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Reveal host Al Letson talks with leading academics and journalists to take the temperature of American democracy: What did we expect from the midterms, what did we get, and what does that mean for 2024? 

Reveal’s Ese Olumhense and Mother Jones senior reporter Ari Berman discuss how gerrymandering, abortion rights, election denial and fear of voting crimes played out in contentious states like Arizona, Wisconsin and Florida.

Next, Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz, who report on threats to democracy for ProPublica and are hosts of the podcast WIll Be Wild, join Letson to discuss how the violence and disinformation that sparked the Jan. 6 insurrection continues to shape the country’s political landscape. The reporters tell the story of how the Department of Homeland Security backed off efforts to identify and combat false information after Republican pundits and politicians accused the Biden administration of stomping on the free speech rights of anyone who disagrees with them.   

Then, reporter Jessica Pishko delves into the world of a group called the constitutional sheriffs. This association of rogue sheriffs claims to be the highest law in the land and has increasingly come to see themselves as election police. Pishko attends a meeting in Arizona where Richard Mack, a leader of the movement who has also been involved with the far-right Oath Keepers, extols the rights of sheriffs to get involved in monitoring elections. In recent years, this right-wing group has grown from a fringe organization to one with national power and prominence. Pishko discusses the chilling effect these sheriffs have on voting. 

In his time as president, Donald Trump bucked the norms and mixed presidential duties with personal business, refused to release his tax returns and pardoned his political allies.This week, he announced he’s running for president again in 2024. Letson speaks with two lawyers who have spent the past two years identifying how to rein in presidential power and close loopholes Trump exposed: Bob Bauer, former White House counsel for President Barack Obama, and Jack Goldsmith, former assistant attorney general in President George W. Bush’s Office of Legal Counsel. They’re also co-authors of  the 2020 book “After Trump: Reconstructing the Presidency.”

Dig Deeper

Read: A Democracy Crisis Was Averted. But Gerrymandering Could Still Save the GOP. (Mother Jones) 

Read: How the Biden Administration Caved to Republicans on Fighting Election Disinformation (ProPublica)

Read: These Sheriffs Say They’re More Powerful Than the President. Now, They’re Targeting Elections. (Reveal)

Read: After Trump: Reconstructing the Presidency 

Listen: Will Be Wild

Credits

Reporters: Andrea Bernstein, Ari Berman, Ilya Marritz, Jessica Pishko and Ese Olumhense | Lead producer: Ike Sriskandarajah | Producers: Michael Montgomery, Nadia Hamdan and Jonathan Jones | Editors: Brett Myers and Cynthia Rodriguez | Fact checker: Nikki Frick | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Post-production team: Kathryn Styer Martínez and Claire Mullen | Interim executive producers: Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis | Host: Al Letson 

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Al Letson:Just a few weeks ago, many politicians, pundits, and poll workers seemed tense about what might happen during the midterms. The big questions, who would win, who would lose, and especially whether there be chaos and violence.
Speaker 2:Political violence has been a growing concern in recent history, but law enforcement experts say this moment is different.
Al Letson:Ripples from the 2020 presidential race and the lie that refused to get smaller were fueling threats and dire predictions, and the people tasked with running fair elections were under siege.
Speaker 3:The Maricopa County Elections Office recorded nearly 150 threats against election workers this year.
Al Letson:The stakes were high. These were the first national elections since the January 6th attack on the Capitol, some worried that democracy itself was on the line.
Speaker 4:Tuesday could be the last time you vote in a free and fair election in the United States.
Speaker 5:They’re all election deniers. They have all suggested in some way that they might not certify elections.
Al Letson:But on election day, some of the things we feared, well, they just didn’t happen. Armed militias didn’t take over polling stations. There were no documented instances of widespread fraud. And yes, it takes time, but the votes were counted. Unlike 2020, many candidates who didn’t get the most votes didn’t claim the hidden hand of election fraud. Instead, they did what was honest and honorable.
Speaker 6:Unfortunately, the math doesn’t add up. I just called Governor Evers and conceded. I wish the Evers family well.
Speaker 7:Tonight, I am doing what is clearly the responsible thing. I am suspending my campaign for governor.
Al Letson:Maybe these are good signals for what’s ahead, I hope so, but I’m still worried about the health of our democracy. The forces that got us into this place have not gone away, and they will continue to be a factor in the next election cycle and in the race for president in 2024.
Al Letson:Today, we’re talking to leading academics and journalists to take the temperature of American democracy. What did we expect from the midterms, what did we get, and what does that mean for 2024? I want to start with two journalists we heard from ahead of the election. Ari Berman is a senior reporter at Mother Jones. He spent time in Wisconsin, where Republican gerrymandering has distorted the political map. Hey, Ari.
Ari Berman:Hey, Al. Thanks for having me.
Al Letson:And Reveal’s Ese Olumhense, who went to Arizona to look at how the state was enforcing harsh voting laws.
Ese Olumhense:Hi, Al.
Al Letson:We know that Arizona and Wisconsin are major swing states and they saw a flood of money into national and statewide racists. Ari, I want to go to you first. What were you looking for going into the midterms and how do those things end up playing out?
Ari Berman:Well, the biggest thing I was looking at, Al, both in Wisconsin and nationally was would Republicans who really didn’t believe in free and fair elections take over critical election positions. By and large, that didn’t happen. Republican secretaries of state who denied the 2020 election outcome lost in every major battleground state. Election deniers lost governor’s races in a lot of really important swing states as well. A lot of election deniers did win, for example, the House caucus will be filled with Republicans that tried to discredit the election, but many of these people will not have direct control of the voting system.
Al Letson:Ese, same question to you. You were in Arizona and you were following new voter suppression laws. What’d you see playing out during the midterms?
Ese Olumhense:I think Arizona was one of the more fascinating states for me, politically, racing into this last election. Big picture, it is true that election deniers or skeptics were mostly rebuffed at the polls from what we’ve seen so far. The fascinating thing about Arizona is that it has some of the toughest voting crime laws in the country, and the politicians there, prosecutors there, seem really, really willing to enforce these laws. One of the big takeaways for me, I guess, is though the deniers are losing so far, a lot of the tools that they’ve embraced will remain in place.
Al Letson:Ari, I want to get into one of your favorite topics, and mine too, gerrymandering. Your recent story looked at how Republicans in Wisconsin have extreme gerrymandering to almost a degree that allows them control of the state legislature. Is that what happened this time around?
Ari Berman:Yes, our favorite topic that we could discuss deep into the night, Al, gerrymandering. But it really did have a big impact on the election. In Wisconsin, the Democrat, Tony Evers, won the governor’s race by 3.5 points, but Republicans won 67% of seats in the State Senate and 65% of seats in the State House, coming just two seats short from winning a super majority in both chambers.
Al Letson:Your theory is that all of this is predicated on gerrymandering.
Ari Berman:It is, because the reason why Republicans remain in control of Wisconsin is gerrymandering, because the state is voting democratic for races like governor, for races like attorney general, but when it comes to the legislature, Republicans keep expanding their majorities. This was a bad election cycle for Republicans in Wisconsin, and indeed for Republicans in many states, particularly in the Midwest, but Republicans actually gained seats in the Wisconsin legislature and that’s because the maps they drew last year were designed to do just that. It was essentially designed to make the state voter proof so no matter what happened, Republicans would have these giant legislative majorities.
Al Letson:One issue that clearly benefited the Democrats was abortion and reproductive rights. Ari, you reported on this harsh 1849 abortion law that’s on the books in Wisconsin. The Republicans wouldn’t budge on amending the law and that cost them in the elections. Wisconsin wasn’t the only place where that happened.
Ari Berman:That’s right, Al. This law in Wisconsin is pretty remarkable. It dates back to 1849, which is one year after Wisconsin became a state and 70 years before women got the right to vote. I think most people didn’t even realize it existed until the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and then it immediately went into effect. It wasn’t popular in Wisconsin, 83% of Wisconsinites opposed it. The governor called two different special sessions of the legislature to ask Republicans to change it, and they refused.
Ari Berman:I think it showed how dug in the Republican party was, and I think it clearly hurt them. There were five states in which reproductive rights were on the ballot, and in all five states, voters decided to protect abortion rights. That’s a pretty dramatic statement when you’re talking about whether it’s in blue states, red states or purple states. No matter where it was on the ballot, voters decided to protect the right to choose.
Al Letson:I want to get into how crime, or fear of crime, was deployed in these elections. Ese, I know in Arizona there was a lot of talk from Republicans about election fraud, so-called ballot harvesting, a lot of things that just aren’t big problems in the real world.
Ese Olumhense:Yeah, I think it’s too soon to tell in Arizona what the outcome of some of these laws will be, and the same is true for other places that pass these election crime bills, but I think what’s really interesting is that even though we know that ballot harvesting isn’t this big real world problem, deniers and skeptics of elections are still claiming that ballot harvesting and other kinds of fraud are to blame for the losses that a lot of the deniers and skeptics took across the country. I’ve even seen some people saying that that’s why DeSantis won so handily in Florida, because the state is really aggressively cracking down on crime.
Al Letson:Yeah, I think the last time we talked you spoke about like it’s making a law against the boogeyman, which we know doesn’t exist.
Ese Olumhense:But imagine if you pass the law against the boogeyman and then you won an election and everyone was like, “Oh, Al only won because he was anti boogeyman.” It’s like the lie is just deepening at this point.
Al Letson:Okay, so we’ve been talking a lot about Republicans, but I’ve got to get your take on something else. During the primaries, democratic groups donated millions to far right Republican candidates. The hope was that if they won, they’d be easier to beat in general elections. Pretty cynical, but it appeared to work in at least a handful of races. Is this a tactic we should expect to see again?
Ari Berman:I think that some Democrats believe it was effective, but it was very controversial. How do you know they won’t win? They almost did win the secretary of state races in places like Arizona and places like Nevada, they almost did win these governor’s races in a bunch of places. I think it was extremely morally questionable for the Democratic party and it was very risky, because a lot of these election deniers lost very close races.
Al Letson:We’re two years from 2024, what should we be paying attention to when we think about the presidential race? What should we be concerned about, Ari?
Ari Berman:Well, I think that in many ways we dodged a major bullet in 2022. I think what the Republican party is going to try to do is they’re going to look for a more sophisticated form of authoritarianism. I think the 2022 results were a repudiation of the idea that you’re just not going to accept an election outcome if you lose, but all the ways in which the political system is being systematically rigged one by one by one, that a lot of people don’t see in terms of their daily lives, I think that trend is going to continue, particularly within the Republican Party.
Ari Berman:Ese, what will you be expecting as we move into the next elections?
Ese Olumhense:Well, I’ll be watching the proliferation, of course, of election crime legislation and following voter prosecutions that happen around the country. We last reported on Guillermina Fuentes, she’s the Arizona woman who was convicted ultimately of handling for ballots. That ballot abuse case, it’s the first of its kind. It may, again, be too early to tell the impact of these things on voters, but I’m already concerned about turnout and following turnout numbers in counties where we’re seeing some of these prosecutions and investigations happen.
Ese Olumhense:Also, just as a person who’s interested in election crime stuff and elections in general, I’m going to be paying attention to Florida. For the first reason, DeSantis is a 2024 hopeful. I think we’re going to see more from him in terms of his national profile in the coming months and his approach to enforcing tough voting laws.
Al Letson:Ese Olumhense is a reporter with Reveal and Ari Berman is a senior reporter at Mother Jones. Thanks guys for coming in.
Ese Olumhense:Thank you for having us.
Ari Berman:Thanks so much, Al.
Al Letson:Our story was produced by Michael Montgomery. If you want to read Ese and Ari’s fantastic election coverage, go to our website at revealnews.org.
Al Letson:Okay, so it wasn’t the Hollywood sequel we feared, Insurrection Day 2, but that doesn’t mean it was all sunshine and rainbows.
Andrea Bernstei…:Paul Pelosi was attacked with a hammer on his skull by an attacker who had been influenced by mis and disinformation.
Al Letson:Coming up, reporters Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz investigate why a federal government program designed to combat disinformation got shut down just weeks after it began. That’s next on Reveal.
Al Letson:From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Al Letson:On Tuesday morning, Governor Elect Katie Hobbs greeted a crowd of supporters in Arizona with a huge smile on her face.
Katie Hobbs:It has been a long year and a half, but in this election, Arizonans chose solving our problems over conspiracy theories.
Al Letson:Hobbs, a Democrat, just won the race the night before. It was one of the midterm’s most watched races because of her opponent, Republican Kari Lake. Lake, one of the most prominent election deniers, based much of her campaign on the lie that the 2020 election was stolen.
Kari Lake:We had a fraudulent election, a corrupt election, and we have an illegitimate president sitting in the White House.
Al Letson:But even though Lake lost, she got more than 49% of the vote, which means more than a million people voted for her. After she lost, she simply tweeted, “Arizonans know BS when they see it.” Journalists Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz were watching the Arizona governor’s race and races across the country, paying close attention to how disinformation would play out in the midterms. As hosts of the popular podcast, Will Be Wild, they tried to understand the origins of disinformation by taking a deep dive into the January 6th insurrection.
Al Letson:They now cover democracy at ProPublica, where they’ve continued to report on threats to our elections, because millions of people still believe the American voting process is a fraud. Even though they didn’t see any major upheaval during this election, the spread of disinformation hasn’t stopped.
Al Letson:Andrea and Ilya are here to help us make sense of it all. Hey, guys.
Ilya Marritz:Hi, Al.
Andrea Bernstei…:Hey, Al, great talking to you.
Al Letson:Okay, so you guys have been on this beat for a while now. What were you hearing from people before the midterms?
Andrea Bernstei…:Security officials, people who used to work at the Department of Homeland Security who now work in private security firms who really began to monitor social media calls for violence, were struck by the sheer volume of calls for violence against election workers and election infrastructure. These threats were graphic. Especially after January 6th, people who track these claims on social media and on different platforms were on high alert.
Ilya Marritz:Yeah. At this point, I started calling around to a lot of different election offices, secretaries of state, people like that, to try to understand how they were experiencing this disinformation and all of these threats. To be clear, not everybody’s getting death threats every day, but everybody is aware that there is something different this year, heightened scrutiny of how we vote.
Ilya Marritz:One person I spoke with was Julie Slomski, she’s a clerk in Erie County, Pennsylvania. I talked to her in early October, about a month before the midterms. She told me she at that point was spending about half her day just dealing with people, fellow citizens, who were skeptical of the voting system.
Julie Slomski:I was just accused yesterday of a 2:00 AM delivery of ballots here to the courthouse. That is not the case at all. It’s those conspiracy theorists that just keep pushing it.
Ilya Marritz:She said her county even got a grant from the state of Pennsylvania to put cameras up around the office so that they can prove, if necessary, that ballots were in fact handled properly. Julie is a registered Democrat and she told me she has been accused of letting Democrats come to vote multiple times, which she says is not true. She says the situation has escalated enough to where she has started to take steps to protect herself.
Julie Slomski:My sister sent me a bulletproof backpack to wear, so I do wear it and I have it with me because you never know what’s going to happen. I do leave work late at night sometimes, where I am the only one in the end of the parking lot, but it makes you more and more aware.
Ilya Marritz:That was a few weeks before the end of voting. I checked in again with Julie Slomski after voting ended and she texted me that everything went smoothly and she was getting ready for certification. That has been the case pretty much across the board for elections officials.
Al Letson:You guys have released some new reporting and I’d like to talk about that for a minute because it’s relevant.
Ilya Marritz:Right. The essence of our article is looking at the ways that the Biden administration rolled back its initial plans to monitor and address disinformation around the midterm elections, essentially caving to Republican criticism. The story begins really on inauguration day. Two weeks after January 6th, President Biden takes office and he quickly promises to do something about violent extremism. He makes it very clear that miss and disinformation are a big driver of that extremism.
Joe Biden:Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson, there is truth and there are lies and each of us has a duty and a responsibility to defend the truth and defeat the lies.
Ilya Marritz:This leads to a September 2021 determination by Department of Homeland Security staffers recommending the creation of a disinformation board. Basically, they said the problem had become a serious Homeland Security risk. So they did that, the Department of Homeland Security created a disinformation governance board in February 2022. They didn’t announce it, but this was a first-of-its-kind group, basically meant to coordinate the response to dis and misinformation across the board.
Andrea Bernstei…:They hire an expert on disinformation, Nina Jankowicz, as the executive director, but almost right away there is this incredible pushback once word of the board is leaked. In the week that follows, 70% of Fox’s one-hour news segments contain references to the board.
Speaker 16:Jankowicz will apparently have broad power to decide what the administration considers true and false. I shouldn’t need to explain to you why that is bat poop crazy and very dangerous.
Andrea Bernstei…:The New York Post runs a cover image with Jankowicz on the cover with a headline that says, “Big Sister is watching you.” Right wing influencer Jack Posobiec starts tweeting about the board, and members of Congress, Republicans like Andrew Clyde of Georgia, liken the board to the fictional body that feeds people lies in George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984.
Speaker 17:This is nothing more than a blatant attempt to install a ministry of truth in order to push Biden’s propaganda, lies and radical agenda. Mr. Speaker, this is seriously dangerous and wholly unconstitutional.
Andrea Bernstei…:This really creates a reaction inside the Department of Homeland Security. In May, less than a month after the creation of the board, it was put on pause. Jankowicz resigns only 10 weeks after she has begun working. This is a real turning point, because what the Biden administration had been trying to do when it set up this board was to address the issue of disinformation. The criticism, the pushback, was, no, you are curtailing the free speech rights of people who disagree with you. This proved to be really potent.
Al Letson:There is a real concern about government overreach. I wouldn’t say that the government is a benign actor.
Ilya Marritz:No, certainly, and civil liberties are always going to be a concern with any of the kind of programs that we’ve been talking about. The interesting thing is that the Department of Homeland Security was, in fact, very careful when it formed the Disinformation Governance Board, to say that it would respect citizens’ First Amendment rights and also their privacy rights.
Al Letson:Okay, so the board got canceled before it even really got off the ground. Why are we talking about it then?
Ilya Marritz:Yeah, it’s a fair question. The answer is that a lot of other stuff got canceled or at least paused along with the Disinformation Governance Board. We learned that millions of dollars in research contracts were frozen, these are contracts with two universities and the RAND Corporation to study disinformation. Then there’s this part of DHS called the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA. CISA had plans to develop resources to help election workers, people like Julie Slomski in Erie County, Pennsylvania, to protect them from harassment and violence, particularly doxxing, when their home address or home phone numbers might be posted. Those plans did not move forward. In the space of really just a few months this past summer, we saw all of this activity that people saw as really, really necessary grind to a halt.
Andrea Bernstei…:Nina Jankowicz, the former executive director, described to me how she was harassed, how she was doxxed, forced to resign, she received threats of violence. She said she’s in regular talks with her family about their safety and their security.
Nina Jankowicz:I think that says something really wrong about where America is, that somebody who is a GS15 political appointee, not even a Senate confirmed person, is thinking about how to protect her family because she took a job in her area of expertise.
Andrea Bernstei…:I think what you see in this example is how somebody trying to work against disinformation becomes a victim of a disinformation campaign, which disables the work against disinformation because the tactics work.
Al Letson:Election day has come and gone, much better than any expected, no major incidents. What does that say about the power of disinformation today?
Andrea Bernstei…:Everybody that I’ve spoken to, all of the election security experts that I’ve spoken to since the midterms, feel relieved, but caution that we are not out of the woods. One major reason they say is because of the sheer volume of election deniers in Congress and in key statewide positions, at least 170 according to the Washington Post. The concern is that those people will now have the big megaphones and that can be a way of amplifying and legitimizing disinformation that may emerge in the period leading up to the 2024 election.
Andrea Bernstei…:Now, I do want to say, because I do think it’s been a little forgotten after the midterms and the results of the midterms, that of course we had a horrific incidence of political violence, where the Pelosi home was invaded and Paul Pelosi was attacked with a hammer on his skull by an attacker who had been influenced by mis and disinformation. What we saw with Paul Pelosi was not only a brutal attack, but then some Republican leaders seeming to joke about it, to make light of it. All of that still concerns people like Nina Jankowicz.
Nina Jankowicz:I think that that is extremely scary. Again, it is when elites condone this behavior, and they’re not even condoning it tacitly, they’re condoning it overtly, that’s going to encourage people to act on these conspiracy theories in the future. That’s absolutely something that I never thought I would see in the United States.
Ilya Marritz:Yeah. I’m just still thinking about our voting system, which has never come in for the kind of scrutiny that it did this past cycle. I think there’s a lot of remaining skepticism about the voting system, especially on the Republican side. Let me give you an example. I spent election night in rural Bradford County, Pennsylvania, it’s in the north central part of the state. I was with a guy called Doug McLinko. He is a county commissioner there, he’s a Republican, he’s been in the office for many years. He told me that in 2020, he heard reports from a friend of his about ballot harvesting in Philadelphia and he became convinced that it was a real problem and that Pennsylvania’s vote that year was not kosher.
Doug McLinko:I didn’t certify 2020, would not do it. I’m not going to certify this election if I don’t deem that my people’s votes here counted.
Ilya Marritz:I was really curious to see what he was going to do this election. Trump was not on the ballot, but there’s this hotly contested governor’s race and a really tight race for the Senate. To be clear, Doug McLinko says Bradford County, which is a small place, administers its elections the right way, but again, he is not sure about those big cities.
Al Letson:What did Doug end up doing?
Ilya Marritz:I checked back with him a few days after election day. His preferred candidates, the Republicans lost in those tight races and he agreed that they lost.
Doug McLinko:I accept this election, I do. To be honest with you, I’m not upset about it.
Ilya Marritz:But, and I think this is really critical, he is still going to vote against certifying the election because he still doesn’t trust mail-in voting, which is relatively new in Pennsylvania, and he thinks the way the state introduced it was all wrong.
Doug McLinko:It’s about the future of voting. I’ve told you that from the beginning. That’s where I’m at. When I went to talk to Trump, that’s where he was at. It doesn’t come down to just this election, it comes down to future elections.
Ilya Marritz:This is someone who’s a pillar of his local community. He’s been involved in elections there since 2004, he understands how they work, and nevertheless, he’s a soft skeptic and I think that posture is likely to remain. Doug McLinko says it’s time to move on from 2020, and I think really what he means is move on from Trump’s voter fraud claims, but he’s not ready to move on from the idea that there is something wrong with how we vote in America. That is still a very powerful idea.
Al Letson:Ilya, Andrea, thank you so much for coming on.
Ilya Marritz:It was good talking to you.
Andrea Bernstei…:Great talking to you.
Al Letson:That was journalists Ilya Marritz and Andrea Bernstein, who cover democracy at ProPublica. Nadia Hamdan produced this segment.
Al Letson:We just heard about the federal failure to combat election disinformation on a national scale. Next, we hear from a group that is stoking disinformation locally. They’re rogue sheriffs, who claim to be the highest law of the land, more powerful than the president. They call themselves the constitutional sheriffs. Jessica Pishko has been covering them for longer than just about anybody. She spent years watching them grow from local fringe to national prominence. Just last month, with support from the Pulitzer Center, Jessica went to Arizona to hear the leader of this movement speak. He was asking sheriffs to take on a new job, election police.
Jessica Pishko:I went to a meeting that was being held at a small Baptist church about two hours north of Phoenix. You could see groups of men outside, they’re patrolling the church, wearing Oath Keeper t-shirts and hats, they all are armed, and they’re welcoming people into the church.
Speaker 21:Okay, guys, welcome. Who’s here for the first time? I know there’s a bunch of you because I don’t recognize half this room.
Nina Jankowicz:I was there to see a meeting of this Oath Keepers affiliate that had welcomed Richard Mack to come visit.
Richard Mack:Thank you very much, thank you.
Nina Jankowicz:Richard Mack is a tall man, he’s in his 60s. He carries himself like a preacher.
Richard Mack:Is the battle of good and evil going on today?
Speaker 23:Yes.
Richard Mack:Is the prophecy being fulfilled, that good will be called evil and evil will be called good?
Speaker 23:Yes.
Jessica Pishko:The crowd is a real mix of people from the area. Many of them are older and retired, many of them are veterans. It’s about 50/50 men and women. Right in front of me was a woman wearing a MAGA hat. Some people are vigorously taking notes.
Richard Mack:There are millions of people in our country who call our Constitution evil.
Jessica Pishko:Richard Mack has been spending the past two years touring the country and speaking to groups just like this one, talking to them about issues that they care passionately about.
Richard Mack:All we want and all we’re asking for is that every county sheriff look at what happened in his county and make sure that we don’t fall prey to the greatest crime ever committed against the American people.
Jessica Pishko:They’re all there to discuss what sheriffs can do to help these people prevent election fraud.
Al Letson:What do local law enforcement officials have to do with national elections or even local elections?
Jessica Pishko:Well, to be honest with you, nothing. Local law enforcement officials are really not involved in election or any sort of election investigations unless a crime has already occurred. In many states, there are laws that say police and other armed law enforcement officers are not allowed to be present at polling locations.
Richard Mack:If you do not have your sheriffs involved in this process, it will not remain peaceful. The sheriffs are the ultimate executive authority in every county and parish in this country.
Al Letson:I imagine Richard Mack is a sheriff?
Jessica Pishko:Richard Mack used to be a sheriff. He was a two term sheriff in rural Arizona back in the 1980s and early 1990s when the NRA asked him to be part of a lawsuit to sue the Clinton administration over the Brady Bill.
Richard Mack:Hey, did you know that? I sued the Clintons and lived to tell about it.
Jessica Pishko:This is one of his favorite jokes and helped launch him into becoming a far right star. He toured the country talking about the Second Amendment and the Clintons since the 1990s. He’s also appeared at all sorts of far right events. He was a board member of the Oath Keepers and he was present at the Nevada Ranch during the Bundy standoff.
Richard Mack:I want to thank the Bundys for inviting us to this picnic. The sheriffs need to take an example from these cowboys. You need to cowboy up and you need to protect your people. I want y’all to know, there’s some sheriffs already out here doing it.
Al Letson:He seems to pop up in a lot of different places.
Jessica Pishko:He really does. He’s a bit like the Forrest Gump of the far right. Now, he goes around the country talking about constitutional sheriffs.
Al Letson:What’s Mack’s relationship with the constitutional sheriffs?
Jessica Pishko:Well, he really started this movement. In 2011, he moved to Texas to start what he calls the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.
Richard Mack:I formed a national group, and we’re all dedicated to preventing all injustice.
Jessica Pishko:After a time, Richard Mack’s group really fizzled out. He had a heart attack, he had to get another job, but then came the COVID pandemic and this really inspired Richard Mack to again pick up the mantle of the constitutional sheriff movement and talk to groups around the country about how they could oppose vaccine and mask mandates. Then, after the 2020 election and after January 6th, Mack took up the mantle of election fraud.
Al Letson:How big is this movement now?
Jessica Pishko:It’s really hard to judge the exact size of this movement because anyone can join and attend the trainings. Richard Mack himself estimates that he has trained or been in contact with up to 1,000 sheriffs and their employees over the last decade. There are plenty of sheriffs who agree with certain sections of Mack’s ideology, but not all of it. What we can say is that the ideas behind the constitutional sheriff movement have been really relevant in elections during these midterms.
Richard Mack:Sheriffs can and will investigate if laws are being broken.
Speaker 23:They got a little touchy and said I was trying to inject myself in their election.
Speaker 24:Check this box inappropriately, you could be put in jail.
Al Letson:What did these self-appointed election cops do this past election?
Jessica Pishko:I think one of the things we saw was that they really encouraged these vigilante drop box watchers throughout the country. There’s a variety of so-called election integrity groups who have been encouraging civilians to sign up to watch drop boxes. Allegedly, they’re looking for people who may be depositing more than one ballot, which is illegal in certain cases.
Jessica Pishko:The other thing I think we see is an overall chilling effect on people who want to vote. It’s very difficult to understand who to call if you feel threatened about voting when your sheriff is the one telling people to watch the drop boxes with guns.
Al Letson:What about Mack? What has he said about the election and what are his plans for the next?
Jessica Pishko:I think Richard Mack is continuing on the same path he’s been. He is arguing that more and more sheriffs should be concerned with elections and looking for potentials for fraud. He’s really gone throughout the country and really played upon the idea that this big lie has spread everywhere in the Republican party. He’s arguing that sheriffs should both watch drop boxes, have access to video, review ballots even, and they should be on the lookout for instances of potential fraud.
Al Letson:You’ve been watching this group evolve for a long time. Why do you think it’s important? What are we supposed to make of this movement?
Jessica Pishko:I think it would be easy to dismiss this movement as somewhat extreme or far right, but it’s important to bear in mind that 80% of counties in 2020 went for Donald Trump and each county has a sheriff, which means 80% of sheriffs in this country preside in counties where their constituents probably believe in the big lie to some extent. In addition, these sheriffs are law enforcement officers, which means they have access to guns and personnel, which they can use to arrest or investigate citizens however they wish. Finally, we should think about what these sheriffs say about themselves. They believe they are the highest law in the land. They’ve proven that they’re willing to ignore federal and state courts, as well as federal and state law enforcement, to ensure that their politics are the last word.
Al Letson:That’s Jessica Pishko. She had support from the Pulitzer Center and is a New America Fellow. You can read her reporting on the constitutional sheriffs at revealnews.org.
Al Letson:Donald Trump used his office in ways that stress tested the limits of the presidency.
Donald Trump:Then I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.
Al Letson:When we come back, reigning in executive power. That’s next, on Reveal.
Al Letson:From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Al Letson:It’s June 9th, 2016, in New York City. Donald Trump is running for president for the first time and there’s a meeting in Trump Tower. His son, Don Junior, campaign chair, Paul Manafort and Trump senior advisor, Jared Kushner, are all there to meet with a Russian delegation. They’re hoping to get some dirt on Hillary Clinton. Revelations about the meeting explode in the media. Here’s Jared being interviewed by Axios on HBO.
Speaker 26:My question to you is why didn’t you pick up the phone and call the FBI? There was an email that said the Russian government was trying to help, but why didn’t you do that?
Al Letson:Kushner says he didn’t take the meeting seriously.
Jared Kushner:I text [inaudible] and said, “Can you get me a car and get me the hell out of here? This is a waste of time,” I leave. I never would’ve thought about that meeting again. Had there been something that actually was nefarious at that meeting that came up, maybe we would’ve done something different, but the reality is is that the meeting was a total waste of time.
Al Letson:Just over a month after that meeting, Candidate Trump stands at lectern and says he hopes Russia will recover emails missing from Clinton’s private server when she was secretary of state.
Donald Trump:Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you are able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.
Al Letson:That same day, Russian military intelligence officers hacked into emails of Clinton staffers and campaign workers, all in an effort to influence US elections, as President Trump would go on to test the boundaries of his powers.
Donald Trump:I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.
Al Letson:He would buck the norms and mingle presidential duties with personal business, refuse to release his tax returns, and pardon his political allies. We’re roughly two years out from the 2024 presidential election and we’re recalling all of this because many of those vulnerabilities Trump exposed still exist.
Al Letson:We want to close out today’s show by talking to two people who, for more than two years, have been pushing to prevent future abuses of presidential power. Bob Bauer is a former White House counsel for President Barack Obama and Jack Goldsmith is a former Assistant Attorney General and President George W. Bush’s Office of Legal Counsel. They’re the authors of After Trump: Reconstructing the Presidency, and they’ve been trying to make a case that fixing our system is urgent and essential to restoring confidence in American democracy.
Al Letson:Jack, is Donald Trump right when he says that Article II of the Constitution gives a president the right to do whatever they want?
Jack Goldsmith:No, he’s not right to say that Article II gives the president the right to do whatever he wants. Article II gives the President extraordinary powers, it’s true, especially in foreign affairs, much less so in domestic affairs. It is also true, however, that in exercising his Article II powers, Donald Trump found gaps in constitution and laws and norms that had been constraining the presidency since Watergate.
Al Letson:Bob, you’re a Democrat, Jack, you’re a Republican, and yet you both see the importance of shoring up our democracy in this critical moment. There’s quite a bit of work to do. You’ve offered up more than 50 concrete proposals to stop presidential abuses of power. The very first issue you talk about is foreign influence in elections. Trump blatantly invited foreign interference in our presidential election. How do we change that?
Bob Bauer:The Trump campaign management team received a high level delegation from Moscow that was intended to express support and offer support to Trump in his campaign against Hillary Clinton. Now, it turned out they didn’t have what the Trump campaign thought was particularly useful, but they offered, and the Trump campaign apparently was ready to accept, opposition research. We think the law could be very specifically clarified so that it was clear that any kind of support like that from a foreign government for a campaign for political purposes would be prohibited.
Al Letson:Democratic Senator Mark Warner introduced a bill that would require candidates to report contact with foreign governments, but Republicans blocked it. If it had passed, would it have been enough to keep foreign interference out?
Bob Bauer:It certainly wouldn’t have addressed every form of foreign interference, we also still have the problem with foreign government use of social media to try to influence federal elections, but these direct contacts with campaigns, in which the campaigns are considering or welcoming or soliciting support from a foreign government for political purposes, those contacts, if they had been subject to reporting, might have caused the senior campaign management team at Trump Towers to think twice about welcoming that delegation from the Kremlin.
Al Letson:Warner’s bill stalled in June of 2019. At the time, Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee claimed the legislation was too broad and would require campaigns to report interactions with anybody who wasn’t a citizen.
Marsha Blackbur…:Campaigns could have to report social media responses or interactions, report every non-US citizen or even every Dreamer, we hear a lot about the Dreamers. Think about this, you would report every non-US citizen or Dreamer who volunteers for their campaign or knocks on doors or even knocks on the door of a foreign national.
Bob Bauer:I should note for the record that none of what we just heard Senator Blackburn say about Senator Warner’s bill is neither accurate nor in critical respects really makes any sense.
Al Letson:Was that bill a victim of partisan gridlock?
Bob Bauer:I think it was partly a victim, maybe mainly a victim, of every part of this discussion of reform being caught up in the question on the Republican side of whether it was directed against Donald Trump, is it all about Donald Trump, are you seeking revenge against Donald Trump. What we sought to do in our book was to craft reforms that both Democrats and Republicans could agree upon, that were just by their nature not to the advantage of one political party or the other.
Al Letson:What do you think the future is of legislation? Is it that the Democrats have to tiptoe around Trump in order to make those things happen?
Bob Bauer:I don’t think it’s a question of tiptoeing around Trump, I certainly would hope that wouldn’t guide the legislative discussion in any way. I do think a really major effort has to be made to explain how these kinds of reforms protect everybody. We just need to emphasize that golden rule, which is consider what it would be like if, in fact, what you would support in the behavior of your own president might be the behavior you confront in the president of another party. That’s just an effort at general education in the public debate, a shift, if you will, in perspective, not easy in this polarized period, but absolutely indispensable of any reform that’s going to move forward.
Al Letson:As we’re talking about this idea of crafting legislation, I have questions about whether or not Republicans would support anything that seemed to tread on the former president’s stances.
Jack Goldsmith:I don’t think that’s quite true. We’ve seen several reforms during the Biden administration that have made progress through Congress and that have received bipartisan support and that could, in some world, be seen as a response to Donald Trump. For example, there’s been bipartisan support in the Congress for emergency powers reform, there’s extraordinary bipartisan support now in the Congress for Electoral Count Act reform. It’s not always clear why some reforms end up being construed as anti-Trump and others aren’t, but I don’t think it’s an absolute bar.
Al Letson:You mentioned the Electoral Count Reform Act. This is one of the only pieces of reform legislation that may get passed before the end of the year. Can you tell us about it?
Jack Goldsmith:The current law is famously dense and confusing and ambiguous in important ways. The aim of this bill is to clarify the process and to try to limit certain discretion to change the outcome of an election. For example, it clarifies that the vice president has a purely ministerial role in the electoral count. Very importantly, it also limits a state’s ability to basically change the rules after the election. It’s designed to try to take politics out of the electoral count, try to ensure that what happens on election day is what gets reflected in the presidential results.
Al Letson:Bob, who’s been willing to get behind this legislation?
Bob Bauer:It was developed on the Senate side in the first instance, by a bipartisan group led by Senators Collins and Manchin. It has very broad support in the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans, and from leaders in both parties. Senator Mitch McConnell has joined as a co-sponsor, Senator Klobuchar is also a leader in this respect.
Al Letson:Democrats have had two years to push legislation forward, they’ve controlled the House and the Senate. Why haven’t they passed some of these reforms?
Jack Goldsmith:Almost every proposal in our book, in one form or another, has appeared in congressional legislation. A couple of the reforms have gotten close to being passed and might still be passed this year. But that said, it has been disappointing that Congress and I would say the Biden administration haven’t been more aggressive in pushing these reforms, but there’s a pretty obvious explanation for it. Just with all of the other priorities that the Biden administration and the Congress faced, it just did not rise to the level of importance as everything else they were dealing with. Even the post-Watergate reforms of the 1970s took six, seven years in a period of extraordinary consensus for presidential reform that we don’t have now. I just think it’s important to keep slogging through, keep focusing on the issue and to focus on discreet reforms that can make progress.
Al Letson:Are you guys in any way scared of what the future holds?
Jack Goldsmith:I’m not scared. No, that wouldn’t be a word that I would apply to myself. Although our book is premised on a worry about the resilience of American institutions and about the desire to buck them up, I also still retain, perhaps misplaced, but I still believe in the basic resilience of our institutions. I think they’ve been weakened, but in many respects, and this is not a popular opinion, the institutions, under extraordinary stress, worked remarkably well. Trump, the institutions did make sure that he was gone by January 20th. The norms worked a bit in constraining Trump, not him, but in constraining the people around him and not doing many of the things he wanted them to do. I’m not as deeply, deeply pessimistic about our institutions as many people are, but I am worried about them. That’s the whole premise of our project, is that we are worried about them and that we need to find ways to buck them up.
Al Letson:I agree with you, that the systems we have in place, the foundations that we have in place worked and therefore Donald Trump left office when you’re supposed to leave office and no significant problems have emerged after the midterms, but it feels like what happened in the past was a test run for what’s coming up in 2024. I’m worried that we don’t have the resilience to bounce back the way we did during the last presidential election.
Jack Goldsmith:I’m worried about it too. That’s one reason why it’s crucially important to, among other reasons, pass the Electoral Count Act. When I say that I think our institutions are still resilient, we’re spending a lot of time and effort trying to make sure that they’re improved. I don’t think anyone should be sanguine about the situation. I agree with you on that.
Al Letson:Bob Bauer and Jack Goldsmith both served in Senior Executive Branch positions in the administrations of Barack Obama and George W. Bush and have written extensively on presidential power. To see a comprehensive list of their nonpartisan reforms for the presidency and presidential elections, go to potusreform.org. Gentlemen, thanks so much for joining us today.
Bob Bauer:Thank you very much.
Jack Goldsmith:Thank you very much.
Al Letson:That story was produced by Jonathan Jones. Our lead producer this week is Ike Sriskandarajah. Brett Meyers and Cynthia Rodriguez edited the show. Nikki Frick is our fact checker, Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy “The Great” Mostafa. Original score and sound designed by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, Arruda. Our post-production team is the Justice League, and this week it includes Claire “C Note” Mullen and Kathryn Styer Martinez. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our COO is Maria Feldman, our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our interim executive producers are Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis. Our theme music is by Camerado, Lightning.
Al Letson:Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The Heising-Simons Foundation, The Hellman Foundation, The Democracy Fund, and The In As Much Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there’s always more to the story.

Ese Olumhense (she/her) is a reporter for Reveal, covering democracy and gender rights. She joins Reveal from City Limits, a nonprofit investigative organization that covers New York City, where she was a senior editor/reporter for politics and investigations. Olumhense previously worked for Spotlight PA and THE CITY, two other nonprofit journalism outlets, and the Chicago Tribune. As part of a team at THE CITY, Olumhense won the Online News Association’s 2021 Knight Award for Public Service for Missing Them, a collaborative project to remember every New Yorker killed by COVID-19. For the project, she investigated the potential link between the poor air quality in neighborhoods near freeways and COVID-19 death tolls. Olumhense is also an adjunct faculty member at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, working with investigative reporting fellows there.

Ike Sriskandarajah

Ike Sriskandarajah is a senior reporter, producer, and fill-in host for Reveal. He has worked on projects that have won an Emmy, two medals from Investigative Reporters and Editors, and awards from Third Coast, the Education Writers Association, and the New York Associated Press Association. He was a narrative audio producer at The New York Times, making investigative episodes for "The Daily." Sriskandarajah is from Wisconsin and reports from New York City.

Michael Montgomery

Michael Montgomery is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. He has led collaborations with the Associated Press, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Frontline, KQED and others.

Previously, Montgomery was a senior reporter at American Public Media, a special correspondent for the BBC and an associate producer with CBS News. He began his career in eastern Europe, covering the fall of communism and wars in former Yugoslavia for the Daily Telegraph and Los Angeles Times. His investigations into human rights abuses in the Balkans led to the arrest and conviction of Serbian and Albanian paramilitaries and creation of a new war crimes court based in The Hague. Montgomery’s honors include Murrow, Peabody, IRE, duPont, Third Coast and Overseas Press Club awards. He is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Nadia Hamdan (she/her) is a producer for Reveal. Previously, she was a public radio reporter with NPR station KUT 90.5 in Austin, Texas. Hamdan's reporting has been heard on NPR's “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” WBUR’s “Here & Now” and the BBC’s “World Service,” among other programs. She's won numerous awards for her reporting, including a national Public Media Journalists Association Award, two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards and multiple Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Awards. Hamdan was awarded a Texas Gavel Award from the State Bar of Texas for a podcast on why sexual assaults are so hard to prosecute in Austin. She once conducted an entire interview while riding a mule through downtown Austin, where she is based.

Jonathan Jones is a reporter and producer for Reveal. In his two decades in journalism, he has produced a series of award-winning investigations on topics ranging from eminent domain to problems in the fertility industry. He has covered conflict and human rights in 10 countries, including Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. In 2013, he teamed up with A.C. Thompson of ProPublica and PBS Frontline on a yearlong investigation into abuse and neglect at the largest assisted living company in the United States. In 2015, his exposé of Firestone's operations during the Liberian Civil War for ProPublica and PBS Frontline was awarded two News & Documentary Emmy Awards for outstanding investigative journalism and outstanding research, as well as the top Investigative Reporters and Editors Award in the large multiplatform category. In 2018, Jones, along with colleagues at WNYC's Snap Judgment, won the Best Documentary Gold Award at the Third Coast International Audio Festival for "Counted: An Oakland Story," which profiled those lost to violence in Oakland, California, in 2017 and the impact on their communities.

Brett Myers is an interim executive producer for Reveal. His work has received more than 20 national honors, including a George Foster Peabody Award, four nationalEdward R. Murrow Awards and multipleThird Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Competition awards. Before joining Reveal, he was a senior producer at Youth Radio, where he collaborated with teenage reporters to file stories for "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" and "Marketplace." 

Prior to becoming an audio producer, Myers trained as a documentary photographer and was named one of the 25 best American photographers under the age of 25. He loves bikes, California and his family. Before that, he was an independent radio producer and worked with StoryCorps, Sound Portraits and The Kitchen Sisters. Myers is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Cynthia Rodriguez

Cynthia Rodriguez is a senior radio editor for Reveal. She is an award-winning journalist who came to Reveal from New York Public Radio, where she spent nearly two decades covering everything from the city’s dramatic rise in family homelessness to police’s fatal shootings of people with mental illness.

In 2019, Rodriguez was part of Caught, a podcast that documents how the problem of mass incarceration starts with the juvenile justice system. Caught received an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award for outstanding journalism in the public interest. Her other award-winning stories include investigations into the deaths of construction workers during New York City's building boom and the “three-quarter house” industry – a network of independent, privately run buildings that pack vulnerable people into unsanitary, overcrowded buildings in exchange for their welfare funds.

In 2013, Rodriguez was one of 13 journalists to be selected as a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where her study project was on the intersection of poverty and mental health. She is based in New York City but is originally from San Antonio, Texas, and considers both places home.

Nikki Frick is the associate editor for research and copy for Reveal. She previously worked as a copy editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and held internships at The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and Washingtonpost.com. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was an American Copy Editors Society Aubespin scholar. Frick is based in Milwaukee.

Amy Mostafa (she/they) is the production manager for Reveal. She is a UC Berkeley School of Journalism alum, where she focused on audio and data journalism as a Dean's Merit Fellow and an ISF Scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on NPR, KALW and KALX. Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She has most recently reported on housing and aging in the Bay Area. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Kathryn Styer Martínez

Kathryn Styer Martínez (she/ella) is a production assistant for Reveal. She studies audio and photojournalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is also a Greater Good Science Center reporting fellow, focusing on Latino well-being.

Martínez was the 2020-21 Toni Randolph reporting fellow at Minnesota Public Radio, the 2019-20 New Economy Reporting Project fellow and the former director of KGPC-LP FM, Peralta Community Radio. Her work has appeared in El Tecolote, The Oaklandside, MPR News, National Public Radio, Outside Online, Talk Poverty, New Life Quarterly and Making Contact.

She earned bachelor’s degrees in Raza studies and political science from San Francisco State University.

Claire Mullen worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until September 2017. is an associate sound designer and audio engineer for Reveal. Before joining Reveal, she was an assistant producer at Radio Ambulante and worked with KALW, KQED, the Association of Independents in Radio and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She studied humanities and media studies at Scripps College.

Taki Telonidis is an interim executive producer for Reveal. Previously, he was the media producer for the Western Folklife Center, where he created more than 100 radio features for NPR’s "All Things Considered," "Weekend Edition" and other news magazines. He has produced and directed three public television specials, including "Healing the Warrior’s Heart," a one-hour documentary that explores how the ancient spiritual traditions of our nation’s first warriors, Native Americans, are helping today’s veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Telonidis also was senior content editor for NPR’s "State of the Re:Union." Before moving to the West, he worked for NPR in Washington, where he was senior producer of "Weekend All Things Considered" between 1994 and 1998. His television and radio work has garnered a George Foster Peabody Award, three Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards and the Overseas Press Club Award for breaking news. Telonidis is based in Salt Lake City.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.