The following is an excerpt from The Steal: The Attempt to Overturn the 2020 Election and the People Who Stopped It by Mark Bowden and Matthew Teague which will be published by Atlantic Monthly Press on January 4th. The book records the story of what happened in the six swing states—Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—between November 3rd and January 6th through the eyes of participants on both sides, those who believed there was widespread voter fraud and those who after investigating claims of irregularities and finding no evidence of widespread voter fraud defended the election results. It is based on original interviews conducted by the authors and the team of researchers and reporters who worked on the book, as well as public records, court testimony, and open legislative hearings.
For months, in late 2020, water rose undetected in a pipe inside the State Farm Arena, in downtown Atlanta. The pipe led to the bathroom in the Chick-fil-A Fan Zone, on the upper level.
In the predawn hours of Election Day the water spilled from a toilet into the world, pouring through the bathroom’s floor and the ceiling of the room below.
About five thirty in the morning, a few blocks away at the county’s election headquarters, Rick Barron’s phone rang and chirped with the bad news. He was director of Fulton County’s elections, and stood surrounded by banks of phones and televisions.
Now Barron watched a video of the indoor flood. The image showed a vast room, with an array of ballot-processing machinery, tables where the workers normally sat, and big plastic bins full of ballots. Two of the workers always made an impression, even in grainy arena security footage. Ruby Freeman stood out with an Afro that matched her big personality. In normal times she ran a kiosk at the mall selling handbags, socks, and other ladies’ accessories, which she called Lady Ruby’s Unique Treasures. But during election season she helped out with temporary work. Her daughter, thirty-six-year-old Shaye Moss, wore her hair in recognizable long blond braids, and had worked for years for the Fulton County elections office. Doing election work meant early mornings and long hours but it gave the mother and daughter a close-up view of democracy in action, right in the room where ballots were gathered, sorted, and counted. But now this—water pouring from above—had brought the machinery of freedom to a stop.
Behind his pandemic mask, Barron sighed. He would hear about this from higher-ups at the state level, which was the last thing he needed. He already didn’t fit in here; he was the only white member of his election staff, to start. And the Atlanta political class found him odd. He was from Oregon, for one thing. At that moment, he wore a lanyard emblazoned with the logo for the Portland soccer team, of all things. He might as well drink Pepsi.
Now a rain cloud had burst, somehow, in his counting room.
Bonkers, he thought. He showed the video to Johnny Kauffman, an Atlanta radio reporter who had covered local elections for years and had embedded with the Fulton County staff. It seemed funny, in a bleak way. “Oh my God,” Kauffman told him. “It looks like it’s raining from the ceiling.”
“It could only happen to us,” one of the election staffers said. What could Barron do but laugh?
He didn’t know he stood on a historic precipice; soon he would realize that in this election, any detail, no matter how small, could be manipulated. And any event, however mundane, could be contorted into conspiracy.
The downpour in the Atlanta arena turned out to be a brief squall. The arena’s maintenance crew found the source, fixed the urinal, and sopped up the mess. No ballots got wet; no equipment damaged. Shortly after eight, when the polls opened, the counting resumed.
Barron thought, No big deal.
The morning after Election Day, John Porter stopped at a RaceTrac gas station at the foot of Kennesaw Mountain for a Coke Zero. He was chief of staff to the lieutenant governor, and had stayed up almost all night following election results. Now he needed caffeine. He had just climbed back into the driver’s seat of his white Ford truck when his phone rang, and he set aside his drink—his boss, Geoff Duncan, was calling with the news that Trump, as it looked to him, had the contest locked up.
“Geoff, I am not so sure,” Porter said. “Let’s just hold tight. You know? Just keep our heads down. Let’s see how this plays out.”According to police, Trevian Kutti—who works for Kanye West—“stated that she was a crisis manager and was sent from a high-profile individual and that she traveled from Chicago, Illinois.”
The strain of the presidential election in Georgia was heightened by the possibility of runoff races for Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. Both were Republican incumbents, which in Georgia traditionally meant certain reelection, but so far neither had secured a majority of the vote. If that remained true, then a runoff election loomed in January between them and Democratic candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. The outcome of those contests would determine the balance of power in the US Senate for at least the next two years.
The Friday after Election Day, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger held a press conference. He stood before a tangle of television and radio mics at the foot of white marble steps in the Georgia capitol and in his characteristic unruffled tone said, “Out of approximately five million votes cast, we will have a margin of a few thousand.”
The race was too close to call and would likely require a recount. Beyond the capitol building some people celebrated while others protested. Raffensperger gestured with long, slender fingers and continued dryly, “The stakes are high, and emotions are high on all sides.”
At that point a smaller, faster-moving man stepped to the podium. Silver-haired Gabriel Sterling is the chief operating officer for the secretary of state’s office and acts as Raffensperger’s right hand. He whipped off a mask decorated with the state flag, and for a moment he resembled the bulldog mascot of his alma mater, the University of Georgia.
“Just to preempt a question, because I know it is going to come up: Are we seeing any widespread fraud?” he said. “We are not.”
This was not coming from a Biden supporter. No one could accuse fifty-year-old Sterling of tilting any way but rightward. Republican politics have given structure to his entire life. His parents were both teenagers when he was born, and they divorced when he was just a few years old. They moved around a lot, and as a boy he discovered a knack for argument and self-determination. He had skipped first grade, so he was always the smallest kid in class and he learned to look out for himself.Brad Raffensperger: “We do know now looking at the data that 28,200 people skipped the presidential race. Everything down ballot, but they actually skipped the presidential race.”
He called the GOP the “daddy party,” the one who told you the truth whether you wanted to hear it or not. It was the party of personal responsibility, the party that wouldn’t let the government freely spend other people’s money. Sometimes that meant saying no to what a lot of people wanted. By the time he finished college, he was state political director for the Bush-Quayle campaign, at age twenty-one.
Now, three decades later, Sterling understood election machinery the way a veteran mechanic understands the inner workings of a familiar car. They may run smoothly or malfunction, but for him they held little mystery.
A few days after the press conference, midday on the 9th, Sterling got a text that puzzled him. It came from a friendly staffer with Senator Loeffler’s campaign. A fellow Republican. It contained a formal-sounding statement that started, “Today, Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler issued the following statement calling on Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to resign.”
Sterling texted back, “Ha ha, very funny.”
“No, this is getting released in five minutes,” came the response.
Sterling’s eyes drifted down the rest of the statement. It offered no specific criticism of Raffensperger and cited no wrongdoing. But it sprayed incendiary language like gasoline: “The management of Georgia elections has become an embarrassment for our state. Georgians are outraged The Secretary of State has failed to deliver honest and transparent elections. He has failed the people of Georgia, and he should step down immediately.”
Sterling shot back, “Are you f—ing kidding me?”
At that same moment in Sandy Springs, on the north side of Atlanta, Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs sat in a salon chair with her blond hair fully wrapped in foils. Having her hair done felt like both a luxury after more than half a year of pandemic and an act of defiance in the face of her sexist critics in Georgia politics. She had taken some shots.
For instance, Atlanta-area lawyer and conspiracy theorist Lin Wood had recently tweeted to his wide following, “Do you believe @JordyFuchs age 30 with 1 year of government experience should have negotiated Dominion deal & thereafter essentially run GA Sec. of State Office? . . .Something ain’t right in GA.”
The message required a little decoding for the uninitiated, but Fuchs knew exactly what it meant. The reference to a “Dominion deal” referred to one of the latest theories about voting fraud to gain traction. Dominion manufactured voting machines and software used in Georgia and twenty-seven other states—including Arizona and Michigan—to scan, record, and count ballots. Based in Toronto and Denver, the company was a contentedly successful enterprise little known outside the worldwide election industry.
But the bizarre conspiracy theory clearinghouse QAnon had begun promoting the claim that Dominion was part of an international scheme to either delete millions of Trump votes or switch them to Biden—the story varied. Trump’s campaign had quietly vetted the allegations just days after the election and found them to be completely false. Staffers circulated an internal memo to that effect, but Trump and his surrogates continued making the accusation. Plucked from the outermost fringes of The Steal movement, it made headlines when the president gave it his nod of approval. He retweeted that Dominion machines had “glitched” in favor of Biden.
In denigrating Fuchs, Wood had gone further than insinuating she dealt in corrupt voting machines. He wrote that she “has admitted publicly on Facebook that she was at one time a practicing witch. Yes, a Wicken. I do not respect that belief.”It didn’t matter that Ruby Freeman’s alleged confession was cartoonish or the evidence clearly concocted. Or even that the accompanying mug shot featured a different woman altogether.
He had unearthed, somehow, an account of a Gwinnett County school board hearing dating back almost a quarter of a century to the publication of the first Harry Potter book. Several local middle school children testified of the dangers of the British novel about a boy wizard, and Fuchs’s parents, severe fundamentalist Christians, had made her join them. She had testified that reading the book had made her want “to perform spells, curses, potions, hexes and vexes just like Harry.”
So she had now become, according to this critic, a “Wicken,” by which he surely meant “Wiccan.”
In truth, Fuchs was now a grown woman with a big job, a savvy Republican political thinker, and a faithful Christian who just wanted to color her hair in peace. But midway through the process her phone erupted with calls. With apologies to her hairdresser, she answered one from Sterling, who told her about the senators’ statement calling for their boss’s resignation.
“I can’t believe they did this,” Sterling told her.
Fuchs also felt baffled, but for different reasons. If Loeffler and Perdue hoped to win their upcoming Senate runoff races, she calculated, they had just crushed their odds. Why?
She called a political consultant working for Perdue.
“This is a mistake,” she said. “Who made this decision? I mean, this has just literally cost you the US Senate race. Not because Brad is going to retaliate. It’s going to simply take you off message.”
They had attacked a prominent member of their own party and, worse, undermined faith in elections as they were campaigning for reelection. Why would they do such a thing?
The consultant could offer no insight. Perdue and Loeffler had been in a private meeting with President Trump. They had not consulted anyone else. Apparently, the president had insisted.
Wood, who had labeled Fuchs a “Wicken,” filed suit in federal court to stop the certification of Trump’s loss. During a three-hour virtual hearing on November 19, Judge Steven Grimberg—a Trump appointee—rejected Wood’s argument with velocity: “The fact that his candidate didn’t win doesn’t rise to the level of harm.”
The judge said Wood’s request “would require halting the certification of results in a state election in which millions of people have voted.” Moreover, the judge said, “To halt the certification at literally the 11th hour would breed confusion and potentially disenfranchisement that I find has no basis in fact or in law.” At that point, with 99 percent of the state’s votes counted, Biden had been declared winner by the media but was ahead by only 10,353 votes in Georgia, or two-tenths of a percentage point. It was a margin that Trump and his supporters considered erasable.
The state’s two Republican US senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, both faced a runoff election in January and had bound their fates to Trump. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger had promptly refused their demand that he step down. “The voters of Georgia hired me, and the voters will be the one to fire me,” he said. “Politics are involved in everything right now. If I was Senator Perdue, I’d be irritated I was in a runoff. And both Senators and I are all unhappy with the potential outcome for our President. But I am the duly elected Secretary of State.”
Raffensperger found support from Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan. But John Porter, Duncan’s top adviser, saw trouble ahead. With his sandy hair swept to the side, framing pinkish cheeks, he looked younger than his thirty-seven years; but looks were deceiving. He was considered one of Georgia’s shrewdest political operators.“Who made this decision? I mean, this has just literally cost you the US Senate race.”
He cautioned his boss that the thing wasn’t over yet in Georgia. From his office, he could see into the capitol’s great central atrium, where Raffensperger held regular press conferences to fight back against the tide of disinformation, and he had already announced that the state would conduct a recount of every vote by hand.
Trump tweeted, “Georgia will be a big presidential win, as it was the night of the Election!”
Porter noticed that the crowd at Raffensperger’s press conferences kept growing. Right or wrong, it looked like the secretary of state was beginning to flail. Porter warned Duncan that Trump had set himself against Raffensperger and that Duncan didn’t want to be “tied to that whale. The sinking whale.”
But Duncan, to Porter’s chagrin, continued lashing himself to the whale at every opportunity. He trusted Raffensperger, he trusted the electoral process, and he defended both against President Trump’s claims. Scrutiny of elections is high, even in the best of times. But now in Georgia, it had reached an absurd intensity. Things had gotten weird. Even the most innocent occurrence—a misstep, a gesture, an unexpected turn—found a global audience of critics, conspiracy theorists, and bad actors.
Take the leaky urinal, for instance, that had temporarily flooded the counting center at the State Farm Arena early on Election Day. To Rick Barron, director of elections there, it had seemed just a plumbing mishap, no big deal. But in the digital ether, a theory had taken shape that Barron and his workers—remember Ruby Freeman and her daughter Shaye Moss?—had staged the leak to create cover while they wheeled out cases of Trump ballots and wheeled in Biden ones. If you could imagine it, it might be true!
The president thought so. He tweeted, “Why did the Swing States stop counting in the middle of the night? . . . Because they waited to find out how many ballots they had to produce in order to steal the Rigged Election. They were so far behind that they needed time, & a fake ‘water main break’, to recover!”
Just before ten-thirty on election night, Barron had told his workers at the State Farm Arena to go home. They packed up tubs of uncounted ballots for the night. Journalists and observers left. But then Secretary Raffensperger sent word: “Hey, guys, why are you quitting so early? You need to continue.”
So the workers had hauled the tubs back and resumed counting into the wee hours. This packing-up and restarting had nothing to do with the morning’s urinal leak, but amateur cyber sleuths reworked and conflated the incidents. They analyzed the architecture of the arena, pored over security video the county posted online to ensure transparency, compared time stamps—and all of it, they claimed, coincided with an uptick in votes for Biden. They began harassing Barron, his staff, and their extended relatives for answers. A Facebook investigation by a group called Patriots for America 1776 offered “evidence,” a still from security video of Ruby Freeman, with her big Afro, and her daughter, with her long blond braids, doing their job, which involved carrying trays of envelopes.The men near Raffensperger’s house said they were Oath Keepers, members of a far-right, pro-Trump militia that would soon play a role in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
“For everyone out there still claiming that there is ‘no evidence’ of election fraud, what do you call this?” the group asked its thousands of followers. “Why would Freeman and the other ballot counters who were present sneak out suitcases full of ballots after everyone who was there to monitor them had just been told to go home because of a pipe burst?”
The leaky toilet had become a skeleton key to a palace of conspiracy. And the hand holding that key belonged to Freeman, grandmotherly proprietor of Lady Ruby’s Unique Treasures, and now lead villain. Later a “confession” attributed to her rocketed around social media, describing crimes she masterminded with her daughter: “I posted this on my Facebook page and wanted to share it with the instagram community,” Freeman purportedly wrote. “I am so proud of my baby because today we did something that change history and we decided we will not be silent and allow evil to control this country. I was shocked, hurt, and deeply upset to see how many people support evil, racism, and ignorance while counting many ballots for Donald Trump. I was almost in tears seeing how very few people wanted to support a black women become the first female Vice President or a excellent man named Joe Biden while counting the ballots.”
“Freeman” expresses dismay at the landslide of votes for Trump. Then: “My baby knew how racist Georgia was and we knew how the vote was gonna go so we resorted to plan B and now you see the results of my brilliant baby. Joe Biden is now the winner and I’m looking at all of Georgia with a side eye because I know for a fact that Georgia voted for Trump by the largest numbers and if we didn’t do what we did he would have won Georgia.”
It didn’t matter that the confession was cartoonish or the evidence clearly concocted. Or even that the accompanying mug shot featured a different woman altogether. It confirmed the preferred reality for many Trumpists, and they passed it along. Lin Wood, the inventive Georgia lawyer, tweeted an image of the fake confession and tagged some of the most influential people in Georgia and the country, urging others to target all of the state’s top officials. He later deleted the post, saying, “It is very difficult to know who can be trusted” and that the confession had “not been authenticated.”
There was a sense in Georgia’s halls of power that the scrutiny had turned predatory. Everyone felt jumpy. Increasingly, the risk felt more than political—it felt personal. Physical. Thanksgiving came and went, and Porter noticed the police presence grow at the capitol. Key figures moved through the offices with larger and larger security details. The lieutenant governor had long ago stopped parking in his spot on the open Liberty Plaza side of the building, using instead a more secure entrance to the capitol. Porter had inherited his boss’s old parking spot, the first one outside the capitol’s east entrance. It suited him and his white Ford fine, until he noticed a growing number of people watching him as he got in and out of his truck.
As days passed, the onlookers grew more aggressive, confronting him. “What are you doing?” someone shouted, repeating Trump’s demands that the Georgia state government illegally overturn the election. One day, a group of four or five men approached as he got out of his truck.
They weren’t dressed for legislative business. And they looked angry. “Are you going to have a special session?” one man asked.
It was a case of mistaken identity, Porter realized. The parking spot was still marked “Lt. Gov,” and people didn’t know what Duncan looked like. Porter was taking abuse meant for his boss. He dodged the group of men and hustled up the stairs, ducking into the capitol building. This isn’t going to stop, he thought.
After that he started parking in a public lot a few blocks away and walking to the capitol through the mix of commuters and protesters on the street.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger felt danger, too.
A state trooper guarded him at all times, but he worried about his family. One evening in late November, he and his trooper had just left his house to pick up dinner when his phone rang.Trump’s campaign had quietly vetted the allegations just days after the election and found them to be completely false… but Trump and his surrogates continued making the accusation.
His wife, Tricia, sounded upset: Someone had just broken into their daughter-in-law’s house while she was out. The Raffenspergers’ son had died a couple of years earlier, and they felt protective of his widowed wife and their grandchildren.
Raffensperger blurted out, “Someone broke in the house?”
The trooper, thinking Raffensperger meant his own home, whipped the car around and gunned it back. Living with fear had made the secretary of state hyperalert so that as the vehicle wheeled around, he took note of the out-of-state plate on a truck that flew past them, and then spotted a car that also had out-of-state plates.
Back at the house the family regrouped. The break-in might have been random or might have been a message. The front door and garage doors had been left open. Objects in the house had been rearranged.
Another trooper left to follow up on Raffensperger’s tip about the two vehicles. He found them parked together and approached the drivers.
What are you doing here?
“We heard that the BLM [Black Lives Matter] might be coming by your place,” one of them told the trooper, referring to the secretary of state’s home. “So we just wanted to see if you needed any help.”
They said they were Oath Keepers, members of a far-right, pro-Trump militia that would soon play a role in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
“No, we’ve got it under control,” the trooper told them. “You can move on now.” After that, the Raffenspergers vacated their house for a few days.
Radical Trump supporters also harassed ground-level election workers, none of whom enjoyed police protection. Ruby Freeman was in hiding, for instance. Ralph Jones, who helped oversee voter registration, had endured vile online messages, slurs, and threats. Then one night a group of men knocked on his door, claiming to be his new neighbors. They were white. Jones, who is black, had never seen them before. No one new had moved into the neighborhood. He refused to open his door and told them to come back in daylight. He never saw them again.
On December 1, state election officials Jordan Fuchs and Gabriel Sterling ate lunch at Manny’s, a spot in downtown Atlanta. As Sterling worked his way through a hamburger, tater tots, and Coke Zero, someone forwarded him a tweet that ruined his appetite. A Trumpist had named a twenty-something-year-old Dominion counting machine technician, claiming he had been “caught committing treason” by doing his job.
He showed the post to Fuchs, who pushed aside her falafel. The tweet included a short video of a noose slowly swinging in the wind.
Fuchs had expected something like this and viewed it with detachment. But her lunch partner was less stoic. She looked up to find the skin on Sterling’s neck had turned red, then his face.
“I’ve got to do something,” he said. “I’ve got to do something.”
They called Raffensperger and told him Sterling wanted to speak out against conspiracy theories and violent threats, and their boss gave his blessing.
So they summoned the press corps and made their way to the capitol steps. Sterling strode purposefully up to the lectern, whipped off his mask, and sighed. Fuchs watched from the wings.
“I am going to do my best to keep it together,” he said and took a long pause, then drew out each word slowly, “because—it—has—all—gone—too—far. All of it!”
Trembling with anger, he cited Joe diGenova, a former federal prosecutor and a member of Giuliani’s legal team, who had just called for the torture and execution of Chris Krebs, the recently fired cybersecurity czar. DiGenova wanted Krebs, who had been fired by Trump after saying there had been no widespread fraud in the election, “drawn and quartered, taken out in the morning and shot.”
Sterling addressed Trump directly.
“Mr. President,” he said, “you have not condemned these actions or this language.”
His voice shook.
“Senators, you have not condemned this language or these actions. THIS—HAS—TO—STOP!”
He sharpened his point: “This is elections. This is the backbone of democracy. And all of you who have not said a DAMN WORD are”—Fuchs had advised him to use a word, and now he did—“complicit in this. It’s too much. Yes, fight for every legal vote, go through your due process. We encourage you. Use your First Amendment. That’s fine. Death threats, physical threats, intimidation, it’s too much. It’s not right.”
“I don’t have all the best words to do this,” he said, although his rang in the capitol atrium. Then he addressed the president again directly, in words that would prove prophetic.As the senators ducked off the stage, Trump made things still worse. He turned to the real subject of his rally: his grievance against the state of Georgia.
“Mr. President, it looks like you likely lost the state of Georgia. We’re investigating. There’s always a possibility, I get it, and you have the rights to go through the courts. What you don’t have the ability to do, and you need to step up and say this, is stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone is going to get hurt, someone is going to get shot, someone is going to get killed. And it’s not right. If you want to run for reelection in four years, fine. Do it. But everything we’re seeing right now, there’s not a path. Be the bigger man here. Step in. Tell your supporters, don’t be violent. Don’t intimidate. All that is wrong. It’s un-American.”
Trump came down to Georgia.
He came not to heed Sterling’s plea but to double down on the dangerous rhetoric; he came to boost the two senators the angry election official had called out. Kelly Loeffler’s and David Perdue’s runoff election against Democratic challengers would be held January 5, 2021. Hoping to rally Trump voters, both had joined the president in denigrating their own state’s electoral process. Now, at a December 5 rally in Valdosta, the defeated president was going to repay the favor.
That evening, one of the best-connected political operatives in Georgia, Brian Robinson, settled in after dinner to watch the rally on television. His wife and daughter had had enough politics, so he watched alone from the recliner in his living room, where his TV hangs above the fireplace.
Robinson contracts as a crisis consultant, and for weeks he had advised Republicans to stop vilifying election officials. “If we tell our voters their votes don’t count, that’s a terrible turnout strategy,” he said.
With Trump’s presidential loss increasingly apparent, the close Senate contests offered, as Robinson saw it, a “perfect message for the middle.” The two Republican senators were the last chance for conservative Americans to prevent total Democratic control in Washington. With Biden in the White House and Democrats in the saddle in Congress, who was going to stop the left’s progressive socialist agenda? Here was a message tailored for centrist voters, ambivalent about party. And in a pair of races with razor blade margins, those voters would be key.
Robinson watched with rising dismay as Trump, on stage in Valdosta, did the opposite. Instead of lifting the senators, commending the electoral process, and embracing the middle, he spewed his usual list of grievances, trashed valuable Republican election officials, and reiterated—over and over and over—that the vote had been a sham.
Then at last, in the rally’s second hour, the two senators stood to speak for just a few seconds each. They were the rally’s ostensible honorees, but instead, the crowd jeered them.
They’re getting booed, Robinson thought, startled. There’s something going on here.
It felt like a political, and maybe historical, inflection point. This audience had no affection for either candidate or the Republican Party. They tended to one man alone.
As Loeffler spoke, a chant arose.
“Stop. The. Steal!”
“Stop. The. Steal!”
Loeffler quickly handed off the mic to Perdue, and the chanting swelled until it drowned him out. He realized his only hope was to shame the chanters for disrespecting Trump, so the longtime business titan and current US senator, made a savvy—if pitiful—move to cloak himself with Trump.
“Hey, guys, I want to take literally just one second. I want to say something personal to President Trump.”
He was drowned out.
“Fight. For. Trump!”
“Fight. For. Trump!”
But he kept at it.
“Hey, guys, I want to say something for President Trump, personally,” fighting against the chant. “I want to say something personal for President Trump.”
As Perdue struggled, Trump beamed. He couldn’t have cared less about the candidates’ humiliation. He pumped a fist and pointed at the crowd.
“Fight. For. Trump!”
“Fight. For. Trump!”
Surrendering, Perdue blurted, “God bless you. We love you, Mr. President.”
He handed over the mic, defeated. The chant grew louder still, and Trump let it carry on for a half minute, an eternity of adulation at a public podium. During the chant, he turned toward Perdue and Loeffler, grinned and pointed. The message was clear. This is not about you. It’s about me.
Watching at home, Robinson felt sorry for them. They had done everything Trump had asked, had even echoed his ugliest talking points. But the crowd wasn’t interested in electing them; it was only interested in overturning the election for its hero.Trevian Kutti: “I am aware of an indictment that’s on the table and ready to be served on you.”
As the senators ducked off the stage, Trump made things still worse. He turned to the real subject of his rally: his grievance against the state of Georgia, the futility of voting, and the specific criminality of certain election workers at the State Farm Arena. Sterling’s sharp message about danger for election workers had clearly missed its mark.
“We’re all deeply disturbed and upset by the lying, cheating, robbing, stealing that’s gone on with our elections,” Trump said. “We know the Democrats will have dead people voting and you gotta watch it, dead people. You wouldn’t believe how many illegal aliens from out of the state and they’ll be filing out and filling out ballots for people who don’t even exist. They put up names, they have people signing their own name over and over. They have people signing names with the same pen, with the same signature. They don’t even change because they know once they get it in it’ll never be looked at, it’ll never be looked at again because of people like your secretary of state and your governor.”
Then Trump did something remarkable. After giving just over a minute and a half of stage time to Senators Loeffler and Perdue, he directed the audience’s attention to a “very, very powerful and very expensive screen” and stood aside for six and a half minutes for a video that centered on Rick Barron, the leaky urinal, and the “crime” that had been committed by Georgia’s election workers like Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman.
After the Valdosta rally, still more threats rained down on these state employees like verbal munitions. The messages and voicemails for Barron himself came in so thick that he eventually stopped listening.
The mildest of them said, “When I’m done with you, you’ll be in prison.” Others called for Barron’s execution in a variety of styles. One predicted, “There will be a riot, I think.”
On a cold day in mid-December, John Porter took a stroll in Tumlin Park, near his house. It’s a leafy place with a playground, an open field, and a path Porter liked to follow during his regular walks.
The park felt like a respite from political life, which had become treacherous. A few days earlier, Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan’s teenaged son, Bayler, had tweeted to his handful of followers a sort of family motto—“Doing the right thing will never be the wrong thing!”—and Duncan retweeted it. His wife, Brooke, had been furious, afraid Trump’s supporters would come after their son. And they did. “You’re a boil on humanity’s ass,” one responded. Another said, “Scum.” And one posted a sinister, threatening photo in response. It showed smooth-faced, twenty-year-old Harrison Deal, the boyfriend of Governor Brian Kemp’s daughter, who had died in a car accident a few days earlier. Conspiracy theorists already speculated he had been murdered in a political cover-up. None of it made sense. Politics in Georgia had passed through the looking glass.
Now, as Porter walked through a ring of trees, his phone rang. A call from the lieutenant governor’s office.
“The FBI wants to have a briefing with us,” the person on the other end said. Could Porter join the call?
“Sure,” Porter said, confused. He found a spot to sit down in the park and waited while he was patched into the call. Why would the Feds want to talk with him?
On the call, he found himself with Governor Kemp, his chief of staff, the lieutenant governor, FBI agents, and “some international, foreign affairs guys.”
Holy fucking shit, Porter thought.
“We want you to know, the website that you guys are familiar with,” one of the agents said, “we have traced that back to the Iranians.”
Porter immediately knew which site.
The whole, terrifying thing had started back in November. Ever since Election Day, Trump had offered up wildly untrue, easily disproved theories about voter fraud in Georgia. He had leveled accusations at Secretary of State Raffensperger by name.Trump’s call to Raffensperger—in which he instructed the secretary of state to “find” enough votes—may result in the only criminal charges against Trump rooted in The Steal.
The secretary of state had corrected the president’s claims patiently, with deference, but not without a sense of personal hurt. In late November, for instance, he had published a letter in USA Today, noting that despite howling accusations, Georgia’s election had gone smoothly.
“This should be something for Georgians to celebrate, whether their favored presidential candidate won or lost,” he wrote. “For those wondering, mine lost—my family voted for him, donated to him and are now being thrown under the bus by him.”
A few days later, Trump had responded viciously, calling Raffensperger “an enemy of the people.”
The website referenced by the FBI featured a list titled “Enemies of the People.”
Among the Georgians on the list were Raffensperger, Fuchs, and Sterling. It showed their photos in crosshairs, as though seen through a rifle scope. And it listed their home addresses. It posted a cheery holiday message for Trumpists:
“A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all the Patriots who have supported us! . . . First, we’re not Iranian. We are Americans who, for obvious reasons, need to conceal our whereabouts. The FBI is not loyal to Trump and have worked against him from the start.”
If Iran was behind it, it was a head-spinning revelation, particularly for public servants who rarely attracted attention from their own constituents, much less hostile foreign powers. If the Iranian connection was true, Trump had handed America’s enemies a lever to pry apart the American people. And it was working.
Brian Robinson, the crisis consultant who had been so horrified by Trump’s performance at the rally for Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, was hired by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to help deal with the flood of misinformation and abuse directed at him and his staff.
When he arrived at the Atlanta offices, he felt struck by how jumpy the place seemed. It was a building under siege. Staffers kept bulletproof vests within reach. At one point, an alarm sent them all rushing from their offices. Once, as he and the secretary of state prepped for a press conference, Robinson, playing the part of an aggressive reporter, raised his voice. A security team burst into the room. Although there was always a chance things could get worse, so far the only actual attacks were digital or verbal. Those came from everywhere.
Including the White House. On January 2, the president himself called, three days before Georgia’s senate runoff election and four days before Biden’s victory was scheduled to be certified by Congress. Trump was out of time. He had stirred up a great deal of trouble all over America, a lot of it at Raffensperger’s state, but he hadn’t stopped the American electoral process yet.
The call lasted an hour. The president—after calling Raffensperger an enemy of the people, leading militants to his door, stirring dissent among his constituents—wanted a favor. It began with introductions by Mark Meadows, the president’s chief of staff. Several lawyers joined the call on the White House end. With Raffensperger were Jordan Fuchs, his accused “Wicken” deputy, and Ryan Germany, the office counsel. Trump wanted more votes from Georgia. He claimed he had, in fact, won Georgia by fantastical numbers of votes. Hundreds of thousands were owed him, but he didn’t want all of them. Just enough.
He accused one individual in particular of stealing them.
“We had at least eighteen thousand—that’s on tape, we had them counted very painstakingly—eighteen thousand voters having to do with Ruby Freeman,” Trump said. “She’s a vote scammer, a professional vote scammer and hustler, Ruby Freeman. That was the tape that’s been shown all over the world that makes everybody look bad, you, me, and everybody else.”Giuliani tried to portray them as a pair of thugs. “They look like they’re passing out dope, not just ballots.”
Ruby Freeman of the big Afro, purveyor of ladies’ accessories at Lady Ruby’s Unique Treasures, whose singular act of national betrayal had been taking a part-time gig to help out on Election Day. The same Ruby Freeman whose voicemail tells callers she is “living holy and having fun without backsliding” and reminds them to “remember, in all thy ways, acknowledge God and he shall direct your path.”
A video circulated online of her working at the election center, where hauling ballots was part of the task, and claimed to show her and her daughter, Shaye Moss, stealing Trump votes. Some people apparently believed it simply because the two women were black. Giuliani tried to portray them as a pair of thugs. He had named them in testimony before a Georgia house committee, describing the mother and daughter this way:
“They look like they’re passing out dope, not just ballots.”
They had been, he said, “quite obviously, surreptitiously, passing around USB ports as if they [were] vials of heroin or cocaine.”
This had consequences for Freeman. She stayed out of sight. Police records show she received hundreds of messages—too many for police to read—including death threats. Strangers turned up at her home. A group of men came to the home of her elderly mother and told her they planned to make a “citizen’s arrest” of her daughter and granddaughter. According to police, someone sent Freeman a message that read simply, “We know where you live, we coming to get you.” One of the people who knocked on Freeman’s door was Trump supporter Trevian Kutti, who according to police “stated that she was a crisis manager and was sent from a high-profile individual and that she traveled from Chicago, Illinois.”
Kutti works for Kanye West, the music star and onetime presidential hopeful who had grown chummy with Trump during visits to the White House. Now, at eight-thirty at night, Kutti said she needed to deliver an urgent message. Freeman called the police, who offered to escort her to the local precinct so she could hear out Kutti’s cryptic report. There, as officers stood by, Kutti extended a double-edged dagger of an offer: “I am aware of an indictment that’s on the table and ready to be served on you,” she told Freeman. “What I would like for you to do is consider talking to a US attorney in the northern district of Georgia who is willing to take a statement from you and your daughter. And who in turn, if you are honest about the course of events that took place at State Farm Arena, will possibly be willing to grant you and your daughter immunity from charges that will imminently be brought.” No one paid for her to visit Freeman, she said, but she felt “I have an obligation to the republic.” And all this would unfold, Kutti said, within forty-eight hours. After listening to the terrifying message, Freeman told Kutti no—she didn’t need her help or immunity. She only needed police to escort her back home.
Now Trump threw the story of Ruby Freeman at Raffensperger. Freeman and the leaky urinal, too. The leak, see, had provided cover for the big ballot switcheroo.
“Number one, they said very clearly and it’s been reported that they said there was a major water main break,” Trump said. “Everybody fled the area. And then they came back, Ruby Freeman and her daughter and a few people.”
Raffensperger bit his tongue as Trump rambled. He cited ballot stuffing, dead voters, shredded ballots and burned ballots, voters who discovered at the polls that they “were already voted for,” and more.
Finally, Meadows interrupted. “So, Mr. President, if I might be able to jump in, and I’ll give Brad a chance…”
Raffensperger answered in his flat, firm way, “Well, I listened to what the president has just said. President Trump, we’ve had several lawsuits, and we’ve had to respond in court to the lawsuits and the contentions. We don’t agree that you have won.”
He began a point-by-point response until Trump interrupted.
“The people of Georgia are angry; the people of the country are angry. And there’s nothing wrong with saying that, you know, that you’ve recalculated.”
No, Raffensperger told him. He was not making a political calculation. The information Trump had been given was simply wrong.
“We’re so far ahead of these numbers,” Trump insisted, “even the phony ballots of Ruby Freeman, known scammer. You know the internet? You know what was trending on the internet? ‘Where’s Ruby?’ Because they thought she’d be in jail. ‘Where’s Ruby?’ It’s crazy, it’s crazy . . . She stuffed the ballot boxes. They were stuffed like nobody has ever seen them stuffed before . . . She’s known all over the internet, Brad. She’s known all over. I’m telling you, ‘Where’s Ruby’ was one of the hot items. Ruby. They knew her. ‘Where’s Ruby?’”
He quizzed Raffensperger’s lawyer about her:
“Every single ballot that she did through the machines at early, early in the morning went to Biden. Did you know that, Ryan?”
“That’s not accurate, Mr. President,” Germany said. “Huh. What is accurate?”
“The numbers that we are showing are accurate.”
“No, about Ruby Freeman. About early in the morning, Ryan. Where the woman took, you know, when the whole gang took the stuff out of the—from under the table, right? Do you know, do you know who those ballots, do you know who they were made out to, do you know who they were voting for?”
“No, not specifically.”
“Did you ever check?”
“We did what I described to you earlier—”
“No, no, no. Did you ever check the ballots that were scanned by Ruby Freeman*, a known political operative, balloteer? Did you ever check who those votes were for?”
It was an astonishing call, from the President of the United States. At one point Trump made a direct demand: “What I want to do is this,” he said. “I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than [the 11,779 vote margin of loss] we have, because we won the state.”
Raffensperger finally responded, “We have to stand by our numbers. We believe our numbers are right.”
Near the end, Trump came back to Freeman. He wanted something done about her.
“Hey, Brad, why wouldn’t you want to check out Ruby Freeman?” he asked. “I mean, I’ve been watching you, you know, you don’t care about anything.” He repeated facetiously, Your numbers are right. “But your numbers aren’t right. They’re really wrong, and they’re really wrong, Brad. And I know this phone call is going nowhere other than, other than ultimately, you know—look, ultimately, I win, okay?”
The call ended with Trump unsatisfied and with Raffensperger shocked. His election system, like those around the nation, relied on workers like Ruby Freeman and her daughter, who showed up to work long hours for minimal pay. Harassment like this would scare everyone away.
Today Raffensperger faces serious consequences for his steadfast refusal to lie. Georgia’s politicos expect he will lose his next bid for reelection, in 2022, to primary challenger Jody Hice, a US representative and Trumpist. After Trump lost the 2020 election, Hice lustily promoted The Steal and attacked Raffensperger as he told the truth. On January 6, as protesters gathered before the Capitol assault, Hice said in a now-deleted Instagram post, “This is our 1776 moment.”
“Right now, running for reelection, I know I’m in the election of my life,” Raffensperger said. “It’s going to be tough because I’m really fighting a disinformation, misinformation machine that’s not been honest and truthful to the American people.”
Trump’s call to Raffensperger—in which he instructed the secretary of state to “find” enough votes—may result in the only criminal charges against Trump rooted in The Steal. Fulton County’s district attorney, Fani Willis, is investigating Trump’s efforts to influence the election and has requested that Raffensperger’s office preserve all documents related to Trump’s call. Willis’s letter to Raffensperger outlined a serious set of potential charges against the former president, including “potential violations of Georgia election law prohibiting the solicitation of election fraud, the making of false statements to state and local government bodies, conspiracy, racketeering, violation of oath of office, and any involvement in violence or threats related to the election’s administration.”
In Raffensperger’s view, Trump damaged his own political hopes more than anyone else could, with his false talk of fraud and downplaying mail-in ballots. “We do know now looking at the data that 28,200 people skipped the presidential race,” he said. “Everything down ballot, but they actually skipped the presidential race.”
That meant more than twenty-eight thousand people filled out their ballots but didn’t mark a choice for any presidential candidate. “So I’m sure that people will dig into the data and look at, of those twenty-eight thousand people, did they vote in the Democrat primary, Republican primary, and then do some projections of what that would have looked like.”
The implication is that Trump—who lost Georgia by about twelve thousand votes out of five million—might have won, if he hadn’t turned off his own potential supporters.
*On December 2, Ruby Freeman and her daughter, Shaye Moss, filed a defamation suit against a right-wing site claiming it endangered them with false conspiracy stories it published for months after the election. Freeman said in a statement that “my daughter and I are real people who deserve justice, and I never want them to do this to anyone else.
Excerpted from The Steal, by Mark Bowden and Matthew Teague, courtesy Atlantic Monthly Press. Copyright 2021, Mark Bowden and Matthew Teague.
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