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What leaked audio tells us about Trump-linked "election integrity" efforts

Attorney Cleta Mitchell is a senior legal fellow with the nonprofit Conservative Partnership Institute in Washington, D.C. The group has hosted "Election Integrity" summits in key states around the country, which have featured speakers from the Republican National Committee.
Matt Rourke
Attorney Cleta Mitchell is a senior legal fellow with the nonprofit Conservative Partnership Institute in Washington, D.C. The group has hosted "Election Integrity" summits in key states around the country, which have featured speakers from the Republican National Committee.

A prominent conservative attorney, who worked with former President Donald Trump on efforts to overturn the 2020 election, has been leading "Election Integrity" summits in swing states across the country, raising concerns about how false claims about a "stolen" election may affect future contests.

Leaked audio from those summits, which has been shared with NPR and other news outlets, provides an inside view of those efforts, which have been backed by key figures from Trump's orbit and funding from Trump's political operation. Officials from the Republican National Committee have also attended these events.

The attorney and guiding force behind these summits is named Cleta Mitchell. She has come under intense scrutiny ever since she took part in a Jan. 2, 2021 call to Georgia election officials, in which Trump pressured those officials to reverse the outcome.

"I only need 11,000 votes — fellas, I need 11,000 votes," Trump said on the call. "Give me a break. You know we have that in spades already."

During the call, Mitchell floated multiple allegations of voter fraud, which Georgia's secretary of state — himself a conservative Republican — said his office had investigated and debunked.

Soon after audio of the call was released, Mitchell resigned under pressure from her position as partner with the law firm Foley & Lardner, which expressed concern with her participation on the call.

The congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol has subpoenaed Mitchell. In addition to her participation on the call with Georgia election officials, the committee also released an email indicating that two days after the 2020 election, Mitchell suggested that state legislators could choose which electors to send to the Electoral College. That strategy could have allowed pro-Trump electors to essentially disregard their states' election results.

The district attorney of Fulton County, Ga., also secured a subpoena for Mitchell to testify as part of a separate criminal investigation into Trump's election efforts.

As those investigations have pressed forward, Mitchell has been working for a conservative nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., called the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), where "now I get to work on election integrity every single day," she recently said. Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows is a senior partner at CPI, and Trump's Save America political action committee gave $1 million to CPI last summer. Under the umbrella of CPI, Mitchell runs the "Election Integrity Network."

With the support of those connections and funding, CPI has hosted "Election Integrity Summits" in several states this year, including Michigan, North Carolina, Nevada, Arizona and Pennsylvania. "We're taking back our election systems," Mitchell told former Trump adviser Steve Bannon earlier this year, with the help of "an election integrity movement that is populated and driven by people who supported President Trump and who saw their votes literally cast aside."

Documented, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group that reports on the influence of corporations and wealthy people in politics, obtained leaked recordings from multiple events. They shared hours of tape from a March 31, 2022 summit just outside of Harrisburg, Pa., with NPR and other news outlets.

On its face, neither the mobilization of poll watchers nor increased scrutiny of election officials is necessarily concerning or even unusual. Brendan Fischer, the deputy executive director of Documented, says the difference with these events is their reliance on false and debunked information about the 2020 election.

"The concern is that the conspiracy theorists who see fraud around every corner are going to disrupt voting and the administration of elections," said Fischer.

Election officials have described receiving a barrage of threats since the 2020 election. On Monday, the Department of Justice announced that election officials and workers had reported receiving about a thousand "hostile or harassing" contacts. More than 100 of those contacts, the department said, "met the threshold for a federal criminal investigation."

Mitchell, for her part, has stressed the importance of volunteers remaining polite. "Never lose your temper or raise your voice," the group's "Citizen's Guide" states.

CPI did not respond to multiple requests for comment about their events.

Here are four takeaways from the recordings:

An official from the Republican National Committee praised Mitchell and her efforts

Though Mitchell has attracted intense scrutiny for her fraud claims about the 2020 election, an RNC official praised Mitchell and expressed a degree of deference to her work.

Joshua Findlay, the RNC's national director for election integrity, opened his remarks by thanking Mitchell.

"I am very grateful, first of all, that you're putting these on," said Findlay. "And, second of all, that we're invited. I flew overnight from meetings we had in Nevada to be here just for this."

Findlay went on to suggest that the RNC would take its cues from Mitchell.

"Cleta Mitchell, she's like the best election and election law expert out here. We're not going to tell her what to do," Findlay said. "But hopefully we can provide some infrastructure and some muscle and that's what we want to do."

Andrea Raffle, the RNC's director of election integrity for the state of Pennsylvania, also spoke at the event, and discussed ways for people to get involved in election offices. One goal of that effort, Findlay and Raffle explained, was to connect both volunteer and paid election workers with the Republican party's "war room," which could help address problems at the polls and inform the party's potential legal challenges.

"The RNC works with other groups who have an interest in promoting election integrity but the party's efforts are independent from any outside organization," said Emma Vaughn, a spokesperson for the RNC. "As such, the RNC is not a part of any formal coalition with outside groups."

Vaughn said that in places where the RNC had already engaged in "election integrity" efforts, "elections have run smoothly, and turnout has increased."

Participants are under scrutiny from investigators

Michael Roman, who served as director of election day operations for the Trump 2020 campaign, also took part in the summit.

About a month prior, Roman was subpoenaed by the Jan. 6 committee in Congress.

"The Select Committee is in possession of communications reflecting your involvement in a coordinated strategy to contact Republican members of state legislatures in certain states that former President Trump had lost and urge them to 'reclaim' their authority by sending an alternate slate of electors that would support former President Trump," said committee chair Bennie Thompson in a letter to Roman regarding the subpoena. "It appears that you helped direct the Trump campaign staffers participating in this effort."

Roman did not respond to NPR's request for comment.

According to the Washington Post, a grand jury in Washington has also subpoenaed records of communications between Arizona officials and Findlay, as well as several other Trump campaign staffers, as part of a Department of Justice investigation.

There is no indication Findlay himself is under investigation.

A focus on 'blue' areas

Throughout the event, several presenters suggested that it was especially important to closely monitor areas with large numbers of Democrats.

Doug McLinko, a county commissioner for Bradford County, Pa., said efforts to "clean up" voter rolls should be focused on Philadelphia and the surrounding areas, "Because that's the counties that are a problem. Yeah, we can go to the rural counties and we can clean up voter rolls. We need to do that. But let's be honest where it's at — let's be honest where the steal was at."

At another point, a member of the audience from Philadelphia, who did not identify himself by name, said, "in certain sections of the city which are very dangerous because Black Lives Matter is there — do we have and will we find people of color who are conservative number one and willing to work?"

Organizers for the event did not directly address the question, but said they were working on finding more volunteers for election monitoring positions in Philadelphia.

The comments about more racially diverse and predominantly Democratic areas were not limited to Pennsylvania.

The RNC's Findlay described Harris County, Texas, which includes the city of Houston, in similar terms.

"That's like the Philadelphia of Texas," said Findlay. "It's the county where we know all the problems are."

"Our job is not to win," said Christine Brim, a conservative activist from left-leaning Fairfax County, Va. "Our job is to lose less badly. And when you face that reality, when you're the blue county that can ruin a statewide vote, that really focuses what you're doing."

Past interest in conspiracy theories and incendiary rhetoric

Toni Shuppe, the founder and CEO of Audit The Vote PA, was introduced at the summit as a leader of the state's "election integrity" coalition. She told NPR she is now working with a large number of groups in the state on those efforts.

As Shuppe recounted in a video posted to Facebook, she was in Washington, D.C., and outside the Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021 attack. She said she did not witness any of the violence that day, and things were peaceful where she was.

Shuppe has written that her path to political activism began, in part, by watching a 10-part three-hour online video called "The Fall Of The Cabal." The video promotes a wide variety of conspiracy theories, including some related to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, to theories known as Pizzagate and QAnon. The Anti-Defamation League has described QAnon as "a wide-reaching conspiracy theory popular among a range of right-wing extremists," with "marked undertones of antisemitism and xenophobia."

"I don't know if any of the information in the video is true," Shuppe told NPR in an email. "But what if it is? The video opened my eyes to be more analytical and to question all narratives. I feel the same way about 9/11. Question all narratives."

In one startling scene from the video, the narrator claims that "worldwide, children are stolen and sold to elite pedophile rings," which then "drink the childrens' blood and they eat their flesh."

NPR asked Shuppe if she believed that specific claim.

"I have no idea," Shuppe responded. "Wish I knew. Great question though. Why don't you do some digging to figure that out and report back?"

Another participant at the event has used incendiary rhetoric in the past.

Ned Jones, the deputy director of the Election Integrity Network at CPI, gave a presentation on ways to hold local election officials accountable, including by filing public records requests.

During the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Jones responded to a tweet about the breach of the Capitol building, "They don't say a word when BLM/Antifa burn cities. It's our turn! About time!"

He has also frequently tweeted about the possibility of a second "civil war."

Responding to a tweet about street violence during post-election protests in Washington state in December 2020, Jones wrote, "The Civil War has started in Olympia, WA! Let's roll Patriots!"

Jones did not respond to NPR's request for comment.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Dreisbach is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories.