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A new lens into Maria Bartiromo’s embrace of 2020 conspiracy theories

Maria Bartiromo at the Fox Business Network studios in New York on Jan. 10, 2020. (Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)
10 min

It was obvious that Fox Business and Fox News host Maria Bartiromo was willing to entertain false theories about fraud in the 2020 presidential election. A month before Election Day, she hosted President Donald Trump for a full hour in which he delineated various untrue claims about the risk of fraud from mail-in ballots, rhetoric that Bartiromo didn’t challenge at all. Weeks after Joe Biden was declared the winner — including by Bartiromo’s employer — she again gave Trump extended airtime to allege unproven illegalities and describe evidence-free conspiracies.

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But the extent to which Bartiromo flirted with the delusional world of alleged criminality is perhaps best demonstrated in an email obtained by Dominion Voting Systems as part of its $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox. Electronic voting machines made by Dominion were a frequent target of conspiracy theorizing in the weeks after the election, including on Fox News and on Bartiromo’s own show. In making its case against the network, Dominion attorneys created a slide deck offering examples of the internal conversation at Fox in the post-election months.

That deck was made public Wednesday. Matt Gertz of Media Matters shared a slide that included an email sent by Bartiromo on Nov. 7, 2020.

It’s a mind-boggling document, not just because it alleges obviously false incidents of fraud but because Bartiromo was once a well-regarded journalist. It’s not simply that this is someone uncritically sharing nonsense; it’s that it’s someone who was once considered a bulwark against nonsense who is doing so.

The message was sent a bit after 5 p.m. on the Saturday that major networks (including Fox, less than six hours before) called the presidential election for Biden. It originated from Bartiromo and was intended for an account called “Maria Bartiromotv” — presumably staff for her Sunday morning show — and Abby Grossberg, the former Fox News producer now suing the company for discrimination.

It appears to contain notes from a conversation between Bartiromo and Sidney Powell, then working closely with Trump’s legal team. The subject line — “Sidney Powell” — conveys that, as do the contents of the message. It also arrived less than an hour before Powell forwarded Bartiromo a lengthy, bizarre message that has been identified as the root of many of Powell’s false beliefs about the election. In response to that email, Bartiromo told Powell that she’d just spoken with “Eric” (apparently Eric Trump, according to Dominion’s attorneys) and that she’d told him Powell “gave very imp[ortant] info.”

To explore the extent to which Bartiromo embraced these unfounded conspiracy theories, here’s what the original Nov. 7 email says and what it means. All typos are in the original; the email is identified as having been sent from Bartiromo’s iPhone, which probably contributed to spelling errors.

“We have to go to a full on war. They have used all systems to defraud. / Hammer ore voting Bank / The ibside in the vote total.”

It’s not clear whether the “war” phrasing is Bartiromo’s or Powell’s. This message was sent to Bartiromo’s team, so it could certainly be the former.

The email identifies two theories that gained traction after the election as elements of the effort to use “all systems” to commit fraud — albeit those two theories are hard to pick out because of the misspellings.

The first is “Hammer and Scorecard.” This was a conspiracy theory peddled by a man named Dennis Montgomery who claimed to have built a computer (“Hammer”) and software (“Scorecard”) on behalf of the federal government that could manipulate elections. Various fringe-right figures seized on this idea — which, incidentally, is unconnected to Dominion — in the wake of Trump’s loss.

By Nov. 9, PolitiFact had already debunked it, citing, among other things, a debunk from Trump administration official Chris Krebs on the afternoon of Nov. 7 itself.

The email from Bartiromo then appears to point to the “[increase] in the vote total” in a number of states, probably a reference to the increase in Biden’s vote margins as aggregated votes from large urban areas were counted on election night. The idea that this was suspicious is also easily dismissed.

“Jared says he doesn’t want to hear about any Conspiracy theory. / Everyone us excluding me from meetings. We have to file federal suits in every state. The campaign is not doing s---. / They want to file 2 lawsuits in a couple of places. That’s not going to solve the problem”

In the Dominion slide, the line about Trump aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner is highlighted. Here, too, it seems like the line is coming from Powell, given that it is followed by a complaint that “me” is excluded from meetings.

Fox News has repeatedly insisted that its coverage of Dominion doesn’t rise to the level of defamation and that documents made public in court filings are often misleading. So far, Fox hosts have declined to speak publicly about the lawsuit and its allegations.

On Dec. 18, 2020, after all the baseless lawsuits had been thrown out, Powell got her meeting with Trump in the Oval Office. It soon became infamous given Powell’s continued elevation of conspiracy theories and Trump’s flirtation with granting her official power to try to prove them.

“The country needs to survive. We have to keep this president.”

This is apparently Powell’s rhetoric, though Bartiromo appears to have been sympathetic to it.

“Noone thinks anyway that people voted for Biden”

This is one of the most enduring conspiracy theory, raised even recently by Trump and Bartiromo peer Tucker Carlson. It leverages skepticism about the election results, partisan isolation and a misunderstanding of recent history, as I wrote in November 2020. That turnout surged in part because so many people wanted to vote against Trump has, perhaps understandably, been hard for many his supporters to accept.

But if you think it was impossible for Biden to get the level of support he did, you look for alternative explanations.

“Hammer - / A sophisticated computer system that allied site ration of votes.”

Again, a reference to “Hammer and Scorecard,” which could theoretically allow manipulation of votes. Here’s another debunking of the idea from Nov. 9, 2020 — reinforcing the ease with which belief in the claim could have been set aside by anyone willing to consider it critically.

That debunk includes a clip of Powell speaking about her conspiracy theories on Bartiromo’s Nov. 8 show.

“Thete is also a dominion system that I didn’t know about that has reported glitches & has been used in key states. And it adds on thousands of votes. / Evidence- yes we have / Statistical of impossibilities. And pictures of a man sticking thumb drives in voting machines. I go machine.a.”

Here is the mention of Dominion, including nascent theories that expanded outward in the following weeks. (This was likely in part because “Hammer” was thoroughly discredited and in part because states did actually use Dominion machines. In swing states, Trump won most Dominion-using counties.)

The idea that Trump’s loss was statistically impossible also got a lot of play after the election. It’s akin to the idea that Biden didn’t get 81 million votes, an attempt to suggest that math somehow agrees with the feelings deep in Trump supporters’ guts. Obviously, a Biden victory was not statistically impossible.

Here’s a debunk of the thumb-drive allegation. But, as always, the false claims spread widely before they could be corrected. Bartiromo, whose job ostensibly entails debunking such nonsense, gave no indication of wanting to do so.

“The most imp points are I this was planned. It was sophisticated funded and orchestrated & uses all areas of fraud including digital We now know / Nancy pelosi has an interest in it *** / It’s directed also by Soros / It’s been used in 30 states.”

What was used in 30 states? Presumably Dominion machines, which had some presence in 28, according to the company’s attorneys.

The false claim about then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) appears to come from the email Powell later forwarded to Bartiromo. The provenance of the Soros claim isn’t clear, but he’s a common bogeyman for the right. Incidentally, the email that Powell forwarded also alleges that the number of votes algorithmically flipped from Trump to Biden was “capped” at 3 percent — a figure that wasn’t “arbitrary” but instead somehow a function of Kushner. This sort of internal inconsistency is par for the course in that email, which we’ll discuss a bit more in a second.

“It’s not possible that 138 k votes come in all for Biden. None for trump. / That doesn’t happen. / All kinds of anomalies . Just like the steel dossier. They throw lots of stuff at it &create / Something & flood media”

At the end of the message is a telling inclusion. Powell appears to convey to Bartiromo that 138,000 votes were given to Biden and none to Trump, which “doesn’t happen.” As, in fact, it didn’t in 2020. It was a typo, one quickly addressed and explained — well before Bartiromo and Powell spoke.

But then there’s a different appeal: The nefarious left is trying to gin up Trump’s defeat just as it ginned up the “Steele dossier,” the sheaf of documents alleging (largely later debunked) ties between Trump and Russia. Like the idea that Biden couldn’t have gotten all of those votes, this is a claim rooted in suspicion, not evidence.

Bartiromo was not skeptical of this information. She passed it on to her team apparently without comment — or, perhaps, after having appended a summary about the situation being “war.” When Powell sent her the email that introduced most of these claims, Bartiromo accepted it, responding only to say that she’d told Eric Trump that Powell had good information. If Bartiromo read far enough in that email to see its sender describing various hallucinations, including having been “internally decapitated” or being able to “see what others don’t see, and hear what others don’t hear,” it was not reflected in her response to Powell.

Nor did it dissuade her from allowing Powell to share these claims uncritically on her show the next day. Bartiromo was eager to carry water for Trump in his effort to retain power. The email she passed to her staff on Nov. 7 shows clearly how uncritically she viewed the staggeringly broad claims being made by those who shared that desired outcome.