The inevitable Trump defense
The plan of the Joint Chiefs
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Author: Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN
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Trump had staked nearly his entire campaign in 2016 around a law-and-order image, and now groaned that the criminal justice reform that Kushner had persuaded him to support made him look weak and—even worse—hadn’t earned him any goodwill among Black voters.
“I’ve done all this stuff for the Blacks—it’s always Jared telling me to do this,” Trump said to one confidante on Father’s Day. “And they all f—— hate me, and none of them are going to vote for me.”
The weekend after Father’s Day, Trump canceled a trip to Bedminster at the last minute—after Kushner had already left for the New Jersey golf club—and instead scheduled a round of political meetings at the White House without him.
A month after the murder of Floyd, Trump was dumping on his son-in-law, and he was also abandoning the chance to improve his relationship with Black leaders and Black voters during a particularly tumultuous moment in U.S. race relations and the presidential campaign. The story of this month, from the murder of Floyd to Trump’s assertion that his outreach to Black voters wasn’t working, is one of missed opportunities and bungled messaging, even in the eyes of some of Trump’s closest advisers, who described their firsthand accounts with me during the past year. Many of the sources spoke to me on the condition of deep background, an agreement that meant I could share their stories without direct attribution.
Trump had long struggled with addressing the nation’s racial issues, and his senior staff hadn’t included a single Black staffer since he’d fired Omarosa Manigault Newman—a former contestant on his reality television show—at the end of 2017. In August 2018, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway had been asked on NBC’s Meet the Press to name the top Black official in the Trump White House and could only come up with his first name: Ja’Ron.
But Ja’Ron Smith was two pay grades below the top ranks. After Conway’s interview, Smith asked for a promotion to formalize his role as the West Wing’s senior-most Black official and close the $ 50,000 salary gap. Kushner agreed but then put him off for the next two years.
Still, Smith remained in the White House, where he continued to work on Kushner’s criminal justice issues and played a crucial role in outreach to Black community leaders. In June 2020, Smith was writing a proposal for Trump to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. But the outcry over Trump’s rally on the day that commemorated the end of slavery convinced Smith to shelve the plan.
Trump hadn’t thought to ask his seniormost Black official about holding a rally on Juneteenth.
Trump’s first test at addressing the country’s racial tensions came in the summer of 2017. On a Saturday in August, 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed, and 19 others injured, when a 22-old neo-Nazi drove his souped-up 2010 Dodge Challenger at about 30 miles per hour into a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia. Heyer, who was white, and the others were protesting a white supremacist rally organized to oppose the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a Virginian who commanded the Confederate States Army during the Civil War. Trump had been golfing at his Bedminster club that morning. It had been about two hours since Heyer’s death, and Trump said he wanted to “put out a comment as to what’s going on in Charlottesville.”
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides—on many sides,” Trump said.
The White House tried in vain to focus cable networks and newspaper reporters on the first words of his statement instead of the final phrase—“on many sides”—that he’d ad-libbed and then repeated. But the obvious question they couldn’t answer was how the president could put any blame on the peaceful counter-protesters. His remarks seemed to justify the white supremacist violence, and Trump’s silence over the next 24 hours unnerved even those around him.
Back at Trump Tower in New York two days later, Trump had a news conference scheduled to discuss the nation’s infrastructure. Responding to questions about Charlottesville, he again blamed the counterprotesters.
“You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides,” Trump said.
The next day, Stephen Schwarzman, a longtime friend of Trump’s and chief executive of Blackstone Group, called the president and told him he had disbanded the White House Strategic and Policy Forum, a coalition of businesses chaired by Schwarzman that Trump had convened in February 2017 to advise him on economic issues. There weren’t enough executives left who would stand by Trump after his repeated failures to adequately address Charlottesville, Schwarzman said. Trump hung up and beat his friend to the punch by quickly tweeting that he was shutting down the panel.
Gary Cohn, the president’s top economic adviser—and a registered Democrat—was even more despondent. Raised Jewish on the East Side of Cleveland and a longtime New York resident, he stood next to Trump for the infrastructure news conference and grew increasingly alarmed and uncomfortable. Later, in a private meeting inside the Oval Office, Cohn unloaded on the president.
Cohn told Trump that his lack of clarity had been harmful to the country and that he’d put an incredible amount of pressure on people working in the White House. He told Trump that he might have to quit. No one backed Cohn up. Others in the room, including Pence, remained quiet.
Cohn returned to his office after the meeting broke up. Following a few minutes behind, Pence climbed the flight of stairs and appeared at the threshold of Cohn’s door.
“I’m proud of you,” Pence told him, safely out of earshot of the president.
An even bigger test for Trump came on May 26, 2020.
Ironically, in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Trump’s team had started picking up positive signals from some Black leaders that they interpreted as potential softening on the incumbent president. The reduction in sentences for crack cocaine offenses, which had disproportionately and unfairly targeted Black offenders, reduced prison time by an average of six years for more than 2,000 prisoners. Of those, 91 percent were Black. Trump’s tax-cut bill included specific incentives for investments in poverty-stricken areas, known as opportunity zones. And those incentives were starting to work, according to a study from the Urban Institute. The administration had also made some inroads with historically Black colleges and universities when it canceled repayment of more than $ 300 million in federal relief loans and made permanent more than $ 250 million in annual funding.
Al Sharpton, the MSNBC host and civil rights activist, had been secretly calling him, which left the president with the impression that their staffs should work together. But the follow-up calls from Kushner’s team would go unanswered. Jesse Jackson, the Baptist minister and civil rights activist and one-time presidential candidate, had phoned a few times, too.
And more than 600 Black leaders joined a call as White House aides strategized over a push to codify the opportunity zone revitalization council that Trump had created by executive order.
But none of Kushner’s efforts to repair Trump’s image with the Black community would matter when the video of George Floyd’s murder began spreading online.
The morning after Memorial Day, senior White House staff gathered inside the West Wing for a prescheduled meeting about coronavirus. The death toll was approaching 100,000 in the United States, and the administration was scrambling to address a shortage of remdesivir, the antiviral used to treat Covid.
“We’re getting crushed on Covid,” said Alyssa Farah, the communications director.
Kushner, who seemed distracted and more aloof than usual in the meeting, interrupted her.
“I’m just going to stop you,” he said. “There is going to be one story that dominates absolutely everything for the foreseeable future. I’m already hearing from African American leaders about the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.”
Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, brushed it off.
“Nobody is going to care about that,” Meadows told him, according to officials in the room. Meadows disputed this version of events.
It took another day for Trump to watch the devastating video of Floyd’s murder aboard Air Force One, where he was returning to Washington from Florida. Trump sat in the president’s suite near the front of the plane. As Trump pressed “play” on the video, he was surrounded by Kushner, social media director and deputy White House chief of staff Dan Scavino, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and his media team. Trump contorted his face as he watched. He looked repulsed, then turned away. He handed the phone back to his aides without finishing.
“This is f—— terrible,” he exclaimed.
Trump said he wanted to speak immediately with Attorney General Bill Barr.
Trump was still shaken by the video the next afternoon when Barr arrived in the Oval Office on Thursday to brief the president about Floyd’s death, now three days later. Trump had tweeted the night before that he planned to expedite the probe from the Justice Department. The only effect of the tweet, however, was to politicize the issue and infuriate Barr, who hated the suggestion that his interest in the case was political or the idea that anybody was his boss. It was the opening fissure in the relationship between the prickly and stubborn septuagenarians.
“I know these f—— cops,” Trump said, recalling stories he’d heard growing up in Queens about savage police tactics. “They can get out of control sometimes. They can be rough.”
Trump’s assessment struck some in the room as surprisingly critical of police, and the president showed a level of empathy for Floyd behind closed doors that he would never fully reveal in public. Had he tried, it might have helped dial down the tension. But Trump didn’t see it as part of his job to show empathy, and he worried that such a display would signal weakness to his base.
Trump’s compassion quickly evaporated that night as he watched demonstrators torch a Minneapolis police station, and the protests spread to New York City; Denver; Phoenix; Columbus, Ohio; and Memphis, Tennessee.
“These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd,” he wrote on Twitter. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”
Later, Jackson said during one of his calls with Trump that the president said he was considering attending Floyd’s funeral. Jackson dissuaded him from that idea, telling the president that he had barely spoken to the family after Floyd died. Trump had reached out to the Floyd family four days after his death in a call that relatives later criticized as brief and one-sided. Jackson told Trump that it would have been disrespectful to then turn up to the memorial service.
Trump agreed—and it was the last time he and Jackson spoke for the rest of the year.
As Trump stewed amid negative coverage of the worsening pandemic, the deepening recession and now the racial justice protests, it was clear to campaign aides that they needed to get their candidate back on the road again, and soon.
In early June, Trump gathered a dozen of his top White House staffers and campaign aides—plus Mike Lindell, the MyPillow company founder and a vocal Trump supporter—to discuss the campaign’s television advertising strategy and a return to the campaign trail. Trump admired the success Lindell had selling pillows with infomercials, and Brad Parscale, his campaign manager, cornered Lindell before the meeting and urged him to attest to the brilliance of the advertising campaign.
Parscale’s prep work paid off. Trump turned to Lindell as soon as campaign staffers finished their presentation on the advertising strategy.
“Mike, are they doing a good job?” Trump asked.
“Yes, they’re doing great!” Lindell said. “I’ve talked to them before, and they’re talking to my team.”
The meeting then turned to a discussion about rallies, and Parscale presented 11 potential locations in six different states: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Nearly all of the sites were outdoors.
But Florida was off the table. Parscale suggested a drive-in-style rally in Central Florida, but Trump said Governor Ron DeSantis didn’t want a big crowd in his state during the pandemic. Parscale urged Trump to call DeSantis and tell him it was safe, but Trump refused.
No one liked the options in Arizona—the weather was too hot for an outdoor rally, and a spike in Covid cases precluded indoor venues—and Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin were all governed by Democrats. That left Tulsa, Oklahoma, which had landed on Parscale’s list after he asked Pence earlier that week about which state, governed by a Trump-friendly Republican, had the fewest Covid restrictions in the nation. The Mabee Center—the 11,300-seat arena Parscale proposed that day—had been the location of a Trump rally during the 2016 campaign. Trump was sold. (Parscale moved the venue to the 19,000-seat Bank of America Center after ticket requests shot through the roof, a result of both a prank from TikTok teens and a campaign decision to blast the announcement out to supporters across the country.)
Parscale recommended holding the Tulsa rally on June 19. No one on Parscale’s team flagged that day—or that combination of time and place—as potentially problematic. Had Parscale bothered to ask Katrina Pierson, the highest-ranking Black staffer on the campaign and a close friend of Parscale’s, she would have told him that June 19 was Juneteenth, a significant holiday for Black Americans that commemorated the end of slavery. She also would have said to him that Tulsa, as most Black Americans are well aware, had been home to one of the bloodiest outbreaks of racial violence in the nation’s history.
When staffers inside the Republican National Committee heard about the plans, they immediately pushed back.
“Don’t do this,” Ronna McDaniel, the RNC chairwoman, told Parscale. “The media is not going to give us the benefit of the doubt, especially now.”
There still was time to change the date or reconsider plans entirely. The campaign hadn’t yet signed contracts with vendors or the arena or even publicly announced the event. But Parscale dug in. Parscale’s only previous campaign had been Trump’s 2016 bid. Still, what the marketing and advertising veteran lacked in political experience, he filled in with overconfidence in what he viewed as his unlimited ability to win hearts and change minds.
On June 10, Trump had a single item on his public schedule: a 12:30 p.m. intelligence briefing. But, as was often the case with the Trump White House, that changed suddenly without any significant notice.
At 3:30 p.m., the White House summoned whichever reporters hadn’t wandered too far from their briefing room desks and quickly ushered them into the Cabinet Room, where Trump sat with Kushner and, as Trump described them, “friends of mine and members of the African American community.” That included Ben Carson, Trump’s housing secretary; Darrell Scott and Kareem Lanier, the founders of the Urban Revitalization Coalition; and Republican gadfly Raynard Jackson, who had sued the party over the trademark for “Black Republican Trailblazer Awards Luncheon,” which he believed that he, not the GOP, owned.
Trump said the meeting had been called to address law enforcement, education and healthcare issues. But for the next half-hour, Trump didn’t articulate any particular policy that would address any of those issues. The one thing Trump did talk about most extensively that afternoon: his return to rallies.
“We’re going to start our rallies back up now,” Trump informed the press. “The first one, we believe, will be probably—we’re just starting to call up—will be in Oklahoma.”
As reporters were ushered out of the room, one journalist asked Trump when he planned to be in Tulsa.
“It will be Friday,” Trump said. “Friday night. Next week.”
Democrats went on the warpath. Trump, they said, couldn’t be more insensitive to the world erupting all around him. Trump’s response was also impaired by his stunning disregard for history, particularly compared to most other modern presidents. Senior officials described his understanding of slavery, Jim Crow or the Black experience in general post-Civil War as vague to nonexistent. Now, the rally on Juneteenth threatened to exacerbate the racial fissures further.
The backlash shocked Trump. He started quizzing everyone around him.
“Do you know what it is?” Trump would ask.
Two days after announcing his rally, Trump turned to a Secret Service agent, who was Black, and asked him about Juneteenth.
“Yes,” the agent told Trump. “I know what it is. And it’s very offensive to me that you’re having this rally on Juneteenth.”
At 11:23 p.m. that night, Trump posted on Twitter that he wanted to change the date.
The following week, on the afternoon of June 17, my phone vibrated with a call from the White House. It was a few days before Trump’s Tulsa rally, and the president wanted to see me.
In our interview, one year ago this week, Trump tried to put a spin on the controversy. He told me that he had made Juneteenth a day to remember.
“Nobody had heard of it,” Trump told me.
He was surprised to find out that his administration had put out statements in each of his first three years in office commemorating Juneteenth.
“Oh really?” he said. “We put out a statement? The Trump White House put out a statement?”
Each statement, put out in his name, included a description of the holiday.
But such details were irrelevant to him. Instead, he insisted, “I did something good.”
“I made Juneteenth very famous,” he said.
Trump would arrive in Tulsa to a half-filled arena. Parscale had hightailed it out of the backstage area when he saw Trump and the White House entourage approaching—no one had told the president that the BOK Center wasn’t anywhere close to capacity.
Before rallies, White House aides usually inflated crowd sizes for Trump once they were told a capacity crowd was inside the building. On the way to Tulsa, no one knew how to break the disappointing news to Trump. It wasn’t until he was backstage and turned on the television that he realized the arena was two-thirds empty.
When Trump finally took the stage that night, he urged his latest audience to forget the past several months. From the rally stage in Tulsa, Trump sought a fresh start for his reelection bid.
“So we begin, Oklahoma,” the president would tell them. “We begin. We begin our campaign.”
But the truth was the campaign had begun long ago. What was actually beginning now, for Trump, was the end.
Adapted from ‘Frankly We Did Win This Election’: The Inside Story of How Donald Trump Lost by Michael C. Bender.
Author: Michael C. Bender
This post originally appeared on Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories
“We’re arguing about the battles among the conservatives and when that coalition breaks and where it goes,” lamented Harvard Law School lecturer Nancy Gertner, a former federal judge. “It’s a dramatic difference from only two or three years ago.”
Leading the charge from the right in both cases Thursday was Justice Samuel Alito, who penned caustic opinions taking his colleagues to task for issuing narrow rulings that seemed to him to be aimed at defusing political tensions rather than interpreting the law.
“After receiving more than 2,500 pages of briefing and after more than a half-year of post-argument cogitation, the Court has emitted a wisp of a decision that leaves religious liberty in a confused and vulnerable state. Those who count on this Court to stand up for the First Amendment have every right to be disappointed—as am I,” Alito wrote in the foster-care case, notwithstanding the Catholic charity’s unanimous victory.
In the Obamacare dispute, Alito sarcastically accused the majority of repeatedly indulging in flights of legal sophistry to avoid the politically unpalatable step of striking down the landmark health care law.
“No one can fail to be impressed by the lengths to which this Court has been willing to go to defend the ACA against all threats,” Alito wrote. “A penalty is a tax. The United States is a State. And 18 States who bear costly burdens under the ACA cannot even get a foot in the door to raise a constitutional challenge. Fans of judicial inventiveness will applaud once again. But I must respectfully dissent.”
While Alito observed the court’s traditional decorum by railing at “the majority,” there was little doubt his criticism was aimed primarily at Chief Justice John Roberts, who provided the pivotal vote to uphold Obamacare nine years ago and voted Thursday to leave the law intact by concluding that the Republican-led states seeking to overturn it lacked legal standing to sue.
In the latest Obamacare case, the chief justice left authorship of the majority opinion to the court’s second-longest-serving justice, Stephen Breyer, but the result was vintage Roberts: a largely-technical, 7-2 decision finding a lack of standing for the states and individuals challenging the law, while pushing aside more fundamental questions about the law’s constitutionality.
Roberts was the author of the opinion the court issued Thursday finding very narrow grounds to strike down Philadelphia’s ban on Catholic Social Services due to its policy against vetting same-sex couples for foster care.
Alito complained that Roberts’ reading of the Philadelphia ordinance and a similar state law was so Talmudic that it meant nothing in other cases and could quickly be evaded by the city through minor changes.
“This decision might as well be written on the dissolving paper sold in magic shops,” Alito wrote derisively.
Despite the obviously tense Alito-Roberts dynamic, what unfolded Thursday at the court was not simply a one-on-one grudge match. It was more like a tag-team wrestling event, with Justice Neil Gorsuch repeating much of Alito’s criticism and the court’s newest conservative justices — Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh — coming to Roberts’ defense.
“Perhaps our colleagues believe today’s circuitous path will at least steer the Court around the controversial subject matter and avoid ‘picking a side,” Gorsuch wrote in the foster-care case, in an opinion joined by Alito and Justice Clarence Thomas. “Dodging the question today guarantees it will recur tomorrow. These cases will keep coming until the Court musters the fortitude to supply an answer. Respectfully, it should have done so today.”
Roberts seemed intent on not taking the bait. His majority decision made only a single, passing reference to Alito’s hulking dissent and chose to focus more on Gorsuch’s, which the chief curiously called “the concurrence.”
Roberts said the way the anti-discrimination ordinance and policy applied left the case open to resolution on that basis and meant the court had “no occasion” to use the case to reconsider a 21-year-old precedent that Alito views as hostile to religious freedom.
Barrett chimed in to say that while she agreed with Alito that the precedent is flawed, there was “no reason” to overrule it now. Kavanaugh seconded that view, also throwing in with the chief on the point.
It’s not yet clear whether the internecine fighting among the high court’s conservatives has any long-term impact in other cases. The cases the court took this term are generally considered to be middling in significance, but the justices have accepted an abortion case to be heard in the fall that could upend or cut back the constitutional right to abortion the court found in the landmark 1973 case, Roe v. Wade.
Still, some scholars doubt that precedent is truly in jeopardy and insist that the tendency of justices like Kavanaugh and Barrett to side with Roberts in some contentious cases undermines the idea of a six-justice conservative majority.
“I think you have a three-three-three court,” said South Texas College of Law Professor Josh Blackman. “I disagree with the notion that we have a six-member conservative majority on many of these divisive issues.”
Some analysts suspect the vocal public tiff the conservatives aired Thursday may be, in part, due to gripes about horse-trading done by Breyer.
The unusual length and painstaking detail in Alito’s opinion in the Philadelphia case made some courtwatchers wonder if it might have been drafted as a majority opinion, but later lost that status due to a shift from the court’s initial vote. A similar scenario played out in the Obamacare case back in 2012, according to reports from CBS News and elsewhere.
Alito’s lament Thursday about more than six months of “post-argument cogitation” in the same-sex foster case dispute also fuels suspicion that something more than the routine exchange of opinions went on.
“Alito’s 77-page Fulton concurrence has me thinking that Roberts did actually assign him the original majority decision and himself the Obamacare decision until Breyer engineered a bipartisan coup in Fulton that Roberts took for himself while reassigning Obamacare to Breyer,” Mike Sacks, an attorney and legal reporter for WNYW-TV in New York, wrote on Twitter.
Blackman said he, too, thinks something unusual played out in the foster-care case.
“I got that vibe,” the professor said. “I think Alito was just pissed. He was frustrated.”
Author: Josh Gerstein
This post originally appeared on Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories
The Facebook Oversight Board is often described as a “Supreme Court” for Facebook. On Wednesday, it acted like it—issuing a finely grained ruling that punts the hardest question posed to it back down for Mark Zuckerberg to deal with.
The issue before the board, in case you haven’t turned on the news or checked Twitter this week, was whether to uphold Facebook’s indefinite ban of Donald Trump’s account following his role in inciting the January 6 riot at the Capitol. It was, by far, the most hotly anticipated decision in the Oversight Board’s young existence. Since the company referred the case to the board on January 21, it received over 9,000 public comments on the matter. As of Wednesday, the Trump ban remains in place—but the decision still isn’t final.
Specifically, Facebook asked the Oversight Board to decide:
Considering Facebook’s values, specifically its commitment to voice and safety, did it correctly decide on January 7, 2021, to prohibit Donald J. Trump’s access to posting content on Facebook and Instagram for an indefinite amount of time?
The board’s answer was yes—and no. Yes, Facebook was right to suspend Trump’s account; no, it was wrong to do so indefinitely. “In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities,” the board wrote in its decision. “The Board declines Facebook’s request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty.” In other words, Facebook must decide whether to let Trump back immediately, place a clear end date on his suspension, or kick him off its platforms forever.
While the board took Facebook to task for refusing to take a clearer stand, it also endorsed the immediate logic of the takedown. The original decision to deactivate Trump’s account was made under extraordinary circumstances. With the violent attack on the US Capitol still raging, Trump made a series of posts, including a video, in which he told his followers to go home—but in which he also repeated the false claim that the election had been stolen, the very idea motivating his rioting supporters. “This was a fraudulent election, but we can’t play into the hands of these people,” he said in the video. “We have to have peace. So go home. We love you. You’re very special.” By the next day, Facebook had taken the posts down and suspended Trump entirely from its platform, as well as from Instagram and WhatsApp. (Twitter and YouTube did likewise.)
It was clear all along that the content of the offending posts was far from Trump’s most egregious—after all, he was at least telling the rioters to go home—and didn’t obviously violate any clear rule. Trump had been using Facebook to broadcast the stolen-election myth for months, after all. What had changed was not Trump’s online behavior, then, but the offline consequences of it. In a blog post explaining Facebook’s decision, Mark Zuckerberg tacitly recognized as much. “We removed these statements yesterday because we judged that their effect—and likely their intent—would be to provoke further violence,” he wrote. While the platform previously tolerated Trump, “the current context is now fundamentally different, involving use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government.” Trump would remain banned “indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”
The decision was a striking departure from Facebook’s normal approach to moderation in two ways. First, the company explicitly looked not just at the content of the posts but at the real-world context. Second, it departed from its “newsworthiness” rule that generally gives political leaders extra leeway to break the rules, on the theory that people deserve to know what they have to say.
Author: Gilad Edelman
This post originally appeared on Business Latest
Author: Michael Wines
This post originally appeared on NYT > U.S. News
PHOENIX — It seemed so simple back in December.
Responding to angry voters who echoed former President Donald J. Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, Arizona Republicans promised a detailed review of the vote that showed Mr. Trump to have been the first Republican presidential nominee to lose the state since 1996. “We hold an audit,” State Senator Eddie Farnsworth said at a Judiciary Committee hearing. “And then we can put this to rest.”
But when a parade of flatbed trucks last week hauled boxes of voting equipment and 78 pallets containing the 2.1 million ballots of Arizona’s largest county to a decrepit local coliseum, it kicked off a seat-of-the-pants audit process that seemed more likely to amplify Republican grievances than to put them to rest.
Almost half a year after the election Mr. Trump lost, the promised audit has become a snipe hunt for skulduggery that has spanned a court battle, death threats and calls to arrest the elected leadership of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix.
The head of Cyber Ninjas, the Florida-based firm that Republican senators hired to oversee the audit, has embraced Mr. Trump’s baseless theories of election theft and has suggested, contrary to available evidence, that Mr. Trump actually won Arizona by 200,000 votes. The pro-Trump cable channel One America News Network has started a fund-raiser to finance the venture and has been named one of the nonpartisan observers that will keep the audit on the straight and narrow.
In fact, three previous reviews showed no sign of significant fraud or any reason to doubt President Biden’s victory. But the senators now plan to recount — by hand — all 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County, two-thirds of the entire vote statewide.
Critics in both parties charge that an effort that began as a way to placate angry Trump voters has become a political embarrassment and another blow to the once-inviolable democratic norm that losers and winners alike honor the results of elections.
“You know the dog that caught the car?” said Steve Gallardo, the lone Democrat on the Republican-dominated Maricopa Board of Supervisors. “The dog doesn’t know what to do with it.”
After a brief pause on Friday ordered by a state court judge, the audit continues without clarity on who will do the counting, what it will cost and who will pay for the process, which is expected to last into mid-May. The One America network is livestreaming it, and Mr. Trump is cheering from the sidelines.
In an email statement on Saturday, he praised the “brave American Patriots” behind the effort and demanded that Gov. Doug Ducey, a frequent target of his displeasure, dispatch the state police or National Guard for their protection.
Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s secretary of state, a Democrat, was less enthused.
“My concern grows deeper by the hour,” she said in an email on Friday. “It is clear that no one involved in this process knows what they are doing, and they are making it up as they go along.”
The Senate president, Karen Fann, said in December that the audit had no hidden agenda and could not change the settled election results in Arizona, regardless of what it showed.
“A lot of our constituents have a lot of questions about how the voting, the electoral system works, the security of it, the validity of it,” she said, and so the senators needed experts to examine voting processes and determine “what else could we do to verify the votes were correct and accurate.”
Other state legislatures have looked into bogus claims of election fraud. But the Arizona audit, driven in part by conspiracy theories about rigged voting machines, is in a league of its own. Experts say it underscores the sharp rightward shift of the Legislature and the state Republican Party even as the state edges toward the political center.
“I get why they’re doing it, because half of the G.O.P. believes there was widespread fraud,” said Mike Noble, a Phoenix pollster who got his start in Republican politics. “The only problem is, a majority of the electorate doesn’t believe there was widespread fraud.
“The longer they push this,” he said, “the more they’re alienating people in the middle.”
In Arizona, the state party is headed by Kelli Ward, a former state senator who has rejected Mr. Biden’s victory and supports the audit. Under her leadership, the party in January censured Mr. Ducey, former Senator Jeff Flake and Cindy McCain for being insufficiently loyal to Mr. Trump.
The 16 Republicans in the State Senate reflect the party’s lurch to the right. November’s elections ousted the Senate’s two most moderate Republicans, replacing one with a Democrat and another with a Republican who claims lifetime membership in the Oath Keepers, the extremist group that helped lead the assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Another self-proclaimed Oath Keeper, State Representative Mark Finchem, proposed in January to give the Legislature the power to reject presidential election results and choose new electors by a majority vote. (The proposal went nowhere). Mr. Finchem since has become a vocal backer of the audit.
“The people in the Legislature are more prone to believe in the conspiracy theories and are more prone to espouse them” than in the past, said Barrett Marson, a Phoenix campaign consultant and a former Republican spokesman for the Arizona State House.
Ms. Fann, Mr. Farnsworth and Mr. Finchem did not respond to requests for interviews.
The Senate’s rightward drift is simply explained, political analysts say. Most of the 30 Senate districts are so uncompetitive that the Democratic and Republican primaries effectively choose who will serve as senators. Because most voters sit out primary elections, the ones who do show up — for Republicans, that often means far-right Trump supporters — are the key to getting elected.
Responding to stolen-election claims, through tougher voting laws or inquiries, is by far those voters’ top issue, said Chuck Coughlin, a Republican campaign strategist in Phoenix.
“They’re representing their constituency,” he said. “The whole process was built to produce this.”
The senators warmed to the notion of a Maricopa County audit from the first mention of it in early December.
Before long, they sent subpoenas to the county seeking the 2.1 million ballots, access to 385 voting machines and other equipment like check-in poll books, voting machine passwords and personal details on everyone who voted. The supervisors resisted, calling the election fraud-free, and said they wanted a court ruling on the subpoenas’ legality.
The reaction was immediate: The four Republicans and one Democrat on the Board of Supervisors were deluged with thousands of telephone calls and emails from Trump supporters, many from out of state, some promising violence.
“All five supervisors were receiving death threats,” said Mr. Gallardo, the Democratic supervisor. Two police officers were posted outside his home.
Hoping to head off a dispute, the supervisors hired two federally approved firms to conduct a forensic audit of the county’s voting machines. The audit concluded that the equipment had performed flawlessly.
Ms. Fann, who in the past had been seen as a moderate conservative, said the Senate wanted a stricter review. Senators said they had hired “an independent, qualified forensic auditing firm” for the task.
The senators backtracked, but Jack Sellers, the chairman of the Maricopa County supervisors, charged in a Facebook post that they had chosen “a debunked conspiracy theorist” for the audit.
Tempers flared, and all 16 Republican senators proposed to hold the supervisors in contempt, potentially sending them to jail.
But that fell apart after Senator Paul Boyer, a Phoenix Republican, backed out after deciding he could not jail the supervisors for disobeying a subpoena they considered illegal.
As he stood on the Senate floor explaining his stance, his cellphone began buzzing with furious texts and emails. Some were threatening; some mentioned his wife’s workplace and their toddler son.
“It was like, ‘You’d better watch your back — we’re coming for you,’” Mr. Boyer said. The family spent days in hiding before returning home with a 24-hour police guard.
Just two weeks later, on Feb. 27, a county court ruled the Senate subpoenas legal.
The Senate, seemingly caught unawares, initially refused to accept delivery of the subpoenaed material for lack of a secure place to store it. Officials rented a local coliseum, but the county sheriff’s office refused to provide security, calling the job outside its scope.
The second firm hired to analyze the audit results, Cyber Ninjas, says it is an industry leader. But The Arizona Republic soon reported that the company’s chief executive, Doug Logan, had posted a litany of stolen-election conspiracy theories on a Twitter account that he had deleted in January.
Among them was a retweeted post suggesting that Dominion Voting Systems, a favorite target of the right, had robbed Mr. Trump of 200,000 votes in Arizona. Dominion says Cyber Ninjas is “led by conspiracy theorists and QAnon supporters who have helped spread the “Big Lie” of a rigged election.
Mr. Logan, at a news conference last week said the company was committed to a fair, transparent process. “It’s really, really important to us that we have integrity in the way we do this count and in the results that come out of it,” he told reporters.
Ms. Fann has said that the firm and others it will oversee are “well qualified and well experienced.”
But unease about the audit has continued to mushroom. Ms. Hobbs, the secretary of state, asked the state attorney general, Mark Brnovich, a Republican, to investigate the Senate’s handling of the procedure, citing a lack of transparency about security of ballots. She noted that some of the Legislature’s furthest-right firebrands have had free access to the coliseum even as it remained unclear whether reporters and impartial election experts would be allowed to observe the proceedings.
Greg Burton, the executive editor of The Arizona Republic, said in a statement on Friday that “Senate leaders have throttled legitimate press access and handed Arizona’s votes to conspiracy theorists.”
Amid the growing uproar, the Republican senators who have approved and stood behind the audit since its beginning have largely been silent about concerns over its integrity.
Alain Delaquérière and Susan Beachy contributed research.
This week was marked by a bombshell dropped by a spokesperson for former US president Donald Trump, Jason Miller, who said that Trump is coming back to social media – but this time on his own network.
READ MORE:‘Yesterday it was Trump, tomorrow it could be anybody’: Bernie Sanders ‘not comfortable’ with Twitter ban on former president
The journalist highlighted that Trump’s long-time adviser gave almost no details on the issue, having outlined a vague timeline of about three months.
“The whole thing, we’re going to be honest, sounds very Trumpian. It’s gonna be the biggest, it’s gonna be best, everyone’s gonna love it, everyone’s gonna want it, but they are very short on details,” Swann said, adding that the former president is probably discussing the issue with some companies right now.
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