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Arizona election audit fever spreads to Pennsylvania as Trump's Big Lie gains ground

The attack on our democracy is ongoing. And January 6 may have merely been a rehearsal for something even worse.
Demonstrators Attend Stop The Steal Rally
A supporter of President Trump holds a sign at a "Stop the Steal" protest in Phoenix, Ariz, on November 7, 2020. Is Pennsylvania next?Cheney Orr / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Two developments over the last week or so have signaled how the political ground continues to shift under our feet.

The first was former President Donald Trump’s fulsome embrace of the Ashli Babbitt-as-noble-martyr narrative. The second was the push by Pennsylvania Republicans to conduct a forensic audit of the state’s 2020 presidential election.

Two developments last week signaled how the political ground continues to shift under our feet.

The two events are linked by the same impulse: to retroactively revise the history of the insurrection and the Big Lie in order to further weaken our democratic safeguards. Attention needs to be paid.

Ashli Babbitt was shot and killed by a police officer on Jan. 6, as she and other rioters stormed the Capitol in an effort to stop the counting of electoral votes. Four others died as a result of the riot, and dozens more, including police officers, were badly injured.

But the right is increasingly focused on Babbitt.

“Who shot Ashli Babbitt?” Trump asked at a Florida rally on July 3, repeating a question that has gained currency in in the MAGAverse. “We all saw the hand. We saw the gun,” he told the Sarasota crowd. “You know, if that were on the other side, the person that did the shooting would be strung up and hung. Okay? Now, they don’t want to give the name… It’s a terrible thing, right? Shot. Boom. And it’s a terrible thing.”

And with that, Trump not only completely reversed his position on police shootings, but also accelerated the retconning of the Capitol insurrection.

“By throwing himself behind this message,” wrote Jonathan Chait, “Trump is endorsing the most radical interpretation of his presidency. January 6 was not a minor misstep after a successful era, as fans like Mike Pence and Lindsey Graham now say. It was the heroic culmination of a righteous uprising.”

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, a GOP state senator moved to replicate Arizona’s bizarre “audit” of the 2020 vote.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, who chairs the state Senate’s Intergovernmental Operations Committee, had visited Phoenix to observe the review of presidential ballots in Maricopa County run by a group called the Cyber Ninjas. Among other things, officials conducting the “audit” used UV lights to hunt for fraud and were investigating conspiracy theories that thousands of ballots had been flown into Arizona from Asia. So they spent time checking the paper ballots for signs of bamboo.

A former Homeland Security official who helped oversee the election called the whole sorry effort "performance art,” and "a clown show," and "a waste of taxpayer money."

"It's an audit in name only," Matt Masterson told NPR. "It's a threat to the overall confidence of democracy, all in pursuit of continuing a narrative that we know to be a lie."

But despite its farcical overtones, Republicans from around the country have sought to replicate Arizona’s process. After Pennsylvania legislators visited The Grand Canyon State, a top state House Republican said that he had no interest in pursuing a similar effort.

Mastriano, however, was all in. As NBC has reported: “Mastriano, who participated in pro-Trump events in Washington, D.C., before the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, has been one of the biggest purveyors of the false claim that there was widespread fraud in last fall’s election. His efforts have boosted his profile and standing in Trump’s orbit.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, he loved what he saw in Arizona.

Despite its farcical overtones, Republicans from around the country have sought to replicate Arizona’s process.

"My goal is to do, similar to what we saw in Arizona,” Mastriano explained. “Every ballot is photographed and magnified, and we can determine what ballots were filled in by a human.”

But he wants a lot more. According to a letter obtained by the Pennsylvania Capital Star, Mastriano is asking for “potentially hundreds of thousands of items, including all ballots cast in the 2020 election, voter rolls, ballot paper samples, cybersecurity protocols, software used through the election process, and the machines used to tabulate results, among others.”

Mastriano’s demands are staggering in both their scope and detail. He wants the officials to give him all USB flash drives, hard drives and phone SIM cards, as well as a list “of all IP addresses utilized at any location where election equipment was utilized during the election period,” including the IP addresses of “cellular modems” and “any routers utilized at any location where votes were cast, counted tabulated, or reported.”

This suggests that no conspiracy theory will go unexamined. (We know that the Trump White House was pushing reports at one time that Italian satellites may have been used to fix the election.)

The state’s attorney general and secretary of state have told local election officials not to comply, but Mastriano insists that he is not trying to overturn the election and that his goal is merely to “restore confidence” in the election process.

Of course, the real agenda is quite different. Trump and his allies want to supercharge the Big Lie, even though it has been debunked time and time again.

It’s worth remembering that the election in Pennsylvania was not particularly close. Biden won the state by more than 80,000 votes, and Trump’s campaign repeatedly failed to come up with even a shred of evidence that there was widespread voter fraud.

The Trump campaign’s original legal complaint in Pennsylvania included no evidence that any votes had been cast illegally. When Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani appeared before U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann, he admitted: “This is not a fraud case.”

Brann was a former Pennsylvania Republican official, but his opinion dismissing Trump’s case was devastating. “One might expect that when seeking such a startling outcome, a plaintiff would come formidably armed with compelling legal arguments and factual proof of rampant corruption,” Judge Brann wrote. “Instead, this Court has been presented with strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations un-pled in the operative complaint and unsupported by evidence.”

In late November, an appeals court rejected Trump’s effort to block Biden from being declared the winner of Pennsylvania. The three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals also concluded that the campaign’s complaint was without evidence or merit.

“Calling an election unfair does not make it so,” wrote Judge Stephanos Bibas, a Trump appointee. “Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.”

This was consistent with the conclusion of election officials with the Department of Homeland Security and with Trump’s own attorney general, William Barr, who declared the election free, fair and accurate. “My attitude was: It was put-up or shut-up time,” Barr told Jonathan Karl this spring. “If there was evidence of fraud, I had no motive to suppress it. But my suspicion all the way along was that there was nothing there. It was all bullshit.”

Despite this mountain of non-evidence, though, eight GOP members of the Pennsylvania congressional delegation came out against casting the state’s electoral votes for Biden — in effect asking Congress to nullify the results of their own state’s votes.

State officials said that the delegation’s complaints were based on “outright falsehoods,” and constitutional scholars noted they were ignoring the repeated findings of the courts.

“I have taught constitutional law for almost four decades,” said Seth Kreimer, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania told the AP, “and I do not believe I have ever before seen American officials reject the outcome of an election with such brazenness.”

We know what happened next. Now Trump wants to rewrite history. As part of this plan, he is continuing to keep his Big Lie alive, normalizing it as a litmus test for Republicans in one state after another. This keeps the Trump voter base’s anger stoked via conspiracy theories, bogus audits, and baseless claims of voter fraud and stolen elections. These seeds of conspiracy are taking root, making future election challenges both more likely to happen, and more likely to actually succeed.

At the same time, the insurrection is being recast as a patriotic uprising; the rioters are being transformed into heroes and martyrs. This does not just revise the past; it sends a clear signal to groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers about the future: Stand by to fight again — because there might be a next time.

So what does all this ultimately mean? Most importantly, it means the attack on our democracy is ongoing. And January 6 may have merely been a rehearsal for something even worse.