Elena Parent, a Democratic state lawmaker from the Atlanta area, listened incredulously in a small hearing room in early December as a stream of witnesses spun fantastical tales of alleged election fraud before the Georgia Senate’s Judiciary Committee.
“Since this has been debunked repeatedly, what evidence can you give to us that counters what our elections officials presented us with only an hour ago?” Parent asked one of the witnesses, her voice rising in exasperation. When she tried to ask a follow-up question, the Republican committee chairman cut her off.
Her questions — and the fact that the claims were misleading, unsubstantiated or just plain false — did little to keep the rumors in check. It didn’t matter that state and local election officials had explained what was in the video and conducted a hand recount to show that the machines were not rigged. It didn’t matter that multiple news outlets detailed, over and over, that there was no evidence of widespread fraud. It didn’t matter that, amid a global pandemic and massive demand for mail ballots, a system under historic strain in fact held up decisively.
To preserve his hold on power, Trump has spent the weeks since Election Day promoting falsehoods about voting problems in Georgia and five other states, successfully persuading tens of millions of his supporters to believe a lie — that the election was stolen from him, and from them.
He has done so by harnessing the power of his position, using his pulpit at the White House and his Twitter feed to let loose a fusillade of conspiracy theories. His assault on the integrity of the election has gotten a hefty assist from pro-Trump media outfits and an assortment of state lawmakers and lawyers who gave oxygen to the debunked allegations — and a majority of congressional Republicans, who called on the Supreme Court to overturn the results in four states.
Trump is continuing to press his case, even now that the electoral college has formally elected Biden. In a meeting with allies on Friday, the president discussed deploying the military to rerun the election and appointing attorney Sidney Powell, whose conspiracy theories about election fraud have been widely discredited, as a special counsel to investigate the outcome.
Along the way, Trump has willfully damaged two bedrocks of American democracy that he has been going after for years: confidence in the media as a source of trusted information and faith in systems of government. It might be one of his lasting legacies.
A Fox News poll released on Dec. 11 shows that more than a third of registered voters believe the election was stolen from Trump — a number that rises to 77 percent among those who voted for Trump. Conversely, 56 percent of voters believe Trump weakened American democracy by contesting election results in various states, with the number rising to 85 percent among those who voted for Biden, according to the poll.
Trump’s campaign spokesman, Tim Murtaugh, declined to answer specific questions about the damage the president has done or the untruths he embraced.
“President Trump owes it to the 75 million Americans who voted for him — and to those who voted for Joe Biden — to ensure that the election was free, fair and secure,” he said.
Even now that the electoral college has voted, and the GOP’s top leaders have publicly accepted Biden’s victory, both parties and the country overall must reckon with the mark Trump has left on American democracy. Biden will start his presidency with nearly half the country believing he is not the legitimate occupant of the White House. Many Americans who voted against Trump and have watched with horror as he has tried to subvert the results are equally disillusioned about the strength of the system, which they fear could have toppled but for the courage of a cadre of election officials, state Republicans and judges who held the line.
Few anticipate that the mistrust and divisions will fade with the 45th president’s departure from the White House. One reason: The most ardent purveyors of unfounded accusations say they have no plans to back down.
“The fact is that President Trump was reelected by what will be known soon to be a landslide victory unparalleled in this country,” said L. Lin Wood, a Georgia lawyer and Trump ally who has filed unsuccessful lawsuits on the president’s behalf.
Wood said he spoke to the president in a phone call earlier this month, encouraging him not to concede in what he described as “a battle between good and evil.”
Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Stanford Law School and co-director of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, said that kind of rhetoric has emboldened some in the country to doubt the results merely because their preferred candidate lost.
“We’re entering a very dangerous phase where a sizable share of the population has no faith in the basic mechanics of the democracy,” Persily said. Millions of voters, he added, now see the fight over who should lead the country as a function of “the willingness to exert power as opposed to playing by fair rules of the game.”
A base willing to believe
Trump has demonstrated a unique capacity to rally supporters to his war cries, even when they are false or unproven. He gained notoriety nearly a decade ago as the leader of the so-called birther movement, asserting falsely that then-President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
This year, Trump’s obsession with election fraud has tested his followers anew, and their willingness to go along with him has shown how powerful his hold is on the GOP.
The president’s false claims about voting ramped up in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when election officials were gearing up for a historic surge in mail balloting. He got help from a chorus of Republican allies, who echoed and amplified his untruths on the campaign trail, on conservative television and in state capitols in key battlegrounds.
In the days following the election, his rhetoric defied logic as he cited more and more outlandish accusations and echoed unverified Twitter accounts. “They are finding Biden votes all over the place — in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan,” Trump tweeted on Nov. 4, suggesting falsely that ballots still being counted a day after the election were fraudulent. “So bad for our Country!”
On Nov. 30, the president retweeted an account named @Catturd2 that claimed in Arizona, “Truck Loads of Ballots Kept Coming in For 10 Days After Elections Officials Thought They Were Done Counting.”
Many of his increasingly outrageous accusations — blasted out to his 89 million followers on Twitter — came straight from one of his new favorite news sources, One America News.
“Pennsylvania Poll Watcher: USB Drives uploaded to machines, gave Biden thousands of votes,” the president tweeted on Nov. 27.
Dec. 16: “Study: Dominion Machines shifted 2-3% of Trump Votes to Biden. Far more votes than needed to sway election.”
Trump and his allies also claimed to have scores of “affidavits” alleging fraud on a massive scale. But the sworn statements his campaign and his allies submitted in lawsuits contained meaningless observations, such as one complaint in Michigan that a “man of intimidating size” had followed a poll watcher too closely, and another who said that a public address system was too loud and therefore “distracting to those of us trying to concentrate.”
Trump and his allies have lost overwhelmingly when they tried to overturn Biden’s victory through the courts, with at least 88 judges across the country ruling against them either on procedural grounds or on the merits in more than 50 cases. The president’s campaign on Sunday said it was filing a new petition with the Supreme Court seeking to overturn the result in Pennsylvania, challenging state voting procedures similar to those that the court has so far declined to act on.
Even as his accusations have collapsed under scrutiny, they have gained traction among his most ardent supporters.
They have been spurred on by Trump-supporting cable and online news outlets such as OAN and Newsmax, which touted unfounded theories about the Dominion machines, dead people voting and poll workers in Michigan allegedly covering up windows with cardboard to prevent observers from watching the process.
At a rally in Valdosta, Ga., earlier this month for two Republican senators facing a runoff election on Jan. 5, Trump paused his speech and turned to giant screens that played misleading news reports on fraud. Thousands in the crowd watched the videos, rapt.
Trump’s arguments made sense, his supporters said. They couldn’t believe that Biden fared better than Obama had in his races, and they were suspicious that Trump was ahead in some states on Election Day but fell behind as mail ballots were counted — either unaware or untrusting of news reports explaining why that was expected.
“Do you truly believe that Joe Biden got more votes than Barack Obama?” asked Wendy Mick, 53, who traveled from New Jersey to a “Stop the Steal” rally in the District on Dec. 12, and said that Newsmax and OAN are her new preferred sources for political news. “He never campaigned. There’s no way that Biden got so many votes.”
How the lie took hold
The relative silence of Republicans lawmakers in the initial days after the election, both in states and on Capitol Hill, quickly gave way to a flood of support for Trump’s posture.
A stock line emerged among Republican leaders who refused to acknowledge Biden’s win: The president has the right to pursue all legal avenues available to him.
But Trump has done more than pursue all legal avenues. He has openly cajoled his supporters to join the fight. And they did.
In Maricopa County, Ariz., home of Phoenix, his supporters lashed out at local election officials, accusing them without evidence of improperly verifying signatures, switching Trump votes to Biden votes on duplicate ballots and keeping observers too far away from ballot-counting to see anything.
In Wisconsin, they claimed the use of drop boxes for mail ballots was illegal. With most municipal offices closed to the public because of the pandemic, many city clerks set up secure drop boxes not just for ballots, but for other city business such as utility bills.
“I had customers dropping off absentee ballots and saying, ‘How are you going to differentiate my ballot from a utility bill?’ and I thought, ‘Wow, you must really think I’m dumb that I can’t differentiate a ballot envelope from a utility bill,’ ” said Lori Stottler, the city clerk in Beloit, Wis., on the Illinois border. “But then I thought, ‘Well, they don’t know what I do.’ And I took a step back and I tried to explain.”
GOP Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler’s Facebook page was inundated with demands from constituents that he reverse Biden’s win in the state. Protesters also gathered outside his rural home in Lancaster County on Dec. 5 with bullhorns and signs.
“Petition your governor for a special session!” an organizer shouted. “Why haven’t you petitioned him?”
“Do your job!” the crowd chanted back. “Do your job! Do your job!”
At one point, Rep. Seth Grove, a Republican lawmaker from York County, Pa., said a conservative activist confronted him at the Capitol in Harrisburg, demanding that the legislature take action to seat Trump’s electors — even though state law does not allow such a move.
Grove said he was stunned when the longtime tea party organizer proclaimed, “You know, the Constitution doesn’t limit government!”
It was a reminder, Grove said, of just how much power Trump has amassed over the Republican electorate, to the point that some of his supporters are no longer guided by political principles they have claimed adherence to in the past.
“I looked at him. I’m like, ‘What?’ ” Grove recalled. “It shocked me. Shocked me.”
Lawmakers in Arizona and Pennsylvania rebuffed the president’s efforts to stage official hearings to examine potential fraud. But back benchers in both states assembled media spectacles in hotel ballrooms, labeling them hearings but presenting “witnesses” that were not under oath and offering no evidence for their claims.
Republican lawmakers in Michigan and Georgia did hold official hearings, giving Giuliani an additional platform to unspool a series of false claims.
“I know they are under a lot of pressure from their base, from the lies being spun by Trump and his enablers, right-wing media, etc., but it was really disappointing,” said Parent, the Georgia senator. “The hearing was obviously a sham that wasn’t designed to answer any questions about the election.”
Republicans on the committee did not respond to requests for comment.
One witness at the Michigan hearing, Mellissa Carone, gained notoriety for a stream of unfounded accusations, including one claim that she’d seen a van pull up to a Detroit vote-counting center that was meant to bring in meals for election workers but was actually filled with phony ballots. Carone had previously been deemed “simply not credible” by a state judge.
Trump lashed out at those who refused to bend to his will. He called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, an “enemy of the people” for failing to embrace the president’s accusations of fraud. He accused the Michigan secretary of state, Democrat Jocelyn Benson, of “breaking the law” by rigging voting machines.
And he threatened Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, also a Republican, with a primary challenge in 2022 for not helping him reverse the outcome — even though Kemp had explained in a contentious phone call that he did not have the power to do so.
Trump’s rhetoric has spurred some of his supporters to do more than merely protest.
Raffensperger and his wife began receiving death threats and accepted a state security detail at their home in suburban Atlanta. Protesters trespassed at Benson’s home in Detroit, some armed with bullhorns and some with guns, ignoring neighbors’ pleas to go home because they were scaring children, including Benson’s 4-year-old son.
In Houston, a former police captain was arrested Tuesday after allegedly slamming into an air-conditioning repairman’s truck to thwart what he said was a vast election-fraud scheme. The man, Mark Anthony Aguirre, was paid $250,000 by a right-wing organization to pursue fraud conspiracy theories and believed that the truck contained 750,000 fake ballots, police said.
The truck, it turned out, was full of nothing but air conditioning parts.
'The fraud happened'
Vanishingly few national Republicans have been willing to stand up to the false statements, despite privately acknowledging that the election is over. “The future will take care of itself,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters in early December, refusing to acknowledge that Biden had won.
In Pennsylvania, Republican lawmakers who had initially resisted the president’s entreaties wound up signing onto an emergency petition to the Supreme Court that sought to overturn Biden’s win in the state, though they never cited fraud in their filing. They also sent a letter to Congress urging federal lawmakers to reject Pennsylvania’s electoral votes when they convene on Jan. 6.
Grove, the GOP lawmaker from Pennsylvania, said he and other Republicans had assumed the letter would go nowhere. A challenge requires support from a member of both the House and Senate, but Grove and others incorrectly thought they had to be from the state in question, and they knew that Pennsylvania’s two senators, Republican Patrick J. Toomey and Democrat Robert P. Casey Jr., would not support it.
“We didn’t know that anyone can do it from any state,” Grove said. “That was a surprise.”
Congressional Republicans also began echoing Trump’s claims; 126 of them ultimately signed onto an emergency petition to the Supreme Court seeking to overturn results in four states Biden had won.
“The fraud happened,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) at a hearing last week in Washington to examine election irregularities.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who called the hearing despite acknowledging that Biden had won a legitimate election following the electoral college vote, declared at the start of the proceeding: “There was fraud in this election. I don’t have any doubt about that.”
That idea that something went wrong with the vote this year has now taken hold among many Americans.
Anna Van Winkle, a retired aesthetician in Savannah, Ga., who voted for Trump, has accepted her candidate’s defeat, but believes lawmakers must fix the election process to make sure such broad doubt in the outcome can’t happen again.
“My concern is that we don’t go down this road again,” she said. “We had a problem. We had a big problem. And now, going forward, the best way to deal with this is to fix this where somebody like me is not going to wonder, ‘Okay, was there fraud here?’”
Van Winkle was perplexed when she received multiple absentee ballot request forms at her address, and worries that others willing to commit ballot fraud would have been able to do so by requesting more than one ballot. Although Georgia requires identification to request a ballot online — and signature matching on ballots themselves — Van Winkle doesn’t understand why states don’t require mail voters to get their ballots notarized.
Voting-right activists, meanwhile, are concerned that such sentiments will now be cited as an excuse to try to erect new barriers to casting ballots.
Indeed, GOP lawmakers in Georgia have already floated a proposal to eliminate no-excuses absentee balloting, meaning only those with a qualifying reason such as illness or an overseas assignment could vote by mail. In Texas, lawmakers have filed bills to limit distribution of absentee ballot applications and make it a felony to help voters fill out ballots. Pennsylvania Republicans have discussed tighter identification requirements for mail ballots and signature matches.
Defenders of this year’s elections also recognize the need to shore up public confidence. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who advocated unsuccessfully for billions in election aid for states this year, believes Congress must act to curtail misinformation on social media companies, which she said fell short in their civic obligation to restrict false claims on their platforms.
Klobuchar said she was heartened by the Republicans who immediately acknowledged Biden’s win, by those who did so after the electoral college vote and by the dozens of judges across the country, many of them Republican appointees, who roundly rejected the fraud claims of Trump and his allies.
“All of those things mean our democracy is working during a really hard time,” she said.
But there remains the reality that Trump and millions of his supporters still refuse to accept Biden’s win, creating a disturbing precedent, Klobuchar said, in a political system that has prided itself on the peaceful transfer of power and acknowledgment of election results.
“I’m concerned about our democracy in the long run if these civil mores change,” she said, “so people don’t even have to tell the truth about who won.”
Emma Brown, Robert Barnes, Emily Guskin, Rosalind S. Helderman, Elise Viebeck and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.
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