(Photo credit: Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer speaking at August 19 press briefing via Zoom.)

The effort by former President Donald Trump and his ardent supporters to delegitimize Arizona’s 2020 presidential election was supposed to reach a turning point during the third week of August. But as has been typical with this hyperpartisan effort, the pro-Trump contractors empowered by the state Senate’s Republicans faced another delay, ducking an anticipated reckoning with facts and critics.

The Senate’s contractors were slated to submit their draft report on Monday, August 23, and present their findings to their legislative sponsors on Wednesday. In anticipation of the report, which was expected to revive debunked conspiracy theories that the contractors have previously cited, a slew of election officials and experts—including RepublicansDemocrats, a bipartisan task force, technologists and academics—have been holding press briefings to frame the Senate’s inquest as a “sham,” “grift,” and “disinformation campaign”—anything but a professional election audit—and have released new reports slamming the effort.

“This review isn’t just impacting Arizona,” said Republican Trey Grayson, Kentucky’s former secretary of state who co-authored a June report criticizing the Arizona exercise, during an August 23 briefing hosted by the States United Democracy Center. “Over 40 local party leaders came to Arizona to watch, to learn, to try to take this bad idea back to their own states. [I’m] especially worried about [copycat efforts in] Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.”

Later Monday, however, Senate President Karen Fann announced that three of the five-member team led by Florida-based Cyber Ninjas had contracted COVID-19. The statehouse briefing was curtailed. It was unclear how much information and supporting evidence would be presented, a source told Voting Booth.

Meanwhile, the Senate’s lawyers on August 20 appealed a lower court order to release all of the Senate’s communications related to the review. The appeal means the records—including the results of the contractor’s two problematic vote and ballot counts—will not be public until after the Arizona Supreme Court likely hears the case in late September, other sources said.

Thus, Trump’s election-denial campaign will linger, especially among pro-Trump media that have portrayed Arizona’s review as “saving” American democracy and have helped to raise millions from Trump’s base. But unlike during the Senate review’s early months, a critical and powerful counternarrative has recently begun to emerge that is being delivered by Republicans.

“This [inquest] is a big show for the Trump forces,” said Ben Ginsberg, a Republican and lawyer who has represented the party for decades, speaking at an August 19 briefing hosted by the Center for Election Innovation and Research (CEIR). “This whole ‘audit’ is a chance for the Trump forces to actually prove the case that they’ve been trying to make that the elections are fraudulent.”

“They can’t possibly have a more ideal set of circumstances to do that, because it’s not a real audit,” Ginsberg continued. “It is something designed to their specifications. The real thing is to make sure that they provide the proof—the evidence, as they have it; proof might be too strong a word—but the evidence for any broad allegations that are made.”

There has been no shortage of criticisms of the Senate’s review. But the most telling comments in recent days have come from Republicans who have candidly described their Trumpian flank as unhinged, paranoid, conspiratorial, and willing to foment unrest—rather than face reality, namely that Trump lost Arizona because suburban Republicans did not vote for him.

“I’m in disfavor in the Republican Party by even questioning the fact [believed by some] that Trump lost the election because of fraud,” said Benny White at the CEIR briefing. White is a lawyer and longtime Arizona Republican Party election observer who co-authored an August 3 report that used public documents to show that tens of thousands of voters in greater Phoenix voted for most of the GOP candidates on their ballot but not for Trump. “I am very concerned about my country,” he added. “We are in a period of increasing civil turmoil, and distrust in our elections exacerbates the problem.”

“This [Arizona] process isn’t an audit or a review, but instead a grift,” said Matt Masterson, a former top federal election cybersecurity official and U.S. Election Assistance Commission member now at the Stanford Internet Observatory as a nonresident fellow, in the CEIR briefing. “This is an effort and a playbook that, unfortunately, we will see again, because it has proven to be effective, both in the messaging and in the fundraising around it… $5 million raised in this. This is a disinformation and misinformation playbook intended to accomplish two things.”

He continued, “One, undermine confidence in our democracy; force election officials and those of us on this [CEIR briefing] call to play whack-a-mole around claims and conspiracies, ranging from bamboo ballots [allegedly forged in China] to Italian satellites [allegedly controlling vote tabulators], to questions around the 74,000 ballots [allegedly forged] that then they roll back days later, but the damage is done. And they know that.”

Ginsberg said pro-Trump media have been hyping the Cyber Ninjas’ forthcoming report in much the same way that the Trump White House smeared the Department of Justice investigation led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller into allegations that the 2016 Trump campaign colluded with Russia to undermine Democrat Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.

“There was an effort to recast the report, public perceptions of the report, before the report itself was actually presented,” Ginsberg said. “Once the report itself actually came out, it was much different from the early characterizations. I would be very careful as a reporter in looking for wild allegations, or general allegations or comments, without the backup.”

Ginsberg also cited an August 11 report by Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution that debunked a claim by Trump’s allies in Georgia that the state’s 2020 election was marred by widespread illegal voting—a false claim that Ginsberg predicted the Cyber Ninjas would revive.

Post-Election Conspiracies

There are other recent reports, such as by the center-left nonprofit, American Oversight, which obtained Fann’s Senate-related emails and provides new insight into the goals of the Senate’s review, Fann’s contacts with Trump and his lawyers, and the Senate’s mindset.

The goal of the Senate review, which was done by contractors with little or no prior experience in elections, is to find small administrative problems “that could be twisted into appearing to be evidence… of voter wrongdoing or voting irregularities,” American Oversight reported in late July. “That predetermined conclusion, that fraud or security issues might call into question President Joe Biden’s electoral victory in Arizona, was the goal, and any post-‘audit’ findings are necessarily tainted by that bias.”

Fann’s emails showed she was “sympathetic to calls from both constituents and former President Trump himself for the election to be overturned,” a July 22 report by American Oversight said. The group noted that right-wing media personalities served as a bridge between Trump’s lawyers and Fann, and said that Fann considered hiring the Arizona Rangers, “the armed volunteer group,” to provide security for the hand count using money that would be funneled via a legal defense fund created for those arrested at the U.S. Capitol riot on January 6.

But possibly the most revealing profile of the Senate’s review was an August 19 “open letter” to Arizona Republicans from Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a lawyer and defiantly conservative Republican elected in November 2020. Richer, who said he worked for Trump’s reelection and had voted for him, refused to play along with the big lie that Trump won.

“I will keep fighting for conservatism, and there are many things I would do for the Republican candidate for President, but I won’t lie,” Richer wrote. “I am driven by facts and logic, and the Stop the Steal movement has neither.”

Richer’s readable 38-page missive underscored that Maricopa County’s public records showed suburban Republicans rejected Trump. It also recounted examples of elected Republicans embracing surreal conspiracy theories and choosing not to correct Trump’s lies. Richer recalled now-forgotten episodes that can only be described as paranoid, unhinged, and conspiratorial:

“This obsessive desire to find election fraud reached new heights when some past and present state legislators were willing to theorize that a fire at Hickman’s Family Farms [belonging to a Maricopa County supervisor] that killed 165,000 hens was somehow connected to the shredding of ballots and the theft of the election. Then, in a phone call, ironically taped and released by the accuser herself, state Senator Sonny Borrelli told the accuser that she shouldn’t comply with the law by turning over the ‘evidence’ to law enforcement, but should instead give it to him, Borrelli, because only he knew what could be done. In that call, Borrelli said he would put the Board of Supervisors in jail if he could, but that the Board of Supervisors might have a plan to kill Borrelli—to ‘whack me out’ or fake his suicide. For good measure, he also labeled both me and County Treasurer John Allen as cowards. Senator Fann promised an apology to the County officials and discipline for Borrelli. That apology never came and Borrelli is still Senate Whip.”

Richer wrote, “My attitude changed from flabbergasted to angered when I found out that multiple Republican state legislators had asked the Arizona Attorney General to criminally investigate the alleged shredding.” Those events took place in March. (In early August, Borrelli, whom Trump lauded at a July 24 rally in Phoenix, invoked a little-used state law requiring the attorney general investigate Maricopa County’s refusal to comply with the Senate’s latest subpoena.)

Richer noted how the Cyber Ninjas repeatedly made false claims based on their incompetence—claims that Trump repeated, such as saying that election files were missing, when, in fact, the records were in the Cyber Ninjas’ possession. In a July Senate briefing, the Cyber Ninjas claimed they had discovered 74,000 “fraudulent” ballots, which election officials and reporters quickly debunked. Richer wrote:

“Eventually the [Cyber] Ninjas themselves agreed that they were wrong about the 74,000 fraudulent ballots claim. However, apparently neither they nor any of the Senators bothered to inform Trump that they’d erred. As such, in his recent July 24 speech in Phoenix, the former President made the 74,000 number a focal point in his speech alleging election fraud. In what was maybe the most dystopian moment of my life, I watched as the former President of the United States told a falsehood to a crowd of 5,000 fans, many of whom knew the 74,000 number to be wholly inaccurate, and the crowd cheered in agreement and delight. Senate audit liaison Ken Bennett later said it was ‘frustrating’ that Trump repeated the inaccurate allegation. Nobody else from the audit—not newly minted spokesperson Randy Pullen, nor the Cyber Ninjas, nor Senator Fann—made any effort to correct the new falsehood that Trump had broadcast as a result of the [Cyber] Ninjas’ sloppy or purposefully deceitful work.”

Richer concluded by reiterating his motive for speaking out and lamented that many fellow Republicans were embracing Trump’s false narrative because they believed doing so would increase their chances for election or reelection. 

He wrote, “my principal motivation for speaking out is abundantly clear: the… [Cyber Ninjas’] audit is an abomination that has so far eroded election confidence and defamed good people [election workers]. But there are other reasons too.” He continued, “a lot of Republican politicians have their fingers in the wind and think that conforming to Stop the Steal, or at least staying quiet about it, is necessary for reelection in their ruby red districts or a statewide Republican primary. So that’s what they’ll do. Multiple elected or hoping-to-be-elected Republicans have told me this explicitly.”

“It’s disgusting,” Richer concluded. “I will continue to tell the truth because it is the right thing to do. If it means I aggravate some fellow Republicans, or if it means my political career is very short, so be it.”

Among those present at the Senate Republican leaders’ August 25 morning meeting to review whatever draft report and related materials the Cyber Ninjas presented was the Senate’s liaison to the audit, ex-Secretary of State Ken Bennett, a Republican, who is not trusted by the pro-Trump Cyber Ninjas. Bennett has said that he expects to assess their report and will present his conclusions to Arizona voters.

Meanwhile, Richer said at the CEIR briefing that Maricopa County may go to court to obtain the draft report and include a rebuttal—which is common practice in government audits. However, Voting Booth’s sources say they expect the draft report to be leaked to pro-Trump media, likely generating more inflammatory coverage before more independent fact-finders weigh in.