‘It’s a sham’: fears over Trump loyalists’ ‘election integrity’ drive

·7 min read
<span>Photograph: Gaelen Morse/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Gaelen Morse/Reuters

A conservative group called the America Project that boasts Donald Trump loyalists and “big lie” pushers Roger Stone and Michael Flynn as key advisers, has begun a self-styled “election integrity” drive to train activists in election canvassing and poll-watching, sparking fears from voting rights watchdogs about voter intimidation.

Patrick Byrne, the multimillionaire co-founder of the America Project, has said he has donated almost $3m to launch the drive, dubbed “Operation Eagles Wings”, with a focus on eight states including Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania, which Trump lost, plus Texas and Florida, which he won.

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The drive was unveiled in late February at a press event where Byrne touted plans to educate “election reform activists” to handle election canvassing, grassroots work and fundraising “to expose shenanigans at the ballot box” in what has echoes of Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged, and could become a sequel to those charges.

Byrne, for instance, has said the operation’s mission is to “make sure that there are no repeats of the errors that happened in the 2020 election”, and stressed the “need to protect the voting process from election meddlers who care only about serving crooked special interest groups that neither respect nor value the rule of law”.

But voting rights advocates have voiced sharp criticism of Operation Eagles Wings, calling it a “sham”, given the roles of Stone, Flynn, Byrne and others, and warning that it could lead to voter harassment at the polls and suppress legitimate votes.

To lead the fledgling operation, the America Project recruited Tim Meisburger, an ex-Trump official in the US Agency for International Development: Meisburger left the agency abruptly under a cloud in mid-January 2021 after a video surfaced of him falsely informing staffers that the Capitol attack was mostly peaceful except for “a few violent people”, and that “ several million” people were demonstrating peacefully for election reforms.

Overall, the America Project has boasted that its total funding is greater than $8m, including donations from Byrne, the ex-chief executive of Overstock.

Byrne declined to respond to queries from the Guardian about what roles election canvassers were being trained to take on, and what the operation had done to date in its targeted states.

Voting rights watchdogs say the new election integrity operation has an Orwellian quality, and poses dangers to voting rights and fair elections given the people who are so prominently associated with it.

“Michael Flynn and Roger Stone have repeatedly proven themselves to be enemies of democracy,” Sean Morales-Doyle, the acting director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center, told the Guardian.

He added: “While it is not clear what exactly they will ask their election reform activists to do, their claimed pursuit of “election integrity” is a sham, aimed instead at undermining public faith in our elections and setting the stage for future attempts to subvert the will of the people. The conspiracy theories they espouse would be laughable if they weren’t so dangerous.”

Flynn, a retired army lieutenant general who served briefly as Trump’s national security adviser, and Stone, a longtime Trump confidant and self-proclaimed master of political dirty tricks, were in the vanguard of Trump loyalists promoting falsehoods about Joe Biden’s 2020 win.

In mid-December 2020, for instance, Flynn suggested on the conservative network Newsmax that Trump could use the military to “rerun the elections” in several key states that Trump falsely claimed were rigged, and a few days later he attended a White House meeting with Trump, Byrne and other allies, where more wild schemes were discussed.

Stone spoke at a pro-Trump rally on 5 January and the next morning was at the Willard hotel, which Trump loyalists had used as a base for plotting ways to overturn the election, accompanied by several Oath Keeper bodyguards, some of whom participated in the Capitol assault and now face criminal charges.

At the rally on 5 January, Stone lavished praise on Trump’s allies who were there protesting, calling it “a historic occasion, because we’re mad as hell and we aren’t going to take it”.

Flynn and Stone received pardons from Trump after they were convicted as part of the Russian 2016 election meddling investigations, including charges of lying to the FBI in Flynn’s case, and obstruction of a congressional committee in Stone’s.

Not surprisingly, the Trump loyalists were subpoenaed by the House panel investigating the January 6 assault on the Capitol by hundreds of Trump supporters, but according to reports Stone and Flynn each repeatedly invoked their fifth amendment right against self-incrimination.

In a video clip of a Flynn deposition that the House panel played last week, Flynn was even seen pleading the fifth when asked if he supported the lawful transfer of presidential power, and if he thought the Capitol violence was wrong.

When Byrne first announced Operation Eagles Wings, Flynn and Stone were introduced as special advisers. “ If I didn’t think this had a chance to succeed I wouldn’t have gotten involved,” Stone said.

Roger Stone at Republican event in Sandy, Utah in April.
Roger Stone at Republican event in Sandy, Utah, in April. Photograph: Adam Fondren/AP

There’s little doubt Byrne’s checkbook can bolster the fledgling election operation.

Byrne, who falsely claimed that the 2020 election was rigged, and wrote a book entitled The Deep Rig, was the lead financier in tandem with the America Project to the tune of $3.25m of a controversial audit last year of Arizona’s largest county that Trump was banking on to prove fraud but that confirmed Biden won.

The Byrne-backed Eagles Wings operation has touted plans to offer “commentary” on current election policies to ensure Americans have “access to fact-based truths about the election process”.

Before launching its new operation, the America Project boasted that last year it recruited 4,500 volunteers to monitor polling stations during the gubernatorial race in Virginia where Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former governor.

In Virginia, the America Project has forged ties with Virginians for America First, a local group started by Leon Benjamin, a black pastor who in 2020 lost a race for a House seat by a whopping 23 points. Benjamin, who is running for a House seat again this fall, would not concede, citing “potential voter fraud”, in an echo of Trump’s bogus fraud claims.

Last fall, Byrne and Flynn’s brother Joe, the president of the America Project, attended a fundraiser in Richmond, Virginia, for Benjamin’s group, to coincide with its release of a report calling for new curbs on voting, including ending early voting and absentee voting, and requiring voter IDs.

Besides their roles with Eagles Wings, Flynn and Stone have been featured speakers along with rightwing pastors at “ReAwaken America”, which involves revival-style rallies in many states that have spread falsehoods that Trump lost due to fraud, and a distorted view of America’s separation of church and state.

At a ReAwaken rally last November in Texas, Flynn claimed America should have just “one religion” – prompting heavy criticism from religious leaders and others.

“If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion,” Flynn said. “One nation under God, and one religion under God, right? ”

Adam Taylor, the president of the Christian social justice group Sojourners, told the Guardian that “Flynn has a warped understanding of religion and American history”.

Similarly, criticism is mounting in Republican quarters about the roles of Stone and Flynn with their latest “election integrity” drive.

Veteran Republican operative Charlie Black, who once was a lobbying partner of Stone’s, noted that Flynn used to have one of the highest intelligence jobs in the government, but “now he spouts conspiracy theories with no evidence to back them up. So does Roger, but he has done this for a while. Read his books for examples.”