By late December and early January, it became clear just how desperate President Donald Trump and his team were to grab hold of something — anything — that could genuinely cast doubt on his election defeat. They had lost in court over and over again. A Supreme Court one-third full of Trump appointees turned them away. The “Kraken” that Sidney Powell promised never arrived. And we were just days away from Congress formally accepting Joe Biden’s victory.
This desperate time apparently called for extremely desperate measures. And that’s precisely what arrived in the inboxes of top Justice Department officials.
The House Oversight Committee on Tuesday released a batch of emails detailing the Trump team’s efforts to get the agency to investigate baseless theories of voter fraud. The emails fill out the overwhelming picture of a president and a White House with almost no regard for the traditional lines between the White House and the Justice Department, particularly when it came to matters involving Trump personally.
That the Trump team would grow particularly desperate with Trump about to lose his grip on the presidency, once and for all, perhaps shouldn’t be surprising. But even in that context, some of the emails are gobsmacking. (The Washington Post’s Philip Bump has a good rundown here.)
Leading that list by a country mile is a theory you probably haven’t heard of. It literally involves Italian satellites allegedly being used to fix the election.
On Jan. 1, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows forwarded acting attorney general Jeffrey A. Rosen a YouTube video of a former intelligence officer named Brad Johnson detailing what has been dubbed the “Italygate” conspiracy theory. (The New York Times reported some of the details of the correspondence last week. The video has been removed from YouTube for violating its community guidelines.)
Rosen shared the email with acting deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue, who replied, in full, “Pure insanity.”
Rosen seemed to agree with that characterization, replying that he had become aware Johnson was working with Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and that he had been asked to meet with Johnson. He said he declined to do so.
“Yes. After this message, I was asked to have FBI meet with Brad Johnson, and I responded that Johnson could call or walk into FBI’s Washington Field Office with any evidence he purports to have,” Rosen said. He added: “Asked if I would reconsider, I flatly refused, said I would not be giving any special treatment to Giuliani or any of his ‘witnesses’, and re-affirmed yet again that I will not talk to Giuliani about any of this.”
Two days before, Meadows had also sent Rosen a translated letter purportedly from an aerospace executive named Carlo Goria which also detailed — in Italian and then translated into English — a plot to rig the election involving Italy.
In other words, there’s plenty of evidence this wasn’t just some random YouTube video the White House forwarded to the acting attorney general; there was a push behind it by the Trump team, and the White House itself became involved. Rosen doesn’t say who requested that he talk to Johnson, but the request apparently came in the short period of time between him forwarding the email to Donoghue at 3:22 p.m. and him responding to Donoghue at 7:13 p.m. Again, that points to a concerted effort.
The Jan. 1 emails were also among a series from Meadows that afternoon asking the Justice Department to look into specific matters, including claims by the New Mexico Republican Party chairman and other theories that had been debunked and rejected in court.
The Italygate idea is certainly the most obscure among the theories, though. Essentially, it holds that people connected to the Italian defense firm Leonardo used satellites to change the votes cast in the 2020 election from Trump to Biden. This is used to explain the large gains Biden reaped from late-night vote tabulations in urban centers in key states — a claim for which there is really no actual suspicion because it is easily explained by the voting methods used (mail ballots, used significantly more by Democrats) and where the votes came from (urban centers, which are overwhelmingly Democratic).
Both Reuters and USA Today fact-checked the conspiracy theory around the time of Meadows’s email, based upon social media postings and other far-flung claims (before we had any idea how it had penetrated 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue). It found both that they were baseless and that many claims involved didn’t hold up at all.
First, hand recounts of the ballot have validated the results. Second, the theory cites employees of Leonardo who were arrested in December as potentially being related, but they were arrested for alleged offenses between 2015 and 2017. Third, the theory cites an Italian general who supposedly serves on the board of Leonardo, but that appears to be false. And fourth, a news release promoting the theory about one of those employees testifying to the conspiracy has been refuted by the man’s lawyer:
The news release, which claims to have come from Rome on Jan. 5, alleges that an employee of the Italian defense, security and aerospace company Leonardo SpA “provided a shocking deposition detailing his role in the most elaborate criminal act affecting a US election.” It names Arturo D’Elia as the employee and states that he “outlined the scheme that proved successful in using Leonardo computer systems and military satellites located in Pescara, Italy” to interfere in the U.S. election in favor of Joe Biden....Reuters spoke via phone with D’Elia’s lawyer Nicola Naponiello, who previously provided Reuters with comment for the Dec. 22 report on the Leonardo investigation. Naponiello said that when his client was questioned by Naples prosecutors on Jan. 12, he denied any involvement in an alleged plan to change the outcome of U.S elections. According to Naponiello, who was assisting his client during the questioning, D’Elia called any allegations of his involvement in a plan against Trump “pure fantasy.”
The theory was relatively well-trafficked in certain corners of social media in December and January, but has since died down for perhaps obvious reasons. That it rose to the level of the White House chief of staff promoting it to the top law enforcement official in the country is certainly a commentary on the soil the Trump team was tilling for anything to latch on to. This was after all a theory that Trump, whose appetite for self-serving and dubious theories knew few bounds, didn’t even promote publicly.
A little more than an hour after Meadows saw fit to share this with Rosen, he followed up on another thread focused on supposed “signature matching anomalies in Fulton county, Ga.” This had been dealt with repeatedly, but Meadows was still on it, asking Rosen to task a specific official (Jeffrey Clark, whom the Trump team would later consider replacing Rosen with) with looking into it.
“Can you believe this?” Rosen wrote to Donoghue. “I am not going to respond to the message below.”
Donoghue responded: “At least it’s better than the last one, but that doesn’t say much.”