Lawyer who plotted to overturn Trump loss recruits election deniers to watch over the vote
By Alexandra Berzon
In a hotel conference center outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Cleta Mitchell, one of the key figures in a failed scheme to overturn Donald Trump’s defeat, was leading a seminar on “election integrity.”
“We are taking the lessons we learned in 2020 and we are going forward to make sure they never happen again,” Mitchell told the crowd of about 150 activists-in-training.
She would be “putting you to work,” she told them.
In the days after the 2020 election, Mitchell was among a cadre of Republican lawyers who frantically compiled unsubstantiated accusations, debunked claims and an array of inconclusive eyewitness reports to build the case that the election was marred by fraud. Courts rejected the cases and election officials were unconvinced, thwarting a stunning assault on the transfer of power.
Now Mitchell is prepping for the next election. Working with a well-funded network of organizations on the right, including the Republican National Committee, she is recruiting election conspiracists into an organized cavalry of activists monitoring elections.
In seminars around the country, Mitchell is marshaling volunteers to stake out election offices, file information requests, monitor voting, work at polling places and keep detailed records of their work. She has tapped into a network of grass-root groups that promote misinformation and espouse wild theories about the 2020 election, including the fiction that President Joe Biden’s victory could still be decertified and Trump reinstated.
One concern is the group’s intent to research the backgrounds of local and state officials to determine whether each is a “friend or foe” of the movement. Many officials already feel under attack by those who falsely contend that the 2020 election was stolen.
An extensive review of Mitchell’s effort, including documents and social media posts, interviews and attendance at the Harrisburg seminar, reveals a loose network of influential groups and fringe figures. They include election deniers as well as mainstream organizations such as the Heritage Foundation’s political affiliate, Tea Party Patriots and the RNC, which has participated in Mitchell’s seminars. The effort, called the Election Integrity Network, is a project of the Conservative Partnership Institute, a right-wing think tank with close ties and financial backing from Trump’s political operation.
Mitchell says she is creating “a volunteer army of citizens” who can counter what she describes as Democratic bias in election offices.
“We’re going to be watching. We’re going to take back our elections,” she said in an April interview with John Fredericks, a conservative radio host. “The only way they win is to cheat,” she added.
The claim that Trump lost the election because of improper conduct in election offices or rampant voter fraud is false. Trump’s defeat was undisputed among election officials and certified by Democrats and Republicans, with many recounts and audits verifying the outcome. Trump’s Justice Department found no evidence of widespread fraud. Trump lost more than 50 of his postelection challenges in court.
Some former election officials say they are hopeful that when election skeptics observe the process they may finally be convinced that the system is sound. But several who examined Mitchell’s training materials and statements at the request of The New York Times sounded alarms about her tactics.
Mitchell’s trainings promote particularly aggressive methods — with a focus on surveillance — that appear intended to feed on activists’ distrust and create pressure on local officials, rather than ensure voters’ access to the ballot, they say. A test drive of the strategy in the Virginia governor’s race last year highlighted how quickly the work can disrupt the process and spiral into bogus claims, even in a race Republicans won.
“I think it’s going to come down to whether they are truly interested in knowing the truth about elections or they’re interested in propagating propaganda,” said Al Schmidt, a Republican and former city commissioner of Philadelphia who served on the elections board.
Asked about her project at the Pennsylvania training, Mitchell declined an interview request and asked a reporter to leave.
In a statement emailed later, she said: “The American election system envisions citizen engagement and we are training people to assume the roles outlined in the statutes.”
Mitchell, a 71-year-old lawyer, has been a fixture in the conservative movement. She has worked closely with Virginia Thomas, the wife of the Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, on organizing through the Council for National Policy.
In August 2020, Trump tapped her to prepare for postelection litigation. She enlisted John Eastman, the lawyer who crafted specious legal theories claiming Vice President Mike Pence could keep Trump in power. “A movement is stirring,” Mitchell wrote to Eastman just two days after Election Day. “But needs constitutional support.”
Mitchell helped the president argue his case to state officials. She was on the phone with Trump when he asked Georgia’s secretary of state to “find 11,780 votes” that could reverse Trump’s defeat there.
Her latest effort is organized through the Conservative Partnership Institute, a nonprofit organization where she serves as a senior legal fellow and where Mark Meadows, Trump’s final White House chief of staff, is a senior partner. Trump’s political action committee, Save America PAC, donated $1 million to the group last year.
Mitchell has repeatedly held up Virginia, and particularly Fairfax County, as the national model. Before last year’s governor’s race between Glenn Youngkin, a Republican businessman, and Terry McAuliffe, a Democratic former governor, she helped a Virginia nonprofit organize dozens of groups into a coalition. The network ultimately trained 4,500 poll watchers and election workers and organized 18 local task forces, a number that has since doubled, organizers say.
In Fairfax, a Democratic bastion outside Washington, about three dozen activists associated with the coalition and the local Republican Party rotated through election offices, combing through voter registration applications, undeliverable mail and other materials. Christine Brim, the task force’s leader, appeared in person or emailed staff nearly every day, according to Scott Konopasek, the county registrar at the time. The operation ate up county workers’ time with dozens of information requests, as well as informal interrogations, Konopasek said.
“Everything they saw that they didn’t understand was fraud in their minds and that’s how they would frame the questions,” he said. “It was always accusatory.”
Two weeks before the election, the nonprofit behind the Virginia coalition filed a lawsuit, accusing the county of violating state voting law by accepting at least 339 ballot applications that were missing Social Security numbers. A judge ruled that the group did not have standing, which did not settle the legal question — or the dispute.
On Election Day, Republican poll watchers in 13 polling places were observed being disruptive, hovering too closely or taking photographs, according to reports that elections workers filed to the county. (Election workers at three sites had similar complaints about Democratic poll monitors. Complaints from 10 sites did not specify the poll watchers’ parties.)
Andrianne Konstas, a poll worker and volunteer with the League of Women Voters, said, “It almost felt like if Youngkin hadn’t won, it would be like we’re gathering evidence so we can take it to dismiss precincts or to dismiss a process of voting.”
Despite some concerns about these groups’ involvement, the 2021 election overall ran smoothly. It might have helped to have the most skeptical people closely engaged, said Christopher Piper, who until recently ran the Virginia Department of Elections.
“Yes, it was a little bit more annoying, but I think at the end of the day it’s worth it so these people can see the process and feel comfortable and know that it’s a safe, secure process,” Piper said.
But Konopasek resigned in March in large part because of how difficult Brim and others were making his job, he said.
“If there’s an absence of good will there’s nothing you can say that’s going to reassure someone or win them over or change their mind,” he said.