The Big Money Behind the Big Lie

Antonio G Ginting

Anderson, of Heritage, declined to respond to questions about the group’s collaborations with Hoffman, instead sending a prepared statement: “After a year when voters’ trust in our elections plummeted, restoring that trust should be the top priority of legislators and governors nationwide. That’s why Heritage Action is deploying our established […]

Anderson, of Heritage, declined to respond to questions about the group’s collaborations with Hoffman, instead sending a prepared statement: “After a year when voters’ trust in our elections plummeted, restoring that trust should be the top priority of legislators and governors nationwide. That’s why Heritage Action is deploying our established grassroots network for state advocacy for the first time ever. There is nothing more important than ensuring every American is confident their vote counts—and we will do whatever it takes to get there.”

Hoffman, who formerly served as a town-council member in Queen Creek, a deeply conservative part of Maricopa County, did not respond to requests for comment. Kristin Clark, a Democrat who mounted a write-in campaign against him after the news of his troll farm broke, called Hoffman an “unintelligent man who wants to be a big guy.” She told me, “The Republicans here have changed. They were conservative, but now they’ve sold out. It’s money that’s changed it. All these giant, corporate groups that are faceless—it’s outside money.” In her view, “Jake Hoffman is but a cog.”

The spark that ignited the Arizona audit was an amateur video, taken on Election Night, of an unidentified female voter outside a polling place in what Kristin Clark recognized as Hoffman’s district. The voter claimed that election workers had tried to sabotage her ballot by deliberately giving her a Sharpie that the electronic scanners couldn’t read. Her claim was false: the scanners could read Sharpie ink, and the ballots had been designed so that the flip side wouldn’t be affected if the ink bled through. Nevertheless, the video went viral. Among the first to spread the Sharpiegate conspiracy was another one of Charlie Kirk’s youth groups, Students for Trump. The next day, as Trump furiously insisted he had won an election that he ended up losing by roughly seven million votes, protesters staged angry rallies in Maricopa County, where ballots were still being counted. Adding an aura of legal credibility to the conspiracy theory, Adams, the Public Interest Legal Foundation president, immediately filed suit against Maricopa County, alleging that a Sharpie-using voter he represented had been disenfranchised. The case was soon dismissed, but not before Adams tweeted, “just filed to have our client’s right to #vote upheld. Her #Sharpie ballot was cancelled without cure.” Arizona’s attorney general, Mark Brnovich, a Republican, investigated, and his office took only a day to conclude that the Sharpie story was nonsense. But, by then, many Trump supporters no longer trusted Arizona’s election results. Clark, the former Democratic challenger to Hoffman, told me that she watched in horror as “they took B.S. and made it real!”

A day after the election, the office of Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s secretary of state, reported that, based on a routine, bipartisan hand recount of a sample of ballots, “no discrepancies were found” in Maricopa County. Within days, the mainstream media had called the election for Biden, based on late returns from Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. But Cleta Mitchell, who had been dispatched by Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, to help the Trump campaign in Georgia, told Fox News, “We’re already double-checking and finding dead people having voted.” As Georgia was ratifying its results with a recount, she tweeted that the tally was “FAKE!!!

Meanwhile, on the conservative Web site Townhall, Hoffman demanded “a full audit of the vote count in swing states,” adding that the election was “far from over.” He claimed that there had been “countless violations of state election law, statistical anomalies and election irregularities in more than a half dozen states,” and argued that state legislatures should therefore have the final say. By December, he had joined his friend Bowyer and other members of the state’s Republican Party in filing suit against Arizona’s governor, calling for the state to set aside Arizona’s eleven electoral votes and allow the legislature to intervene.

At the same time, another version of the Independent Legislature Doctrine argument was being mounted in Pennsylvania, by the Honest Elections Project, the group tied to Leonard Leo, of the Federalist Society. Local Republicans had challenged a state-court ruling that adjusted voting procedures during the pandemic. The Honest Elections Project filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the Pennsylvania court had usurped the legislature’s authority to oversee elections. The effort didn’t succeed, but Richard Hasen, the election-law professor, regards such arguments as “powder kegs” that threaten American democracy. Leo didn’t respond to requests for comment, but Hasen believes that Leo is trying to preserve “minority rule” in elections in order to advance his agenda. Hasen told me, “Making it harder to vote helps them get more Republican victories, which helps them get more conservative judges and courts.”

In the case of Arizona, it took only a week for a federal district court to dismiss Hoffman and Bowyer’s suit, citing an absence of “relevant or reliable evidence.” The court admonished the plaintiffs that “gossip and innuendo” cannot “be the basis for upending Arizona’s 2020 General Election.” Hoffman and the other plaintiffs appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the matter, but it waited to do so until March. In the meantime, election-fraud conspiracy theories in Arizona were growing out of control.

On November 12th, Biden was declared the winner in Maricopa County. Soon after, a Republican member of the county’s Board of Supervisors, Bill Gates, was picking up takeout food for his family when the board’s chairman—one of four Republicans on the five-person board—called to warn him to be careful going home. Ninety angry people had gathered outside the chairman’s house, and Gates’s place could be next. “We’d all been doxed,” Gates told me. He and his wife are the legal guardians of a teen-ager whose father, a Ugandan, was nearly killed by henchmen for Idi Amin. “It’s chilling to see the parallels,” Gates told me. “You’d never think there were any parallels to a strongman autocracy in Africa.” Gates considers himself a political-science nerd, but, he said, “I had no concept that we were heading where we were heading.”

Gates, who moved to Arizona as a teen-ager, was a latchkey kid whose idea of entertainment was watching C-Span. He is forty-nine and describes himself as a “child of the Reagan Revolution” who started a Republican club in high school. He attended Drake University, in Iowa, partly so that he could witness the state’s Presidential caucuses. Winning a Truman Scholarship opened his way to Harvard Law School, where he joined the Federalist Society, the Harvard Law School Republican Club, and the Journal of Law and Public Policy. At Harvard, membership in all three was called the “conservative trifecta.” Gates can scarcely believe how the Republican Party and the conservative movement have changed in the years since.

“I know this is hard, but I just can’t be with someone who gets so many fewer bug bites than me.”
Cartoon by Lars Kenseth

Over breakfast in June, in Phoenix, he apologized for his eyes welling up with tears as he described his efforts to stand up to his own party’s mob. He said that he and the other county supervisors had been “feeling great” about how well their administration of the election had gone despite the pandemic. But, as the final ballots were counted and Trump fell behind, Maricopa County became the focal point of conspiracy theorists. “Alex Jones and those guys start coming out here, and they’re protesting outside of our election center as the counting is going on,” he said. He could hear people screaming, and what sounded like a drum: “It was Lollapalooza for the alt-right—it was crazy.” He started getting calls and e-mails saying, “You guys need to stop the steal.” Gates told me, “I’d wonder, Is this a real person?” But some angry messages came from people he knew. They said they’d never support him again. “People thought I was failing them,” Gates said. “I have been called a traitor so many times in the last six months.”

Gates says that Karen Fann, the Arizona Senate’s president, confided to him that she knew there was “nothing to” the fraud charges. (She didn’t respond to requests for comment.) Nevertheless, she buckled under the political pressure and authorized a subpoena of the county’s ballots, for the “forensic audit.” At one point, county supervisors were told that if they didn’t comply they would face contempt charges and, potentially, could be imprisoned. For a time, the official Twitter account for the audit accused the supervisors, without evidence, of “spoliation” of the ballots. “I get a little emotional when I talk about it,” Gates said. “My daughter called me, frantically trying to find out whether or not I was going to be thrown in jail.” Trump supporters set up a guillotine on a grassy plaza outside Arizona’s statehouse, demanding the supervisors’ heads. Inside, Gates recalled, one Republican member after another rose to denounce the county supervisors.

A representative for the national Republican Party tried to silence Gates when he spoke out to defend the integrity of Arizona’s election. He told me that Hoffman’s ally Tyler Bowyer, of the Republican National Committee, paid him a visit and warned, “You need to stop it.” According to Gates, Bowyer made it clear that “the Republican National Committee supports this audit.” Andrew Kolvet, a spokesman for Bowyer, denied that the visit was an official attempt at intimidation, calling it instead a “personal courtesy.”

Gates said that after he received death threats he fled with his family to an Airbnb. At one point, the sheriff sent two deputies to guard Gates’s home overnight. Trump supporters, Gates said, “are basically asking Republican leaders to bow before the altar of the Big Lie—‘You’re willing to do it? O.K., great. You’re not? You’re a RINO. You’re a Commie. You are not a Republican.’ It’s been incredibly effective, really, when you think about where we’ve come from January 6th.”

Part of what had drawn Gates to the Republican Party was the Reagan-era doctrine of confronting totalitarianism. He’d long had a fascination with emerging democracies, particularly the former Soviet republics. He had come up with what he admits was a “kooky” retirement plan—“to go to some place like Uzbekistan and help.” He told me, “I’d always thought that, if I had a tragic end, it would be in some place like Tajikistan.” He shook his head. “If you had told me, ‘You’re going to be doing this in the U.S.,’ I would have told you, ‘You’re crazy.’ ”

Some of the political pressure on election officials in Arizona was exerted directly by Trump and his associates, potentially illegally. Interfering in a federal election can be a crime. As the Arizona Republic has reported, the President and his legal adviser Rudy Giuliani phoned state and local officials, including Fann. The White House switchboard tried to connect Trump with the chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, but, even though the chairman was a Republican, he ducked the call, lest the President interfere improperly. Giuliani called Gates’s cell phone when he was shopping at Walgreens on Christmas Eve. Not recognizing the number, Gates didn’t answer. “You can’t make this stuff up,” he told me. Giuliani left a voice mail saying it was a “shame” that two Republicans couldn’t work things out—he’d come up with a “nice way” to “get this thing fixed up.”

“I never returned the phone call,” Gates said. A week later, when news broke of Trump’s notorious call to officials in Georgia, Gates was more relieved than ever that he hadn’t called Giuliani back. A panel of judges in New York has since suspended Giuliani’s law license, for threatening the public interest by making “demonstrably false and misleading statements” about the Presidential election.

By New Year’s Eve, when Trump tried and failed to reach the chairman of the Maricopa County board, his Administration was in extraordinary turmoil. Attorney General William Barr had resigned from the Justice Department after declaring that it had detected no significant election fraud. Even so, Trump continued to demand that the department investigate a variety of loony conspiracies, including a plot to erase Trump votes using Italian military satellites. According to a leaked e-mail, a Justice Department attorney disparaged the satellite theory as “pure insanity.” A man supposedly involved in the plot issued a denial to Reuters, and Italian police suggested that the allegation was baseless. But the conspiracy theory, which became known as Italygate, had bubbled up from the same pools of dark money that were funding other election misinformation. Records show that Italygate was spread by a “social welfare organization” called Nations in Action, whose directors included von Spakovsky. When Talking Points Memo contacted von Spakovsky, he said that he had resigned from the board on January 8th. But the money trail remains. Crooks and Liars, a progressive investigative-reporting site, dug up tax filings showing that the group’s 501(c)(3) sibling, the Nations in Action Globally Lifting Up Fund, had received thousands of dollars from the Judicial Crisis Network—a nonprofit enterprise, closely tied to Leonard Leo, that also funds Turning Point Action.

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