Two additional right-wing activists who have been implicated in a wide-ranging scheme to breach election data appeared on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast from late 2020 to mid-2021 to discuss their efforts to overturn the results of the election. The resurfaced video provides a contemporary account of what the two men were saying in their own words during the period now under scrutiny.
The two right-wing figures are former Michigan state senator and election fraud conspiracy theorist Patrick Colbeck and Matthew DePerno, a conservative Michigan lawyer and Trump-endorsed Republican nominee for state attorney general. Both have been active in efforts in Michigan to overturn the results of the election, often describing their work in real time on Bannon’s podcast. A new investigation from The Washington Post partially reveals each of their roles in accessing sensitive electoral data.
DePerno is a frequent guest on War Room – a supposed authority on purported security flaws in Dominion voting systems and other discredited election denialism. Following former President Donald Trump’s loss, DePerno hired a forensics firm called SullivanStrickler to obtain election data from Dominion Voting Systems as part of a lawsuit he had brought seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election, according to the Post. After a judge granted DePerno limited access to the machines in December 2020, he and Trump lawyer Sidney Powell instructed SullivanStrickler to carry out a forensic examination of Dominion’s voting systems, which was successful in gaining access to the data.
Colbeck appears to have downloaded some of data that SullivanStrickler collected as part of the DePerno investigation. An account tied to Colbeck “downloaded six files from the same folder on Jan. 5, 2021, according to the records, including files labeled ‘election management server’ and ‘ThumbDrives,’” according to the Post. The Post also reported that DePerno couldn’t remember if he’d given access to the files to Colbeck and the other election denialists who accessed the data.
Colbeck and DePerno – who is now facing criminal investigation for conspiracy to tamper with voting machines across three counties in Michigan – are two of several election denial activists who have appeared on War Room and subsequently been implicated in the data breach scheme. Brian Kennedy, a senior fellow at a Trump-aligned think tank, also appeared on War Room in late 2020 to discuss his involvement in the failed recount campaign following Trump’s loss, as previously reported by Media Matters. Kennedy was named in an earlier Post investigation as having been in communication with the forensics firm that obtained the data for DePerno. The latest Post story says former War Room guest and right-wing commentator Joe Oltmann also accessed the data.
Matthew DePerno on War Room
On May 5, 2021, DePerno appeared on Bannon’s show to talk about his ongoing lawsuit in Antrim County and what he claimed were Dominion security flaws. (The lawsuit was eventually dismissed.) In that interview, he referenced Dominion’s “election management system,” a phrase very similar to the name of one of the files Colbeck allegedly downloaded.
“We’re the only case in the country that’s been able to look at actual forensic images,” DePerno said. “December 6, 2020, we went into Antrim County and actually collected forensic images of their election management system.” DePerno then claimed that through this work, his team had been able to “just manipulate any database we want.”
Earlier in the interview, he’d claimed that his access to Dominion systems had given his team the capacity, in general, to change the outcome of any election on a hypothetical ballot.
“Looking at this data, looking at the forensic images and conducting our own tests with ballots and the Dominion system, we put out a video this week that shows that we can flip votes in any race, in any election, up ballot, down ballot, from the president's race, all the way down to any school board race,” DePerno said. “We can select certain races to keep clean. We can select certain races to flip votes in from one candidate to another.”
In June, DePerno again referenced Dominion’s election management system on War Room.
“We’ve proved now that there was direct access to the Antrim County election management system,” DePerno said. “We show that on November 5, we can see it in the forensic images, that an anonymous user logged onto the EMS remotely with escalated privileges and made changes to the database when they were trying to retabulate the election.”
Colbeck’s interest in the “election management server” file may have been tied to DePerno’s repeated claims about what access to that system allowed a user to do.
There is no evidence that any votes tabulated by Dominion were changed in the 2020 election. Still, cybersecurity researchers have warned that distributing the kind of data that DePerno and Colbeck had access to could potentially be used in the future to exploit security flaws and engage in precisely the type of activities that Trump supporters are falsely alleging happened in 2020.
Patrick Colbeck on War Room
Colbeck made several appearances on Bannon’s show immediately after Trump’s loss to discuss his efforts to challenge the Michigan election results.
On November 19, 2020, Colbeck described himself as a “bit of a tech geek,” and explained that he wanted to get involved in the recount effort so he could investigate the system’s software.
“I went in there wanting to understand the stuff that people weren't physically seeing or on the ballot,” Colbeck said. “So I wanted to understand the electronic chain of command between vote tallies and and the communications of vote tallies.”
Later the same day, Colbeck again appeared on War Room and falsely claimed that vote counts were not reliable because tabulators had been connected to the internet.
“Then you get to the basics of a vote tally, which is not – there's no chain of custody around that, particularly around paper chain of custody and electronic chain of custody,” Colbeck said. “When you've got the tabulator, it's connected to the internet, there is zero chain of custody around the vote tally.”
“So is it any wonder why we had strange vote flipping happening in the middle of the night?” he added.
The following week, Colbeck returned to War Room to again claim, incorrectly, that “the tabulator computers and the adjudicator computers and the local data center … were all networked to each other” and connected to “a cable that connected to the internet.”
“And you could see the proof that they were all connected to the internet,” Colbeck continued. “If you go look in the bottom right hand corner of all your Windows 10-based PCs and you see the little window on the bottom, there is a little icon that if you roll the mouse over there, it says, connected to the internet. But all the Detroit elected officials that I contacted that night refused – they said specifically that it was not connected to the internet. And from my background, I know differently.”
In fact, an audit and report from Michigan Republicans in 2021 found that although some of the machines had been connected to a local area network (LAN), there is no evidence that the tabulators were connected to any outside networks or that any purported internet connection had been exploited to alter any votes. The LAN connection, “which would create the same icon on a computer screen indicating a network connection as is shown by an internet accessible network,” may have accounted for Colbeck’s confusion.
Tracy Wimmer of the Michigan Department of State had previously debunked Colbeck’s false claims as well.
“No ballot tabulation machines were connected to the internet at Detroit’s counting board,” Wimmer told The Associated Press in December 2020. “The machines were networked locally to each other and the adjudication machines by ethernet cable, and so some people suggested they were online. They were not.”
Although it’s not publicly known precisely what information the account linked to Colbeck downloaded, the name of one of the other files he allegedly accessed – “ThumbDrives” – offers a possible clue. In Michigan, when voting is over, officials transfer the final tally generated by the tabulators, which Colbeck incorrectly said were connected to the internet, to the clerk’s office via flash drives. The data Colbeck received could be related to those final vote tallies or other information related to transferring the vote totals.
It’s not clear from the Post’s reporting whether Colbeck or any of the other election deniers who downloaded the Michigan data could face legal exposure. In general, breaching an election system and distributing the data is a serious crime. Colorado county clerk Tina Peters, a hero and repeat guest on War Room: Pandemic, is facing felony charges for allegedly tampering with election equipment and for obstruction following Trump’s loss.