Leaked audio sheds light on "election integrity" events tied to Trump, RNC Attorney Cleta Mitchell came under scrutiny after taking part in Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Now she's hosting "election integrity" events that have included officials from the RNC.

What leaked audio tells us about Trump-linked "election integrity" efforts

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1115211891/1115267088" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Ahead of this year's midterms, a lawyer who worked on former President Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election is now trying to mobilize a volunteer army of poll watchers. Her summits have included top officials from the Republican Party, alongside at least one activist who's promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory. As NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach reports, hours of leaked audio are shedding light on their efforts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Everybody in the back, take your seats.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Back in March of this year in a hotel just outside Harrisburg, Pa., people gathered for what was billed as an election integrity summit. It was officially nonpartisan, but the audience seemed clearly pro-Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOUG MCLINKO: OK, I got some good news. Donald Trump did not lose Pennsylvania. He did not lose Pennsylvania.

DREISBACH: That's Doug McLinko, a county commissioner from Pennsylvania who wants to eliminate mail-in voting in the state. He said proudly that he voted against certifying the 2020 election. This event was put on by a longtime conservative election lawyer named Cleta Mitchell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLETA MITCHELL: We are taking the lessons we learned in 2020, and we are going forward to make sure they never happen again, ever.

(APPLAUSE)

DREISBACH: If the name Cleta Mitchell sounds familiar, it's probably because of this phone call.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: So what are we going to do here folks? I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break.

DREISBACH: This is from January 2, 2021. President Trump pressured Georgia election officials to overturn the state's election results. Trump brought Cleta Mitchell as backup.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCHELL: What I don't understand is, why wouldn't it be in everyone's best interest to try to get to the bottom, compare the numbers, to try to be able to get to the truth?

DREISBACH: According to the congressional committee investigating January 6, Mitchell had also suggested a plan to submit alternate slates of pro-Trump electors. Since then, a prosecutor in Georgia has subpoenaed her as part of a criminal investigation into Trump's efforts to overturn the election. While those investigations have been pushing ahead, Mitchell has a new position with a D.C. nonprofit led in part by Mark Meadows, Trump's last White House chief of staff. It's called the Conservative Partnership Institute.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCHELL: And now I get to work on election integrity every single day.

(APPLAUSE)

DREISBACH: Trump's political action committee donated $1,000,000 to the Conservative Partnership Institute, and the group appears to keep close ties with Trump campaign staffers like Mike Roman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE ROMAN: I was on Trump's campaign. I was on in '16. I was on in '20. Hopefully I'll be on in '24, if he hires me.

(APPLAUSE)

DREISBACH: Like Mitchell, the House Select Committee investigating January 6 has subpoenaed Roman. In his case, congressional investigators said he was part of a coordinated strategy to send fake slates of pro-Trump electors to the Electoral College, a strategy that was not discussed at the event. The summit also featured figures closer to the far right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCHELL: With that, I would like to recognize Toni Shuppe, who is CEO of Audit Pennsylvania.

(APPLAUSE)

DREISBACH: Toni Shuppe of Audit the Vote Pennsylvania was introduced as the leader of the state's conservative election integrity coalition. She attended the pro-Trump Stop the Steal rally in Washington on January 6 and was outside the Capitol during the riot. At this event, she led the group in a Pledge of Allegiance and a Christian prayer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TONI SHUPPE: ...That you will guide the leadership that is in this room to restore integrity, liberty and freedom to this great country so that you can get all the glory. In Jesus' name, we pray.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Amen.

DREISBACH: Shuppe has said that her path to activism started with a 10-part, three-hour online video that promoted conspiracy theories from 9/11 to QAnon and the bizarre theory called Pizzagate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Pizzagate is real.

DREISBACH: In an email, Shuppe said that she did not believe everything in the video but that it was a compelling argument that opened her eyes. I asked her about this startling moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Worldwide, children are stolen and sold to elite pedophile rings. The murderers then drink the children's blood, and they eat their flesh.

DREISBACH: Shuppe told me she did not know if those specific claims were true but called it a great question. She suggested that NPR should spend some time digging into it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NED JONES: Well, good morning, everyone.

DREISBACH: Back at the event, the real focus was on the next election. Volunteers heard from Ned Jones, who works with Cleta Mitchell at the Conservative Partnership Institute, and he walked through part of a step-by-step guide to monitoring elections. Jones said one step involved filing Freedom of Information Act requests to local election offices.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONES: It does two things. It gets you information that otherwise you wouldn't get, but it puts all of them on notice that you're watching, that...

DREISBACH: Jones is active on social media. On January 6, Jones saw a tweet about the breach of the Capitol building and responded, quote, "it's our turn - about time." He's tweeted several times about a coming civil war. At this event, Jones' rhetoric was more muted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONES: Scrutiny and exposure are the tools that we have.

DREISBACH: Keeping up the pressure on election officials was a theme throughout, though Mitchell herself stressed the importance of remaining polite, not losing your cool. A conservative activist named Christine Brim said it was important for volunteers to concentrate on heavily blue areas like her home in Fairfax County, Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTINE BRIM: Our job is not to win. Our job is to lose less badly. And when you're the blue county that can ruin a statewide vote, that really focuses what you're doing.

DREISBACH: Now, alongside these activists at the event and drawing on this volunteer energy, there were also two officials with the Republican National Committee, including the party's national director for, quote, "election integrity." They praised Mitchell as the best election law expert out here and emphasized that these volunteer poll watchers and election workers would help provide intelligence to the party war room by identifying issues that the party could include in legal challenges. Here's Andrea Raffle, the RNC's director of election integrity for Pennsylvania.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREA RAFFLE: If we can even get one Republican in every precinct, that means we have eyes in every precinct automatically. And you're there doing those official duties, making sure that everything is running smoothly in that precinct.

DREISBACH: This event in Pennsylvania is one of several across the country, including Wisconsin, North Carolina, Michigan. Mitchell said they're building an army of patriots to monitor elections.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCHELL: And with that, thank you, and God bless you, and God bless America.

(APPLAUSE)

DREISBACH: It's not concerning or even really unusual for political groups to mobilize volunteers to help watch the polls or ask questions of election officials. That's democracy. But experts say it is concerning when people behind the mobilization believe conspiracy theories about the last election. Brendan Fischer is the deputy executive director of a group called Documented, which investigates the influence of corporations and wealthy people in politics. They obtained the tape of this event and shared it with NPR.

BRENDAN FISCHER: The concern is that the conspiracy theorists who see fraud around every corner are going to disrupt voting and the administration of elections.

DREISBACH: Some longtime Republicans, like David Hoppe, have also been raising the alarm about the spread of the big lie. Hoppe is a former chief of staff for House Speaker Paul Ryan and part of a group of conservatives behind a report called "Lost, Not Stolen," which debunks false election fraud claims.

DAVID HOPPE: If you start saying, gee, I was cheated, just because you don't like to lose, that undermines the system. It really does go to the heart of a representative democracy.

DREISBACH: The Conservative Partnership Institute did not respond to NPR's requests for comment. A spokesperson for the RNC said that the party works with other groups who have an interest in promoting election integrity, but they are not part of any formal coalition and are, quote, "independent of outside groups." Tom Dreisbach, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH'S "EXPERIENCE")

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.