A new report provides more detail on how top officials in then-President Donald Trump’s administration relied on the lowest dregs of the internet fever swamps following Trump’s 2020 defeat as they tried to use the federal government to leverage false conspiracy theories about voter fraud and nullify the results.
Trump himself had long consumed far-right media content, and after the election he promoted a bevy of fantastical lies from Fox News, OAN, Newsmax, and others purportedly providing evidence that the election had been stolen from him. His paranoid rants put American democracy at risk, and ultimately helped spur the January 6 riots aimed at preventing the certification of Joe Biden’s victory at the U.S. Capitol.
Trump had help, as a Saturday New York Times report based on emails reviewed by the paper makes clear. In a January 1 email, Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, asked Jeffrey A. Rosen, then the acting attorney general, to examine “Italygate,” the conspiracy theory that “people in Italy had used military technology and satellites to remotely tamper with voting machines in the United States and switch votes for Mr. Trump to votes for Joseph R. Biden Jr.,” according to the account.
The Times reported that Meadows’ request “violated longstanding guidelines that essentially forbid almost all White House personnel, including the chief of staff, from contacting the Justice Department about investigations or other enforcement actions.”
On what basis was Meadows willing to breach those restrictions? The Times further reported:
Mr. Meadows sent Mr. Rosen a YouTube link to a video of Brad Johnson, a former C.I.A. employee who had been pushing the theory in videos and statements that he posted online. After receiving the video, Mr. Rosen said in an email to another Justice Department official that he had been asked to set up a meeting between Mr. Johnson and the F.B.I., had refused, and had then been asked to reconsider.
Election Day ended with a “red mirage” showing Trump in the lead, only for there to be a “blue shift” afterward as key states counted ballots that heavily favored Biden, just as election experts had long predicted. But Johnson’s theory, as detailed in a 13-minute video available online, is that Trump’s early lead actually evaporated because nefarious forces changed the vote totals to swing the election to Biden.
This is a variation on repeated, baseless lies from pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell and her right-wing media allies. But while Powell and company attributed the supposed switched votes first to a U.S. government computer system called “Hammer” and a software program known as “Scorecard,” and later to the election technology companies Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic (which she hinted may have been working on behalf of Venezuela), Johnson instead points to an operation revolving around a military satelitte controlled by the Italian defense contractor Leonardo SPA, overseen by an anti-Trump State Department official in the U.S. Eembassy in Rome with the help of British and U.S. intelligence services.
“The U.S. elections were changed, the results were changed in those five or six key states,” Johnson claimed, after initial results were “uploaded and sent to Rome” through the Leonardo military satellite. In Rome, that “raw data” was scrutinized by the conspirators, who are “the ones who said, ‘shut down all those five states or six states,’ at the exact same time, and the problem was that the algorithms were overloaded, that what they had planned on didn’t work because Trump got so many votes.”
“So they upload all of the stuff — it gives them time to analyze all of this and create new analogues that then would allow the vote to come out in favor of Biden,” he continued. “And that, then, once they created all the new data and manipulated all the data that was there, they sent these new numbers back up through this military satellite, Italian military satellite, run and operated by none other than Leonardo.”
“That blast of information is what everybody sees on those number charts where it shows all the votes, and it shows the red line and the blue line going up like this, and Trump’s ahead, Trump’s ahead, and then all of a sudden, boom, and up above goes all of those votes for Biden,” Johnson concluded. “That blip is that data being retransmitted back down through this military satellite back down into these machines that were all hooked up to the Internet.”
In reality, the “blip” Johnson describes in which the tallying of large numbers of Biden votes changed the leader in several states was the expected result of largely Democratic counties reporting their totals at once and states adding mail-in ballots, which skewed Democratic, to their counts.
Johnson’s video circulated on right-wing conspiracy theory sites, and as my colleague Parker Molloy documented, variants of “Italygate” spread on far-right message boards and social media platforms. It doesn’t seem to have broken through on Fox, or even lesser right-wing outlets like OAN or Newsmax -- but it somehow made its way into an official communication, from the White House chief of staff to the head of the Justice Department, seeking an official investigation.
This level of dangerous absurdity did not end with Trump’s administration. The former president himself continues to lie about the election result, echoing what he sees on his television. But what is even more concerning is that his party and propagandists are turning the falsehood that the election was stolen into the GOP’s core precept -- and driving out those, like Rosen, who won’t play along.