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Published with permission from Media Matters for America

Looking to make the media rounds on Tuesday morning in an attempt to clean up his Monday night debate mess, Republican nominee Donald Trump actually had only one destination on his schedule: Fox News, of course.

Calling into his allies and supporters on Fox & Friends, Trump promptly made things worse for his campaign. First, he suggested there might have been a debate conspiracy afoot to fit him with a faulty microphone, as a way to explain his shaky performance. (“My microphone was terrible.”) Then Trump got even further sidetracked from campaign messaging by fat-shaming a former winner of his Miss Universe pageant: “She was the winner, and she gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem.”

For a candidate who was nearly unanimously crowned the loser of the first presidential debate (except for in unscientific online polls he and Fox News have been desperately promoting), Trump’s attempt at damage control via Fox News was like the captain of the Titanic circling around the iceberg for a second look.

But of course, they loved Trump on Fox News, even after his debate loss. “A very good night for Donald Trump,” announced Sean Hannity. And from news anchor Bret Baier: “I do think he gets credit for just being on the stage.” They also tried to spin away his debate lies and conjure up reasons for his lopsided loss.

And that’s why Trump’s campaign now resembles a Fox News cocoon, or a hermetically sealed bubble. Since the summer, Trump has basically only spoken to Fox News. Gone is the much-touted Trump media accessibility from the Republican primary. It’s been replaced with the Trump bunker strategy, where only friendly questioners are allowed and the Republican candidate is able to expound in a fact-free Fox zone.

It’s a bubble where Trump doesn’t have to explain his long-running birther pursuit, nobody cares about his tax returns, where Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is admired for his strong leadership, and where bigotry is celebrated.

The Fox News bubble is a welcoming, comforting place for Trump, but it doesn’t reflect the reality of American politics today. And this week, that Fox-friendly strategy caught up with Trump. Reportedly uninterested in debate prep, Trump was confronted by a skilled opponent who accessed facts at will and spoke in complete paragraphs.

Meanwhile, “Trump was scattered, swaggering and stumbling,” wrote  TPM’s Josh Marshall. “Just a mix of easily demonstrable lies and nonsensical statements.”

Doesn’t that sound like another morning with Fox & Friends? Trump represents a presidential nominee who exhibits no intellectual curiosity, nor any commitment to facts. He’s the Fox News id.

And while Trump is getting pummeled from all sides for his no-show debate performance, it’s Fox News architect Roger Ailes who probably deserves a lot of the blame for the GOP’s unfolding calamity.

Not only did Ailes reportedly play a role in Trump’s disastrous debate preparation, but Ailes, of course, provided the nominee with a Fox News platform to launch into American politics back in 2011. Since then, Ailes and Trump have been inexorably linked.

Today, Fox News gifts Trump with so many softball interviews you’d think Rupert Murdoch himself were the nominee. Even Republican Sen. Ted Cruz lamented that Ailes had “turned Fox News into the Donald Trump network, 24/7” during the primary season.

What’s so astonishing today is knowing that four years ago, all the warning flags for the GOP were whipping in the wind when Mitt Romney tried to run a Fox News campaign to the White House. Romney veered hard to right and adopted the right-wing media’s contempt for the lazy “47 percent” of Americans who supposedly live off government handouts. Romney even embraced reality TV show host-turned Fox News favorite Donald Trump, who was fresh off his bogus investigation into whether the first African-American president was allowed to sit in the Oval Office.

Following the second debate in 2012, when the GOP nominee adopted Fox spin and bungled the facts of the previous month’s Benghazi terror attack, I wrote that, “Married to the conservative media and all their bogus claims and conspiracies, Romney runs the risk of coming across as badly out of touch with the truth, the way he did last night.”

Then, following the GOP’s defeat in November, which the Fox bubble never saw coming:

This grand experiment of marrying a political movement around a cable TV channel was a grand failure in 2012. But there’s little indication that enough Republicans will have the courage, or even the desire, to break free from Fox’s firm grip on branding the party.

In the wake of Romney’s defeat, some Republican operatives did vow to venture beyond the friendly confines of Fox News. And the Republican National Committee’s post-election autopsy even stressed the need for the Republican Party to “stop talking to itself.” (That’s what Fox News is very good at.)

While I knew Fox News had a vice-like grip on the GOP, and the GOP was in love with the angry rhetoric and the free media the cable channel provided, in 2012 I couldn’t have imagined four years later the party would not only embrace their failed Fox News strategy, but they’d inject it with steroids and nominate Trump. Or that the GOP nominee would then effectively barricade himself behind Fox News interviews during the general election campaign.

The punchline today? Reports suggest that in the wake of Trump’s failed debate performance, Ailes’ campaign role may be expanding. The Republican Party now appears to be trapped in a Fox News cycle that chews up GOP nominees.

Photo: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., August 31, 2016.   REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

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The Arizona 2020 election "audit" under way

Screenshot from azaudit.org

As ongoing threats by Trump loyalists to subvert elections have dominated the political news, other Republicans in two key states—Florida and Arizona—are taking what could be important steps to provide voters with unprecedented evidence of who won their most close and controversial elections.

In both battleground states, in differing contexts, Republicans are lifting the curtain on the data sets and procedures that accompany key stages of vetting voters, certifying their ballots, and counting votes. Whether 2020’s election-denying partisans will pay attention to the factual baselines is another matter. But the election records and explanations of their use offer a forward-looking road map for confronting the falsehoods that undermine election results, administrators, and technologies.

In Republican-run Florida, the state is finalizing rules to recount votes by incorporating digital images of every paper ballot. The images, together with the paper ballots, create a searchable library to quickly tally votes and identify sloppily marked ballots. Questionable ballots could then be retrieved and examined in public by counting boards to resolve the voter’s intent.

“The technology is so promising that it would provide the hard evidence to individuals who want to find the truth,” said Ion Sancho, former supervisor of elections in Leon County, where Tallahassee is located, who was among those on a January 4 conference call workshop led by the Division of Elections seeking comments on the draft rule and procedures manual revisions.

Under the new recount process, a voter’s paper ballot would be immediately rescanned by an independent second counting system—separate from what each county uses to tally votes. The first digital file produced in that tabulation process, an image of every side of every ballot card, would then be analyzed by software that identifies sloppy ink marks as it counts votes. Several Florida counties pioneered this image-based analysis, a version of which is used by the state of Maryland to double-check its results before certifying its election winners.

“The fact that it has overcome opposition from the supervisors of elections is telling because the number one problem with the [elected county] supervisors is [acquiring and learning to use] new technology; it’s more work to do,” Sancho said. “The new technology doesn’t cost much in this case. Everyone has scanners in their offices already because every voter registration form by law must be scanned and sent to the Division of Elections.”

The appeal of using ballot images, apart from the administrative efficiencies of a searchable library of ballots and votes, is that the images allow non-technical people to “see” voters’ intent, which builds trust in the process and results, said Larry Moore, the founder and former CEO of the Clear Ballot Group, whose federally certified technology would be used in Florida recounts.

But Florida’s likely incorporation of ballot images into its recount procedures, while a step forward for transparency, is unfolding in a fraught context. In 2021, its GOP-majority state legislature passed election laws that are seen as winnowing voters and rolling back voting options. In other words, it may be offering more transparency at the finish line but is also limiting participation upstream.

The new recount rule is expected to be in place by this spring, months before Florida’s 2022 primaries and midterm elections. Among the issues to be worked out are when campaign and political party officials and the public would observe the new process, because the election administrators do not want partisans to intentionally disrupt the rescanning process. These concerns were raised by participants and observers on the teleconference.

The Arizona Template


In Arizona, Maricopa County issued a report on January 5, “Correcting the Record: Maricopa County’s In-Depth Analysis of the Senate Inquiry.” The report is its most substantive refutation of virtually all of the stolen election accusations put forth by Trump loyalists who spent months investigating the state's presidential election.

Beyond the references to the dozens of stolen election accusations put forth by pro-Trump contractors hired by the Arizona Senate’s Republicans, the report offered an unprecedented road map to understanding how elections are run by explaining the procedures and data sets involved at key stages.

The report explained how Maricopa County, the nation’s second biggest election jurisdiction (after Los Angeles County) with 2.6 million registered voters, verified that its voters and ballots were legal. It also explained key cybersecurity features, such as the correct—and incorrect—way to read computer logs that prove that its central vote-counting system was never compromised online, as Trump supporters had claimed in Arizona (and Michigan).

“I’ve never seen a single report putting all of this in one place,” said John Brakey, an Arizona-based election transparency activist, who has sued Maricopa County in the past and routinely files public records requests of election data. “Usually, it takes years to understand all this.”

Taken together, Florida’s expansion of recounts to include using digital ballot images, and Maricopa County’s compilation of the data and procedures to vet voters, ballots, and vote counts, reveal that there is more evidence than ever available to confirm and legitimize election participants and results.

For example, Maricopa County’s investigation found that of the 2,089,563 ballots cast in its 2020 general election, one batch of 50 ballots was counted twice, and that there were “37 instances where a voter may have unlawfully cast multiple ballots”—most likely a spouse’s ballot after the voter had died. Neither lapse affected any election result.

“We found fewer than 100 potentially questionable ballots cast out of 2.1 million,” the report said. “This is the very definition of exceptionally rare.”

When Maricopa County explained how it had accounted for all but 37 out of 2.1 million voters, it noted that the same data sets used to account for virtually every voter were also used by the political parties to get out the vote. Thus, the report’s discussion of these data sets—voter rolls and the list of people who voted—offered a template to debunk voter fraud allegations. This accusation has been a pillar of Trump’s false claims and is a longtime cliché among the far right.

It is significant that this methodology, indeed the full report, was produced under Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a conservative Republican who has repeatedly said that he had voted for Trump, and was fully endorsed by Maricopa County’s Board of Supervisors, which has a GOP majority and held a special hearing on January 5 to review the findings.

In other words, the report is not just a rebuttal for the Arizona Senate Republican conspiracy-laced post-2020 review. It is a road map for anyone who wants to know how modern elections are run and how to debunk disinformation, including conspiracy theories involving alleged hacking in cyberspace.

“There is not a single accurate claim contained in [Arizona Senate cybersecurity subcontractor] CyFIR’s analysis of Maricopa County’s tabulation equipment and EMS [election management system],” the reportsaid, referring to accusations that counts were altered. “This includes the allegation that county staff intentionally deleted election files and logs, which is not true.”

When you add to Maricopa County’s template the introduction of a second independent scan of every paper ballot in future Florida recounts, what emerges are concrete steps for verifying results coming from Republicans who understand how elections work and can be held accountable.

Of course, these evidence trails only matter if voters or political parties want to know the truth, as opposed to following an ex-president whose political revival is based on lying about elections. However, more moderate Republicans seem to be recognizing that Trump’s stolen election rhetoric is likely to erode their base’s turnout in 2022, as Trump keeps saying that their votes don’t matter.

“You’ve got Republican buy-in,” said Florida’s Sancho, speaking of his GOP-ruled state’s embrace of more transparent and detailed recounts. “And Republicans, more than anyone else, should be concerned about whether their votes were counted as cast and as the voter intended.”

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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