The Poll Workers Targeted by Trump

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Mary Harris: Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley says there are a couple of ways to watch the January 6th Select Committee hearings right now. You can dip in, skim the headlines and troll Twitter for the best clips. Or you can do it. He does settle in for hours of testimony and reams of evidence day after day.

Speaker 2: I’d say I’ve probably seen or listened to like 85% of the of what’s happened.

Mary Harris: If you were, like reviewing it like a movie, give me the give me the rating.

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Speaker 2: I think it’s going I think it’s in the nineties on Rotten Tomatoes.

Mary Harris: Wow. The committee is now in its third week of public hearings, laying out the case that Donald Trump stoked a riot and very nearly overturned the 2020 election. Week one laid bare the violence of January six itself. Week two focused on what Donald Trump should have known and when he should have known it. This week’s testimony focused attention somewhere else on a weeks long pressure campaign waged by Trump and his allies, singling out individuals around the country that they thought could change the election outcome. It’s a campaign that set the stage for what later happened at the Capitol. It is kind of overwhelming the amount of stuff they’ve gathered.

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Speaker 2: Yeah, I think that’s true. And that’s part of what I’ve been thinking to myself as is so impressive about what they’ve done. They’ve chosen witnesses who have very emotionally resonant testimony so that even if you’re not quite following who exactly everyone is and what the timeline is, you can just watch a two minute clip that’s very memorable and really conveys the gist of what the hearings are about.

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Mary Harris: It’s interesting you’re saying like it’s kind of a buffet and if you just want a snack, like that’s available to you. But if you would like to have the full turkey dinner, watch the whole hearing.

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Speaker 2: Yeah. And I think that there’s there’s a few people in particular that they’re hoping are having that whole turkey dinner. Merrick Garland, attorney general of the United States, is one of them.

Mary Harris: Merrick Garland is one of the few people who could actually bring about some accountability for Donald Trump by opening an investigation into his behavior. But you you’re the audience here, too. The committee is trying to widen your perspective, show how the Capitol riot fit this larger pattern.

Speaker 2: The committee does not want people to remember it as this theatrical thing or as a protest that got a little bit out of hand. They really want you to remember it as something that caused violence.

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Mary Harris: Yeah, it seems to me like the focus in past presentations has really been on Donald Trump and his culpability, and that’s always kind of in the background of any of these committee hearings. But what seemed different to me this week. Is the focus on people harmed by Donald Trump. The fact that his words had consequences for individuals who lived very far away from him and had never met him and had just kind of been called out on Twitter by him. The uncertainty of that was what was the fear? Are they coming with guns? Are they going to attack my house? I’m in here with my kid. You know, I’m trying to put them to bed.

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Speaker 3: They knocked on the door and they just started pushing their way through, claiming that they were coming in to make a citizen’s arrest. They knew there. There is nowhere. I feel safe. Nowhere. I’m always concerned of who’s around me. I’ve lost my name. And I’ve lost my reputation. I’ve lost my sense of security.

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Speaker 2: Basically, what Tuesday’s hearing was about was that anyone who stood in the way of Trump and the White House on this, they became the victim of harassment and stalking.

Mary Harris: Today on the show, we watched Tuesday’s January six committee hearings, so you don’t have to. They laid out how Donald Trump’s threats became very real, very quickly. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to What Next? Stick around.

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Mary Harris: Let’s just start at the beginning, because the hearing earlier this week basically wanted to tell the story of how Donald Trump’s behavior in the wake of the 2020 election impacted people around the country. It laid out a pressure campaign basically orchestrated by the president and his allies aimed at keeping President Biden out of office. Can you describe the dimensions of this campaign? Because what struck me was just how varied it was like from phone calls to testimony. And you kind of saw all of that strung together this week.

Speaker 2: Yes, I think of it as working on two tracks. There was the sleazy, but still somewhat legitimate or at least normal influence campaign that Trump and Giuliani put on politicians and people in in state offices.

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Mary Harris: You mean like the phone calls, like, hey, I’m a Republican. You’re a Republican. Let’s talk?

Speaker 2: Yeah. So there was phone calls, there was emails, there was, I think, personal meetings with, you know, with Giuliani or Mark Meadows would fly to these places and try to meet with people. And it was inappropriate. I mean, as one thing the committee has emphasized is that there were 44 presidents before Donald Trump and none of them, you know, for all their flaws, the many flaws that many of them had, none of them did anything like that. So it was completely unprecedented. But it resembled normal politics in a way, trying to get a meeting with the head of the state legislature or the secretary of state.

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Mary Harris: Where did it cross a line?

Speaker 2: Well, it cross I think it crossed the line immediately, because typically you try to lobby or influence someone to pass legislation or to endorse your campaign or to perform some sort of normal political function. This was trying to influence them and lobbying them to intervene in an election that essentially was already over. I mean.

Mary Harris: So it looked like normal politics, but it wasn’t.

Speaker 2: Right. It was it was. Oh, the president’s calling someone in a state that happens all the time. But then what he was asking was inappropriate and completely unprecedented. Other people in the White House said, you can’t do that. But this was the kind of idea that they were working with. And the kind of way that they were thinking of this is that we’re going to take this investigator, this auditor who is working for the Georgia secretary of state and is supposed to be an extremely nonpartisan, independent figure and get that person on the phone with the president. That’s the thing that actually happened and have the president say things like, well, you know, you could really help me out here by finding a few votes. Like these are the conversations that when they were taking place, the people on the other end of the line knew they were inappropriate. There was no question about that. So I want to be clear that even though this looked somewhat legitimate and normal, it was very inappropriate from the beginning. So that was the first track.

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Mary Harris: The two things that stood out to me about this pressure campaign number one was the fact that it wasn’t just Rudy Giuliani and the president’s lawyers. There were sitting Congress people who were also looped in and trying to pressure people back in their home states to, for instance, say, you know, we have an alternate slate of electors that will go for Trump instead of Biden. That stood out for me. And then the fact that the pressure campaign also involved, like putting a lot of pressure on individual elections officials using the megaphone of Trump’s Twitter, for instance. So it was it was really varied. And it involved all kinds of people and all kinds of different pressure at once.

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Speaker 2: I think that’s right. And I think that that’s one thing that really stood out this week is is how extensive it was. If you followed the story at the time, you knew that Giuliani and Trump and some other people affiliated with them were making some sort of effort to round up alternate electors to to lobby the state legislatures, that sort of thing. But this was really systematic. This was like using the full power of the White House political operation to try to, you know, basically contact any potentially amenable state legislator or official in in any one of a handful of states. It took a lot of people and a lot of organization.

Speaker 2: And then I think that what you’re you’re also getting into there is the darker side of it after this kind of first track of operations didn’t work. This attempt to overturn the election through some kind of pseudo legitimate means, that’s when the kind of darker side started, which is Trump. Accidentally or not putting a michigan state legislators phone number on his Twitter account. Or Rudy Giuliani using Georgia election workers name 18 times in a YouTube video. And I think one thing that the committee wants you to realize when you’re watching that testimony is that the Trump people knew that’s what was going to happen when they named these people.

Mary Harris: I know you’ve looked into this a little bit and this kind of pressure campaign actually has a name which is stochastic terrorism. Can you describe why that’s important to hone in on?

Speaker 2: Yes. Stochastic terrorism is a word you’ll see thrown around in in the news context. And what it means in my understanding is it’s something that has just enough plausible deniability to keep you off the hook most of the time. So Donald Trump uses someone’s name a bunch of times in a speech or puts their personal information on social media. He’s not saying the words literally. I want my supporters to hurt this person or harass this person. He’s not saying that literally, but he knows or should very well know. It increases the chances that something dangerous or something inappropriate happens without requiring him to directly say the words. I want you to go do this on my behalf.

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Mary Harris: Pretty quickly, the hearings this week telescoped down to two states, in particular, Georgia and Arizona. And I want to just start by talking about Arizona, because the first witness who came forward was a guy named Rusty Bowers. He’s the speaker of the Arizona State House.

Speaker 4: He said, well, we have heard by an official high up in the Republican legislature that there is a legal theory or a legal ability in Arizona that you can remove the electors of President Biden and replace them.

Mary Harris: How did he characterize the way this pressure campaign fell down on him?

Speaker 2: I think the thing that was most memorable from what he said is that his office was so overwhelmed by emails, text messages and voicemails that he and his staff could not communicate except in person. I guess the volume of the backlash against him for not cooperating with this scheme was such that it essentially just shut down his operation completely.

Mary Harris: What did the president want him to do that he didn’t want to do?

Speaker 2: The president wanted Rusty Bowers to lead an effort to certify an alternate slate of electors to be sent to Washington, D.C., that would vote for Donald Trump to be the next president in the Electoral College rather than Joe Biden.

Mary Harris: Bowers described these series of phone calls with the president and Rudy Giuliani, where he kept asking them for proof of what they were saying. What they were saying was that thousands of dead people and undocumented immigrants had voted in Arizona, and that’s why Biden had won. And at one point, he describes Giuliani putting it like this, like we have lots of theories, but not a lot of evidence, which. Sounds kind of crazy if you’re a lawyer trying to prove something, the whole deal is getting evidence.

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Speaker 2: That’s absolutely right. It was crazy. And I think that there is some darkly comic aspect to almost everything Donald Trump does. And I think that was the kind of darkly comic aspect of the hearing this week, was the repetitiveness of his demands to these people and his insistence that something had taken place, which he was never able to back up, no matter how many times they asked him. I think that that happened in Arizona with the with Rusty Bowers asking for proof about these, you know, alleged undocumented voters. It happened in Georgia where he kept bringing up this alleged suitcase full of ballots that he had seen, which was actually just a, you know, a normal a box that they always used to count votes.

Speaker 2: Basically, John Eastman, Trump’s lawyer who is coming up with these legal justifications for overturning the election, keeps getting told and kind of admitting in conversation saying, oh, well, that’s not going to work, but it’s not going to work in court. Rudy Giuliani says, Yeah, we got a lot of things, but I’m not sure it’s going to work in court, but we just want to kind of get it there. That has definitely been a big theme of the hearings, is the almost jocular way that these people knew that what they were doing was completely bogus and just kept pressing on it and kept pressing on it no matter what.

Mary Harris: Hmm. Rusty Bowers got pretty emotional, too. Like he talked about his faith, the fact that he sees the Constitution as something divine.

Speaker 4: And it is a tenet of my faith that the Constitution is divinely inspired by most basic foundational beliefs. And so for me to do that because somebody just asked me too, is foreign to my very being. I will not do it.

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Mary Harris: It was not necessarily what I expected from him.

Speaker 2: There was a few stories like that. And I think what was interesting to me about that is the way that it spoke to how these conservative people felt that their values were being compromised or felt that they were being pressed to compromise their values on Trump’s behalf. Rusty Bowers in particular, I know is a pretty hardline conservative. These are not people who we tend to think of as sharing liberal values with liberals and Democrats. But we got to see that there is this component of the Republican Party for whom Republican rhetoric, conservative rhetoric, actually is very important and meaningful. And when they say, you know, this is a country of laws and I believe in upholding the Constitution, that’s something that gets thrown around by a lot of people. They actually meant it.

Mary Harris: Yeah. I’m glad you brought up how conservative Rusty Bowers is, because he’s really conservative, like he’s said, that Planned Parenthood wants more STDs and abortions because it helps them financially. He said homosexuality is bad for society. This is not a raging liberal by any means. And that strikes me as meaningful when you’re having a hearing like this to have the people who are speaking out not be the usual suspects.

Speaker 2: I think that’s true. And I actually I’m actually a little surprised that the Democrats on the committee have not hit that a little harder. You know, they were thinking back to these months and these weeks and this is happening and thinking about how they were being asked to compromise, what they think of as as really core parts of their identity, of their as their identity, not as just as political figures, but as people. And I think that that’s what Donald Trump didn’t account for in the end, because it’s kind of, you know, kind of like a narcissist. Can’t imagine anybody else not being the same as him, if that makes sense. These are people, the Trump people in the Trump White House at this time were people who didn’t really have any principles and everything was fungible to them to advance their own self-interest. And then when they found these people who didn’t act that way, even though they were Republicans and were conservative people, they didn’t really know how to handle it.

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Mary Harris: We’ll be back after a quick break.

Mary Harris: I want to talk about the second half of the hearing this week because it focused on Georgia. You’re already kind of alluded to a little bit of what was said. And I think our listeners are probably pretty familiar with the broad brush strokes of what happened in Georgia in the wake of the 2020 election. President Biden flipped the state blue, but President Trump wanted to convince the Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, to find 11,000 votes that would flip the state back red again. Raffensperger was there. He testified. So did his chief operating officer. But I feel like the most powerful testimony wasn’t from these higher ups who I’d heard from before they’ve been out there, but from the individual election workers who just found themselves caught in this maelstrom, essentially orchestrated by Donald Trump. Can you introduce me to them? Their names are Seamus and Ruby Freeman.

Speaker 2: Yes. So Seamus and Ruby Freeman were at the hearing. Seamus was was sitting at the table and testifying. But Ruby Freeman, who is her mother, also did a recorded interview with the committee that a number of excerpts were played from the.

Speaker 3: President of the United States. It’s supposed to represent every American, but he targeted me.

Speaker 2: Lady Ruby. These were people who were counting ballots, working the election in Atlanta at the vote counting center.

Speaker 3: And a small business owner, a mother, a proud American citizen who stand up to help Fulton County run an election in the middle of the pandemic.

Speaker 2: Really had no. Unusual significance whatsoever. You know, we’re not we’re not Democratic partisans or Democratic officials, just people working.

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Mary Harris: And they had done this for like years. Schamus was like, Oh yeah, I’ve done this for a decade.

Speaker 3: I’ve always been told by my grandmother how important it is to vote and how people before me. A lot of people, older people in my family did not have that right.

Speaker 2: So Seamus spoke very movingly about this, about why she did it. It wasn’t just something that she did to pass the time, but something that she felt was very important in kind of keeping her community working. And also as a kind of tribute to this, you know, the civil rights activists who had who had kind of laid down the path and sacrificed so so that voting is a right that is extended to black Georgians.

Mary Harris: Yeah. She talked about how much she enjoyed helping old people vote. It was very sweet.

Speaker 2: Yeah. And how that these these were the people whose whose right to vote. Essentially, she wanted to protect.

Speaker 3: Younger people could usually do everything from their phone or go online. But the older voters like to call. They like to talk to you. They like to get in my car. They like to know.

Speaker 2: That it was very civic oriented, but it was not partisan. And I think that is, again, one thing that was so powerful about having these normal people on stage at this hearing, as it were. Seeing the difference between the kind of right wing caricature of the sleazy Democratic inner city election operative and then the real people who are actually working and, you know, faithfully executing a very important civic mission. I think that was that was really striking. And I think Shamus and her mother demonstrated that really well.

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Speaker 3: I even remember driving to an hospital to give someone her absentee application. That’s that’s what I love the most.

Mary Harris: So you lay out the contours of the false allegations against Seamus and Ruby Freeman.

Speaker 2: So Seamus and Ruby Freeman were counting ballots, working the election. And as a lot of counting sites do, there was a live feed of of the floor, essentially, of what was taking place at this counting site. Kind of a matter of public transparency and security to show everyone or at least attempt to show everyone that this is all taking place on the up and up. This is a normal process. These are regular people. There’s no chicanery going on. And they were sitting at a table counting ballots. And Rudy Giuliani, whether it was fed to him or whether it was something he noticed on his own broadcast, this allegation on a on a on a video that he that he recorded of himself kind of a selfie video that Moss and Freeman were passing USB drives back and forth to each other in in a manner of a drug exchange or something. It was a very florid, imaginative scenario that he had.

Mary Harris: Very racist to.

Speaker 4: Ruby Freeman and Shay Freeman Moore’s and one of the gentleman quite obviously surreptitiously passing around USB ports as if they’re vials of heroin and cocaine.

Mary Harris: Like he said, you’re passing a USB drive around like heroin or cocaine, which just what?

Speaker 2: That was a really telling comment as far as how you can come to believe in a conspiracy of this immense magnitude. That is to most people obviously absurd. And it could never be executed without without thousands and thousands of people knowing about it. But if you are inclined to believe that a black person in Atlanta is some kind of almost foreign citizen in your country, you know, are inherently criminal. And that was the kind of the really ugly stereotype that that Giuliani was alluding to when when he brought up drugs. And I think that on some level, he did that on purpose.

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Mary Harris: She was asked at some point, Seamus, like, what were you actually passing back and forth? And she said, A ginger mint.

Speaker 2: Right. So this is I mean, that was what made their case. I think the apotheosis of Tuesday’s testimony is that they were doing something extremely normal and banal, almost with purely good intentions and in good faith and with no intention of, you know, of sticking it to Donald Trump or really even, you know, helping the Democratic Party in any way. And that despite this, because of the imperatives of what Trump and Giuliani were doing, their lives were ruined. I mean, there were lives were ruined for, you know, for at least a short period. And as you could see when they testified, it’s really left a lasting negative impression on them.

Mary Harris: Yeah. I mean. President Trump called them out by name on his Twitter. Giuliani testified about them. And it’s interesting because Seamus talks about how she didn’t really understand the nature of the threat until I think it was her boss said to her, like, oh, check out Facebook Messenger. That’s where you’re going to see people who’ve tracked you down. Essentially.

Speaker 3: Mr. Jones told me, like they’re attacking his Facebook and I don’t really use Facebook. I have one. So I went to the Facebook app and I’m just.

Mary Harris: And when she did that, it was like she was flooded with all of this.

Speaker 3: Hate. It was just a lot of horrible things there.

Speaker 4: And those horrible things that they include threats.

Speaker 3: Yes. A lot of threats.

Mary Harris: Including someone who said be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920. A clear reference to lynching. I mean, she she said that was racist. And so it spiraled. And all of a sudden, there were protesters in front of her grandmother’s house. The FBI is telling her mother she needs to relocate from her home basically because January 6th is coming up and people are so agitated and you really feel just how much this is. Influenced people.

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Speaker 2: I think one of the things that has been striking about watching footage from January six itself is how angry and violent and full of rage that the crowd was on that day from the start, from the, you know, the first videos that were taken on that morning. And I think in Shame as a story about opening Facebook messenger kind of like in something in other context would be a kind of comical or quaint story about not knowing that it’s a different app on your phone and her boss is showing her, well, you got to click over here to see. And then finding these just hundreds or however many it was of bilious, racist messages.

Speaker 2: I think that is important to see how much anger was already built up and was already coming out because a lot of people were surprised on January 6th. I was surprised. Obviously, the police were surprised. But I think for the people like Moss and Freeman, who had been living through it for the previous weeks and months, I don’t think that they were probably surprised by what they saw because the the anger was building and the violence was building. And I think that’s one of the many things that her story showed.

Mary Harris: At the very end of their testimony, there was a moment I thought was really important because Adam Schiff, who was leading the questioning, asked Shamus if she worked as an election official anymore. And she said no. And she said, in fact, none of the people she worked with on the evening of the 2020 election still worked in election administration. And to me, this was important because I feel like what the committee has to do is prove that the threat of 2020 still exists because not just Donald Trump, it’s not just something that happened in the past. It’s something that’s ongoing and remains a threat.

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Speaker 4: How is this experience of being targeted by the former president and his allies affected your life?

Speaker 3: This turned my life upside down. I no longer give out my business card.

Mary Harris: And seeing the way elections officials are being driven out of their jobs, it just makes you realize the fragility of the systems we’ve built and just how damaged they were by the 2020 election cycle.

Speaker 3: It’s affecting my life in a major way. In every way. Our cause allies.

Speaker 2: And just how effective in the long term this campaign of harassment and kind of terror actually was. It didn’t work in 2020, but it did succeed in driving a lot of of the decent, principled people involved in the system, out of the system. And so in a way, that’s January six committee is is not only trying to remind people of what happened, but to remind them of how upsetting it was that it could happen and just the way that human memory and attention spans and the news cycle work.

Speaker 2: I think what they did was really smart. It’s kind of a random time to be discussing this. You know, it’s the middle of the summer. It’s not typically a time when politics is very active. But I think doing it now, at the exact moment when everyone could have forgotten about what happened was a very good move to remind people that it could happen again if precautions are not taken. And I think January six committee has done a very good job. But I think that is, unfortunately, one of the things we don’t really know. Did they do a good enough job that Congress can pass bipartisan election protection legislation after the committee hearings are finished? I don’t know that.

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Mary Harris: Yeah. Ben Mathis-Lilley. Thanks so much for watching the hearings with me.

Speaker 2: Thanks for having me.

Mary Harris: Ben Mathis-Lilley is a Slate senior writer. Later today, on Thursday, June 23rd, the committee’s hearings will continue. They’ll focus on how the Department of Justice struggled under pressure from President Trump. Just this week, the committee announced it had gathered so much additional evidence. They anticipate their hearings are going to continue until July. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Alan Schwarz, Carmel Delshad and Mary Wilson, with help from Anna Rubanova and Jared Downing were led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine. And I’m Mary Harris in go tracked me down on Twitter. Say hello. I’m at Mary’s desk. Thanks for listening. I will talk to you next week.