The New Yorker published a monumental piece on Monday by Jane Mayer, documenting the big-money network of right-wing organizations, foremost among them the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, that are behind efforts to spread former President Donald Trump’s lies about voter fraud — with the goal of subverting future elections, after they had almost succeeded in doing so in 2020.
The article spotlights Republican attorney Cleta Mitchell, a Bradley Foundation director who worked with Trump in his efforts to overturn the election, describing her as an “animating force” behind the foundation’s work in spreading distrust in election results and claims about voter fraud despite a persistent lack of evidence.
The article catalogued Mitchell and the Bradley Foundation’s involvement in a network of right-wing organizations along with Mitchell’s continued insistence that “Trump never got his day in court” to dispute the 2020 election, despite multiple legal defeats as well as a hand recount in Georgia. (Mitchell also resigned from her law firm on January 5, following the disclosure of her involvement in the infamous phone call in which Trump threatened Georgia’s secretary of state with potential prosecution if the state’s results were not flipped.)
Following the election, Fox News helped Mitchell push her narrative to sow confusion about the election results — and push the most underhanded plan of them all to nullify the election results.
Fox platformed Mitchell, presenting her as an “election law expert”
Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo invited Mitchell on her show the Thursday after the election where Mitchell declared that “the president said in May or June that he was worried about these massive numbers of absentee ballots, and the mail ballots, and he had every reason to be worried about that.” Mitchell spread a variety of false claims, including that ballots were “mysteriously appearing” in the state of Michigan, and also alleged that Trump campaign observers there had been unable to watch the vote count: “Then how can people trust that you don't have people manufacturing ballots.”
On the following Saturday, when national media outlets had called the election for Joe Biden, Mitchell appeared on Fox and claimed that “dead people … voted,” people “voted in two states” at once, there was “illegal voting by non-citizens,” and other “anomalies, irregularities, concerns, and questions.” Mitchell then challenged the news media’s call of the election result, including by Fox News: “Remember, just because CNN says — or even Fox News says that somebody’s president — it doesn’t make them president.”
Fox’s Trace Gallagher affirmed her argument: “And I think that Cleta makes a very good point there. … The news media doesn’t just anoint the next president. The question becomes here: Is this legal fight enough, are there enough votes out there?” (In the weeks to come, Fox News would cast doubt on the election results literally hundreds of times, contradicting the network’s own decision desk.)
Later that evening, anchor Jon Scott had Mitchell for a softball interview in which he introduced her as an “election law expert. Mitchell claimed that “it is impossible to know as we sit here tonight, what the real result is in Pennsylvania,” without Scott making any challenge to her various claims. (At that time, Biden was ahead of Trump in the state by roughly 37,000 votes, and Fox News had officially called the race.)
Bartiromo invited Mitchell again on November 10, a week after the election, during which the two spread conspiracy theories about voting machines being used to change the results. “So look, I think that we do have to run that down,” Mitchell said. “As I said, we cannot have a situation where people don't have confidence in the outcome and the tabulations and the votes.”
Mitchell’s repeated appeals for the need for “trust” and “confidence” in election results, of course, overlapped well with Fox’s own modus operandi: to repeatedly tell its viewers the election was rigged — and then justify attempts to overturn the election on the basis that Republicans “feel like it was rigged.”
Mitchell and other leading conservatives hatched the plan for state legislatures to overturn the election — then Fox News pushed it
One of the most pernicious efforts to overturn the 2020 election results was a plot to have Republican-led state legislatures simply discard their states’ election returns and then appoint Electoral College delegates who would vote for Trump regardless of the wishes of their states’ voters.
As Mayer noted, according to The Washington Spectator, Mitchell and other right-wing leaders had already begun drawing up a strategy in February 2020 to have state legislators try to cast doubt on the election results and apply pressure on their secretaries of state in some manner. The idea was brought up at a February meeting of the secretive, right-wing Council for National Policy.
As the idea took further shape, The Atlantic’s Barton Gellman reported on it in September 2020 as having developed into a genuine Republican strategy:
According to sources in the Republican Party at the state and national levels, the Trump campaign is discussing contingency plans to bypass election results and appoint loyal electors in battleground states where Republicans hold the legislative majority. With a justification based on claims of rampant fraud, Trump would ask state legislators to set aside the popular vote and exercise their power to choose a slate of electors directly. The longer Trump succeeds in keeping the vote count in doubt, the more pressure legislators will feel to act before the safe-harbor deadline expires.
The idea was spotlighted on Fox soon after the election.
While votes were first being counted on election night, Fox senior analyst Brit Hume advanced an argument that the numerous administrative changes to voting that had been done in the COVID-19 pandemic — through either executive action or court decisions — had all been illegitimate on the grounds that “the Constitution grants the authority to set election rules to state legislatures, not state courts, not state election boards, but state legislatures.”
Hume’s argument implied that people’s votes may be discarded before arriving at some kind of final election result: “So this is where we are, but you're going to hear a lot of talk about voter suppression. In some cases that might be true. But in a lot of cases, it amounts to an insistence on following the law.”
But other voices on Fox became far more explicit.
- Fox host Sean Hannity claimed on his radio show on November 5: “What my understanding is the electors, you know, they're not required to vote in accordance with whatever the state popular vote is. If they think there is fraud that is taking place, they do have the power to stop that in these states.”
- Fox host Mark Levin tweeted that Republican state legislatures had “the final say over the choosing of electors” rather than any board of elections, telling them to “get ready to do your constitutional duty.”
- And on the Sunday after the election, Fox News contributor Ken Starr appeared with Levin, claiming that election procedures had been changed unconstitutionally and sketching out the scenario: “If the legislature of a state, let's just say Pennsylvania, believes that the election cannot be trusted, it can step in and determine how the electors are chosen from the commonwealth.” (The next weekend, Starr claimed on Fox News Sunday that this maneuver was “more of a theoretical possibility” — with no acknowledgment that he’d been pushing it the week before.)
- Fox & Friends co-host Pete Hegseth argued that “state legislatures have a chance to look at” the various accusations of malfeasance from Trump campaign figures such as Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, and “the challenge that might be made in state legislatures is casting doubt as to whether or not those legislatures can say with confidence who won the greater number of votes.”
- Fox & Friends co-host Will Cain even declared: “There may not be enough evidence for a court system, but there should be enough evidence for state legislators to change their electors.” (By that point, it had become obvious that courts were simply not willing to throw out millions of votes on the basis of an obscure and highly questionable argument of constitutional semantics.)