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A supporter holds a 'Trump Won' sign at a rally by former President Donald Trump at the Canyon Moon Ranch festival grounds on January 15, 2022 in Florence, Arizona. The rally marks Trump's first of the midterm election year with races for both the U.S. Senate and governor in Arizona this year. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Anatomy of Trump's Big Lie

Trump keeps repeating the Antrim County lie and is now endorsing Matthew DePerno to become the state's next attorney general.

Steven Harper

On November 4, 2020, a county clerk in rural northwestern Michigan inadvertently launched one of former President Donald J. Trump’s Big Lies. Six weeks later, it was embedded in a proposal that the U.S. Department of Defense seize voting machines across the country. The lie remains a central talking point in Trump’s assault on democracy.

Now Trump is rewarding one of its original promoters.

Birth of a Big Lie

The story of Antrim County and the 2020 election is simple. Back in 2016, Trump received more than 60 percent of the county’s votes. But around 4:00 a.m. on November 4, 2020, the county clerk—a Republican who had been with the office for more than 40 years—posted unofficial results showing that Biden had won the reliably Republican county with about that percentage. A few hours later, a local resident sent the clerk an email questioning the outcome.

Later that morning, the county released a statement noting “skewed results” and asking “all interested parties to bear with us while we get to the bottom of this.”

The world didn’t wait.

On November 6, the New York Post ran an article headlined: “Michigan Republicans claim software issue undercounted Trump votes.”

By that evening, the clerk had found the human error that was to blame. Although the scanners and tabulators in the voting machines had counted the votes correctly, she had not updated the computer software properly. The clerk took full responsibility for the mistake and issued corrected totals showing that Trump had indeed won.

Even if the error had not been caught so quickly, it would have surfaced during the post-election canvassing process required before certifying the official vote.

The Lie Metastasized

Trump and his allies immediately seized on the mistake as evidence of widespread election fraud committed via Dominion Voting System machines used throughout the country. And Dominion itself became the subject of false conspiracy theories.

In Portage, Michigan, sole practitioner Matthew DePerno pressed the false claims on behalf of an Antrim County resident. To assist, DePerno used Allied Security Operations Group (ASOG). ASOG’s founder, Russell Ramsland, Jr., was an unsuccessful Republican candidate for Congress in the 2016 Texas primary. In October 2017, he spoke about a purported effort by the “deep state”—including U.S. intelligence agencies —to undermine Trump’s 2016 candidacy and then his presidency.

Ramsland was already on Trump’s election team. In a separate federal lawsuit by Trump allies, on November 18, 2020, Ramsland submitted an affidavit making what fact-checkers called “wildly inaccurate claims” alleging widespread election fraud in Michigan. During the state’s House Oversight Committee hearing the next day, Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani used Ramsland’s affidavit to push the Big Lie.

The judge in DePerno’s state court case was a former Republican state lawmaker. On December 4, the same day that fact-checkers gave Ramsland’s affidavit a “Pants on Fire!” rating, the judge issued an order giving DePerno access to Antrim County’s voting machines. Only nine days later—December 13—Ramsland sent DePerno his report, which made unsupported claims of election fraud involving Dominion equipment. Trump and his allies immediately amplified those claims in the media too.

At an Oval Office meeting a few days later, Trump’s former national security adviser Mike Flynn and attorney Sidney Powell – prominent purveyors of false election-conspiracy theories—urged Trump to sign a December 16, 2010 draft executive order seizing voting machines across the country. It cited “the forensic audit of the Antrim County voting machines, released December 13, 2020”—and little else—as “probable cause” to justify the seizure. The draft order quoted Ramsland’s false conclusion that “the Dominion Voting System is intentionally and purposefully designed with inherent errors to create systemic fraud and influence election results.”

The next day—December 17—Antrim County concluded an actual audit. State and local officials and representatives of both political parties conducted a hand recount of all votes cast for president. It confirmed the official results as tabulated by the Dominion voting machines: Trump beat President-elect Biden by 3,800 votes.

More Undisputed Facts Haven’t Slowed the Big Lie

On January 20, 2021, the GOP-led Michigan Senate Oversight Committee issued a comprehensive analysis of the election. It refuted in detail the claims in Ramsland’s report.

The committee concluded that “ideas and speculation that the Antrim County election workers or outside entities manipulated the vote by hand or electronically are indefensible. Further, the Committee is appalled at what can only be deduced as a willful ignorance or avoidance of this proof perpetuated by some leading such speculation.” (Emphasis in original)

The report also addressed attorney Matthew DePerno’s role in the Trump team’s disinformation campaign: “The Committee closely followed Mr. DePerno’s efforts and can confidently conclude they are demonstrably false and based on misleading information and illogical conclusions.”

Likewise, on April 21, 2021, the Michigan secretary of state issued the results of a statewide audit of the November 2020 election, concluding:

“Beginning on Wednesday, November 4, several inaccurate claims were made about the conduct of the 2020 Election. In general, these claims were either entirely fabricated, based upon misunderstanding of election processes, or the result of incorrect inferences that human errors were intentional misconduct.”

Meanwhile, Dominion Voting sued Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Lindell (“Mr. Pillow”), Patrick Byrne (former CEO of Overstock), Newsmax, One American News Network (OANN), and Fox News for defamation, seeking more than a billion dollars in damages.

Trump keeps repeating the Antrim County lie and is now endorsing Matthew DePerno to become the state’s next attorney general. In Trump’s September 16, 2021 statement, he praised DePerno for having “exposed so much Voter Fraud in Antrim County.” And on March 8, 2022 – six weeks before the Michigan Republican primary – Trump is scheduled to host a fundraiser for him at Mar-a-Lago.

If DePerno wins, he’ll be in charge of litigating disputes over Michigan’s elections. So his baseless attacks on the November 2020 election attracted Trump’s attention.

Now, perhaps, he has attracted yours.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Steven Harper

Steven J. Harper is an attorney, adjunct professor at Northwestern University Law School, and author of several books, including Crossing Hoffa — A Teamster’s Story and The Lawyer Bubble — A Profession in Crisis. He has been a regular columnist for Moyers on Democracy, Dan Rather’s News & Guts, and The American Lawyer.

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