By Jeremy Herb and Dianne Gallagher, CNN
Updated: Sun, 22 May 2022 18:28:18 GMT
While Donald Trump has maintained a laser focus this primary season on ousting those Republicans who crossed him over the 2020 election -- especially in Georgia on Tuesday -- the Republican effort to elevate proponents of dubious election fraud allegations in the government runs deeper than the former President.
Emails obtained by CNN reveal how the push extended to a federal election advisory board and resulted in the 2021 appointment of one of Trump's legal advisers who helped his failed efforts to pressure Georgia officials into overturning the state's election results.
The emails, obtained by CNN through a Freedom of Information Act request, show conservatives were working even before the 2020 election to gain a seat for an ally on the advisory board of the Election Assistance Commission, an independent government agency that provides voluntary election guidelines for states.
The story of how Cleta Mitchell -- the legal adviser who took part in Trump's phone call where he asked Georgia's secretary of state to "find" enough votes for him to win -- was appointed to that board underscores how a core faction of Republicans has focused on pushing unsupported claims of widespread voter fraud even before Trump convinced much of the Republican Party to buy into his election lies that the 2020 election had been stolen.
This week, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp -- two Republicans Trump vowed to oust from power after they certified the 2020 election for Joe Biden -- are facing off against Trump-backed primary challengers in the state's primary on Tuesday. Kemp
Mitchell played a key role in Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia, efforts that turned Trump against the GOP state leaders. She traveled to Georgia after the election for the Trump campaign and helped Trump argue his case in his now-infamous January 2021 call with Raffensperger. A special grand jury has been selected to hear evidence in the Fulton County District Attorney's investigation into whether Trump and his allies committed crimes in their efforts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia.
According to the House committee investigating the insurrection and a Washington Post report disclosing White House records, Trump also spoke with Mitchell on the evening of January 6, 2021.
Mitchell left her law firm in the fallout over Trump's Georgia phone call, but her position on the federal election advisory board now gives her a foothold to help influence election policy inside the government, though the board's role is limited in its advisory role for the Election Assistance Commission. It also adds prominence to an organization Mitchell is leading called the conservative Election Integrity Network, an anti-voter fraud advocacy group under the Conservative Partnership Institute, which has hired Trump's former White House Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, as a senior partner.
The effort to put Mitchell in her current role on the election board didn't happen overnight. Mitchell was appointed to the board through the US Commission on Civil Rights, another independent government agency tasked with developing civil rights policy and aiding in the enforcement of civil rights laws.
The emails obtained by CNN show how conservatives on the civil rights commission worked for months to gain a Republican appointment to the election advisory board. After two Trump appointments in 2020 gave the civil rights commission a 4-4 partisan split, the conservatives threatened to stop the commission's work in a bid for concessions -- including a Republican election board appointment -- in exchange for approving the civil rights commission's new Democratic chair.
"I made it plain to her we could stop the business of the commission if we were not treated fairly, and fairness is all we want," J. Christian Adams, the Trump-appointed civil rights commissioner who pushed for Mitchell's appointment, wrote in a February 2021 email to the commission's conservatives about his conversation with the nominated chair, Norma Cantu.
Adams, who recommended Mitchell in March 2021, was appointed to the Civil Rights Commission by Trump in 2020. He's president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a nonprofit that's filed lawsuits pushing for the purging of state voter rolls, among other election litigation. Mitchell chairs the organization's board of directors.
Adams has a long history of pushing baseless voter fraud claims, and he was also a member of Trump's election integrity commission, which was disbanded in January 2018. A commissioner later said found no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
Adams said in an email to CNN that he pushed for the conservative appointment because the rules required the appointments to be bipartisan "and that needed to be fixed."
"We had the votes to get it done, and we got it done," he said. "Cleta Mitchell has been a breath of fresh air on the advisory board already. Too often insiders don't hear outside perspectives so I am thrilled that she is bringing diverse viewpoints that the advisory board might have not heard before."
After Mitchell's appointment was made public last year, Cantu said in a statement that the commission was already familiar with Adams' work, and Mitchell was more of an "unknown variable." She added, "I am not pleased with the appointment and would have welcomed another choice."
Mitchell did not respond to CNN's requests for comment.
'Connect with Cleta Mitchell'
At last week's first annual meeting of the Election Assistance Commission's advisory board, Mitchell spoke up about her priorities.
"We need to make this as transparent as possible to restore confidence in the voting systems," she said. "I think this is probably one of the biggest challenges that we face in elections today."
Her comments, made in an online meeting in front of a virtual backdrop featuring the Election Integrity Network logo, left out the biggest reason a large swath of the public distrusts elections: Trump's relentless campaign falsely claiming the 2020 election was stolen.
Mitchell's role helping Trump's campaign try to to overturn the election in Georgia has made her a target of the House January 6 committee. The panel subpoenaed Mitchell in March, citing her role in Trump's January 2021 Georgia call and her contact with the President on January 6.
Mitchell filed a lawsuit to block the subpoena in response, one of a number of the committee's targets who has done so.
Mitchell got involved with Trump's efforts to overturn his election loss shortly after November 3, 2020, when Meadows asked her to go to Georgia to help the campaign's legal challenges, Mitchell said on an election-related podcast she launched in October 2021.
According to Meadows' text messages turned over to the January 6 committee, which were previously obtained by CNN, Meadows connected Mitchell with Donald Trump Jr. on November 6, 2020. "Connect with Cleta Mitchell who is on the ground there," Meadows wrote to Trump Jr.
Rep. Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican who played a significant role aiding Trump's efforts to overturn the election, told Meadows on November 9, 2020, that Mitchell had offered to set up a non-profit political advocacy group "to deal with raising money and paying for the cyber portion. She offered to do it if necessary."
'How does he get UNDONE'
In August 2020, Trump nominated Adams, who has pushed baseless voter fraud claims, to the Civil Rights Commission. The same month, Adams' new Democratic colleague Michael Yaki was clashing with the Election Assistance Commission over mail-in voting.
Yaki, who was also chair of the election advisory board at the time, was pushing for an initiative over concerns that the US Postal Service might be "incapable of meeting deadlines for mail-in ballots," according to emails obtained by CNN. There were significant concerns ahead of the 2020 election that the Postal Service would fail to deliver ballots in time -- and Trump was pre-emptively claiming without evidence that mail-in ballots would be fraudulent.
Yaki faced resistance within the Election Assistance Commission, which said he was acting outside his power to create the initiative, but he went forward with a version of his proposal anyway.
The next month, Adams turned his attention to the election advisory board and Yaki, writing in a September 2020 email that a member of the Election Assistance Commission had complained to him about Yaki.
"I just got a call from an EAC commission saying that Yaki is acting absurdly," Adams wrote in the email, where he asked Republican commissioners and staff about the commission's appointment process to the election advisory board.
"My question is how does he get UNDONE from the EAC oversight commission? How does that get revoked and replaced?" Adams asked.
The Republicans on the Civil Rights Commission discovered in the fall of 2020 that appointments to the election advisory board were supposed to be bipartisan, but both were Democrats. They also found that the commissioners had never voted on the current appointments, the emails show.
In December 2020, the four Republican Civil Rights commissioners sent a letter to the Election Assistance Commission leaders questioning the Democratic appointments. "There are significant doubts that this 'appointment' was actually an appointment that followed our Commission's regular procedures," they wrote.
After President Joe Biden named Cantu as the Civil Rights Commission's new chair in February 2021, the liberals and conservative on the commission began negotiating over her ratification.
With a 4-4 partisan split thanks to appointments by Trump, the commission's conservatives began strategizing on what "big asks" they would make, according to the emails.
Among the ideas, Adams' assistant recommended in a January 2021 email that appointments to boards like the Election Assistance Commission advisory board must be approved by a majority vote, and not a unilateral appointment by the chair.
The negotiations continued for several months, and the conservatives sought concessions in exchange for ratifying Cantu as chair. The two sides ultimately agreed to a rule in which the commission's Republicans and Democrats would each nominate two candidates -- and the other side would choose who would be named to the election advisory board.
Cantu's staff was already concerned about the prospect of Adams being named to the election advisory commission before any names were put forward, emails show.
"If we were to appoint Commissioner Adams to the EAC there would be some pretty significant public blow back," wrote one communications aide.
'They know my history with her'
In July 2021, the Republican commissioners nominated Mitchell and Adams as their two candidates. The Democrats chose Mitchell, rather than Adams, for the board.
But at a subsequent commission meeting after Mitchell was named to the board, Democrats raised concerns about her business connections to Adams. Mitchell is the board chairman of Adams' so-called election integrity organization. According to a document from February 2022 that CNN has viewed, an internal review by the commission's general counsel determined there was not a conflict of interest that warranted an outside investigation.
On the Democratic side, the liberal commissioners nominated Yaki and Allison Riggs, who leads the voting rights program at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. While some of the GOP commissioners debated whether or not to pick Yaki if the Democrats snubbed Adams, a fellow commissioner -- Adams was resolute about who should be named.
"Riggs is a nonstarter with me. she is a brilliant pick on their part because they know my history with her," Adams wrote, saying she was "wholly unacceptable."
Yaki, however, decided not to serve on the board again, so the Democrats put forward two names again: Riggs and University of Alabama law professor Jenny Carroll.
Carroll ultimately joined the board with Mitchell.
"Her name is not Allison Riggs," Adams wrote of Carroll. "Therefore she is the person to pick."