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Trump’s promotion of debunked election report reveals divisions in his circle

Former president Donald Trump took to his social media website one day this past week to post a report ridden with falsehoods about fraud in the 2020 election. And his legal team cited Trump’s post in a brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, where he faces charges of obstructing the election.

Yet that same day, as Trump and his lawyers promoted the report — which one of his campaign aides wrote, according to people familiar with the matter — others in his campaign started distancing themselves from it. A campaign spokesperson declined to comment, and another campaign aide referred questions to the legal team. “This was not posted to the campaign’s website, and we’re not lawyers,” said the aide, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter more freely. Trump’s legal team, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment.

The episode that unfolded Tuesday was yet another illustration of the unusual and at times strained dynamic between Trump’s legal entanglements and his campaign. Although Trump and his campaign have used the 91 charges he faces across four criminal indictments as an effective rallying cry in the Republican presidential race he is favored to win, the particulars have not always been ideal in the eyes of some of his advisers.

Trump has been eager to use the election interference case to hash out fraud allegations and conspiracy theories, including by demanding documents about unsubstantiated right-wing media suspicions about government agents infiltrating the mob on Jan. 6, 2021.

But such allegations have alienated many Americans, and some Republicans have called on the party to move on as it looks to the 2024 election.

In interviews, academic and legal experts debunked the content of the report Trump promoted.

“This report really rehashes the sort of greatest hits of the election conspiracies that have emerged since 2020,” said Jessica Marsden, counsel for Protect Democracy, a nonprofit group that represented Georgia election workers who sued former Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani for defamation. “There wasn’t anything in here that struck me as particularly new, and a lot of the citations point to other election conspiracy news outlets, and when you dig down into the evidence, there’s nothing new to back up these claims.”

Trump campaign staffer Liz Harrington wrote the report, according to people familiar with the matter. Harrington did not respond to a message seeking comment. After publication of this story online, she texted, “Nice source dude,” linking to her social media post criticizing the story for quoting Marsden. Harrington is a polarizing figure in Trump’s orbit but is liked by Trump. The report itself has no listed author or date on it.

Lawyers for Trump included a citation of Trump’s posting of the report in a brief that argued that presidential immunity shields him from being prosecuted for alleged obstruction in the 2020 election.

Although Trump has benefited from a more disciplined political operation, he has at times strayed from the recommendations of legal and political advisers — and they have limited ability to control some of his impulses, such as continuing to push false claims of a stolen election. His decision to publicize the report, which he described as “fully verified” and “compiled by the most highly qualified Election Experts in the Country,” caught some of his own advisers off guard.

Some of Trump’s top legal and political advisers didn’t know he planned to publish the report until it was on social media, according to four people familiar with the situation, and they later sought more clarity on the matter. The content of the report was not put through usual channels for posting and public distribution, some of these people said. Like some others, the people spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private interactions.

Trump had wanted in the past — as recently as this past summer — to release a report claiming the election was tainted by fraud, but his legal team dissuaded him, strenuously arguing against it. Trump even previewed the report in August, writing in a Truth Social post that “a Large, Complex, Detailed but Irrefutable REPORT on the Presidential Election Fraud which took place in Georgia is almost complete & will be presented by me at a major News Conference.” That news conference, however, never occurred, after lawyers intervened and urged him to cancel.

“It’s a bunch of garbage. I don’t know why they thought now was the time to release it. It’s nonsense,” said one person with knowledge of the Trump campaign’s 2020 efforts to find fraud.

The former president, who is running a campaign fueled by victimhood and grievance, is polling well ahead of his Republican rivals in the lead-up to the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses and the Jan. 23 New Hampshire primary.

Trump’s promotion of the report comes as he faces four criminal trials, including two separate federal indictments from special counsel Jack Smith and an indictment from Fulton County, Ga., District Attorney Fani Willis over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

The report includes allegations of election fraud in Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Michigan, which fact-checkers and election experts have repeatedly disputed.

For example, the Wisconsin section of the report relies on a report from Michael Gableman, a former state Supreme Court justice who conducted a review of the 2020 election for Republicans in the state legislature. During that process, Gableman, who consulted with election deniers, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that “most people, myself included, do not have a comprehensive understanding or even any understanding of how elections work.” The review found no evidence that the 2020 election was improperly called for President Biden. State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos eventually fired Gableman.

Ken Block, who founded a software firm that Trump’s campaign commissioned to study election fraud claims in late 2020 but found them to be false, wrote on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, that the latest report Trump promoted included already disproved information.

“The released list of ‘proof’ in this document includes references to issues that have already had their day in court and lost, refers the reader to random claims made on social media, references spreadsheets that are not included with the document or have a link, and, in general, makes a lot of claims without much, if any, legally admissible proof,” Block wrote.

The report also says the Wisconsin Supreme Court deemed in 2022 that ballot drop boxes were illegal under Wisconsin law. That was two years after the 2020 election, and the ruling did not impact those election results.

Justin Grimmer, a public policy professor at Stanford University, described the report as filled with “long-running debunked wild claims.” One claim he hadn’t previously seen, he said, is a suggestion that in Michigan there were more votes than voters.

“It’s kind of insane, because the number of active registered voters in Michigan was 7.1 million in 2020, and 5.5 million people turned out to vote,” Grimmer said. “I don’t know what data analysis that person is doing. … But very clearly there’s enough registered voters in the state of Michigan to support 5.5 million people turning out to vote.”

“When you look at these fraud claims, these sorts of bullet-point claims … it’s unclear what evidence is being used, how terms are being defined, what files are they looking at,” he added. “And then inevitably you can go back through and you find what they did and they just screwed it up. They just have no idea what they’re doing.”

Patrick Marley and Perry Stein contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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