The making of a myth
Russell J. Ramsland Jr. sold everything from Tex-Mex food to light-therapy technology. Then he sold the story that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
“We observed an error rate of 68.05%. This demonstrated a significant and fatal error in security and election integrity.”ASOG report, released Dec. 14
“68% error rate in Michigan Voting Machines. ... Did Michigan Secretary of State break the law? Stay tuned!”Dec. 15 tweet
ADDISON, Tex. — Key elements of the baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen from President Donald Trump took shape in an airplane hangar here two years earlier, promoted by a Republican businessman who has sold everything from Tex-Mex food in London to a wellness technology that beams light into the human bloodstream.
At meetings beginning late in 2018, as Republicans were smarting from midterm losses in Texas and across the country, Russell J. Ramsland Jr. and his associates delivered alarming presentations on electronic voting to a procession of conservative lawmakers, activists and donors.
Briefings in the hangar had a clandestine air. Guests were asked to leave their cellphones outside before assembling in a windowless room. A member of Ramsland’s team purporting to be a “white-hat hacker” identified himself only by a code name.
Ramsland, a failed congressional candidate with a Harvard MBA, pitched a claim that seemed rooted in evidence: Voting-machine audit logs — lines of codes and time stamps that document the machines’ activities — contained indications of vote manipulation. In the retrofitted hangar that served as his company’s offices at the edge of a municipal airstrip outside Dallas, Ramsland attempted to persuade failed Republican candidates to challenge their election results and force the release of additional data that might prove manipulation.
“We had to find the right candidate,” said Laura Pressley, a former Ramsland ally whose own claim that audit logs showed fraud had been rejected in court two years earlier. “We had to find one who knew they won.”
He made the pitch to Don Huffines, a state senator in Texas. Huffines declined.
He tried to persuade U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.). Sessions declined.
No candidate agreed to bring a challenge, and the idea of widespread vote manipulation remained on the political fringe — until 2020, when Ramsland’s assertions were seized upon by influential allies of Trump. The president himself accelerated the spread of those claims into the GOP mainstream as he latched onto an array of baseless ideas to explain his loss in November.
The enduring myth that the 2020 election was rigged was not one claim by one person. It was many claims stacked one atop the other, repeated by a phalanx of Trump allies. This is the previously unreported origin story of a core set of those claims, ideas that were advanced not by renowned experts or by insiders who had knowledge of flawed voting systems but by Ramsland and fellow conservative activists as they pushed a fledgling company, Allied Security Operations Group, into a quixotic attempt to find evidence of widespread fraud where none existed.
To assemble a picture of the company’s role, The Washington Post obtained emails and company documents and interviewed 12 people with direct knowledge of ASOG’s efforts, as well as former federal officials and aides from the Trump White House. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private matters or out of fear of retribution. Three individuals who were present in the hangar for those 2018 meetings spoke about the gatherings publicly for the first time.
By late 2019, ASOG’s examination had moved beyond audit logs. Among other claims, Ramsland was repeating the ominous idea that election software used in the United States originated in Venezuela and saying nefarious actors could surreptitiously manipulate votes on a massive scale. As the 2020 election approached, he privately briefed GOP lawmakers in Washington and met with officials from the Department of Homeland Security, documents and interviews show.
ASOG’s examination by last summer had already cost more than $1 million, according to a document the company gave government officials that was obtained by The Post. Ramsland had sought funding from Republican donors whose fortunes were made in the oil, gas and fracking industries, Pressley said.
After the Nov. 3 election, to an extent not widely recognized, Ramsland and others associated with ASOG played key roles in spreading the claims of fraud, The Post found. They were circulated by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), a staunch Trump ally who had been briefed by ASOG. And Ramsland’s assertions were incorporated in the “kraken” lawsuits filed by conservative lawyer Sidney Powell — who The Post learned had also been briefed two years earlier by ASOG — and aired publicly by Rudolph W. Giuliani, then Trump’s personal attorney, as they tried to overturn Joe Biden’s victories in key states.
During that period, Trump was hyper-focused on making the case that the election had been rigged, former White House aides said. He would listen to “literally anyone” who had a theory about it, in the words of one former senior administration official.
Among those voices were the people in Ramsland’s network.
In the aftermath of the election, Trump was surrounded by those repeating claims Ramsland had made ...
... and in seeking to overturn the election, Trump himself embraced some of those ideas.
The idea that the election was stolen took root and remains persuasive to millions of Americans. Although Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security called the election the “most secure in American history,” polls have consistently shown that about one-third of Americans — including a majority of Republicans — believe that Trump lost because of fraud. An internal poll by the National Republican Senatorial Committee in March found that among Republicans who believed the election was stolen, nearly half said hacked machines were partly to blame and an additional 8 percent said they were the main source of fraud.
The fraud claims have undermined faith in the electoral process, been cited as a motivation for legislation to curtail access to polls in dozens of states and spurred the companies Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic to file billion-dollar lawsuits. Ultimately, the conspiracy-mongering helped inspire the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
In an email exchange with The Post, Ramsland, 68, confirmed that ASOG provided research for Powell and Giuliani but said that he had never spoken to Trump himself and that the company was “one of many voices” that expressed concerns about election-system vulnerabilities. He noted that election security has been a long-standing concern across the political spectrum and said that many others had “reached similar conclusions regarding irregularities in the election system.”
Through an attorney, Powell confirmed that she had met Pressley but did not respond to questions about where or about her work with Ramsland. Giuliani and his attorney did not respond to messages seeking comment. Gohmert declined to comment on his interactions with Ramsland.
Through a spokesman, Trump declined an interview request.
Pressley, 58, said she and Ramsland had a falling out in part over his use of her analysis of election data and her suspicions that his motives were financial or partisan. She said she believes he has not provided evidence for his claims about the 2020 election and fears those claims could undercut legitimate questions about the integrity of U.S. voting. “I’m heartbroken by it,” Pressley said recently, speaking in detail about ASOG for the first time, during a three-hour interview near Austin.
In emails to The Post, Ramsland called Pressley “unreliable” and said ASOG ceased doing business with her “because of her lack of technical experience and complete inability to understand electronic investigative work.” He said Pressley had a limited view of the work performed by ASOG, adding that “our cyber team had already gone far beyond the simple audit log data and analysis she had initially brought to ASOG.”
Many people and organizations claimed after the election to have evidence casting doubt on Biden’s victory. But Ramsland and ASOG’s role was unique, said Matt Masterson, a former senior U.S. cybersecurity official who led a team tracking the integrity of the 2020 election for DHS.
Repeatedly and at key moments, Masterson said, ASOG was the source of morsels of inaccurate information that shaped public perception. Some of the ideas it pushed had circulated previously, he said, but they were supercharged by the influence and connections of Ramsland and the people around him — and by the air of authority the company provided.
“It wasn’t just that the president would tweet about their stuff. It was all these little nuggets and grist that they provided or that were cited to them in testimony or in the ‘kraken’ cases. It provided the appearance of substance and fact to something that had no substance or fact,” said Masterson, who has not previously discussed ASOG publicly. “It was like: ‘Look, these are professionals. … They have former military experience. And look at what they found.’ They gave those who wanted to push and believe in the lie something to hold on to.”
Convinced there was fraud
The nation’s embrace of electronic voting grew out of the debacle of 2000, when hanging chads and other hard-to-interpret paper ballots muddled the outcome of the presidential race, souring many Americans on the analog technology the country had used for decades.
Two years later, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, dedicating billions of dollars to modernize U.S. elections. It encouraged jurisdictions across the country to replace their old voting machines with new digital systems.
The result was a massive investment in paperless touch-screen voting machines, also known as direct-recording electronic voting machines or DREs, which states came to view as simpler, cheaper and more accessible to people with disabilities.
“There were some electronic voting machines before that, but this was the thing that opened the floodgates to them,” said Matt Blaze, a professor of law and computer science at Georgetown University who researches election technology and security.
Blaze and other experts warned that DREs introduced new security risks: Without a reliable paper trail, there was no way to check whether the machines had accurately recorded voters’ intentions.
As concern about this vulnerability mounted, a growing number of states and localities began requiring voting machines to leave a paper trail. Today, most voters mark paper ballots by hand, and they are then scanned and tabulated by a machine. Some use touch-screen machines that produce a printed copy of the voter’s selections. A few still vote on paperless machines.
There has never been a documented case of a U.S. election being stolen through hacking, according to Blaze and other experts.
Still, concerns about the security of electronic voting continue to simmer, including among experts. It does not help, they say, that some machines contain modems to simplify the reporting of results and that those machines have sometimes been left connected to the Internet for extended periods.
It was DREs, and the built-in inability to verify their results, that helped persuade Pressley that her race for a seat on Austin’s nonpartisan city council in 2014 had been stolen.
As a candidate, Pressley told voters she had grown up outside Dallas, the daughter of a cattle auctioneer. She said she arrived in Austin two decades earlier as a poor single mother and succeeded against the odds. She earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin, worked for 17 years in the semiconductor industry and owned a company that sold bottled rainwater.
The campaign foundered amid revelations she had previously appeared on Infowars, the right-wing website operated by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and on another occasion had said she believed data showed that military-grade explosives were planted inside the twin towers on 9/11. That comment prompted the Austin American-Statesman to retract its endorsement of her. (Pressley told The Post she had “no opinion” on whether planes brought down the World Trade Center.)
The race was not close: Her opponent, a community organizer, defeated her by a margin of almost 30 points.
Pressley could not believe it.
“I knew in my heart that I had won,” she recently told a gathering of law enforcement officers outside Houston, one of hundreds of speeches she has given about the case, “and I became convinced there was fraud.”
A recount confirmed her loss. But nearly all the ballots had been cast on DREs, and Pressley remained skeptical.
She took the case to court.
Among other evidence, Pressley cited an audit log that contained nine instances when a machine made by the company Hart InterCivic recorded an event as “Invalid/Corrupt.” She argued that those and other alleged irregularities meant the true outcome of the election was impossible to determine.
A state judge threw out the case before trial and fined her and her attorney for bringing a frivolous lawsuit. Pressley appealed, and in 2016 a three-judge panel upheld the lower-court ruling.
“Pressley produced no evidence that the ‘Invalid/Corrupt’ error messages resulted in any legal votes not being counted, resulted in any illegal votes being counted, or otherwise materially affected the outcome of the election,” the Texas Court of Appeals panel found, adding that Pressley’s own expert witness testified it was “not known” what the nine error messages meant.
“This type of expert testimony is based on uncertainty and mere speculation and is therefore unreliable and irrelevant,” the panel said.
Pressley would go on to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, which said it was too late to take up her underlying fraud allegations but found that they were not frivolous and dropped the fines. Her expert witness had testified that corrupted memory sticks that contain ballot data “could” damage the credibility of vote counting, the court wrote. To avoid fines, it wrote, “Pressley needs only to have some factual basis for her claim … not evidence that is ultimately admissible.”
Hart InterCivic told The Post that the error messages did not impact the tally and that “the election results were accurately recorded and reported.” The company said the error messages indicate a failed connection between memory sticks and the devices that read them — a hiccup resolved by simply reconnecting and trying again.
By 2018, Pressley had become an outspoken critic of electronic voting systems that lack a paper trail. She founded True Texas Elections and recruited poll-watchers in more than a dozen counties to look for evidence of fraud in the state’s March primary that year. Afterward, she filed a complaint with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) alleging that Democratic votes might have been undercounted.
On election night in November 2018, the volunteer poll-watchers obtained audit logs generated by the central tabulation machines in Dallas County as they tallied votes, some of which had been cast on DREs manufactured by the largest voting-machine company in the nation, Election Systems and Software, or ES&S. Such logs record an array of activity and can be difficult to interpret for anyone unfamiliar with the software involved.
In a statement, ES&S said that its voting equipment has been through thousands of hours of independent testing and that its accuracy has been verified through audits and other examinations.
But as Pressley pored over the logs, she fixated on specific words. “Downloaded,” “cleared,” “replaced,” the audit logs said, over and over.
Soon, she came to suspect that those audit logs, too, were a window into surreptitious vote-switching.
‘When someone says, “I know a guy” …’
Allied Special Operations Group, as the firm was first named, was initially envisioned as a one-stop shop for government and corporate clients seeking cybersecurity, physical protection and sophisticated open-source intelligence services, Ramsland and former employees told The Post.
The company was formed in June 2017 by Adam T. Kraft, a former senior official at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Kraft was the company’s chief executive, and it was based out of his house in a subdivision north of Fort Worth. Kraft declined to comment for this report.
An early promotional video described ASOG as “a group of highly trained professionals who have seen it all,” and it stressed the intelligence backgrounds of some team members. “When someone says, ‘I know a guy,’ he’s talking about ASOG,” said the narrator, who said that ASOG personnel had taken part in the types of missions “that many of us only see in the movies.”
Months after Kraft filed papers to establish the company, he was joined by a trio of other men, state records show.
Alvan “Locke” Neely, a retired Secret Service agent who first served in the Ford administration, became ASOG’s chief operations officer.
J. Keet Lewis was named ASOG’s vice president of strategy. Lewis served on the executive committee of the Council for National Policy (CNP), a Washington-based organization that for decades has been a networking hub for powerful conservative activists and donors.
According to his biography in Securities and Exchange Commission filings, Lewis consulted on international energy projects and had helped develop the Skimmer Basket Buddy, a patented maintenance tool for swimming pools. He did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Ramsland, who was also then a member of the CNP, joined as ASOG’s chief financial officer. The son and grandson of West Texas oilmen lived with his wife in the Preston Hollow section of Dallas, home to former president George W. Bush and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
Ramsland had charted an unusual career path, including investment banking, consulting on a proposed cattle ranch in the South Pacific and working with NASA on a venture aimed at growing crystals in space. He also owned oil and gas interests in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, records show.
According to business filings in Florida, Lewis and Ramsland later served together on the board of Photonx, a company that according to its website uses variable wavelengths of light “to treat specific pathogenic and chronic diseases.” (Ramsland told The Post that in its current form Photonx’s device “expressly doesn’t purport to treat disease.”)
Photonx now has office space inside the Addison hangar, according to a mailbox outside and a sign visible to visitors at the front door.
Ramsland was a “numbers and models” man, said Gene Street, who partnered with him in the 1990s on the London restaurant that Ramsland’s résumé, obtained by The Post, says was “Europe’s highest-grossing Tex-Mex restaurant.”
“If you ever needed to know where a single penny went, he was the guy that could tell you,” Street said.
Ramsland had donated to the campaigns of numerous Republicans, including Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), campaign finance filings show. He had also run for office himself, challenging Rep. Pete Sessions in the 2016 Republican primary as a part of the tea party, the fiscally conservative movement that had formed in opposition to President Barack Obama’s agenda. A campaign ad showed Ramsland wearing a cowboy hat and shooting a rifle at cardboard boxes labeled “open borders” and “Obamacare.” Ramsland lost by nearly 38 points.
Weeks before he joined ASOG, Ramsland spoke to a conservative association, delivering remarks rife with outlandish claims, according to video reviewed by The Post. Ramsland called the deadly 2012 attack on a U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya, a “deep-state operation,” and he traced the origin of the “deep state” to a World War II-era collaboration involving Prescott Bush, the father of former president George H.W. Bush; the Muslim Brotherhood; and liberal financier George Soros — who was born in 1930 and was not yet an adult.
ASOG’s early work included hunting for intelligence about a group of Chinese nationals for an exiled Chinese billionaire, an associate of former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, and providing VIP protection details in the United States and abroad, a specialty Neely brought from the Secret Service.
In the fall of 2018, influential Texas Republican fundraiser JoAnn Fleming urged Ramsland and Pressley to join forces, Pressley told The Post. Ramsland soon shifted ASOG’s attention to election security. Fleming did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Neely said he left his position with the company when resources moved toward election security.
“My focus was and has always been protection and investigations,” he said in a brief interview outside his home in suburban Dallas. “They were going a totally different direction, and it was just not — they were pouring all their resources into that, and it was just not my gig.”
The relationship between Ramsland and Kraft also grew strained, according to three people who worked for or with the company at the time. Kraft eventually departed under pressure, the people said.
‘It had to get to Trump’
In November 2018, Texas Republicans were reeling from a battering at the polls. Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke had lost only narrowly to Cruz, and strong Democratic turnout had cost Sessions his longtime seat representing a swath of Dallas and its fast-growing suburbs as the party picked up seats in both chambers of the state legislature. Some Republicans were looking for explanations beyond the apparent purpling of Dallas.
Soon, Pressley was in the hangar, briefing Ramsland on her election-fraud theories. “Russ got really excited. They all did,” Pressley said. “I think they saw this as their next big thing.”
ASOG and Pressley began looking for a losing candidate who would challenge the election outcome and force Dallas County and ES&S to lift the hood on their technology to show whether votes had been manipulated, according to Pressley and to emails and other documents provided by her attorney.
They alighted on state Sen. Don Huffines (R), a wealthy real estate developer whose bid for a second term in the Texas legislature had just ended in defeat, handing his district to a Democrat for the first time in almost four decades.
Within weeks of the election, Pressley said, Huffines was in the hangar with James E. “Trey” Trainor III, who had been nominated by Trump to serve on the Federal Election Commission but was not yet Senate-confirmed. Trainor was advising Huffines at the time.
Pressley presented her analysis of the audit logs and their mysterious “replaced” and “cleared” messages, she said. Ramsland told Huffines he was “horrified” by signs of fraud, she said. Challenging the result and forcing officials to turn over voting-machine data could prove the vote was manipulated, they argued.
Pressley said she and Ramsland waited impatiently for Huffines to decide. In early December, he told them he would not challenge his loss.
“We were all ready to go. We had someone who was going to fund the challenge and everything,” she said. “It was devastating.”
Huffines did not respond to requests seeking comment.
In an interview, Trainor confirmed the hangar meeting with Ramsland and said he advised Huffines not to bring a challenge. Under Texas law, contested state Senate races are decided by a Senate vote rather than by a judge.
“We were never going to convince senators that something nefarious had gone on, whether it did or didn’t,” Trainor said, noting that some Republicans might not have backed a challenge that risked embarrassing the GOP secretary of state.
ASOG briefed a number of people during this period, including Powell and Gohmert, according to Pressley and a former ASOG employee named Joshua Merritt. Pressley said Powell approached her after one briefing in the hangar, gave her a business card and called the audit-log analysis proof of fraud.
Ramsland and Lewis were also working to coax another losing candidate to bring a challenge: Sessions, the ousted congressman.
Lewis called a Sessions donor and left a voice message suggesting that the congressman’s race had been stolen. The donor forwarded the message to Carolyn Malenick, a volunteer for Sessions. Within days, Sessions was on a plane from Washington to Texas for a trip to the hangar, according to Malenick, who joined him there.
A calendar invitation for the Dec. 14, 2018, meeting shows that Ramsland, Lewis and Pressley were among those expected, as was Fleming, the conservative fundraiser who Pressley said had connected her and Ramsland.
Also in attendance, Malenick said, was conservative talk-show host Kevin Freeman.
Pressley said she gave a PowerPoint presentation that began with a picture of Joseph Stalin and a quote attributed to the Russian dictator: “I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this — who will count the votes and how.”
Ramsland followed, accompanied by the purported white-hat hacker, who would not provide his name to the audience, Malenick said. The two presented a $4 million plan that included ASOG standing up an “operations” center to search for voting irregularities, Malenick and Pressley said.
Malenick, a longtime Republican fundraiser, told The Post she eventually came to believe Ramsland was misleading donors.
Ramsland told The Post the center was Kraft’s idea and that election investigations are costly. He said Malenick had “problems with truthfulness,” citing an FEC case from the 1990s that ended with her paying a $5,000 fine.
With a certification deadline fast approaching, Sessions, too, decided against formally challenging his election result, according to his brother and attorney, Lewis Sessions.
Privately, Pete Sessions did not drop the matter. He filed a confidential complaint with Paxton, the Texas attorney general, alleging “a variety of legally questionable conduct” in Dallas County voting. The complaint, provided to The Post by Lewis Sessions, included an affidavit from Pressley in which she claimed her poll-watchers reported they had been treated with hostility and had seen an elections worker using an Internet-connected laptop. She also enumerated audit-log messages — including “replaced” and “time stamp mismatch” — she considered suspicious.
On Jan. 31, 2019, Pressley presented her findings to Paxton in a meeting in an Austin office used by Ramsland, she said. Emails between her and Ramsland show preparations for the meeting.
But again, nothing came of the effort.
Ramsland has said in media appearances that ASOG brought information to Paxton’s office and urged further examination. It is unclear whether he was referring to the Pete Sessions complaint and Pressley’s briefing or to a separate complaint, and Ramsland did not respond to messages seeking clarification. He told The Post that he now believes Paxton’s office lacks the financial resources and the “level of technical expertise and sophistication” necessary for a meaningful investigation.
In a statement, Paxton’s office said: “We take every credible allegation of fraud seriously. In this case, after a thorough investigation by our office with the assistance of election systems experts, cybersecurity experts, and the FBI, we found the claims in this case were unverifiable, and an audit of the voting records confirmed the outcome of the election.”
Legally, the allegations of fraud in Dallas in 2018 had all but reached a dead end, Pressley said.
With Pressley in tow, Ramsland launched a fundraising blitz, traveling to the ranches and mansions of some of Texas’s wealthiest conservative funders. Ramsland told potential funders that their money would support legal challenges to ensure election integrity ahead of the 2020 election, Pressley said. “The hook was always Trump — that their guy could lose,” Pressley said.
Pressley said that early in February 2019, she accompanied Ramsland to present her audit-log analysis in Midland to Charles Richard “Dick” Saulsbury, who had made a fortune in engineering work in oil and gas. In Cisco, they met with Farris and Jo Ann Wilks, whose wealth stemmed from the sale of a family fracking business.
Pressley said pledges as high as $700,000 were discussed. The Post obtained correspondence in which Ramsland named Saulsbury as a potential funder and in which Pressley referred to a “Wilks investor meeting.”
Saulsbury did not respond to questions through a spokeswoman. Reached briefly by phone, Farris Wilks said he had no memory of providing money to Ramsland and then hung up.
Ramsland said neither the Wilkses nor the Saulsburys were donors. Malenick and a former ASOG employee said the company had sought to raise capital at the time by selling ownership shares. Ramsland did not respond to a follow-up question about whether the Wilkses or the Saulsburys were investors.
Pressley, a Republican who has donated to candidates from both major parties, said she began to grow suspicious that Ramsland’s motives were political or financial, or both, particularly in February 2019 when he took her research to D.C. to meet with Washington insiders but excluded her.
“I don’t think he wanted me there and hearing what he was saying,” Pressley said. “Everything he was doing … became about getting to Trump. He had this idea it had to get to Trump.”
Pressley’s company, True Texas Elections, sought a consulting contract from ASOG in February 2019, but it never materialized. As their relationship deteriorated, Pressley sent a cease-and-desist letter to ASOG late that month demanding that Ramsland stop presenting her research without authorization, according to their correspondence.
Ramsland denied to Pressley that he had tried to exclude her from the meetings in Washington and challenged her allegation that he had co-opted her audit-log analysis. She had shown her presentation to dozens of people without any confidentiality agreement or copyright markings, he wrote. “We frankly do not understand how a project to save Texas and our country has turned into this,” he wrote in a letter reviewed by The Post. “This isn’t just your project. This has been a team effort from the beginning.”
Ramsland spreads the word
As 2019 progressed, Ramsland decided to take his case to the public via “Economic War Room,” the online television show hosted by Freeman.
Like Ramsland and J. Keet Lewis, Freeman was a member of the Council for National Policy, according to membership directories posted online by the watchdog group Documented.
“We finally decided that if we couldn’t get the government to pay attention without public opinion and public pressure, the best guy to go to would be Kevin,” Ramsland later recalled in a panel discussion, a recording of which is posted online.
Asked whether CNP had supported Ramsland’s efforts, the group’s executive director, former congressman Bob McEwen (R-Ohio) said: “CNP is a convening organization of several organizations and individual members. And that’s what it does. It doesn’t sponsor legislation or oppose legislation. It is an opportunity for people, patriotic citizens, to gather together to share their concerns and interests in our nation’s security.”
In emails exchanged over the course of a week, Freeman said he was unavailable to answer questions about his presence at the meeting and his involvement with Ramsland.
Ramsland appeared on the show multiple times in 2019 and 2020, at least once with another ASOG employee who appeared with his face in shadow and voice disguised. The employee’s identity was kept secret on the show, with Freeman referring to him as Jekyll, a “white-hat hacker.” It was the same purported hacker who had accompanied Ramsland during meetings in the hangar with Sessions and others, according to Pressley and Malenick.
The Post has reported that Jekyll is Merritt, a former Army mechanic who studied network security administration after leaving the military. In December, The Post reported that affidavits in Powell’s lawsuits from a purported “military intelligence expert” using the pseudonym “Spider” were actually written by Merritt.
Merritt, who told The Post in December that he had briefed Powell and Gohmert, declined to comment for this report.
Together, Ramsland and Merritt painted a picture of an entirely porous voting system, wide open and hackable. Ramsland made a range of specific claims, including that hackers or rogue operators could direct vote data to a remote location, change it and then “re-inject” it, or they could unleash “some sort of a bot” to change the results without anyone noticing. He said there were indications that vote manipulation was already happening and said all major U.S. voting-machine companies were vulnerable.
Among his claims was that source code initially written by the company Smartmatic formed the basis of much of the election software used in the United States. Ramsland often pointed out, as other critics had, that Smartmatic’s founders were Venezuelan.
Representatives of ES&S, Dominion and Hart InterCivic, the nation’s three largest voting-machine companies, told The Post they do not use or license Smartmatic software. They all said their companies’ software code is not in any way based on Smartmatic code, and Smartmatic said its code is not incorporated in other companies’ software.
Ramsland told The Post that “many cyber groups” have reported that different companies share software code similarities. He did not respond to questions asking that he name any cyber groups that support his claims about Smartmatic code.
In his media appearances, Ramsland also resurfaced an old baseless claim about Scytl, a Spain-based election technology firm that he described as a “somewhat disturbing company” in one appearance on Freeman’s show. “They’re housing all of our votes, and they’re doing it in an insecure fashion,” he said in a September appearance.
The following month, Ramsland added a twist, claiming on an online talk show hosted by conservative Debbie Georgatos that American votes were “being held on a server in Frankfurt, Germany.”
Scytl has said that it has no servers in Frankfurt and that its systems are not used to count or “house” votes in U.S. elections. Ramsland told The Post in an email that “any 8th grader with a reasonable background in white hat cyber investigation tools” could trace votes to a Scytl server in Frankfurt.
One of Scytl’s products is a platform used by some counties to publicly display unofficial vote tallies online on election night, according to the company. After polls close, as results begin trickling in, they are published online by media outlets and state and local governments. Those unofficial election-night reports depend on tallies that are transmitted by local officials to a publishing system. In some counties, that publishing system is made by Scytl.
Ramsland claimed to The Post that Dallas County’s use of such a Scytl platform showed votes were sent overseas.
But Harri Hursti, a data-security expert who has spent years highlighting vulnerabilities in electronic voting technology, said that Ramsland’s claims about vote-fixing overseas were nonsensical. Even if a hacker could manipulate the numbers that are posted online, the underlying votes would not be affected, Hursti said. Those are kept separately, sequestered from the Internet, and they are — once tallied and checked for discrepancies — the official results of any election.
ASOG paid Hursti’s company, Nordic Innovation Labs, $2,500 in November for an 18-page memo explaining the history of Dominion, its business acquisitions and the many systems and machines Dominion now supports, according to Nordic’s managing partner, Dan Webber.
Hursti said he believes ASOG ignored information he provided, in an effort to shape a sensational narrative about election fraud. Such baseless claims are now distracting time and attention from actual election-security problems, he said.
“This is counterproductive,” he said. “There is so much that needs to be fixed.”
Over this same period, in 2019 and 2020, Ramsland was attempting to win the attention of Washington insiders, an effort Gohmert was also engaged in.
Gohmert has said that a year before the election he gave Trump information from a group of “former intelligence people that were monitoring the election in Dallas County” — a description that closely resembles the way ASOG portrays itself — and that the president considered it “a real problem.” Speaking on a podcast in November, Gohmert said his own reaction to the information was, “Holy cow.”
In July 2020, ASOG gave a two-hour briefing to seven members of the House Freedom Caucus, Ramsland told MyPillow founder Mike Lindell for his movie about alleged election fraud. Ramsland said members were “horrified” at what ASOG presented.
ASOG also reached out that summer to the Senate Homeland Security Committee and was referred to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, part of DHS. CISA reviewed a packet of information from ASOG that included the document saying the cost of the company’s investigation had surpassed $1 million. Also included was an affidavit from Pressley and over 40 pages dedicated to her and her poll-watchers’ observations of the vote in Dallas County in 2018. The Post obtained the documents.
Ramsland said that DHS officials in Texas found ASOG’s information compelling but that CISA officials in Washington were “too busy to take a briefing” and agreed to only a short call.
In a statement, DHS confirmed that its officials had spoken with Ramsland and his associates, “reviewed the information provided and determined that it was speculative and not actionable.”
A full-court press
Hours after the final votes were cast on Nov. 3, Trump doubled down on the claims he had been making for months. “This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country,” Trump said. “We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.”
Over the next several weeks, Ramsland and others tied to ASOG played key roles in the full-court press to persuade Americans that the 2020 election had been rigged.
Ramsland and Lewis appeared on Lou Dobbs’s show on Fox Business Network, claiming there was evidence of widespread fraud. The claim that all U.S. voting machines secretly harbored Venezuelan software was repeated by Giuliani and Powell in numerous media appearances. The claim that Scytl servers in Frankfurt could be used to flip votes went viral on the right after it was repeated by Gohmert.
On Nov. 12, Gohmert said he had told Trump that data on these servers was critical to getting to the bottom of the fraud.
“I had suggested that the president might get information from Scytl,” Gohmert said on Newsmax, “and I sent him specifics that he needed to get that would show a lot of fraud.”
The next day, Gohmert told a virtual prayer group that the Scytl data would show “how many votes were switched from Republican to Democrat,” claiming that he had learned all this from “some of our former intel people.”
Scytl strongly denied the allegations. In a statement, the company said its products were not used to tally votes in U.S. elections and that it “does not even have offices in Frankfurt and does not have servers or computers in the German city.”
But Trump fanned the theory, according to archives of his deleted tweets. Late on Nov. 15, he retweeted to his millions of online followers a video clip of Ramsland saying in a pre-election interview that votes from 29 states were routed through “a server in Frankfurt, Germany” and that Scytl “controls and reports your vote.”
Ramsland also contributed material to Powell’s lawsuits and to one brought by L. Lin Wood Jr., another pro-Trump lawyer, seeking to overturn Biden’s victory. On Nov. 18, a nine-page affidavit from Ramsland filed to a federal court in Wood’s Georgia case made an explosive allegation: Multiple precincts in Michigan had recorded more votes for president than what he said was the estimated number of voters.
Ramsland’s claim was amplified the following day by Giuliani and Powell at a news conference at the headquarters of the Republican National Committee. Like Ramsland, Powell said that excess votes in some jurisdictions were as high as 350 percent.
The claim in Ramsland’s affidavit soon collapsed under scrutiny. The precincts he cited were actually in Minnesota, a mistake Ramsland blamed on “my guys” in his exchanges with The Post. Ramsland said the Minnesota numbers also showed excess votes, a claim contradicted by official results.
In an interview, Wood said he did not know Ramsland and referred The Post to the lawyer who represented him in the case, Ray S. Smith III. Smith noted that a corrected affidavit had been filed to the court and declined to comment further.
Another of Ramsland’s affidavits claimed a 139 percent voter turnout in Detroit — meaning the number of votes cast exceeded the number of voters. Detroit’s official election results show that about 258,000 of its 506,000 registered voters cast ballots — a turnout of just under 51 percent. Ramsland later filed an affidavit saying his original figures were based on data that was online but that “no longer exists [f]or some unexplained reason.”
Two Ramsland affidavits filed in Arizona purported to expose more than 100,000 illegal votes in the state, again based on high turnout rates, and suggested forensic testing to determine whether batches of fake ballots had been cast for Biden. Ramsland attached the résumés of six “key team members” he said had been involved in the preparation of his material. The only one identified by name was a former ASOG computer scientist who had died a year earlier.
Ramsland and one of his associates also played starring roles in the election-integrity “hearings” that Giuliani and GOP state legislators held in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Michigan and Georgia. The events were intended to persuade legislators to wrest control of the election certification process and demand further investigation.
Phil Waldron, a retired Army colonel who specialized in psychological operations and is now chief executive of a cybersecurity firm, appeared as a witness at each of those hearings. He said he was working with ASOG to examine the 2020 election.
“Your vote is not as secure as your Venmo account,” Waldron concluded in a hotel ballroom in Phoenix on Nov. 30, provoking murmurs from the audience.
“Pardon me? Say that one more time,” Giuliani said.
Waldron obliged. A video clip of the exchange was posted to Trump’s official YouTube page.
Waldron declined to comment for this report.
By December, Ramsland was opening doors for people seeking to challenge the election results. He connected Patrick Byrne, the billionaire former chief executive of the online retailer Overstock, with Powell, and Powell connected Byrne with Giuliani, Byrne told The Post.
Byrne was bankrolling a group of what he described as cyber experts — his “bad news bears” — to investigate election fraud. “They were the ones really getting their fingernails dirty, so to speak, hacking-and-cracking,” Byrne said in an email exchange with The Post. He said Ramsland, who had come to Washington for the effort, “acted as the conduit and synthesizer for a lot of research that was being done by other parties and technologists in our network.”
On Dec. 18, Trump hosted a now-infamous hours-long meeting at the White House during which Byrne, Powell and her client Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, sought to persuade the president to appoint Powell special counsel to investigate the election, including by examining voting machines in key swing-state counties.
Trump ultimately did not appoint a special counsel.
During this period, some White House lawyers heard Trump make claims that made no sense or seemed “bat-shit insane,” one former senior administration official said, later learning they came from a network that The Post found included Byrne, Powell and Ramsland.
According to a document obtained by The Post, skeptical Trump advisers developed a list of pointed questions aimed at determining whether there was evidence for the claims, many of which by then revolved around Dominion. The evidence never surfaced, the people close to the former president said.
Byrne told The Post that White House officials “refused to look” seriously at the claims and that he and his allies will ultimately be vindicated.
ASOG gets access to machines
Of all the ways in which Ramsland pushed the stolen-election narrative, arguably the most damaging was an ASOG report on Dominion machines in Michigan’s rural Antrim County, said Masterson, the senior cybersecurity adviser who was then focusing on elections at DHS.
Antrim County became ground zero for baseless claims about Dominion voting machines when, early on Nov. 4, county officials posted unofficial results showing Biden winning by some 3,000 votes — a seeming impossibility in a reliably conservative region. Election officials quickly acknowledged the mistake and called it human error, saying a clerk’s failure to correctly update software had led to inaccurate vote totals. Final results showed Trump had won by more than 3,000 votes.
Trump allies seized on the mistake as evidence of rigged or at least faulty voting machines. RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel claimed at a news conference that a “major software issue in Antrim County” could mean results were wrong in other counties using similar technology. Trump tweeted a Breitbart article that sought to tie Dominion software to the error that made Antrim “flip blue in favor of Joe Biden” and to Election Day “glitches” that delayed voting in two Georgia counties.
The following day on Fox News, Powell said that computer glitches were “where the fraud took place, where they were flipping votes in the computer system or adding votes that did not exist.” She called for an audit “of all of the computer systems that ... played any role in this fraud whatsoever.”
Powell’s wish for an examination of voting machines was granted after local real estate agent William Bailey filed a lawsuit in Antrim County on Nov. 23, alleging that the election had been marred by “material fraud or error.” Four days later, an ASOG team working for Bailey showed up at the offices of three Antrim townships and requested Dominion voting-machine records.
On Dec. 4, Judge Kevin A. Elsenheimer, a former Republican leader in the Michigan legislature, ordered that the ASOG team be given further access to the county’s voting equipment for a forensic examination. The decision, which offered a rare opportunity for election skeptics to examine Dominion machines, was celebrated by Trump’s campaign.
“BIG WIN FOR HONEST ELECTIONS,” Giuliani said on Twitter.
Jenna Ellis, a senior legal adviser to Trump, referred to the ASOG examiners as “our team” on Fox News. Ellis did not respond to requests to clarify the Trump campaign’s relationship with ASOG.
The ASOG team returned to Antrim on Dec. 6 to examine county election equipment. ASOG’s Dec. 13 report, signed by Ramsland, made sweeping allegations about a conspiracy to fix the election. It claimed that Dominion’s systems were “intentionally and purposefully designed” to generate ballot errors and then to shunt those ballots to electronic adjudication, where administrators could change votes at will, with no oversight.
The judge allowed the release of a redacted version on Dec. 14, the day members of the electoral college met to make Biden’s win official. Trump tweeted about ASOG’s report several times, claiming it exposed a “massive fraud” that cost him the election and saying Elsenheimer “should get a medal” for releasing it.
ASOG’s report claimed that audit logs for Dominion machines showed an alarming 68 percent “error rate.”
That alleged error rate — which ASOG calculated by dividing the number of perceived error messages by the total numbers of lines in the audit log — was “meaningless,” according to an analysis by J. Alex Halderman, a University of Michigan professor of computer science and engineering. Halderman, who as part of the lawsuit examined the Antrim results and the ASOG report at the request of the Michigan secretary of state and attorney general, wrote that audit logs record multiple lines for each ballot scanned and that many of those lines are “benign warnings or errors” that have no bearing on the accuracy of the machines’ count.
For example, he said, ASOG appeared to count the warning “ballot has been reversed” as an error that showed votes had been tampered with. But that entry means that a voter attempted to feed his ballot into the machine and the machine balked and spit it out — just as a vending machine often balks at a wrinkled dollar bill. That happens all the time, Halderman wrote.
Of ASOG’s claim that many ballots were sent to electronic “adjudication,” where they were manipulated, Halderman said his examination showed that Antrim County did not perform electronic adjudication of ballots at all. Halderman said that ASOG had correctly identified some security weaknesses in the county’s election system, but there was no evidence that anyone had exploited those weaknesses.
“The report contains an extraordinary number of false, inaccurate, or unsubstantiated statements and conclusions,” he wrote.
County and state officials, as well as Dominion, also said key claims in ASOG’s report were baseless.
Ramsland told The Post that ASOG had just six days to do its report and that Halderman’s analysis contradicted only 12 of ASOG’s 29 “core observations.”
Three days after the court released the report, a hand recount of the county’s ballots showed that the presidential election results were correct, off from the previously reported results by only 12 votes out of some 16,000 cast. Dominion’s machines had counted accurately.
“The tabulators did what they were supposed to do, and they did it very accurately, and there’s absolutely no evidence that there was some reverse cyberattack that manipulated them,” said Michigan state Sen. Ed McBroom, a Republican who led a state Senate investigation of fraud claims. The ASOG report, he said, was “probably more harmful to the discussion” than anything else happening in Michigan at the time.
“I don’t see how anybody can take Mr. Ramsland and his group seriously as genuine purveyors of fact,” he said. “It’s very clear they’re beyond mistaken and misrepresenting what actually happened, either out of carelessness or with some sort of purpose.”
At his “Save America” rally in Washington on Jan. 6, Trump made reference to Antrim County and “the troubling matter of Dominion Voting Systems” as an example of how he had been wronged.
“In one Michigan county alone, 6,000 votes were switched from Trump to Biden,” he said. He also repeated Ramsland’s claim that there were more votes than voters in Detroit. “In Detroit, turnout was 139 percent of registered voters,” he said. “Think of that.”
He called the Nov. 3 vote “the most corrupt election in the history, maybe, of the world,” and then urged his supporters to march to the Capitol. By the thousands, they complied.
Alice Crites, Kayla Ruble and Scott Clement contributed to this report.