The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A top GOP prosecutor said Trump lost. Running for Senate, he has a new message.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich speaks at a news conference in Phoenix on Jan. 7, 2020. (Bob Christie/AP)
9 min

As false claims of a stolen election took root in 2020, Arizona’s attorney general — a Republican — spoke out on national television. President Donald Trump was projected to lose the swing state, he said on Nov. 11, and “no facts” suggested that would change.

This month Mark Brnovich called into a far-right podcast with a different message: His investigation into the vote was turning up “serious concerns.”

“It’s frustrating for all of us, because I think we all know what happened in 2020,” the attorney general told the host, former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, without explaining what he meant. The podcast titled the segment “AZ AG On Interim Report On Stealing The 2020 Election.”

Many GOP candidates have embraced the former president’s false election claims while seeking a coveted endorsement in their 2022 primary races. But Brnovich, now running for the Senate, stands out for his shift over the past year and a half. His Senate campaign has highlighted his ongoing review of the 2020 vote, launched last year in response to a widely ridiculed audit commissioned by state GOP lawmakers.

More than 10 months after leaving office, former president Donald Trump maintains a powerful hold over the Republican Party. (Video: Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post)

Critics say Brnovich has caved to promoters of disinformation for political gain in the Republican primary. Calculated choices to keep fanning Trump’s grievances mean more misinformed voters, more distractions for election workers and more questions about who will stick up for democracy in the future, said Tammy Patrick, a former elections official in Arizona’s biggest battleground, Maricopa County.

“If no one is held responsible for lying … or undermining confidence based on their own greed and, you know, desire for power to either be elected or be reelected — if no one is held accountable for those actions, then we are in real trouble right now,” said Patrick, who now works with the nonpartisan group Democracy Fund.

Brnovich’s comments on the election are hardly the most extreme among Arizona’s midterm candidates. He has not called to decertify results or end the state’s long tradition of mail-in voting, like prominent GOP contenders for governor and secretary of state. But coming from Arizona’s top legal officer, Brnovich’s words hold particular weight.

In a campaign email this week, Brnovich said his office found nearly a fifth of early ballots in Maricopa County were “transported outside the chain of custody”; in fact, his report found missing information on paperwork but offered no evidence that ballots left the proper hands. On Bannon’s podcast, he claimed the county uses artificial intelligence to verify ballot signatures; in fact, every signature is verified by election staff.

“As his investigators could have told him if he asked,” tweeted Stephen Richer, a top elections official for Maricopa County and a Republican. “Unreal.” Democrat Adrian Fontes — who held Richer’s office in 2020 — said in an interview that Brnovich was emblematic of the GOP and that “political cowardice doesn’t surprise me anymore.”

The attorney general’s office referred most questions to Brnovich’s campaign, which did not respond to requests for comment.

“From his days prosecuting gang and public integrity cases, to his current tenure as Attorney General, Mark Brnovich’s record of upholding the rule of law is beyond reproach,” said Katie Conner, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, in a statement. “Our Office remains dedicated to the integrity of the investigation, not with responding to political or social media chatter.”

She did not respond to a question about whether Brnovich believes Biden fairly won the election.

Brnovich announced his campaign for Senate last June, as Arizona’s partisan audit was in full swing. “I understand there are a lot of people who are frustrated and have questioned the results of the last election, and to me, that speaks to the need for confidence in the system and the need for election integrity measures,” he told the Phoenix-area news radio station KTAR in July. The five-month spectacle — which election experts called deeply flawed — affirmed Biden’s win in Maricopa County but also provided new fuel for baseless theories.

The GOP-led Arizona Senate enlisted a Florida-based company called Cyber Ninjas with no prior experience auditing elections and a chief executive who promoted claims the 2020 vote was tainted by fraud. The recount of more than 2 million ballots included UV lights and a hunt for traces of bamboo.

When the state Senate shared an audit report in September, Brnovich said it raised “serious questions” and began his own review. This month — under growing pressure from the right to show results — he released an interim report that laid out voting “vulnerabilities” but described only isolated cases of fraud.

Some of Trump’s most ardent supporters were unimpressed.

“I don’t like letters,” tweeted far-right state Sen. Wendy Rogers (R). “I like arrests and prosecutions.” Trump weighed in scathingly Monday, saying the attorney general was choosing “non-controversy” and all but ruling him out for an endorsement.

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Soon Blake Masters, one of Brnovich’s opponents in the GOP Senate primary, was on “War Room,” the same podcast where Brnovich had promoted his election investigation.

“I don’t think Brnovich’s heart was in it,” said Masters, a venture capitalist who was part of Trump’s presidential transition team.

He asked why county leaders were not in handcuffs.

Many Republican primary candidates have leaned into false claims about the 2020 election while banking on the support of the president and his loyal followers. In Georgia, Trump-endorsed gubernatorial candidate David Perdue has amped up his rhetoric this year, falsely claiming that both his Senate race and the presidential race were “stolen.” Around the country, officials who helped run the 2020 election and certify its results have drawn challengers who repeat Trump’s falsehoods.

Much rarer: GOP candidates who went on the record affirming Biden’s win but have now backtracked. When The Washington Post asked every Republican member of Congress who won the election in late 2020, most did not have a clear position.

Zachery Henry, a former communications director for the Arizona Republican Party, said Brnovich had a strong conservative track record as attorney general and argued he would have been the clear front-runner to challenge Sen. Mark Kelly (D) if he had not come out early defending the election.

“I’m sure there are other Republicans who felt similarly to him and just were never asked publicly,” said Lorna Romero, a conservative political consultant. “And then now they’ve kind of changed their tune. … I guarantee you there’s plenty of Republicans out there that saw that there was a massive groundswell and a good fundraising opportunity.”

Brnovich’s election report from this month was critical of Maricopa County’s voting processes, echoing Republican pushes around the country for “election integrity” measures that others call unnecessary. He suggested early-ballot signatures were processed too quickly; said hundreds of ballot transport forms were missing required information; and alleged that election departments’ use of private grant money raised “serious concerns,” without providing details. In a statement, two Republican Maricopa County leaders said there was “no new evidence, nothing that would have changed the results, and nothing that should lead people to question the overall health of our electoral system.”

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Joining the “War Room” podcast on April 7, Brnovich added another criticism: He said the county had recently “admitted” to using artificial intelligence to authenticate signatures on early ballots. Local election officials had actually emphasized the opposite in a February response to Brnovich’s office — “To clarify, all signatures are verified by a human and not a computer or software.”

“They’re now copping to, ‘It’s artificial intelligence and not human,’” said the podcast host, Bannon. “Is that as big a deal as it seems, sir?”

“I think it is, Steve,” Brnovich said. “I mean, I will let people draw their own conclusions.”

Richer, the Maricopa County recorder, tweeted his outrage: “Omitting material information … is not how prosecutorial ethics works,” he said. In an open letter last year to fellow Republicans, Richer had urged his party to move on from Trump’s 2020 grievances and named Brnovich as a GOP leader who agreed the election was not rigged.

Asked whether Richer thought Brnovich should face a formal misconduct complaint, a spokesman, Marcus Milam, said the recorder had no further comment.

All lawyers are generally “required to avoid dishonesty,” but they are most often disciplined for their actions in court, said Keith Swisher, a legal ethics professor at the University of Arizona.

Conner, the spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, declined to specify what technology Brnovich took issue with. “We have never said that signatures were verified exclusively by AI,” she said.

In an email, county officials had described a “scan” that categorizes signatures as high or low confidence. But they said workers are trained to “analyze all [signatures] the same regardless.”

Megan Gilbertson, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Elections Department, told The Post that scanning technology is not used for verification but helps staff get unsigned envelopes to managers more quickly.

Patrick, the adviser at Democracy Fund, is intimately familiar with the processes Brnovich criticized. Working Maricopa County elections for more than a decade, she said, she did thousands of signature reviews and audited the safeguards in place for moving ballots.

“And sometimes people forget to sign one portion of the form … because elections are conducted by people, for people,” she said. “And people make mistakes.”

Brnovich could have been a “lightning rod,” she argued, someone who took in the disinformation roiling the Arizona GOP and tried to neutralize it.

Instead he veered toward conspiracy theories, she said. “It kind of breaks my heart.”