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Donald Trump

Photo by Molly Butler / Media Matters | Credit: Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters

The ongoing release of materials on former President Donald Trump's attempts to subvert the 2020 election has shown the extent to which the White House pushed for the Department of Justice to investigate far-out conspiracy theories linked to the QAnon movement. And the latest example might also show that false stories circulated in far-right media made their way to Trump himself.

The Detroit News reported last week on emails recently released by the House oversight committee showing some of the Trump administration's efforts to overturn the 2020 election. On December 14 — the same day when the members of the Electoral College met across the country to formalize Joe Biden's victory — White House aide Molly Michael sent an email to acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen with the subject "From POTUS."

The email contained a PDF file of a report from a right-wing investigator on an election counting error in the small locale of Antrim County, Michigan, and a set of talking points apparently written by the report's author declaring that "Michigan cannot certify for Biden" due to a "seditious conspiracy to undermine the election process and the will of the American people."

Two minutes after that email was sent to Rosen, another unnamed person in the attorney general's office forwarded the documents to the U.S. attorneys in Michigan, asking them to "see attachments per Rich Donoghue," Trump's newly appointed deputy attorney general.

The QAnon Conspiracy Theory Links

According to The New York Times, the private group that conducted this report, Allied Security Operations Group, is a sponsor and financial backer of the website Everylegalvote.com, which had also "posted content from a source with links to" the QAnon conspiracy theory. The author of the report was also a former Republican candidate for Congress from Texas, having lost in a primary in 2016.

Later in January 2021, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows tried to get the Department of Justice to investigate another QAnon-linked election conspiracy theory that Italian military satellites had been used to change the voting returns.

What Actually Happened In Antrim County

While the claim about election interference from Italy was pure fantasy, the story about Antrim County instead belonged to a particular variety of conspiracy theory, in which a small kernel of fact is then exploited and twisted beyond any plausibility. In this case, an election-night reporting error genuinely did occur at the local level, seemingly flipping a small Republican-leaning county to Joe Biden for a time. But the problem was also quickly spotted and fixed by the local officials. As the Detroit Free Press reported just days after the election, an error in the software setup resulted in the county having what was, in essence, a botched merger of results from across its precincts.

After the error was fixed, Trump's lead in the county was restored — seemingly a very simple event. But it soon became the stuff of legend in right-wing media, promoted by then-Fox Business host Lou Dobbs and The Gateway Pundit.

"From POTUS" — But Where Did Trump Get The Idea?

The "From POTUS" email to Rosen was sent late in the day on December 14. But earlier that same day, the report was promoted online by The Gateway Pundit, Newsmax White House correspondent Emerald Robinson, and One America News White House correspondent Chanel Rion — all outlets that Trump is known to favor.

Also, in the days following these emails, Michigan completed an extra hand count of Antrim County's presidential results, as part of a genuine effort to try assuaging any remaining doubts about the situation there. This resulted in a net gain of only 12 additional votes for Trump, in comparison to the previously corrected spreadsheets from the election.

Not that such reassurances have worked, as the county has been chased with spurious litigation well into this year, incurring substantial legal fees in the process. And in a similar fashion, QAnon conspiracy theorists continue to be affiliated with the "audit" of election results in Arizona, which Republican politicians backing the effort say is meant to address voters' ongoing "questions"about the election.

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