The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump has grown increasingly consumed with ballot audits as he pushes falsehood that election was stolen

Former president Donald Trump regularly brings the conversation back to the 2020 election when his advisers attempt to engage him on other topics, according to people familiar with the conversations. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Former president Donald Trump remains relentlessly focused on the false claim that the November election was stolen from him and is increasingly consumed with the notion that ballot reviews pushed by his supporters around the country could prove that he won, according to people familiar with his comments.

Trump has rebuffed calls from some advisers to drop the matter, instead fixating on an ongoing Republican-commissioned audit in Arizona and plotting how to secure election reviews in other states, such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Georgia, according to advisers. He is most animated by the efforts in Fulton County, Ga., and Maricopa County, Ariz., according to two advisers who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

Trump’s interest has been fueled by conversations he has had with an array of figures who have publicly touted false claims of election fraud. Among them, according to advisers, is Christina Bobb, a host at the One America News network who has privately discussed the Arizona audit with the former president and his team; Mike Lindell, the chief executive of the company MyPillow; and Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R), who urged the state’s congressional delegation to reject Biden’s victory there last fall.

Trump has become so fixated on the audits that he suggested recently to allies that their success could result in his return to the White House this year, according to people familiar with comments he has made. Some advisers said that such comments appear to be just offhand musings.

A Trump spokesman declined to comment on the record.

More than six months after the 2020 presidential election, Arizona Senate Republicans are leading an audit of the 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

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Trump’s deepening preoccupation with post-election audits has created a singular situation, one in which a former president is regularly attacking the electoral legitimacy of his successor. At the same time, some of his most devoted supporters have intensified their own rhetoric, making allusions to undemocratic actions that could result in Trump’s return.

This weekend, at a conference in Dallas of adherents of the QAnon extremist ideology, former national security adviser Michael Flynn was asked by an audience member why a military coup like the one in Myanmar could not happen in the United States.

“No reason. I mean, it should happen here,” he responded.

Flynn later posted a statement on Parler saying that his comments had been misinterpreted and that he does not support a military coup. But at the same event, lawyer Sidney Powell — who has represented Flynn in the past and filed multiple unsuccessful legal challenges to last year’s election result — said she believed Trump should be “reinstated” to office this year.

Powell did not respond to requests for comment. She told CNN on Monday that Flynn had in no way encouraged “any act of violence or any military insurrection” and said that the media had “grossly distorted” his remarks.

The escalating rhetoric by the former president and his backers shows that he is intent on keeping alive the falsehood that the 2020 race was rigged, a claim that critics say has perilous implications for the country and the public’s faith in how they select their leaders.

Trump’s campaign against the election continues nearly five months after a mob of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, seeking to prevent the formalization of Biden’s win. And public surveys show that the lie about the election has taken root inside the Republican Party: A CNN poll in April found that 70 percent of Republicans said they did not believe Biden had won the election legitimately.

Trump has seized on such polls as evidence that investigations are warranted, advisers said.

Local officials in states where Trump supporters are pushing for ballot reviews have decried the attacks on the election results as dangerous.

In Arizona, Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a Republican who defeated an incumbent Democrat in November, said he believed state GOP leaders knew that the claims of electoral fraud in the state are “facially laughable.”

Still, he said in an interview, “ordinary people, the ones who are showing up on a Wednesday night at a political meeting, I believe they really believe it. And that’s super sad.”

“We can’t indulge these insane lies any longer,” Richer tweeted last month. “As a party. As a state. As a country.”

But Trump has ramped up his public statements about the election in recent weeks and is expected to continue his crusade this weekend in a speech in North Carolina and at various summer rallies that are slated to begin this month. “Great work is being done in Georgia revealing the Election Fraud of the 2020 Presidential Election,” he said in a statement Monday, adding: “The Left talks about election security but they do not practice what they preach because they are afraid of what might be found.”

Advisers say he voraciously watches any television coverage he can find of the Arizona recount and reads “everything he can get his hands on” about the audits, according to one person who speaks to Trump frequently. And he has made supporting his claims of a stolen election — or at least remaining silent about them — a litmus test of sorts as he decides whom to endorse for state and federal contests in 2022 and 2024.

Talk by Trump and his supporters of overturning the election was revived in late April when an audit of the results in Arizona’s largest county ordered by the Republican state Senate began.

The legislature used a subpoena to seize county ballots and voting machines, undertaking the recount and review of the 2020 vote in Maricopa County over the objections of the majority-Republican county board of supervisors. The audit is being led by a Florida firm called Cyber Ninjas, whose chief executive has echoed claims that the election was stolen. The shifting and ill-explained methods of the audit have been criticized by Maricopa County officials and elections experts as sloppy and unreliable.

Arizona Senate President Karen Fann (R) has repeatedly said that the goal of the recount is not to undo Biden’s narrow win in the state but instead to spot ways to improve the state’s election laws.

Audit officials said Wednesday that as of Tuesday, they had finished a hand recount of more than 1.2 million of Maricopa County’s nearly 2.1 million ballots and that they would complete the rest by the end of June. But it is not clear when Cyber Ninjas will report its findings.

Trump’s fixation with the process has led his supporters to embrace the notion that the Arizona audit could be a “first domino” to fall in a process of putting Trump back in the White House, and his allies have been pushing for Arizona-style audits in other communities.

Trump supporters have pushed for audits in jurisdictions around the country, including in multiple counties in Michigan. A state judge in Georgia late last month agreed to grant a group of local voters access to 147,000 mail-in ballots from Fulton County for review, and the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly said late last month that he was hiring a group of former law enforcement officials to conduct a probe of the 2020 election in his state.

Inspired by Arizona recount, Trump loyalists push to revisit election results in communities around the country

On Wednesday, people involved with the Maricopa County audit hosted three GOP Pennsylvania state lawmakers who have been seeking an audit in their state. The group met with Arizona lawmakers and then toured the recount underway at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.

Among the visitors was Mastriano, who was interviewed at the coliseum by Bobb, the OAN host. The Pennsylvania lawmaker also recently met with the former president at Trump Tower to talk about the prospect of launching a similar audit in his state, according to people familiar with the discussion.

Mastriano did not respond to a request for comment.

Some Trump advisers fret that such figures have been encouraging the former president to believe that the audits could lead to a reversal of the election results.

Trump aides say he has spoken occasionally to Bobb, a lawyer who hosts a weekly show on OAN and who has both covered the Arizona audit for the network and privately raised money to support it.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Bobb declined to comment. OAN did not respond to requests for comment.

Last year, she volunteered to assist the Trump campaign’s legal team, working with lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani on post-election legal challenges. In April, she and OAN anchor Chanel Rion founded a fundraising group called Voices and Votes to solicit donations for the audit and other “election integrity” efforts. On Twitter, Bobb announced within days that the group had met an initial goal of $250,000 to support the audit and would continue to raise funds for the cause.

In one recent OAN segment, Bobb announced an initiative by her private fundraising group to take state senators from other states to Arizona to view the audit site. She then urged viewers to donate to her group if they wanted “to support more states getting a closer look at the Arizona audit to potentially replicate it in their own states.”

She told The Washington Post in April that no Trump staffer or lawyer was involved with her effort to raise money for the Arizona project and that neither was OAN.

“This is an issue that the American public cares a lot about, so it’s not surprising that people want to help,” she said in an email then.

Advisers said that Trump also speaks to Lindell, who produced a video claiming the election was stolen that has been widely embraced by Trump’s supporters.

The MyPillow CEO is hosting an event in Wisconsin June 12 where Trump, billed as the “REAL” president, is expected to appear via Jumbotron, according to a promotional flier. Lindell did not respond to requests for comment. In an interview this year, he said that too many of Trump’s White House and campaign advisers were uninterested in trying to expose election fraud.

Kelli Ward, the Arizona GOP chairwoman, also has given Trump updates on the Arizona audit, according to people familiar with their conversations. She did not respond to requests for comment.

In recent weeks, Trump has grown most interested in the potential for an election audit in Fulton County, Ga., still stung by losing a state where he had been favored to win, according to people familiar with his views.

No audit is underway in Fulton County. After the state judge ordered the county to allow local voters to inspect mail-in ballots there, the county moved to dismiss the case, and a meeting to discuss the logistics of the inspection was canceled.

Almost unanimously, the former president’s 2020 campaign advisers said they view his obsession with the last election as a waste of time, knowing that the law does not allow for Biden’s win to be overturned.

But Trump regularly moves the topic back to the election when advisers try to focus on other issues, according to three people who have spoken with him recently.

“Everyone is talking about Arizona,” he said to an adviser who tried to broach 2022 endorsements.

He brings up the topic at various events — even at nonprofit galas at his private Mar-a-Lago Club, where he made impromptu appearances this spring, they said.

Anyone who tells him that he lost, one adviser said, “is p------ into the wind.”

When advisers write speeches for him that do not refer to attempts to re-litigate the 2020 election, Trump ad-libs — riffing on states in granular detail.

In a Palm Beach speech to donors this spring, he ticked through each state and explained his false theories that the election was stolen from him, according to a recording of the event obtained by The Post. He even cited local election officials and specific counties in each state and their totals compared to the 2016 election.

For his appearance this weekend before the state Republican Party in North Carolina, advisers are writing a speech that focuses more on Biden and the former president’s policies, but they are bracing for Trump to go off on a tangent about the election.

“He’s going to spray friendly fire on other Republicans and settle scores under the auspices of endorsing people in Republican primaries for 2022,” said GOP donor Dan Eberhart, a onetime Trump backer who has been critical of his attacks on the election. “This back-to-the-future style is putting the Republican Party in a 2020 straitjacket, preventing it from learning from our 2020 losses and adapting to the most recent voter concerns.”

Amy Gardner contributed to this report.