The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump ties his unfounded allegations of voter fraud in Florida to his Russia conspiracy theory

President Trump on Nov. 9 said “there is a lot of dishonesty” in Florida’s vote-counting and slammed Arizona for finding votes “out of the wilderness.” (Video: The Washington Post)

Gov. Rick Scott’s (R-Fla.) dwindling lead in Florida’s Senate race has spurred no small amount of alarm within his campaign and his party.

The GOP filed a lawsuit on Thursday hoping to halt vote-counting in Broward County, where updated totals have moved incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) into position for an automatic recount. Scott, in a news conference, and President Trump, in a tweet, alleged that the drop in vote totals was a function of voter fraud.

The vote-counting drama in Florida is just the start

It’s important to note that there is no evidence that the votes being counted in Broward County are anything other than legitimate votes cast by Florida voters. As is often the case with allegations of voter fraud, critics are pointing to past questions about the elections administrator and nefarious-seeming things, like the discovery of a box of ballots by a teacher at a school, as evidence of fraud.

There’s an obvious benefit to Scott and the Republican Party in using whiffs of smoke to imply that Broward (and Palm Beach County) are trying to unfairly shift the results of the election. The more obvious attempt by a state official to affect the results of the vote is, of course, Scott’s own criticism of a recount.

On his way to Andrews Air Force Base for a trip to Paris on Friday morning, Trump addressed the allegations.

“If you look at Broward County, they have had a horrible history,” he said and then criticized the Broward elections administrator. “And all of a sudden, they’re finding votes out of nowhere. And Rick Scott, who won by — you know, it was close, but he won by a comfortable margin. Every couple of hours it goes down a little bit.”

That part about Scott winning is not true. At the end of election night, he had a lead — but all of the votes hadn’t been counted. This is something with which Trump should be familiar: At the end of election night in 2016, he and Hillary Clinton were essentially tied in the popular vote, but vote-counting, particularly in California, soon had him down by a wide margin. No one wins until all the votes are counted, and on election night, not all of the votes were counted. (The University of Florida’s Daniel Smith notes that many votes remaining to be counted will come from overseas or members of the military.)

Trump says he doesn’t know his new acting AG, hasn’t talked to him about Russia probe

Trump also tied his voter-fraud conspiracy theory into another conspiracy theory: the “witch hunt” Russia investigation.

“And then you see the people, and they were involved in that fraud of the, the fake dossier, the phony dossier,” he said. “And I guess they hear they were somehow involved or work with the GPS Fusion people, who have committed — I mean, you look at what they’ve done. You look at the dishonesty.”

NBC’s Peter Alexander later pressed Trump on his assertions about voter fraud, and Trump mentioned the firm Fusion GPS again.

“Do you have evidence of fraud?” Alexander asked.

“I don’t know, you tell me,” Trump replied. “It’s always the Democrats. It’s always GPS Fusion. It’s always crooked stuff.”

Fusion GPS is a research firm that was hired in 2016 by the law firm Perkins Coie, which represented the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign, to investigate Trump’s possible ties to Russia. Fusion GPS then hired former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who then compiled a set of unverified reports from his sources in Russia that hinted at collusion between the Russian government and the Trump presidential campaign.

Those reports were compiled into a dossier that was released in January 2017 by BuzzFeed news. Trump and his allies have seized on the dossier’s unverified and salacious elements to suggest that the entire investigation into Trump’s campaign and Russian interference is itself unfounded. Fusion GPS, in other words, is a central player in Trump’s narrative about how the Russia investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is unwarranted or improper.

How did Fusion GPS get rolled into the Florida recount? Probably via Fox News. Media Matters transcribed Fox host Sean Hannity’s show on Thursday night, shortly after Scott issued his accusations against elections administrators in Broward.

HANNITY: On Election Day, you were up 57,000 votes. What is the number now?
SCOTT: Now it’s down to 15,000 votes, so it’s clear we got some left-wing activists, we have got some Democratic D.C. Lawyers, they’re down here for one purpose, to steal this election. ...
HANNITY: I cannot -- to me, this is the single biggest abuse of power in an election I have seen, and they have Marc Elias the guy at the heart of the whole Perkins Coie, Fusion GPS, Clinton bought and paid for dossier, leading the way?
SCOTT: Yep. I mean, they are down here, he is down here for one purpose, to steal this election.

Again, the change in the vote margin is a natural function of counting votes, not an indication of a conspiracy. But Hannity’s introduction of Fusion GPS into the mix is the important part of the dialogue.

The Washington Post first reported on the connection between Perkins Coie and the dossier in October 2017. It was Elias who hired Fusion GPS, in his capacity as an attorney for the campaign. Elias has served as an attorney for a number of Democratic campaigns, including Nelson’s. The link from Broward County to Fusion GPS, then, goes like this:

  1. Broward County is counting ballots.
  2. Those votes, coming from a heavily Democratic area, are benefiting Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson’s campaign.
  3. Nelson’s campaign attorney once worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
  4. During that period, he hired Fusion GPS.
  5. Fusion GPS hired Christopher Steele.
  6. Steele compiled a series of reports alleging links between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government.

Therefore, according to Trump, the vote count in Broward is perhaps being influenced by “dishonest” Fusion GPS.

It’s a bit like a man arguing that his ex-wife is connected to the mob because her divorce attorney once worked for a crime boss. There’s no evidence of voter fraud broadly, as Trump acknowledged. The mention of Fusion GPS, like Hannity’s invocation of it, is just meant to sully the entire vote-counting process. It’s meant to influence the court of public opinion — specifically, Trump supporters.

Asked about the Russia investigation on Friday, Trump again linked it to vote-counting in Florida.

“This was a thing set up by the Democrats,” he said, “just like they set up other things, when you look at what’s going on in Florida, when you look at what’s going on in lots of different locations.”

Trump didn’t identify those other locations.

Later, en route to Europe, he tweeted: “You mean they are just now finding votes in Florida and Georgia - but the Election was on Tuesday? Let’s blame the Russians and demand an immediate apology from President Putin!”