Enabled by top Republicans, President Donald Trump and his campaign have made wild, unsubstantiated claims about mass voter fraud in the 2020 election that threaten to undermine American faith in the electoral process and representative democracy. They also may put lives at risk.
Current and former law enforcement officials told HuffPost that they’re worried conspiracy theorists will turn violent after latching onto ludicrous claims that election officials engaged in a massive criminal conspiracy to steal the election from Trump.
There’s no truth to that notion. Not a single credible elections expert will tell you otherwise. Not even the Trump campaign has directly made allegations of mass fraud in court, instead mostly focusing on tangential and routine election complaints that likely won’t have any impact on the vote count in states like Pennsylvania, where President-elect Joe Biden leads by more than 45,000 votes ― surpassing the margin by which Trump carried it four years ago.
But Greg Brower, a former Republican-appointed US attorney and a former FBI official, told HuffPost he was concerned about the potential for extremist violence, and he was sure the FBI and other law enforcement officials were on the watch too. He said it was “stunning” that the president wouldn’t help dismiss conspiracy theories that had the potential to spark violence and would make the jobs of law enforcement more difficult.
“It’s been happening for four years now, but it’s still stunning to most of us, I think, that the president does absolutely nothing to try to tamp that down. In fact, he encourages it,” Brower said. “I know it’s very frustrating for law enforcement, but the president doesn’t appear to be willing yet to face the facts, encourage his followers to remain calm and accept the fact that he has lost, and move on.”
The FBI declined to comment.
Law enforcement officials in areas where Trump has focused his bogus allegations are also on alert.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner told HuffPost that he was pleased that armed militias didn’t end up hanging out at polling places on Election Day, but said his office ended up getting a lot of calls from individuals who had been taken in by social media disinformation that was unmoored from reality.
“We’re having a conversation with members of his base who believe that there is a satanic, pedophilic, sex ring running out of a pizza parlour,” Krasner said, referring to the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that targeted a Washington, D.C., restaurant (and landed one conspiracy theorist in prison for firing a weapon in the restaurant). “I have trouble figuring out whether these people are actually part of an elaborate ‘Saturday Night Live’ routine, or if we should be terrified because they like AR-15s.”
The Threat Of Violence
There were widespread fears that the actual voting process last week could be under violent threat from right-wing groups. The threat did not materialise, but that doesn’t mean the danger is gone.
Mary McCord, the Justice Department’s former top national security official, said that with increased law enforcement attention, there have been fewer private, heavily armed vigilante groups on the streets after the election than there were in response to coronavirus-related restrictions and in response to racial justice protests. But conspiracy theories about stolen elections could certainly pose a real threat to the United States.
“There’s no question that the disinformation coming from the president and his surrogates about ballot fraud is fueling far-right groups in ways that present threats to public safety,” McCord said. “But more attention is being paid to them by federal, state and local law enforcement and that is having an impact.”
Bill Fulton, a former FBI informant and an expert on right-wing domestic terrorism who works with state and federal governments, told HuffPost that domestic extremists were already poised to believe that Democrats are evil and could be pushed past their breaking point by the conspiracy theory ― endorsed by Trump ― that they were stealing the election.
“The latest round of conspiracy theories is just a continuation of the hell that the last four years has been if you work in a counter-domestic extremism capacity,” Fulton said. “This is nothing new, it’s just a little more dangerous now.”
“What we call it is walking them to the edge,” Fulton said. “You have the president of the United States taking these people to the edge, and the second that something happens he’s going to turn around and go, ‘Well, I didn’t tell them to do that.’ It gives him that plausible deniability, and that’s what’s scary.”
The longer this all goes on, Fulton said, the more dangerous it becomes. If people are kept at a heightened state, there’s a larger possibility that someone will snap. They might think it’s their patriotic duty to act.
“You can’t keep people on the edge for that long,” Fulton said. “A lot of these guys think that they’re like defending the United States. They think they’re patriots. That is powerful. Patriots go to war for their country all the time... When you start mixing that, you end up with really, really bad shit happening.”
There’s plenty of incidents of Trump fans being inspired by his rhetoric and committing violence. Trump “super fan” Cesar Sayoc, who mailed poorly made explosive devices to Trump critics in 2018, is in federal prison. So are three Trump supporters from Kansas who plotting a terrorist attack on Muslims back in 2016 after the then-candidate demonised members of the religion. (Afterwards, the defendants tried to ask a judge for leniency because of Trump’s rhetoric, but the judge didn’t buy it.) A former Coast Guard lieutenant labelled a domestic terrorist by federal prosecutors was sentenced earlier this year after he reportedly compiled a hit list of journalists and Trump’s political enemies. There are plenty of other domestic extremists who echoed Trump’s rhetoric even without explicitly aligning themselves with him.
In Philadelphia, a heavily Democratic city where Trump nonetheless performed better in 2020 than he did in 2016, the impact of that increased polarisation and the explosive growth of conspiracy theories fueled by the president of the United States have already been felt. Elections officials in the city, as The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, received death threats, and two armed men who reportedly believed in conspiracy theories about the vote count drove into the city in a Hummer slapped with stickers and hats referencing the QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits that Trump is working to end a global child sex trafficking ring that is plotting against the US.
In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Proud Boys, white nationalists, QAnon believers and other extremists yelled “Stop the steal!” at a protest outside the state Capitol. A SUV with a Confederate bumper sticker drove around the Capitol with a “Make America Great Again” flag flying out the back, as pro-Trump protesters insisted that their mass voter fraud conspiracies were true.
A Nonsensical, But Dangerous, Theory
The Trump campaign has offered no meaningful evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 elections, and it requires a series of massive logical leaps to even approach that conclusion. It would mean a disparate group of election officials in several different states — including Republicans, or those in states where the election process is controlled by Republicans — all coordinated to steal tens of thousands of votes, while still making sure Democrats lost almost every consequential House race and retained only a small chance to take the Senate.
Beyond what people may do with that information now, the long-term effects are likely to be disastrous.
David Iglesias, a former Republican-appointed US attorney, told HuffPost that Trump’s outrageous claims of mass voter fraud smell of “desperation.” But, as a broader group of Republican-appointed US attorneys warned, they “have the potential to undermine the rule of law.”
And it’s not just Trump — senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and house minority leader Kevin McCarthy have not disputed the president’s claims and repeated some of them.
“The longer that Leader McConnell and Leader McCarthy continue to echo the president’s baseless claims, the longer it’s going to take for Americans to accept the outcome and move on,” Brower said.
Krasner, a Democrat and progressive prosecutor who has been targeted by Trump-appointed US attorney William McSwain, said he agreed with state representative Malcolm Kenyatta who said that Pennsylvania Republicans were “acting more like a cult than a caucus” after they refused to allow mail-in ballots to be counted before Election Day (which delayed the vote count in the commonwealth).
“It’s terrible. It’s incredibly cynical,” Krasner said. “You simultaneously have a Republican Party doing its level best to make sure votes get counted as slowly as possible, then you’ve got Trump hollering that any vote counted after midnight on Election Day don’t count. They knew what was going on. They knew he was going to do that. It’s kind of like a couple of kids raiding the cookie jar, it’s not even clever.”
Republican voters are already highly susceptible to false claims of mass voter fraud, which conservatives have been playing up for years as part of an effort to support voting restrictions that would disproportionately impact Democratic voters. There are, of course, instances of election fraud and very occasional efforts significant enough to impact local races that are decided by just a handful of ballots.
But Trump built his political career promoting the racist conspiracy theory that former President Barack Obama wasn’t a citizen. Now, without any evidence, he’s painting a picture of a much broader criminal conspiracy to steal tens of thousands of votes, an implausible criminal endeavour which would require the cooperation of members of both parties.
It’s worth pointing out how vast a criminal conspiracy would have to be to effect the election in the way Trump has suggested. It defies all logic.
“It’s easy to identify and prosecute, but more fundamentally, virtually impossible to pull off,” Brower said. “In my experience as a prosecutor, it’s not possible for massive conspiracies like that to exist and be successful. It’s just too many people, it takes too much coordination. Fortunately, for us as law-abiding Americans, it’s just not possible.”
Moreover, Brower said, why would these theoretical criminal mastermind conspirators allow so many Democratic Senate candidates to lose? “It makes no sense,” Brower said.
As U.S. attorney in Nevada, Brower said, he set up a task force to look at voter fraud, but said history has shown that there’s almost never any significant incidents. Brower, who also served as an elected Republican in the Nevada legislature, said he can’t remember a serious discussion about the possibility that fraud impacted the outcome of any election, even close ones.
“There’s never really been any evidence of it in any substantial way,” Brower said. “You don’t hear Republicans complaining about fraud in any races where the Republican won, or any of the states in which President Trump won.”
The Trump campaign hasn’t actually made any substantive allegations of voter fraud in court, either. Brower said Trump’s legal team may eventually convince “some poor sap to swear out an affidavit that’s false” that could generate an investigation, but says it’ll almost certainly fall apart upon scrutiny. “It’s just really kind of pathetic,” he said.
In Pennsylvania, the campaign is instead complaining about the distance at which Republican (and Democratic) election watchers stood during ballot counting and the fact that elections officials in Democratic-leaning counties in the commonwealth seemed to do a much better job helping voters who cast mail-in ballots than officials in Republican counties.
Vanita Gupta, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said that there’s no substance to the complaints brought forward by the Trump campaign, and that voters “overwhelmingly picked” Biden.
“This effort is about disruption, disinformation, sowing chaos and trying to undermine the legitimacy of Biden’s victory,” she said.
‘Insert Underpants Gnome’
All of the lawsuits that have been filed may help soothe Trump’s ego, but there’s almost no chance they’ll have an actual impact on the election. Justin Levitt, an election law expert, compared the Trump campaign’s post-election legal strategy to the business plan of the “underpants gnomes” in an old episode of “South Park,” in that the lawsuits don’t offer any path toward ultimately preventing Trump’s electoral college defeat. (Phase 1: Collect underpants. Phase 2: ? Phase 3: Profit.)
“Some of these lawsuits are nonsense, and will lose. Some are legit on their own terms – modestly incremental access for observers ― and may win, but won’t change the result,” Levitt said.
“The endgame may be fundraising or further delegitimisation of the process,” he said. “But supporters who believe that the current batch of litigation is going to affect the outcome are skipping some pretty important steps. [Insert underpants gnome.]”
Even some conservatives who have been warning about the threat of voter fraud for years have attempted to clamp down on the unsubstantiated claims of mass voter fraud.
J. Christian Adams, a right-wing former Justice Department official, told The Daily Signal that he’d received more than 20 emails asking for investigations of rumours that had been floating around online. When The Epoch Times ― a foreign-owned publication which The New York Times called “a leading purveyor of right-wing misinformation” ― wrote a story claiming that “10,000 Dead People Returned Mail-in Ballots in Michigan,” Adams wrote on Twitter that it was “100 percent NOT accurate.” Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation, who has been warning of voter fraud for years and has supported strict voter ID laws that would disproportionately impact Democratic voters, said there are “a lot of stories and rumours that turn out not to be true” and that it would be nearly impossible for tens of thousands of ballots to have gone to Biden without any votes going to Trump, as some have falsely claimed.
It wasn’t lost on Krasner that the man he called an “explicitly racist president” had targeted a city with a majority Black and brown population.
“Their strategy was a racist strategy, and it played out in a way that they weren’t expecting,” Krasner said. “The people who turned out in those enormous numbers who swelled the numbers of Democrats and won the states, were Black and brown, and they were young.”
In other words, Philly doesn’t forget, and it loves a good rivalry.
“Philly has always had a pugnacious ― as they say in Philly ― ‘attytood,’” Krasner said. “But this was beyond deserved.”