FBI’s Washington Field Office with any evidence he purports to have. On a follow up call, I learned that Johnson is working with Rudy Giuliani, who regarded my comments as ‘an insult.’ ”
Also found in the document dump is an email to Rosen from Trump’s personal assistant, with the subject line “From POTUS.” An attached PDF purported widespread voter fraud enabled by Dominion voting machines in Michigan’s Antrim County. Chris Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, had already called the report “factually inaccurate.” A more recent forensic analysis likewise found the report “contains an extraordinary number of false, inaccurate or unsubstantiated statements.”
The erroneous claims, though, were dutifully forwarded on to the U.S. Attorneys for the Eastern and Western Districts of Michigan. (Dominion Voting Systems went on to sue Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Lindell and Fox News — all of whom promoted unfounded lies about the company and its machines — for defamation, seeking billions of dollars in damages from those who promoted the false claims.)
But the damage goes far beyond Dominion’s reputation. And even with Trump now out of office, his lies are still driving the party’s agenda. In many battleground states, local election officials were, like the DOJ officials, under enormous pressure to bow to Trump’s whims. According to Politico, in December 2020, Trump personally called at least 31 state and local election officials in contested states. But even those officials who resisted Trump’s entreaties were later punished by state lawmakers who moved to strip them of their power.
In the Brennan Center report out this week, interviews with nearly three dozen election officials across the United States, found that during the 2020 election cycle, bureaucrats used to operating in relative obscurity found themselves and their families the target of increasing violent threats and harassment and political pressure because of Trump’s disinformation campaign. According to the report, one in three election officials feel unsafe because of their job, and nearly one in five listed threats to their lives as a “job-related concern.”
Brad Raffensberger, the Georgia secretary of state who Trump personally leaned on to “find 11,780 votes,” has continued to be the target of threats, including a text to his wife as recently as April that read, “You and your family will be killed very slowly.” The threats against Al Schmidt, the Republican city commissioner of Philadelphia, were so severe and specific that a 24-hour security detail was dispatched to his house and his parents’ house. (The FBI ultimately arrested two men, armed with semi-automatic Beretta pistols and an AR-15-style rifle, for threats to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where Schmidt was overseeing vote tabulation.) In Arizona, where a partisan election “audit” is ongoing, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs tweeted, “Earlier today a man called my office saying I deserve to die and wanting to know ‘what she is wearing so she’ll be easy to get.’ It was one of at least three such threats today. Then a man who I’ve never seen before chased me and my staffer outside of our office.”
According to the Brennan Center, incidents like these dramatically increased in the 2020 election cycle — the question is whether they will persist with Trump out of office. The report’s authors are concerned, in particular, with the way local parties and politicians have censured or moved to depose election officials who told the truth about the election, which could mean that next time Trump — or any sitting official who is displeased with their election result — wants to overturn the voters’ will, it will be easier. “The problem,” the authors write, “goes far deeper than one man.”