That attorney, Justin Riemer, emailed then-GOP spokesman Liz Harrington with the apparent aim of pulling the party back from any endorsement of the Giuliani-Ellis effort.
“What Rudy and Jenna are doing is a joke and they are getting laughed out of court,” Riemer wrote on Nov. 28, a bit over a week after a disastrous news conference at Republican Party headquarters in Washington focused on the issue. “It’s setting us back in our fight for election integrity, and they are misleading millions of people who have wishful thinking that the president is going to somehow win this thing.”
Harrington, who had herself promoted obviously false claims about the election, seems not to have been a sympathetic audience. (She is now Trump’s spokesman.) The email got to Ellis, who was reportedly dining with Giuliani, who, in turn, demanded that Riemer be fired. The RNC denied the report. During her Newsmax show on Monday (of course she has a Newsmax show), Ellis dramatically announced that she was leaving the party, objecting primarily to its failure to stand with Trump’s claims about election fraud.
But, of course, Riemer was absolutely right. The Ellis-Giuliani — and, at the time, -Sidney Powell — effort was ridiculous and unfounded. It did mislead millions, with a majority of Republicans still indicating that they think the election was stolen, which is obviously not true. And Riemer is also right that the pro-Trump effort was in conflict with GOP efforts to focus on “election integrity,” a strategy that recently has manifested in attempts to use questions about the election to pass new laws focused on restricting voting access.
Since the election was called, in fact, the response to Trump’s loss has followed those two tracks. The Trump die-hards demand that his complaints be taken seriously, meaning his false claims be taken seriously. Call this the conspiracy theory track. Other Republican officials, wary of upsetting Trump’s base of support, have tried to channel the base’s frustration into criticisms of the process, using that to introduce new laws. This is the voting process track. We saw this divide emerge explicitly in the days before the violence on Jan. 6. People like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) tried to thread the needle by objecting to the finalization of the electoral vote totals (appeasing the base) while arguing that they were doing so because of concerns about process (adhering more to reality). That has been the pattern since — but the two tracks are increasingly diverging.
In part that’s because the claims of rampant fraud have repeatedly been shown as being hollow. Legislators in Texas hoping to overhaul the state’s voting laws — in ways that will likely disadvantage Democrats — heard testimony over the weekend that there had been no significant fraud in the 2020 election.
“I don’t think we have any evidence of actual fraud,” Keith Ingram, the head of the Texas secretary of state’s Elections Division, testified. Nothing he had seen, he said, rose to the level of fraud.
That holds true nationally. When I reviewed news reports in early May, I found fewer than two dozen instances in which people allegedly cast illegal votes. Repeated efforts to turn up scads of illegally cast votes have come up completely empty. There is no shortage of allegations about illegal votes being cast but no evidence that this has happened at any significant scale or with any devious intent.
But Trump and his allies keep trying. In a speech over the weekend, Trump touted that the state of Georgia had “found 35,000 votes,” implying the results in that state were suspect. That claim derives from a story at the far-right blog the Federalist, in which the proof of the “illegal votes” involve an independent analysis suggesting that many Georgians cast votes in Georgia counties other than the ones in which they live. It’s a good example of where the voting process and massive fraud conspiracy tracks overlap, with an (unproven) instance of the former being used to bolster the latter, to the Federalist’s page-view benefit. But it’s not an example of rampant illegal voting of the type Trump claims cost him the election, and which has been rejected by his former attorney general, the leader of his party’s caucus in the Senate, members of his party in Congress, Republicans in state legislatures, executive-level Republican officials in various states and every objective independent observer.
What’s been interesting to observe is how, for many, the issue comes down to fealty for Trump. At its heart, Ellis’s objection was not about the claims of fraud as much as the reticence some in the party had to embracing them. A viral Twitter thread over the weekend was explicit in linking acceptance of the false claims of fraud to a rejection of criticism of Trump. At the same time, many of Trump’s most loyal followers and allies are energetically trying to prove him right, backing the ludicrously tainted election review in Arizona and advocating for similar efforts elsewhere.
In Pennsylvania, state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R) has pushed for a similar effort. He has repeatedly endorsed debunked conspiracy theories about fraud, has promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory on social media and was near the Capitol on Jan. 6. While Republicans in his state’s legislature move forward with legislation focused on overhauling voting laws — the technical problems track — Mastriano is running down his own path, and earning media attention, including on Newsmax, for doing so.
The role of conservative media here is important. In March, PRRI and Interfaith Youth Core conducted a national poll asking Americans their opinions on a range of current issues and surveying them on their news consumption habits. In that poll, about a quarter of Republicans said that their most trusted source of television news was Fox News. Three in 10 said it was mainstream sources like broadcast news or public television. But nearly half said either that they didn’t watch TV news, relying mostly on online sources, or that they watched other networks further to the right of Fox, volunteering both Newsmax and One America News.
That survey found a correlation between how Republicans got their news and what they believed. The vast majority of Fox and far-right-network viewers believed that the 2020 election was stolen (which, again, it wasn’t). Viewers of those far-right outlets, like Ellis’s Newsmax, were also more likely to say they believed in the core tenet of the QAnon conspiracy — the mind-boggling claim that “government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking operation” — and less likely to say they had been or planned to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Shortly after the election, Tony Fabrizio, one of the pollsters the former president used in his campaign, unveiled a delineation of the GOP into five groups, ranging from the Never Trumpers (about 15 percent of Republicans) to the Infowars GOP (10 percent), which eagerly accepted even the wildest conspiracy theories. Most Republicans fell into categories expressing support — often strong support — for Trump, but without the same divergence into fantasy. But election fraud is an exception, as polling has reportedly made clear. The question is not whether Republicans believe the false claims about fraud; instead, it’s how they choose to respond.
In theory, it’s been a rough few weeks for the election-fraud-was-rampant camp. Sidney Powell and other pro-Trump attorneys were chastised in court for their claims about the election. Giuliani has been disbarred. No evidence of fraud has emerged, and even Republicans have been critical of the effort in Arizona. But the beauty of conspiracy theories is that they generally derive from a rejection of rationality and therefore are immune to rational argument. The challenge for the party is that the 10 percent of Republicans who embrace conspiracies, overlapping with the 7 percent who watch far-right networks, will continue to press their rootless claims. The further challenge is that they’ll pull more Republicans down their path than the technical issues one that the party itself endorses.
After all, you’ve already got millions of Republicans believing false claims about what happened in the election, as Riemer warned. Who are they going to listen to moving forward, Ronna McDaniel or Newsmax’s Jenna Ellis?