Exclusive: Going Down The ‘Big Lie’ Rabbit Hole With Former President Trump

The Uprising obtained the former president’s purported evidence of election fraud. Trump’s statement reveals the origins of his conspiracy theories and how key conservative allies fuel them.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump makes an entrance at the Rally To Protect Our Elections conference on July 24, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

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The Uprising has obtained an unpublished statement from former President Donald Trump detailing his purported evidence that the 2020 election "was shattered with fraud and irregularities.” The information doesn’t prove any plot to manipulate the vote, but it does clearly show the workings of a complex effort to spread false election narratives. 

An analysis of Trump’s evidence demonstrates how instrumental the right wing media ecosystem, dark money, and Republican officials are to fueling and spreading the former president’s so-called Big Lie about the 2020 presidential vote.

First, it’s important to explain why the former president’s inaccurate election diatribes matter.

America's largest social media companies deplatformed Trump during his final weeks as president. After leaving office, Trump has continued to promote false conspiracies about his election loss to Joe Biden and now largely relies on allies and emailed statements to spread his messages.

Some argue that Trump’s false election narratives should be ignored completely, but the former president’s communiques are part of a much larger, influential context.

With Trump hosting rallies and holding meetings with what his allies have dubbed a “Cabinet,” it’s clear that questioning the integrity of President Biden’s election victory is a key part of the strategy and messaging for Trump and the GOP going forward. 

As Jane Mayer documented in this week’s New Yorker, the spread of Trump’s conspiratorial narrative by elected officials and partisan outlets is happening in parallel with a pre-existing push by well-financed conservative groups to change election laws and infrastructure around the country. And the Big Lie has already had tragic real-world ramifications: Trump’s claims about the 2020 election were a main driver of the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, which is another main subject of misinformation from Trump and other Republicans.

Officials from multiple agencies in Trump’s own administration have confirmed the election was the most secure in American history and that there was no widespread fraud. Trump and his allies filed over forty lawsuits challenging the results. Many were plagued with “elementary errors” and all of them failed. Trump supporters also pointed to statistics to suggest the results were questionable. An analysis by Stanford’s conservative leaning Hoover Institution found none of those statistical claims was “ even remotely convincing.” While experts acknowledge instances of small-scale fraud tend to happen in large elections, it is extremely rare and not a significant enough issue to be decisive on the national level. Nevertheless, conservatives have focused on alleged voter fraud for years as they have advocated for restrictions on voting. And Trump has continued to aggressively promote false claims about his loss last year through personal appearances, interviews with conservative outlets, and written statements emailed to his robust press list.

These email blasts have become Trump’s most frequent mode of communication and effectively replaced his once omnipresent tweets. The former president’s emails sometimes come more than once a day and have covered petty personal feuds, political endorsements, criticism of his successor, and his efforts to cast doubt on the election. 

While the content is quite similar to Trump’s past social media streams, his emailed statements don’t generate nearly as much coverage. (That is, in part, due to deliberate decisions by mainstream media outlets who are wrestling with how to handle disinformation spread by Trump and his allies.)

Nevertheless, Trump’s statements reach his base through his personal website and by being laundered through his Republican allies and conservative media. As the following analysis illustrates, Trump’s claims would not be possible without the inspiration and support of opaquely-funded partisan groups and websites, as well as major figures in conservative media and politics.

The Uprising’s journey down the rabbit hole of Trump’s election conspiracy theory industrial complex began on August 1, when the former president issued an emailed statement railing against media outlets who note his fraud claims are made without evidence when covering his remarks.

Trump described this contextualization by journalists as the work of a “crooked and collusive media” and insisted there is “irrefutable evidence” the vote was rigged. But Trump’s 280-word public statement insisting there is “massive and unconditional evidence” contained no actual specific evidence.

The Uprising reached out to Trump’s new spokeswoman, Liz Harrington, to ask if he had any specific evidence for his claims. Harrington, who has her own history of promoting false claims about the election and January 6, responded with a statement — which she described, somewhat paradoxically, as “a recent release we have yet to send out” that includes “numerous examples” of Trump’s evidence. Harrington subsequently confirmed that the document was directly attributable to Trump.

That document, which you can read in full here, included at least 9 individual claims. All of them are baseless, and almost all of the faulty evidence cited by Trump drew on the work of right-wing activists and media outlets. Before (and after) being amplified by Trump himself, many of these false and mischaracterized claims about the election were spread by Republican officials and influential pillars of the conservative media ecosystem — outlets including Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and The Federalist — as well as websites further out on the fringe. The result is a massive disinformation feedback loop capable of reaching millions of Americans.

A person wearing Donald Trump apparel listens during the Rally To Protect Our Elections conference on July 24, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Below are the major pieces of supposed evidence cited by Trump in the unpublished statement, along with analysis about the origin of these claims and where they stand in relation to reality.

1) Trump’s statement began with Pennsylvania, a key battleground state that Biden won by 80,555 votes in 2020.

“This was the most corrupt Election ever, and much has come out,” Trump said. “In Pennsylvania, highly respected U.S. Attorney William McSwain said he was told by the Justice Department to not look for evidence of Election Fraud, but to pass it along to the Never Trump state Attorney General.”

Trump is referencing a letter McSwain, the former top prosecutor in Philadelphia, sent to him in June. In that letter, McSwain requested Trump’s endorsement for his expected run for governor next year. As he sought Trump’s favor, McSwain claimed his office “received various allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities” in the aftermath of last year’s election. McSwain did not detail any specific accusation or issue, however, claiming that he was ordered by Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, not to make any public comments about the allegations and instead to refer them to the state attorney general. Barr, who has become a subject of Trump’s ire for rejecting the false election conspiracies, called McSwain’s letter “deceptive” and insisted that he encouraged federal prosecutors to pursue fraud allegations. Moreover, Barr claimed that McSwain privately admitted “that he had to do this because he was under pressure from Trump and for him to have a viable candidacy, he couldn’t have Trump attacking him.”

While McSwain claimed there were credible fraud allegations that he was ordered to share with the attorney general, he has detailed none of them and the state prosecutor has claimed McSwain referred nothing to his office. McSwain did not immediately respond to a request for comment about why he has not detailed the supposed fraud allegations or about the claims made by Barr and the state attorney general.

2) After pointing to McSwain’s letter, Trump goes on to suggest “hundreds of thousands of ballots were counted in secret” in Pennsylvania and that “ballot harvesting was suspected, including 25,000 requests for ballots from nursing homes at the ‘exact same time’.” (Note: The incorrect punctuation from Trump’s statement is preserved here.

Trump’s claim about a secret ballot count was advanced by his own campaign. His former spokesman, Tim Murtaugh, made that allegation in the days after the election last year. It wasn’t true: Trump campaign’s own lawyers subsequently admitted in a court filing that their own observers were always present during the mail in count. The notion of “ballot harvesting” — including that 25,000 simultaneous requests came from nursing homes — seems to have originated with Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who made that claim in a Fox News appearance last November. However, as the conservative Washington Examiner newspaper noted in its writeup of the senator’s remarks, “Graham did not present any evidence.” A spokesperson for Graham did not immediately respond to questions about whether he has any proof of these claims. 

3) In his unpublished statement, Trump also alleged that “illegal cash-for-votes scams were held for the Biden campaign” in Arizona, Michigan, and Nevada. Biden won these states by a total of 198,233 votes. 

According to Harrington, Trump’s spokesperson, that sentence referred to a story published in the Epoch Times last December that described programs in multiple states where voters were given free t-shirts or allowed to participate in raffles for prizes. Similar reporting appeared in The Federalist during the prior month. 

Both articles on “cash” schemes focused on voter outreach programs in the Native American community. The outreach organizations referenced in Arizona and Michigan, which did not respond to requests for comment on this story, were offering shirts and prizes to people who had voted. However, those programs were not partisan and were open to any voter regardless of who they backed. A spokesperson for Michigan’s secretary of state reportedly responded to questions about the issue from Epoch Times by saying that “no evidence of widespread illegal voting activity has been reported in Michigan.” Last month, a Republican-led committee in Michigan’s legislature also concluded an investigation of the results in that state by declaring that there was “no evidence presented at this time to prove either significant acts of fraud or that an organized, wide-scale effort to commit fraudulent activity was perpetrated in order to subvert the will of Michigan voters.” 

The Republican-led committee’s report also questioned the motives of people casting doubt on the state’s vote, stating: “The committee strongly recommends citizens use a critical eye and ear toward those who have pushed demonstrably false theories for their own personal gain.”

A women hands out free copies of the Epoch Times, a right wing newspaper, as President Trump supporters protest against the 2020 election results during a "Stop the Steal" rally, on December 12, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Indeed, the questionable allegations about “cash” for votes schemes in the Native community are a prime example of how some of Trump’s conspiracies about the election were based on content from right-wing media outlets with opaque funding sources. 

The Epoch Times, the newspaper Trump’s spokesperson identified as the source of this claim, is owned by a follower of China’s Falun Gong spiritual movement. Falun Gong followers have been banned and persecuted by the Chinese government. Trump’s rise was partly driven by hawkish China policies, and the Epoch Times shifted to publishing what has been described as “pro-Trump propaganda” since his election in 2016. This ideological shift, which led to sharp increases in revenue and traffic for the newspaper, came as reporters noted connections between the paper and pro-Trump megadonors.

The Federalist, the other outlet which advanced the “cash for votes” allegations referenced by the former president, is a pro-Trump site that has become something of a meme due to questions about its mysterious funding. During the pandemic, as the site became known for what the New Yorker described as “pseudoscientific coronavirus takes,” multiple reporters (including your humble correspondent) detailed its connections to top conservative megadonors. The Federalist also did not respond to requests for comment.

Allegations against the Native Vote Project, which migrated from the Epoch Times and The Federalist to more official Republican sources, also became part of a Trump campaign lawsuit that sought to overturn or annul Nevada’s election results. The Nevada GOP also published a report focused on the Native Vote Project about ten days after the Epoch Times article. Ethan Doig, the Nevada Native Vote Project’s strategy coordinator initially responded to the suit by describing it as “a baseless claim” and characterizing the group’s outreach as non-partisan and “engaged with Trump voters and Biden voters across the board.”

A Nevada district court judge dismissed the Trump campaign’s lawsuit that included the claims about the Native Vote Project and rejected each of the allegations. That ruling was unanimously affirmed by the state’s Supreme Court. Jon Ralston, editor of The Nevada Independent, described the complaints about local Native American voter outreach to The Uprising as “part of the state GOP's kitchen-sink garbage they threw at election officials after Trump lost here, a stew of allegations that were cooked up and then rejected by courts and the Republican secretary of state.” 

“It's absolute nonsense without foundation,” Ralston added.  

4) Trump’s statement went on to declare auditors in Arizona “have recently uncovered 275,000 potential cases of fraud, including 168,000 ballots not printed on VoteSecure paper.” 

Arizona has played host to a partisan audit that has served as a potential model for Republicans in other states who are interested in casting doubt about last year’s election and passing laws to restrict voting. The claim about 275,000 cases came from Harrington, Trump’s own spokesperson, and resulted from an aggregation of various allegations made by Cyber Ninjas, the politically inexperienced firm that was hired by Arizona’s Republican-led state Senate to conduct the audit. 

Cyber Ninjas’ analysis of the vote has not stood up to scrutiny: USA Today described the 275,000 figure as being based on “a mix of misinterpreted data, conspiratorial claims about paper ballots, and misconceptions about Arizona's election administration.” The New Yorker reported that the Arizona audit “is almost entirely privately funded,” noting that “Cyber Ninjas acknowledged having received $5.7 million in private donations, most of it from nonprofit groups led by Trump allies who live outside Arizona” including Patrick Byrne, the multimillionare founder of Overstock.com. Cyber Ninjas did not respond to a request for comment.

5) Trump then turned to Georgia, claiming that “enough illegal votes ‘to tip 2020 results’ have already been discovered of people who moved and voted in the wrong county.”.  

Biden’s victory came by a large enough margin nationally that it was not dependent on any individual state other than California. In other words, Georgia or any of the and all of the other states cited by Trump would not have had sufficient votes in the electoral college to flip the result by themselves. 

In terms of origin, the claim about “illegal votes” in Georgia also seems to have come from The Federalist: Mother Jones published a detailed examination showing that report was based on a flawed analysis and describing its appearance in The Federalist as part of a “​​transmission chain of disinformation on the right that is profitable both financially and politically.” 

Indeed, this claim about “illegal votes” in Georgia is a prime example of the disinformation feedback loop that involves false voting conspiracies sometimes spreading from fringe websites to popular conservative outlets and then to Trump himself (or vice versa). The Federalist’s questionable reporting was aggregated by a site called “Natural News,” which is published by a self-described “activist-turned-scientist” who calls himself “Mike Adams, the Health Ranger.” According to research from McGill University’s Office of Science and Society, Adams owns an “empire of misinformation” comprised of over 50 websites that focus on conservative politics, doomsday prepping, and what researchers labeled “quackery” such as antivaccine content and AIDS denial. 

In his statement of supposed evidence, Trump also claimed “over 100,000 ineligible voters were removed from the rolls after the election” in Georgia. This is correct — but the purge came from Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Ben Raffensperger. And while Raffensperger has been criticized by Trump allies for declaring Biden the winner of the election, he has also joined other members of the GOP in imposing new voting restrictions.

When he announced the purge of the voter rolls, Raffensberger noted Democrats — specifically voting rights advocate and former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams — actually fought the measure. 

“That is why I fought and beat Stacey Abrams in court in 2019 to remove nearly 300,000 obsolete voter files before the November election, and will do so again this year,” Raffensberger said. 

Election personnel sort ballots in preparation for an audit at the Gwinnett County Board of Voter Registrations and Elections offices on November 7, 2020 in Lawrenceville, Georgia. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

6) Trump’s statement continued to focus on Georgia, asserting that “a mysterious 136,155 votes for Biden were dropped at 1:34AM on Election night.” That claim seems to be based on an analysis published last November on Substack by an anonymous page and with the user name “Voter Integrity.” The suggestion late night vote counts were nefarious is false: In multiple states, including Georgia, mail-in ballots received after the polls closed were still eligible to be counted as long as they were postmarked in time. As Politifact noted in a detailed fact check of this claim, “counting ballots past midnight on Election Day is not indicative of fraud. States’ specific rules and varying election procedures influenced the timing of results.” 

It remains unclear who was responsible for the anonymous “Voter Integrity” page that spread this false narrative. Questions have been posed about the identity of the author in their own comments section since the post was written, and the author did not respond to an email. A spokesperson for Substack, citing company policy, said they were unable to provide information about the writer of an individual newsletter. (The Uprising also publishes on Substack, which offers some support for independent writers.)

This claim is another example of how false election conspiracies migrated from fringe sites to Republican officials. The narrative was spread by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) on Twitter, despite the fact it was false and came from a completely unknown source. Paul’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

7) Trump’s statement also claimed that “duplicated ballots were counted resulting in thousands of extra votes for Biden” in Georgia. Multiple recounts confirmed Biden’s victory in Georgia by 11,779 votes. This is another prime example of how Trump’s false election claims were driven by right-wing media outlets funded by conservative megadonors. 

Potential double counted ballots in Georgia have been covered by The Federalist and the “Daily Caller News Foundation,” the non-profit investigative reporting arm of the conservative website that was founded by Tucker Carlson in 2010. (Carlson reportedly sold his stake last year.) The foundation has received funding from a variety of major conservative donors and interest groups, including the Charles Koch Institute and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer has described as “an extraordinary force in persuading mainstream Republicans to support radical challenges to election rules.”

In any case, the allegedly duplicate ballots would not have “thousands of extra votes for Biden'' as Trump claims. The Federalist and the Daily Caller both noted that any double ballots would have solely resulted in “27 unearned votes” for Biden. 

Trump then suggested “tally sheets” from the Georgia recount “revealed fraudulent 100-0 vote counts for Biden” and that “100,000 tally sheets were missing for months following the election.” Those allegations seem to come from a broadcast by Carlson, Fox News’ top-rated primetime host. The fact-checking site Snopes described the claim as “false,” positing that Carlson “regurgitated” the claims from a group called VoterGA. Georgia Public Broadcasting has noted VoterGA’s co-founder, Garland Favorito, previously dabbled in 9/11 trutherism and “pushed conspiracy theories” about “the assassination of John F. Kennedy.”

Carlson’s show is part of Fox News’ opinion programming and is not subject to the same standards as the networks news reporting. In fact, last year the network’s own lawyers defended Carlson against a defamation suit by arguing he engages in “non-literal” commentary that is “loose, figurative or hyperbolic.” When asked about the claims that appeared on Carlson’s broadcast, Fox News’ top spokeswoman Irena Briganti pointed to this distinction and said, “From what I can determine, we didn’t cover these claims on any news programs and we don’t have a comment on the Tucker broadcast.”

VoterGA, which describes itself as a “non-partisan” non-profit, has been identified by GPB as a “vessel for false claims of fraud with the 2020 election.” The group has previously identified a long list of “supporting organizations” including liberal and conservative political parties along with the “Southern Party of Georgia,” which has promoted defending “Southern heritage” while honoring Confederate leaders and branding Abraham Lincoln a “despot.” Favorito did not respond to requests for comment about his organization’s sources of funding, its association with the Southern Party, or factual issues with its claims about last year’s election.

 8) The former president also claimed poll watchers in Michigan “were blocked from observing the count, and there were allegations that ballot counters were instructed to back-date mail-in ballots that came in too late.” 

However, according to a contemporaneous report from Reuters, poll watchers from both parties were barred due to “capacity restrictions to fight the spread of COVID-19.” A Trump campaign person told Reuters at the time that the issue began “when people left for lunch and did not sign out.” Trump’s campaign filed a lawsuit over poll watchers’ access to the count that was dismissed by a Michigan judge

This is another narrative that has been driven by partisan activists funded by dark money. The claims about backdated ballots in Michigan first surfaced in a video posted last November by James O’Keefe, an activist who has been funded by influential conservative donors and nonprofits that do not disclose their backers. O’Keefe’s allegations have been debunked since — regardless of their postmark — ballots could not have been counted if they were not received by officials on time. And, as noted previously, an investigation by Republicans in Michigan’s legislature found no “significant acts of fraud” in that state’s vote.

9) The final claim in Trump’s alleged evidence of election fraud is that “Big Tech election interference included Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg giving over $7 million to Detroit to ‘facilitate the return of absentee ballots’ in drop boxes that lacked chain of custody.” 

Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, has indeed contributed money to local election infrastructure along with his wife, Priscilla Chan. However, those funds were donated through the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which then gave $350 million from Zuckerberg and his wife across 49 states.

Local jurisdictions that received the donations applied for the funds, and Trump was actually victorious in some of the locales that received funding through the program. 

It’s easy to dismiss Trump’s baseless election conspiracies, but digging deep into Trump’s own supposed evidence shows that this narrative is part of something bigger than just the former president. 

The false attacks on the U.S. election system are being driven by forces within the GOP, major right-wing media outlets, conservative donors, and fringe profiteers. And this feedback loop, which is driven by the election conspiracy industrial complex, shows no sign of stopping. 

Indeed, after his long list of questionable evidence, Trump concluded the previously unpublished statement by insisting —once again without proof — that it was just the beginning of his allegations. 

“And so much more!” Trump declared.

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