Last week, the House Oversight Committee released new documents showing how, in the days leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection, Donald Trump’s White House pushed the Department of Justice to investigate ludicrous conspiracy theories of election fraud. While the documentation shows the deranged and pathetic delusions of a failed would-be autocrat, they still matter, both because it really did happen and because the response from Republicans on the House Oversight Committee and around the country shows how relevant—and how dangerous—these conspiracy theories remain.
First, it’s worth delving into the allegations: Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows and Trump personal assistant Molly Michael tried to push the DOJ to investigate claims that voter fraud had been committed in states around the country, with Michael starting in Michigan. Immediately after Bill Barr resigned from his post as attorney general, on Dec. 14, Michael sent an email to the new acting attorney general, Jeff Rosen, with the subject “From POTUS,” that included a memo outlining debunked claims of fraud in Michigan. DOJ officials subsequently forwarded that memo to a pair of U.S. attorneys in Michigan.*
The memo claimed that a quickly caught and corrected error by Republican election officials in a single pro-Trump county, Antrim, meant that the Dominion machines had been hacked, which meant that the entire election had been tainted. The key piece of evidence in Antrim was a video posted by a now-deleted Twitter account called KanekoaTheGreat that showed local Republican elected officials in Georgia claiming to have the ability to hack Dominion machines. That Georgia official, Misty Martin, subsequently came under investigation by Georgia’s Republican secretary of state after she blamed voting systems in her county for a 50-vote error in her count. (The error appears to have been created because she actually counted a single 50-vote batch twice, according to the secretary of state.)
The allegations citing Martin came from an “auditor,” Russell Ramsland, who prior to his Antrim County probe had produced affidavits in Trump fraud lawsuits that confused a Michigan jurisdiction with a Minnesota one and that falsely claimed Detroit saw turnout of 139.29 percent. Ramsland had also previously endorsed a conspiracy theory about the “Deep State–Soros Network” claiming that “the whole Confederate statue issue is part of a larger deep state operation—say negative things about a country’s founders, so people emotionally detach from them. … Then they don’t remember where they came from and they can be easily brainwashed into a communist future.”
If this stuff all seems like nonsense, that’s because it is. A full manual audit by the secretary of state’s office in Georgia, where Misty Martin claimed Dominion machines could have been hacked, showed the hand count match the machine count with limited discrepancies “well within the expected margin of human error that occurs when hand-counting ballots.” In Michigan, meanwhile, an investigation by the secretary of state’s office demonstrated that the issue of supposed machine fraud in a single county was actually human error having to do with the way Republican officials accidentally failed to update ballot software required by a last-minute change to fix errors such as a missing local candidate. Fact checks have demonstrated that what happened in Antrim was almost immediately corrected and the machine totals in the corrected tally were affirmed by a full hand count. So there was never anything to Trump’s claims of fraud.
The issue is that GOP officials are still willing to defend absurd accusations despite the obvious holes and repeated debunkings. Indeed, after the documents were released, Republicans on the Oversight Committee used a hearing last week to say that Trump’s actions were totally reasonable and not worth any investigation or reckoning. “We’re going to investigate Mark Meadows sending an email to the Justice Department saying, ‘Hey, there’s been allegations raised, can you check it out?’ Wow,” Rep. Jim Jordan scoffed during the hearing, which was ostensibly about the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
What’s more, some Republican-led states are still doing their best to give the Trump White House’s requests a new avenue months after the disgraced former president left office. Currently, the work of Ramsland—the guy who says the deep state is trying to brainwash people into communism and that criticisms of Confederate leaders are attacks on the “country’s founders” meant to achieve that plot—is being actively pursued by Republicans in Michigan. As the Detroit News reported on Monday, election officials in Cheboygan County are pushing for an audit of their own election based in part on the same conspiracy theories surfaced by Ramsland about Antrim that Trump had tried to push on the DOJ. Conservative activists throughout Michigan have also been pushing GOP elected officials this month to conduct an audit similar to the absurd Arizona effort. Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said last week that he was “watching carefully what occurs and what comes out of the Arizona process.” In Georgia, a judge held a hearing on Monday on whether to move forward with its own Arizona-style audit. The plaintiffs’ lawyers in that case—without any hard evidence—claimed that “counterfeit ballots were counted in the Nov. election and that those ballots basically amount to ballot stuffing.” The judge in that case has indicated some sort of audit will go forward, but hasn’t yet ruled on how extensive it will be.
Ultimately, the claim of hacked Dominion machines in Michigan was not even the most absurd thing that Trump’s White House tried to push on the DOJ. That would be a conspiracy theory called “Italygate” that alleged the CIA and an Italian defense contractor had used satellites to switch votes from Trump to Biden. As the Washington Post reported last week, this particular conspiracy theory was put forward by a woman who pretended to own a $30 million mansion that doesn’t belong to her.
And yet, on Dec. 29, Meadows sent Jeff Rosen an email with an attached memo written in Italian purporting to prove the Italian satellite theory, along with an English translation. On New Year’s Day, Meadows sent a YouTube clip to Rosen further outlining the Italian satellite fantasy. Acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue labeled Meadows’ efforts “pure insanity” in one email.
And yet, not only did Jordan note that Trump’s targets should have been taken seriously, but he went on to say that the DOJ officials who refused the requests of Trump White House officials were actually the ones who needed to be investigated. “When the president—when the chief of staff to the president of the United States asks someone in the executive branch to do something, and they basically give him the finger, I think that’s the problem we should be looking into,” he said. According to Jordan, the DOJ’s refusal to subvert the election on the basis of these insane theories was the actual wrongdoing worthy of investigation.
This all sounds wild and outlandish, and a lot of it is performative political theater. But here is the issue: Jordan is one of the most influential Republicans in the House Republican conference. When he says that the real issue that needs to be investigated is why the DOJ didn’t aid in Trump’s attempts to subvert the election, he’s speaking as the person who might lead such investigations. He would be the chairman of the Judiciary Committee if the GOP takes back the House next year and able to conduct any investigation he wanted into the 2020 election on the basis of any number of cooked-up conspiracy theories. Fortunately for Jordan, states across the country are beating him to it.
Correction, June 22, 2021: This piece originally misidentified Molly Michael as Michael Molly.