The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Giuliani asked Michigan prosecutor to give voting machines to Trump team

President’s legal advisers helped twist clerical error by rural county into key tenet of false election-fraud claim

President Donald Trump's personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, listens to Detroit poll worker Jessi Jacobs during an appearance before the Michigan House Oversight Committee on Dec. 2, 2020, in Lansing, Mich. (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

In the weeks after the 2020 election, Rudolph W. Giuliani and other legal advisers to President Donald Trump asked a Republican prosecutor in northern Michigan to get his county’s voting machines and pass them to Trump’s team, the prosecutor told The Washington Post.

Antrim County prosecutor James Rossiter said in an interview that Giuliani and several colleagues made the request during a telephone call after the county initially misreported its election results. The inaccurate tallies meant that Joe Biden appeared to have beaten Trump by 3,000 votes in a Republican stronghold, an error that soon placed Antrim at the center of false claims by Trump that the election had been stolen.

Rossiter said he declined. “I said, ‘I can’t just say: give them here.’ We don’t have that magical power to just demand things as prosecutors. You need probable cause.” Even if he had had sufficient grounds to take the machines as evidence, Rossiter said, he could not have released them to outsiders or a party with an interest in the matter.

Legal scholars said it was unusual and inappropriate for a president’s representatives to make such a request of a local prosecutor. “I never expected in my life I’d get a call like this,” Rossiter said.

Giuliani declined to comment in response to questions from The Post, his attorney said.

Giuliani’s team called Rossiter around Nov. 20, 2020, Rossiter said, as it worked to overturn Trump’s defeat to Biden. The direct appeal to a local law enforcement official was part of a broader effort by Trump’s allies to access voting machines in an attempt to prove that the election had been stolen. That effort extended to a recently disclosed draft executive order for Trump’s signature to have National Guard troops seize machines across the nation.

A Post examination found that the call to Rossiter was also part of a behind-the-scenes intervention by Trump’s legal team in Antrim that seized on the county’s election night blunder and helped twist the mistake into supposed proof of a vast conspiracy to rig the election.

Antrim is dominated by elected Republicans, and the small rural county last backed a Democrat for president in 1964. A review commissioned by state officials later found that the election night error was largely the result of officials’ failure to properly update machines that scan and count paper ballots following a last-minute change to ballots in several precincts. This led to inaccurate vote tallies in the county’s initial results.

At a rally on Oct. 9 in Des Moines, former president Donald Trump continued to unleash a litany of false and unproven claims of voter fraud in 2020. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

After addressing the mistakes in the days that followed, officials announced that Trump had in fact beaten Biden by more than 3,000 votes, a result that was confirmed by a hand recount of the paper ballots marked by voters. The county clerk, Sheryl Guy, later said in a report that the error was an honest mistake that she “owned, acknowledged and accepted.”

But as Trump’s advisers searched for evidence to support his false claims that the election had been stolen, they focused on Antrim. Having unsuccessfully pressed Rossiter and another county official for access to the voting machines, they supported an election lawsuit brought by local Realtor William Bailey, who won a court order granting him access to the machines from a judge who had recently donated to Trump’s campaign.

A purported “forensic report” produced for Bailey’s lawsuit, created by a team that his attorney later described in a podcast interview as “forensic scientists and data collection scientists,” claimed that data gathered from Antrim’s machines provided evidence of sweeping fraud. The machines — made by Dominion Voting Systems, which had become a focus of election conspiracy theories — were “intentionally and purposefully designed” to manipulate votes, the report said. Experts have called that conclusion false and the report critically flawed.

The 23-page report was produced by a team that included Phil Waldron, the pro-Trump retired army colonel now best known for circulating a PowerPoint presentation before Jan. 6 that said troops could seize ballots. The report was signed by Russell J. Ramsland Jr., a conservative activist who has claimed since 2018 that elections were compromised and leads the Texas-based company Allied Security Operations Group (ASOG).

Neither Ramsland nor Waldron responded to requests for comment.

The analysts who examined Antrim’s machines for ASOG were accompanied by Katherine Friess, a former Republican Senate counsel who was working with Giuliani on Trump’s legal effort, the Traverse City Record-Eagle first reported. They made two visits to municipal offices in Antrim to inspect voting machine data, arriving on private planes provided by Patrick Byrne, the former Overstock chief executive, Byrne told The Post. Byrne, who was deeply involved in efforts to prove the election was stolen, described himself as part of an independent team that gave assistance to Giuliani and others.

The ASOG report was released to the public via a Dec. 14 court order, as electoral college members met to cast their presidential votes in state capitols. Alongside the report, Bailey’s attorney submitted an affidavit to court from a former engineering professor who raised additional concerns about voting machines. The metadata of a version of the affidavit posted to the attorney’s website lists Friess as the creator of the document the previous month. Friess did not respond to requests for comment from The Post.

When the ASOG report was made public, Giuliani issued a news release calling it “nothing short of mind-blowing.” The evidence of fraud it presented, he claimed, was “undisputable” and reason for state lawmakers to “halt any further approval of presidential electors until all of these machines have been seized for auditing and analysis.” The news release was authored by Friess, according to the metadata of a copy posted online that day by a TV news station in Michigan.

The president’s legal team cited alleged findings from Antrim to pressure battleground state lawmakers to reject Biden’s victory. The claims about Antrim were eventually presented as a key justification for the draft executive order for troops to seize machines. Trump cited the case of Antrim in his speech on Jan. 6 shortly before his supporters stormed the Capitol.

Bruce Green, a professor at Fordham University Law School and former chair of the American Bar Association’s criminal justice standards committee, said Giuliani and his team were wrong to ask Rossiter to seize the county’s voting machines.

“One might understand someone who’s not a lawyer asking, not knowing it wouldn’t be lawful. It’s another thing for a lawyer who used to be a U.S. attorney,” Green said. “If anyone knew the prosecutor couldn’t comply, it should be Rudy Giuliani.”

Rossiter, a Marine Corps veteran, became Antrim’s prosecuting attorney — Michigan’s equivalent of a district attorney — in 2013 after more than a decade as a prosecutor in the county office. While he was reelected as a GOP candidate in 2020, Rossiter said, he stressed to Giuliani’s team that “politics play no part” in his official duties.

“It’s no secret I run on the Republican ticket. But I told them, ‘It’s not about who wins or loses. It needs to be fair,’ ” Rossiter said. The prosecutor said Friess called him and placed him on speakerphone, where she was joined by Giuliani, Byrne and former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik.

Kerik told The Post he did not remember the call. Byrne said he did not have firm memories of the call.

Told of Rossiter’s account, Byrne said the official explanation for Antrim’s election night error had not allayed local suspicions. “Six thousand votes being shifted is all the probable cause that guy needed to demand that someone independent inspect those machines,” he said.

Rossiter and James Janisse, who was the top detective in the Antrim County Sheriff’s Office until he retired last summer, told The Post that they did investigate an allegation of fraud filed by Bailey. The detective and prosecutor said they interviewed Bailey and county officials and reviewed ASOG’s report, but their inquiries concluded with no charges.

Guy, the county clerk, told The Post that Antrim was being exploited to “terrorize the country with doubt” over the electoral process. “Nobody cares about what really happened. They are simply using us for their agenda,” said Guy, a Republican.

Michigan’s Secretary of State, Jocelyn Benson (D), last month urged the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attack to examine whether Trump or his campaign directed the creation of the Antrim report to justify seizing voting machines.

The false allegations about Antrim have endured since the Capitol riot, helping to power an ongoing movement to rehash the 2020 election with partisan ballot reviews, most notably in Maricopa County, Ariz. The claims have also infected debates about election integrity in communities far from Michigan, records from other states show, making “Antrim” a byword for election fraud among many Republicans.

Bailey’s attorney, Matthew DePerno, is now a Republican candidate for Michigan attorney general. Trump has endorsed DePerno and is scheduled to host a fundraiser for him next month at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s club in Palm Beach, Fla. DePerno did not respond to detailed questions from The Post but sent the questions to supporters in a fundraising appeal.

“They know most of the questions they are asking involve attorney-client privilege or have nothing to do with the issues I raised about election integrity in Antrim County,” DePerno wrote. Bailey declined to be interviewed.

The report ASOG produced for DePerno’s lawsuit made its way to the highest levels of government. On the day of its public release, Trump’s assistant emailed a copy of it to Jeffrey Rosen, the deputy to Attorney General William P. Barr, with the subject line: “From POTUS,” records released by the Senate show. Also attached to the email were talking points calling the report “evidence of intentional fraud” and claiming “Michigan cannot certify for Biden.”

On that same day, Trump tweeted that Barr, who had publicly challenged Trump’s claims about election fraud, would resign.

The next day, Dec. 15, Trump called a meeting with Rosen, soon to replace Barr at the helm of the Department of Justice, and Richard Donoghue, who would become Rosen’s deputy. The president brought up ASOG’s report, Donoghue later said in a deposition with Senate investigators. “He said something to the effect of, you know, ‘Have you guys seen this report? This is unbelievable. This is a disaster.’ ” Donoghue said he and Rosen mollified Trump by explaining that a hand recount was planned and would shed light on whether the alleged problem in Antrim was real.

On Dec. 16, an as-yet-unidentified person drafted the executive order that would have authorized U.S. troops to seize voting machines and appointed a special counsel to oversee the effort. The draft order’s second paragraph said ASOG’s Antrim report, “prepared by experts,” helped provide “evidence of international and foreign interference” that justified drastic action. The never-issued executive order, first reported by Politico, was among documents the National Archives gave to the House Jan. 6 committee.

Meanwhile, Homeland Security officials studied the Antrim claims at Barr’s request, preparing a “white paper” that said its key claims lacked merit and briefing Barr and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, the Senate records show. On Dec. 20, Barr announced there was no basis for seizing voting machines or appointing a special counsel.

By then, Giuliani’s team had established a “command center” at the Willard hotel in Washington for overturning the election. The rooms were reserved through Friess’s cybersecurity firm, Seven Good Stones, The Post previously reported.

John C. Eastman, another personal lawyer to Trump, authored two memos that laid out options for Vice President Mike Pence to delay certifying Biden’s win or ensure Trump’s inauguration instead. At the Willard on the evening of Jan. 5, Eastman watched the returns from two U.S. Senate elections in Georgia with Waldron and Ramsland, he told The Post in an interview.

The next day, shortly before the Capitol attack, the president invoked Antrim in his speech to thousands gathered in Washington.

“In one Michigan county alone, 6,000 votes were switched from Trump to Biden,” said Trump, “and the same systems are used in the majority of states in our country.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Follow @wpinvestigates on Twitter | Latest investigative news

Loading...