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“Plot to Overturn the Election”: Frontline/ProPublica Report Shows How Trump’s Lies Became GOP Dogma

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Image Credit: FRONTLINE (PBS)/ProPublica

A federal judge ruled Monday that former President Trump and his lawyer John Eastman “likely” committed multiple felonies in their bid to block certification of Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory in the 2020 election, ordering them to turn over hundreds of emails to the House committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Despite the court order and numerous revelations coming out of the January 6 committee, some two-thirds of Republican voters believe Biden’s election was illegitimate. “The stolen election myth is animating the Republican base to this day,” says Frontline correspondent A.C. Thompson, whose new documentary, “Plot to Overturn the Election,” premieres today on PBS and tracks how lies about election fraud made their way to the center of American politics. “They believe that there has been a historic fraud that deprived Trump of his right to rule this country.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

A federal judge ruled Monday that former President Donald Trump and his lawyer “likely” committed multiple felonies in their bid to block certification of Biden’s Electoral College victory in 2020. U.S. District Court Judge David Carter ordered Trump legal adviser John Eastman to turn over hundreds of emails to the House committee investigating the January 6th attack, after determining Trump and Eastman launched a campaign to overturn a democratic election, calling it a, quote, “coup in search of a legal theory,” unquote.

Also Monday, the House January 6th committee voted unanimously to recommend criminal contempt of Congress charges against former White House aides Peter Navarro and Dan Scavino, after they became the latest former Trump administration officials to refuse to cooperate with congressional subpoenas.

Meanwhile, as we just reported, the January 6th committee may seek to interview Ginni Thomas, the Republican activist and wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, about her efforts to overturn Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss.

How these lies about election fraud made their way to the center of American politics are the focus of a new documentary by Frontline and ProPublica premiering tonight on PBS. It’s called Plot to Overturn the Election. In a minute, we’ll be joined by reporter A.C. Thompson. This is a clip.

ERIC TRUMP: An election permeated with fraud, is that an election?

TRUMP SUPPORTERS: No!

ERIC TRUMP: We all know that Biden didn’t get 80 million votes. Give me a break.

A.C. THOMPSON: After months of reporting, I’ve ended up in Phoenix, Arizona.

UNIDENTIFIED: We already have a president, and his name is Donald Trump.

A.C. THOMPSON: It’s been more than a year since Donald Trump was defeated.

SEN. WENDY ROGERS: We will, if I have anything to say about it, decertify the November 2020 presidential election!

JOE OLTMANN: If you don’t think that fraud exists in the election, if you don’t think the election was stolen, you’re either stupid or you’re just not that bright.

A.C. THOMPSON: But across the country, millions of Americans continue to believe that the election was stolen from him. I’m here to talk to a man who’s a big part of the reason why.

TOUR ATTENDEE 1: We’re excited to hear you.

PATRICK BYRNE: Thank you.

TOUR ATTENDEE 2: Thank you so much for what you’re doing.

PATRICK BYRNE: Thanks for — it’s an honor to be able to do it.

A.C. THOMPSON: Patrick Byrne is a former CEO who’s spent millions of dollars casting doubt on Joe Biden’s election.

PATRICK BYRNE: When I go up to go up on the stage, it would be a good shot to come up behind me and film that, because the whole crowd does do this.

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, please stand on your feet and greet Patrick feel the Byrne!

A.C. THOMPSON: He’s part of a right-wing movement spreading the idea that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

PATRICK BYRNE: There’s overwhelming evidence that it happened in November '20, that the election was rigged. And we're now at the point that…

A.C. THOMPSON: The movement is trying to gain political power and change the way elections are run. I’m here because I want to understand the stolen election myth. Where did it come from? Who’s behind it? And how is the ongoing battle over the last election threatening the next one?

PATRICK BYRNE: We are going to defeat this.

REPORTER 1: The numbers just came in from North Carolina. This is what we have right now: too early to call with our first numbers as the polls close.

A.C. THOMPSON: Election night, November 3rd, 2020.

REPORTER 2: Two hundred seventy electoral votes, that’s what’s required to take the presidency, and we are still early in this night.

A.C. THOMPSON: I was in Washington covering the activists mobilizing for Trump.

REPORTER 3: The polls have closed in three more states. Let’s take a look. We can’t project any of them right now.

A.C. THOMPSON: Trump had long claimed that the vote would be marred by fraud. As the results rolled in that night, he alleged they were rigged.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country.

TRUMP SUPPORTERS: U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

TRUMP SUPPORTER 1: Yeah, take that!

TRUMP SUPPORTER 2: Get out!

A.C. THOMPSON: In the coming weeks, I was focused on the violence in the streets. I didn’t realize that something far more consequential was happening in the hotel suites around me: a plot to undermine and overturn the election.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from Plot to Overturn the Election, the new investigative collaboration by Frontline and ProPublica that premieres tonight on PBS.

For more, we’re joined by A.C. Thompson, the PBS Frontline correspondent on the piece, ProPublica reporter, who has long covered the rise of right-wing extremist and white supremacist groups.

Thanks so much for being back on with us, A.C. If you can talk about the premise of what you’re looking at here in your latest documentary?

A.C. THOMPSON: So, you know, obviously, the person that many of the stolen election theories go back to is Donald Trump. He is sort of the patient zero, the originator. But there are small groups of people that were all around him that built sort of the mythology around it, the narratives around it, that put meat on the bones. And we look at one of those groups that was really instrumental in sort of taking Trump’s idea and building it into something that had life, that went beyond a single sentence — “there was fraud,” “there was vote rigging.” And that group consisted of people including former General Michael Flynn, the disgraced former national security adviser. It included Patrick Byrne, the former CEO of Overstock.com. It included Lin Wood and Sidney Powell, the attorneys, and a small company out of Texas called Allied Security Operations Group. Many of these people are former military. Many of these people have a background in business. And people like Byrne funded this operation to sort of develop a narrative that could sway the courts and could sway the public.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, A.C., you talk about a gathering that occurred at a plantation in South Carolina. Could you say a little bit more about that? What was this plantation? Who owned it? Who attended?

A.C. THOMPSON: Right, right. So, a lot of this activity comes out of a plantation in rural South Carolina owned by a conservative attorney, Lin Wood, who was one of the attorneys involved in some of the lawsuits filed to overturn the election. And there was a group of cyber experts, of other litigators, of military folks that converged on the plantation in the last weeks of November and the early — early December. And basically, they networked with folks all across the country to sort of gather information, collate it and go out and execute a strategy. And their strategy was: We’re going to litigate, we’re going to persuade the public, and we’re going to get access to voting machines and see what’s in there and prove the fraud.

AMY GOODMAN: A.C., let’s go to the clip that lays this whole thing out, as you do, in Plot to Overturn the Election.

A.C. THOMPSON: I reach out to my colleague Doug Bock Clark, who’s part of a team of ProPublica reporters investigating election fraud claims. He tells me that to really understand the Antrim report, it helps to look at what happened a few weeks after the election. That’s when a group of Trump supporters gathered at this plantation in South Carolina, owned by a lawyer named Lin Wood.

You and I had a phone call, and you said, “Hey, I’m looking at stuff that happened on Lin Wood’s plantation and what was going on there.”

DOUG BOCK CLARK: Yes. So, after the November 3rd election, many of these people were convinced: There’s no way Trump could lose; there has to have been fraud. And so they started a process of trying to prove it. What Lin Wood’s plantation became was sort of a headquarters in which a lot of them gathered, synthesized a lot of the information that was pouring across the nation, and then decided how to act on it. And at this point, Mike Flynn has come in to Lin Wood’s plantation.

A.C. THOMPSON: Among the people who were there was General Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, who had resigned and pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Documents Doug obtained show that Flynn worked with a small team of lawyers and cybersecurity people at the plantation and that President Trump spoke on the phone to lawyers there at least once. Some of the people there had been coordinating remotely with ASOG, the Dallas firm that wrote the Antrim report.

What evidence did you gather to let you know this is what happened at the plantation?

DOUG BOCK CLARK: We got a hold of well over a thousand emails, hundreds of text messages, of what was happening on the plantation. It was almost like finding a key to understanding, you know, why much of the country believes that the election was stolen.

A.C. THOMPSON: Can you walk me through it?

DOUG BOCK CLARK: Yeah. This set of papers basically shows a set of emails that show how they crafted one of the lawsuits in order to try and get access to the Dominion machines. On November 17th, Phil Waldron had written, “Gents, this is our best first list for the equipment lists that need to be included on the ‘injunction list.’” So he’s saying, you know, “This is what we think the equipment is that we need for the lawsuits we’re going to do.” It lists the actual things that they feel that they would need to prove the fraud, what are the pieces that we’re going to need.

A.C. THOMPSON: They’re talking about voting equipment.

DOUG BOCK CLARK: Right, they’re talking about voting equipment.

A.C. THOMPSON: So, versions of this end up getting used in lawsuits all over the country.

DOUG BOCK CLARK: Mm-hmm. So, the next day, on 11 —

A.C. THOMPSON: Has anybody ever seen this? Like —

DOUG BOCK CLARK: No.

A.C. THOMPSON: Doug says that Flynn and the team carried out a multipart effort to challenge the presidential election results: lawsuits, public persuasion, and getting their hands on voting machines and opening them up to scrutiny.

DOUG BOCK CLARK: On Thanksgiving Day, while many of these people were eating turkey together at Lin Wood’s plantation, calls went out to the county clerks in Antrim, Michigan, and they were basically told, “Tomorrow there’s going to be a group that’s coming up, and you should let this group access to the machines. You know, please let them see it.”

A.C. THOMPSON: Doug tells me that it’s not clear who exactly made the calls, but the next day the private jet arrived in Antrim.

DOUG BOCK CLARK: They were hoping to find evidence of a stolen election. And what they found was nothing. What they found was a bunch of computer logs, which they did not know how to read. They produced a long report, which was deeply riddled with errors, which multiple experts would find to be utterly bunk. But the sort of veneer of technical legitimacy that they would bring to this report would mean that it would spread very wide and go viral in certain ways and create a pillar of the election fraud myth.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A.C. Thompson, I’m wondering if you could comment on especially the role of Michael Flynn in all of this. And in speaking of this issue of maintaining the idea of fraud, this has continued to this day. I mean, just this week, I received — and I’m sure many other journalists received in their inboxes — reports, supposedly peer-reviewed analyses of votes in particular states, claiming that there were inconsistencies in a number of votes that clearly demonstrated that there was fraud in the 2020 elections.

A.C. THOMPSON: Yeah, you know, the thing I think that people don’t understand — and this was the thing that was most striking to me — is that the stolen election myth is animating the Republican base to this day. Trump has tapped dozens of candidates who are proponents of this myth, who are running for election in the midterms, whether it’s governor, whether it’s secretary of state, whether it’s state legislature. And when you go to Trump rallies, when you go to these events, people do not believe that Joe Biden is the legitimate president of this country. They believe that there has been a historic fraud that deprived Trump of his right to rule this country. They believe that democracy has been destroyed. And so we are living in a very perilous time. January 6 did not change the energy around this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the last clip we have, the Republican efforts to overturn Biden’s election victory in Arizona. This is the excerpt of Plot to Overturn the Election.

A.C. THOMPSON: I go see Bill Gates, a member of Maricopa’s Board of Supervisors and a lifelong Republican. Gates and his colleagues commissioned the 93-page analysis of the audit.

BILL GATES: This audit is a sham. They’re sending out misinformation, half-truths, and then that is being seized upon by the president and others to perpetuate the big lie.

A.C. THOMPSON: Gates and other supervisors opposed the audit from the start. Republicans in the state Senate threatened to hold them in contempt and arrest them, and protesters erected a guillotine for them in front of the state Capitol. Gates even received a voicemail from Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani.

RUDY GIULIANI: Bill, it’s Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s lawyer. If you get a chance, would you please give me a call? I have a few things I’d like to talk over with you. Maybe we can get this thing fixed up. You know, I really think it’s a shame that Republicans — sort of we’re both in this kind of situation. I think there may be a nice way to resolve this for everybody. So give me a call, Bill. I’m on this number anytime, doesn’t matter. OK? Take care. Bye.

A.C. THOMPSON: And when he says, “We’re Republicans in this together,” what do you take that to mean?

BILL GATES: Well, I think they believe they can pick off elections officials, Republicans, who are concerned about their future political prospects, and, you know, work with these folks to overturn an election, which is despicable. I think every elected official in the Republican Party who remains silent is aiding and abetting this. They all know this is wrong. They tell me that, but then they’re silent.

A.C. THOMPSON: And what happens to this country if, moving forward, nobody has faith in our election?

BILL GATES: That’s the beginning of the end of this country, when that happens. That’s the beginning of the end of this democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Bill Gates of the Maricopa County supervisors, from the documentary. As we wrap up, A.C. Thompson, this takes us Mark Finchem, and this takes us to what the future looks like. He is an Arizona state representative that you talk about, who is running for Arizona secretary of state, the guy who runs the elections.

A.C. THOMPSON: Yeah, and Mark Finchem is a guy who has been a member of the Oath Keepers, the militia group. He’s a guy who suggested that January 6th was an antifa plot, a false flag. He was present at the rally on January 6th. And he’s a guy that spreads just wild, wild, wild conspiracy theories. And it’s entirely possible that he will be the next secretary of state for the state. He wants no voting machines, all paper ballots, one day of voting, and that’s it. And it’s really a sort of move back to the past, to the pre-technological era.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, A.C. Thompson, what is your sense of the impact this continuing lie of the stolen election will have in the 2022 midterm elections and, even more importantly, in the presidential election?

A.C. THOMPSON: I think it’s going to be — we’re going to have to gauge this, right? Do the Trump candidates prevail in the midterms? Are they winning the primaries? That’s going to give us a real sense of what direction this country is headed. And I think in states like Arizona, we may see a lot of these Trump conspiracy theory candidates win.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much for being with us, A.C. Thompson, staff reporter with ProPublica who’s covered the rise of right-wing extremist and white supremacist groups for years. He is the correspondent for PBS Frontline. The new documentary, Plot to Overturn the Election, premieres tonight on PBS.

Coming up next, as negotiators from Russia and Ukraine are holding peace talks in Turkey, we go to Ukraine to speak with a reporter at The Guardian who just left the bombed-out city of Kharkiv. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Nate Mook tweeted on March 25th, “Today, the Lviv Philharmonic performed for the first time since the invasion—with refugees from across Ukraine joining the orchestra! It was streamed online, as the concert hall is now a warehouse for medical supplies that go to hospitals. Like food, music to nourish the soul!” And that’s the music break that we just played.

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