Trump's voter fraud lies encouraged a riot. GOP allies are still giving them oxygen.

Jane C. Timm

After a mob stormed the Capitol based on President Donald Trump's election fraud lie, some top Republican allies have called for peace while still leveling the same baseless claims of widespread voter fraud that fanned the flames of violence.

In almost the same breath as he condemned the rioters who temporarily disrupted Congress' normal process of affirming President-elect Joe Biden's win, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, the first Republican to announce his intention to object to the certification, suggested that Biden's victory was illegitimate.

“We do need an investigation into irregularities, fraud,” Hawley said before staring directly into the camera in a video that his office would promptly upload to YouTube and saying: “We do need a way forward together. We need election security reforms.”

In a statement, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, condemned the violence, too. Still, he said, his calls for an investigation into voter fraud were the “right thing to do" before adding, “I very much wish Congress had not set aside these concerns.”

Republicans have used allegations of voter fraud and irregularities to sow distrust in the American electoral system for decades, experts said, laying the groundwork for Trump's sweeping claim that widespread fraud denied him a second term and priming the party's base to believe him despite his inability to prove it. The same falsehoods, the experts said, will be used to restrict access to the ballot box in the future.

"The same lies that drove the insurrections were also being repeated on the floor of the Congress by the people trying to upend the people’s votes," said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. "And those are the same lies we’re going to hear in state capitols by people trying to restrict the vote."

Hawley and Cruz, who are widely believed to be considering running for president in 2024, have been fiercely criticized for their roles in stoking the unrest that led to the deadly clashes in the nation's capital.

After weeks of defending Trump's claims of a stolen election with statements of concern about widespread voter fraud that doesn't exist, they led the effort in the Senate to object to the certification of Biden's victory in the Electoral College while ignoring the facts. Since November, there had been numerous hand counts, audits, legal challenges and investigations into voter fraud that turned up nothing to support Trump's claim and the senators' justification for challenging Biden's victory. Nonetheless, Republican senators have argued that further investigation is warranted.

In an interview with NBC Dallas-Fort Worth on Thursday, Cruz said he was "debating" election integrity, which he said "has nothing to do with this criminal terrorist assault."

Hawley, responding to calls for his resignation, stood by his decision to object to the certification of the election. “I will never apologize for giving voice to the millions of Missourians and Americans who have concerns about the integrity of our elections. That’s my job, and I will keep doing it,” he said in a statement Thursday.

Before the election, Trump and his allies filed dozens of lawsuits trying to limit mail voting and to make it more difficult and challenging longstanding mail voting mechanisms, like drop boxes. Some courts protested at the lack of evidence the campaign presented. After Biden won, Trump and his allies filed at least 57 lawsuits across the county contesting the results with allegations of fraud and irregularities; 50 have been denied, dismissed or withdrawn, according to NBC News’ tally. Former Attorney General William Barr, still leading the Justice Department at the time, said no widespread fraud was evident. Republican officials in Arizona and Georgia, which Biden flipped blue, withstood enormous pressure from Trump and his allies to vouch for the integrity of the results, with some fact-checking Trump in public and private to try and counter misinformation.

"There have already been investigations conducted by election officials, by investigative journalists and by courts. There’s really nothing left to investigate," said Rick Hasen, a professor and election law expert at the University of California, Irvine. "This election was perhaps the most watched, and perhaps for that reason, the cleanest election I think we’ve seen in American political history."

'The base was completely prepared'

Trump didn't invent claims of a rigged election — he simply turned up the volume, experts said.

It was after the recount of Florida's votes in the 2000 election, which led to a court battle that ended when the Supreme Court sided with Republican George W. Bush, "that people realized things were really narrowly divided and that you could win or lose based on restricting turnout and the vote or bolstering turnout and the vote," Waldman said. "Very quickly you started to hear Republicans making increasingly insistent claims of voter fraud."

In the years since then, Republicans in state legislatures have written and passed numerous restrictive voting laws, while federal and state investigations hunted for proof of fraud. The Justice Department has investigated it; states have launched their own investigations. Advocacy groups and nonprofits were founded in the name of preventing or rooting out voter fraud.

While the suppressive effect of such laws has been well documented, there’s still no proof that there is widespread voter fraud. When fraud occurs, it is isolated and rare.

By the time Trump took office, voter fraud was a common belief among Republicans. A majority of Republicans said it was a "major problem" in August 2016, according to a Gallup survey.

"No matter how powerful his bully pulpit, he wouldn't have a fertile — he wouldn't have a willing audience if this had not been repeated so many times over the years in a more polite voice," Waldman said.

Trump's voter fraud lie began in his first days in office, when he claimed that it cost him the popular vote. He launched a commission to dig up proof, which disbanded without ever finding any.

As states sought to adapt their election plans to accommodate the pandemic in 2020, Trump alleged that the expansion of mail-in voting — a common and secure system often used by Republicans — was creating opportunities for widespread fraud. His campaign and the Republican Party filed many lawsuits seeking judicial intervention, most of which were withdrawn or dismissed for lack of evidence.

“The base was completely prepared to believe the kind of outlandish things that Trump said," Hasen said.

Even after the deadly riots Wednesday, Republican lawmakers are still advancing falsehoods about American elections.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, the Georgia Republican who lost her runoff race Tuesday, said she couldn’t “in good conscience” object to the certification of the election results after the mob attack.

But she nonetheless cast doubt on the results: “I believe that there were last-minute changes to the November 2020 election process and serious irregularities that resulted in too many Americans losing confidence not only in the integrity of our elections but in the power of the ballot as a tool of democracy.”

Georgia has conducted multiple recounts and found no evidence of fraud. The change in Georgia’s election code was made nearly a year ago when the state agreed to standardize signature-matching policies across its many counties. That meant election workers were trained and prepared ahead of time for an election that had unprecedented use of the state’s 15-year-old mail-ballot system. Republican election officials have characterized the changes as a strengthening of the signature-match system.

Waldman said it's hard to find anything in the history of American politics comparable to the voter fraud myth, so thoroughly disproportionate is the reality of the threat to the response.

At least during McCarthyism, he joked, "there were actual communists."

None of the Republicans questioning Biden's victory have questioned the victories of down-ballot Republicans. House Republicans, particularly, won sizable gains in the general election.

A Republican member of Congress argued that if the Supreme Court had heard arguments in one of the many lawsuits challenging the election, the riots could have been prevented.

“The American people deserved a decision on the merit of numerous claims of unconstitutionality, irregularity, and fraud. It was their duty. They failed,” Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, said in a statement posted on social media.

Hasen countered: “The Supreme Court didn’t dismiss the case because the justices were trying to avoid deciding hard issues. The justices didn’t hear the cases because they lacked merit.”

'Deadly consequences'

At least one key Trump ally repudiated Trump's central fraud claim in the wake of Wednesday's chaos.

In the days after Biden's win, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who chairs the powerful Judiciary Committee, called for an investigation into claims of fraud in Pennsylvania, repeatedly expressed concerns about the integrity of the election and called up election officials in Georgia, Nevada and Arizona.

After the riot, Graham, a staunch defender and golfing partner of the president's, gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor decrying the lack of evidence provided by Trump's legal team to support any of the claims.

"They said there's 66,000 people in Georgia under 18 voted. How many people believed that? I asked, 'Give me 10.' They didn’t have one. They said 8,000 felons in prison voted. I said, 'Give me 10.' Hadn't got one," Graham said Wednesday night. "I don't buy this. Enough's enough. We've got to end it."

Former White House communications director Alyssa Farah said Friday on MSNBC that Trump had known for months that he had lost the election and declined to be honest with his supporters, who believed him when he said it had been stolen.

"I believe that he knew he lost and that those around him did. And that's why it was very troubling for me to see the public misled," she said. "The lack of honesty with the public, you know, ended up having deadly consequences."

Election officials across the country who have been harassed and threatened since the election had warned that Trump's rhetoric would lead to real-world violence.

"Someone’s going to get shot. Someone’s going to get killed," Georgia's Republican election systems manager, Gabriel Sterling, said Dec. 1.