The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump allies facing legal threats yet again back off voter fraud claims

Dominion Voting Systems sued Fox News for $1.6 billion on March 26, 2021, for repeated false claims about election fraud made by the network’s hosts and guests. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Among the many wild conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, few rank as high when it comes to both baselessness and reach as those involving voting machines. The theory that voting machines were programmed or manipulated to steal the election from then-President Trump had the benefit (while being utterly without merit) of at least being simple and easy for people to grasp.

Unfortunately for their proponents, these theories carry one very significant drawback: legal liability. While broad claims of voter fraud are relatively unspecific, there are relatively few voting-machine companies and people handling votes. Making such claims impugns them specifically and creates a situation in which those assertions can lead to calculable personal and business harm, which is important when it comes to suing someone for defamation. Such claims have also put the lawyers who promoted them at risk of incurring professional sanctions.

The result: Many of the high-profile purveyors of such claims have since backed off, issuing corrections, clarifications or apologies.

And those continue through today. On Monday, One America News ran yet another awkward clarifying segment, apparently in response to a settlement reached with two election workers in Georgia who said they were targeted after the pro-Trump outlet accused them of illegality.

Ruby Freeman and Wandrea “Shaye” Moss sued after pro-Trump lawyers and One America News promoted a video of them supposedly stuffing ballots from hidden containers in Fulton County, Ga. — a claim that had been quickly debunked but that the Trump allies continued to circulate.

In one segment listed in the lawsuit, the two women are identified by name, with an OAN reporter saying, “During this time, Ruby Freeman, as seen here in this video, repeatedly scanned the same batch of ballots at least three times, which is highly illegal, and it’s all captured on tape. Freeman was working with her daughter, Wandrea Moss …”

In a brief segment Monday, OAN acknowledged, “Georgia officials have concluded that there was no widespread voter fraud by election workers who counted ballots at the State Farm Arena in November 2020.” It added, while citing the settlement: “The results of this investigation indicate that Ruby Freeman and Wandrea ‘Shaye’ Moss did not engage in ballot fraud or criminal misconduct while working at State Farm Arena on election night.”

Some true believers viewed these lawsuits as opportunities to prove malfeasance once and for all, through the discovery process. But lawyers and media outlets facing penalties have repeatedly left them high and dry — almost as if the theories were completely baseless in the first place and they didn’t have a leg to stand on.

Below is a timeline of how such claims have been effectively disowned or downgraded by those disseminating them.

Dec. 18-20, 2020: Fox News and Fox Business Network run a deposition-esque segment featuring an expert dismissing various voting-machine claims on three shows that had featured such assertions, after voting technology company Smartmatic issued a legal demand letter. (Fox would later part ways with one of the hosts, Lou Dobbs.)

Dec. 20-21, 2020: Newsmax posts a statement, which a host reads on-air, clarifying that the channel has not proved such claims, while arguing that it also hadn’t stated the claims as true.

Feb. 2, 2021: Newsmax attempts to stop MyPillow CEO and Trump supporter Mike Lindell from making claims about Dominion during an interview. A host reads a legal disclaimer while talking over Lindell and later walks off the set when Lindell refuses to yield. “We just want to let people know that there’s nothing substantive that we have seen,” the host says.

Jan. 15, 2021: The right-wing American Thinker blog issues a full-throated apology and retraction of voting-machine stories written by four authors, calling the sources behind them “discredited” and saying their “statements are completely false and have no basis in fact.”

Jan. 20, 2021: It is reported that One America News, despite criticizing its competitor Newsmax for caving to legal pressure, removed a number of stories about voting machines from its website, without formally retracting them.

Feb. 1, 2021: In a New York Times story, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel acknowledges that she worried about legal liability from the RNC hosting a news conference in which Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell made various unproven claims about the election.

Feb. 4, 2021: WABC, the radio station that hosts Giuliani’s show, runs a disclaimer distancing itself from claims made on his show. Giuliani says he was unaware the disclaimer would be aired, labeling it “rather insulting.”

Feb. 5, 2021: While airing Lindell’s documentary, OAN runs an extensive disclaimer. Despite Lindell claiming “absolute proof” — and that being the actual title of the documentary — OAN says claims in the documentary “are not intended to be taken or interpreted by the viewer as established facts.”

March 22, 2021: Powell files a motion to dismiss Dominion’s lawsuit against her. But rather than standing by her claims, she says that “reasonable people” wouldn’t take them as fact and that she was merely acting as a legal advocate. This despite Powell having said repeatedly that she had irrefutable proof backing up her claims, frequently labeling the release of such information the “Kraken.”

April 28, 2021: A lawsuit brought by eight voters claiming a massive conspiracy involving Dominion and various state officials is dismissed. A judge dismisses the case because the plaintiffs didn’t have standing to bring it, but also notes there are myriad reasons to dismiss the case and adds that the plaintiffs “have voluntarily dismissed the claims against the various state officials” in the alleged conspiracy.

April 30, 2021: Newsmax releases a statement apologizing to Eric Coomer, a top official at Dominion Voting Systems, who filed a lawsuit against Newsmax in December. The channel disowns claims made about Coomer that he interfered with voting machines and had ties to antifa. “Newsmax subsequently found no evidence that such allegations were true,” the apology says. “Many of the states whose results were contested by the Trump campaign after the November 2020 election have conducted extensive recounts and audits, and each of these states certified the results as legal and final.”

May 18, 2021: In a court filing in Dominion’s lawsuit in Delaware, Fox News claims that it was merely presenting the allegations and that it covered them critically.

June 12, 2021: Newsmax again issues a statement distancing itself from Lindell’s claims after Lindell attacks its coverage. “Newsmax has reported aggressively on President Trump and his campaign’s allegations, but any conclusions we make must be backed up by actual evidence of wrongdoing,” Newsmax said. “Our job is to report the facts as we know them, and that will make some folks unhappy.”

June 24, 2021: A federal judge challenges Powell’s lawyer about Powell’s claim to have video evidence of Dominion’s founder saying his technology could change a million votes. (The video was never produced.) “You’ve conceded there is no such video,” the judge said. Powell’s attorney Howard Kleinhendler, though, declines to confirm or deny the existence of such a video. “I don’t want to concede anything,” Kleinhendler says.

July 11, 2021: Fox News runs an unusual disclaimer during Trump’s speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, making clear that voting-machine companies have denied his allegations. “The voting system companies have denied the various allegations made by President Trump and his counsel regarding the 2020 election,” the chyron said. What was particularly interesting about this is that Trump didn’t even specifically cite voting machines. He instead referred obliquely to the idea of malfeasance on election night, saying he had done so well “that they just said the hell with it, let it go.”

July 12, 2021: Pro-Trump lawyer L. Lin Wood claims to a federal judge in Michigan that he was not involved in a desperate lawsuit filed in that state that involved voting machines — despite his name appearing in court documents. “I just didn’t have anything to do with this,” Wood said during a hearing on potential legal sanctions for him and other lawyers who pushed false claims. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) summarizes Wood’s claim sarcastically: “Strong argument to make when one believes in the strength and righteousness of their case.”

Feb. 7, 2022: While fighting against sanctions against her legal career, Powell concedes that “perhaps” what she had been saying hadn’t actually been true. “Millions of Americans believe the central contentions of the complaint to be true,” a court filing says, “and perhaps they are.”

May 9, 2022: OAN runs a clarifying segment acknowledging, “Georgia officials have concluded that there was no widespread voter fraud by election workers who counted ballots at the State Farm Arena in November 2020.” It adds, citing a legal settlement between it and Freeman and Moss, “The results of this investigation indicate that Ruby Freeman and Wandrea ‘Shaye’ Moss did not engage in ballot fraud or criminal misconduct.”

This post has been updated.