On January 6, 2021, a stunned nation watched as protesters stormed the Capitol to prevent the certification of the electoral votes from the November election. The effort failed, but not without shining a harsh light on the fault lines of American democracy.
In the weeks that followed, analysts have struggled to define how much of the incursion was the spontaneous result of a “riot”—or a “peaceful protest” gone wrong—and how much was the result of a planned operation.
One major player in the events leading up to the assault on the Capitol was the Council for National Policy, an influential coalition of Christian conservatives, free-market fundamentalists, and political activists. Over the previous year the CNP and its members and affiliates organized efforts to challenge the validity of the election, conspired to overturn its results, and tried to derail the orderly transfer of power. This is an account of the measures they took, leading up to the deadly January 6 insurrection.
The Council for National Policy was founded in 1981 by a group of televangelists, Western oligarchs, and Republican strategists to capitalize on Ronald Reagan’s electoral victory the previous year. From the beginning, its goals represented a convergence of the interests of these three groups: a retreat from advances in civil and political rights for women and minorities, tax cuts for the wealthy, and raw political power. Operating from the shadows, its members, who would number some 400, spent the next four decades courting, buying, and bullying fellow Republicans, gradually achieving what was in effect a leveraged buyout of the GOP. Favorite sons, such as Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, were groomed, financed, and supported. Apostates, such as John McCain and Jeff Flake, were punished and exiled. The leaders of the CNP tended to favor their conservative Christian co-religionists, but political expedience came first.
In 2016, the CNP put its partners’ money, data, and ground game behind Donald Trump, as the ultimate transactional candidate. Trump promised it retrograde social policies, a favorable tax regime, regulatory retreats, and its choice of federal judges. He delivered in spades. By 2020, the leaders of the CNP were ready to go to extreme lengths to keep him—and themselves—in power.
Over the final year of the Trump presidency, the CNP took center stage. By January 2020, its leading figures had become sought-after guests on talk shows and frequent visitors to the White House. Many of its stated goals had been advanced. By March, the Republican Senate had confirmed more than 185 of Trump’s conservative nominees for the federal bench. All but eight of the judges had ties to the Federalist Society, headed by longtime CNP members Eugene Meyer and Leonard Leo. Two of the CNP’s favored Supreme Court nominees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, had been confirmed. The court was only one justice away from a conservative majority, and the CNP had its eye on the seat held by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. With a second term in office and normal attrition, Trump could decisively tilt the federal courts, opening the door for a massive overhaul of the American legal framework.
Many initiatives that were pending in the courts had been addressed by fiat. Trump rolled back scores of environmental regulations created to protect air quality, potable water supplies, and wildlife, as a quid pro quo for the support he received from CNP’s favored oil and gas interests. His administration decimated the budgets and personnel of federal agencies assigned to protect public health, public safety, and public lands, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and the National Park Service, to the benefit of corporations and extractive industries. There was also notable progress on CNP’s social agenda, with the erosion and rollback of the rights of LGBT populations, women, and minorities in the courts and state legislatures.
The CNP’s plutocrats were pleased with what they had wrought. The “tax reform” enacted by Trump and the Republican Senate concentrated ever greater wealth in the hands of America’s most affluent individuals through tax cuts for corporations and the rich, driving income inequality to the highest levels in 50 years. The country’s tax revenues as a share of gross domestic product plummeted, and budget gaps widened, but Republicans—who had made a career of loudly condemning deficit spending—remained mute as long as the measures benefited the moneyed class instead of those who needed help. Donald Trump remained a dependable ally, asking only for an audience for his megalomania and a free pass for the business interests of the “Trump brand.” In return, he delivered his dynamism and his unshakeable base. This state of affairs was so satisfactory that the Republican Party decided not to bother drafting a new party platform for the 2020 election. Instead, it recycled the 2016 platform, which included former CNP President Tony Perkins’s drafts opposing marriage equality and promoting conversion therapy.
Ultimate realization of the CNP’s agenda depended on winning a second term for Trump in November. With another four years, it could enshrine its socially regressive policies on the federal level, further blur the line between church and state, and consolidate huge windfalls for corporations and wealthy individuals. As of January 1, electoral prospects looked sweet. The Republicans’ strongest suit was the economy. Massive tax cuts had flooded corporations with cash, which, as critics of the tax bill had predicted, they used to buy back their stock and drive up share prices 28 percent in 2019. This boosted Trump’s popularity among the 55 percent of Americans who reported owning stocks, but did little to spur the growth Republicans had promised would offset the soaring deficits.
On the tactical front, it seemed as though the Trump team had found a winning formula. Ralph Reed, a member of the CNP’s board of governors (also known as a central figure in the scandal involving disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff), continued to employ his Faith and Freedom Coalition and its partner, United in Purpose, to get out the vote among conservative white Christians in critical swing states, expanding their targeting from evangelicals to Catholics.
The coalition’s data and app development also advanced. The uCampaign apps developed by Thomas Peters had served their purpose in the 2016 and 2018 elections, but they were due for an upgrade. In late 2019, word began to circulate that Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, was preparing to release the Trump 2020 app, a component of what he labeled a “juggernaut campaign.” Parscale had quietly taken over Trump’s digital operations and planned to use the new app as part of a broader strategy. Trump 2020 was designed to leverage uCampaign features such as gamification (awarding points and prizes for participating in campaign activities and sharing contacts). It also expanded the use of geolocation devices to recruit and harvest data from attendees of Trump rallies. The crowds, energized by Trump’s live performances, would be invited to download the app and recruit others across their social networks. The rallies were a crucial component of the campaign. The more outrageous Trump’s rhetoric on the podium, the more earned media coverage he received. In contrast, the Democrats were still in disarray, with a dozen primary candidates competing for fragmented press coverage and no clear front-runner.
Then, on January 20, 2020, doctors diagnosed the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in the United States.
The patient was a man who had just returned to Snohomish County, Washington, from a family visit to Wuhan, China. The virus spread across Washington State, then ravaged New York City and New Orleans. The first U.S. Covid death was reported as occurring on February 6. On February 20, the global stock market went into a free fall that didn’t abate until April. Bloomberg News called it the Great Coronavirus Crash.
Trump’s reelection strategy rested on a thriving economy, as well as mass rallies and in-church recruitment. Now public health officials were urging lockdowns that would derail both the economy and the gatherings. Trump’s CNP supporters stepped up to the plate.
The CNP’s meetings had long featured briefings on forthcoming elections by members and allies, followed by a memorandum containing a series of “Action Steps.” The October 2018 meeting’s action steps, for example, called for members to “Volunteer and Contribute to key candidates and organizations (FreedomWorks, Tea Party Patriots, [anti-abortion group] Susan B. Anthony List) that are engaged in turning out voters” for the midterms.
But by February 2020, the CNP, fearing the erosion of Trump’s support, shifted its strategy from boosting the popular vote to deflecting it. Lisa Nelson, the CEO of the American Legislative Exchange Council, told the group, “We’ve been focused on the national vote, and obviously we all want President Trump to win, and win the national vote, but it’s very clear from all the comments and all the suggestions up front that, really, what it comes down to is the states, and the state legislators.” Her organization, she told them, had already drafted a model resolution “to make sure there’s no confusion among conservative legislators around national popular vote and the Electoral College.”
Nelson noted that her group was exploring additional ways to invalidate a potential Trump loss in consultation with three election experts, including CNP board of governors member Cleta Mitchell, “who I know you all know, on trying to identify what are those action items that legislators can take in their states, and I think that they’ve identified a few. They can write a letter to the secretary of state, questioning the validity of an election, and saying, ‘What did happen that night?’ So we are drafting a lot of those things. If you have ideas in that area, let us know, and we’ll get them to the state legislators, and they can start to kind of exercise their political muscle in that area.”
So as early as February 2020, the CNP and its advisers were already anticipating various strategies to overturn the results of the election in the event of the loss of either the popular vote or the Electoral College, or both. At the same time, they adopted a three-pronged approach to enhancing Trump’s chances in November. The first involved expanding their use of data to juice Republican votes and suppress Democratic turnout. The second was to mobilize supporters in swing states to ignite Tea Party–like protests against the virus-related public safety lockdowns. The third was to deploy physicians with dubious credentials to dismiss the dangers of Covid-19 through a massive media blitz. All three initiatives were activated in April. It was a rehash of a familiar formula, concocting groups whose names and URLs changed with dizzying speed and calling them “grassroots” organizations. (Critics preferred the term “astroturf.”)
United in Purpose took the lead. In June 2016, UiP had convened the epic Times Square gathering of 1,000 fundamentalist activists to give Trump their blessing. Now, over the spring of 2020, UiP held a series of conference calls to update its strategy. One call—a recording of which was leaked to The Intercept reporter Lee Fang—took place in mid-April. UiP Chairman Ken Eldred told his associates on the call that the Covid-19 virus was a “gift from God” because it was turning Americans back to Christ and building audiences for religious broadcasts—which had been crucial platforms for political campaigns. But “Satan has been busy too,” Eldred warned. “The virus has messed up many of our plans involving our in-person meetings with voters.” UiP called its 2020 campaign “Operation Ziklag” (named after a Biblical town that served as a base for the Philistines until it was won by David).
The April call featured various movers and shakers from the CNP. Ralph Reed spoke to the “macro political landscape,” explaining that a key component of the Democrats’ strategy was the Black vote in swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin. The Democrats had experienced a significant drop-off between 2012 and 2016. “There were 47,000 fewer Black votes cast in just Milwaukee County alone,” Reed told the call participants—in Wisconsin, a state Trump had won by fewer than 24,000 votes.
This was not a coincidence. In September 2020, Britain’s Channel 4 reported that the Trump campaign had used Cambridge Analytica data to profile and target 3.5 million Black voters in 2016, assigning them to a category the campaign called “Deterrence,” with messaging designed to suppress the vote.
Reed told his associates that “his ‘data partners’ had identified 26 million key voters in battleground states, about three-fourths of whom were Facebook users,” The Intercept’s Fang reported. Once again, the 2020 strategy, like the 2016 efforts, would strive to get out the vote for Republicans and suppress the vote of traditional Democrats.
Abortion continued to be a major calling card of the campaign, spearheaded by CNP Gold Circle member Marjorie Dannenfelser, the head of the Susan B. Anthony List. Dannenfelser, who had recently joined the UiP alliance, told the callers that her organization had conducted surveys on messaging with pro-life working-class voters in battleground Rust Belt states and found that its “born alive” formulation on abortion, promoted by Trump, “has had a tremendous effect in moving persuadable voters in all those areas in Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.” This would strengthen Trump’s chances in the swing states that comprised the “northern path” to victory: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, as well as the “southern path” of North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona. (Georgia, assumed to be solidly in the Republican column, would prove a wild card.)
The CNP’s second stratagem to “reopen the economy” debuted around the same time. On April 13, The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein and Robert Costa reported that White House staff had presented Trump with a list of “100 business executives” who could advise him as to how to jump-start the economy. The piece quoted CNP co-founder Richard Viguerie, who began his career under the tutelage of disgraced radio evangelist Billy James Hargis and went on to pioneer the use of direct mail in political marketing. “Obviously, the sooner we get the economy going and back up, the better it’s going to be for conservatives and Republicans,” Viguerie said. A lot of them, he added, “feel there might be an overreaction to all of this [epidemic].”
According to The Washington Post’s unnamed sources, “The outside effort from conservative groups is expected to be led by Stephen Moore, a conservative at the Heritage Foundation who is close with White House economic officials; Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots; Adam Brandon, president of FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy organization; and Lisa Nelson, chief executive of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the conservative pro-business policy and lobbying organization with ties to the Koch brothers.”
This initiative marked a shift in the CNP profile. Going into the 2016 elections, the public faces of the organization had been prominent fundamentalists. Tony Perkins, CNP president from 2016 to 2019, is also an ordained Southern Baptist minister and longtime head of the fundamentalist lobbying group Family Research Council, and he has hosted Christian nationalists Robert Jeffress and David Barton on his radio broadcasts. Almost half of Trump’s original Evangelical Advisory Board—including Perkins—were members of the CNP, and they were in and out of the Oval Office on a regular basis. But in 2019, Perkins was succeeded as CNP president by William Walton, the founder and chairman of Rappahannock Ventures, a private equity firm, with long ties to the Koch Brothers and a limited religious profile. In 2015, Walton chaired a panel at the CNP, stating, “Most of my career has been spent in business and on Wall Street, and I was among the first to attend the Charles Koch seminars.” Other figures connected to the Koch empire ascended in the CNP hierarchy. Jenny Beth Martin, who co-founded the Tea Party Patriots with Koch backing, rose to the office of secretary. Adam Brandon, head of the Koch-founded “grassroots” organization FreedomWorks, took a spot on the board of directors of CNP Action, the organization’s lobbying arm.
David Koch died in August 2019, but his brother Charles carried on. A man with no particular religious profile, Koch embarked on a “charm offensive,” distancing himself from Trump and his fundamentalist allies, presenting himself to the media as a “unifier” (and scrubbing the CNP’s Free Enterprise Award from his profile). But his funding activities told a different story. The Center for Media and Democracy’s Alec Kotch has recorded millions of dollars in grants from Koch and affiliates such as the Donors Trust to organizations run by leading members of the CNP. These include ALEC, as well as the State Policy Network, the Leadership Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Judicial Watch, and Turning Point USA. Some of these groups would play important roles in attempts to disrupt the electoral process in the months ahead.
The Washington Post’s April story on the “100 business leaders” initiative made no mention of the CNP, despite the fact that among the leading figures, Moore was on the CNP board of governors, Nelson was a member, and Martin and Brandon were officers. Moore warned the Post that the disaffection of “the right” presented a growing threat to public order, neglecting to mention the ways the CNP was stoking the flames. “There’s a massive movement on the right now, growing exponentially,” he said. “In the next two weeks, you’ll see protests in the streets by conservatives; you’ll see a big pushback against the lockdown in some states. People are at the boiling point.”
The “boiling point” materialized over the next two weeks, as Moore forecast, with the assistance of another CNP-linked effort called Convention of States, led by Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots and CNP Gold Circle member. He told the Post his group would function as a “clearinghouse where all these guys can find each other” and praised “spontaneous citizen groups self-organizing on the Internet and protesting what they perceive to be government overreach.” Earlier that week, The New York Times reported that the coalition’s members were mobilizing their networks for state-level rallies, filing lawsuits, and commissioning polls, all to counter the lockdowns. “Nonprofit groups including FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots have used their social media accounts and text and email lists to spread the word about the protests across the country.” The most publicized events occurred at the Michigan statehouse on April 15 and May 1, when armed protesters invaded the state Capitol, but these were far from the only ones.
The new “businessmen’s group,” previewed in The Washington Post as “100 business executives,” officially debuted on April 27, billed as the “Save Our Country Coalition.” It called for a series of measures to reopen the economy, flying in the face of expert medical recommendations for curbing the epidemic, whose U.S. death toll now approached 55,000. The CNP was heavily represented among the group’s leadership, including stalwarts such as Richard Viguerie, Ed Meese, and Kenneth Blackwell, as well as rising stars Adam Brandon, Jenny Beth Martin, and Lisa Nelson.
One notable addition was a California physician named Dr. Simone Gold. Over the summer, she emerged as a key player in the third prong of the CNP’s campaign, the war against public health policy, the result of another set of conference calls between Trump campaign staff and members of CNP Action. On one April call, published by the Center for Media and Democracy, CNP President William Walton told the group, “We need to make not just the economic argument, we need to make the health argument, and we need doctors to make that argument, not us.” Within days, Gold began to appear across right-wing media platforms, promoting the false message that hydroxychloroquine (a medication used to treat autoimmune diseases) was both a prophylactic and a cure for Covid-19 (as reported in the September 2020 Washington Spectator). On June 1, The Guardian quoted Brandon’s report that he had raised $800,000 along the way to a $5 million multiplatform media blitz for the campaign.
On July 27, Jenny Beth Martin, Gold, and a dozen other physicians held a Washington, D.C., press conference to deliver their dangerous message. The video reached millions of viewers on Breitbart and President Trump’s and Donald Trump Jr.’s Twitter feeds. Major social media platforms quickly removed it as a violation of their Covid-19 misinformation policies, but Gold’s message has continued to circulate on alternative platforms.
The 2020 political campaigns stumbled ahead. Both the Democrats and the Republicans suspended rallies and canvassing in the late spring. On June 5, Joe Biden won the 1,991 delegates needed for the Democratic nomination, and the general campaign officially began. Democrats proceeded cautiously, forgoing rallies and canvassing on the advice of public health officials. The Trump campaign, on the other hand, returned to holding mass gatherings, starting with a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 20. This became the first of the campaign’s “superspreader” events. Four weeks after the rally, Oklahoma’s Covid-19 cases tripled. On July 30, rally attendee and former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain died of Covid-19.
Trump and the CNP doubled down. On August 19, the CNP opened its meeting at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City with a panel featuring attorney Sidney Powell. Two days later, Donald Trump addressed the CNP in his single major convention-eve event. Over chants of “USA! USA!” Trump acknowledged key supporters by name, including CNP President William Walton, Executive Director Bob McEwen, and Secretary Jenny Beth Martin. His rambling speech attacked familiar enemies and lauded familiar friends, including evangelicals, extractive industries, and the gun lobby. Photos from the event showed several hundred tightly packed, unmasked guests in the ballroom. That afternoon’s program featured attorney Cleta Mitchell, an Oklahoma native and a longtime CNP board of governors member, on panels called “Election Integrity: Securing the Ballot Box” and “Election Integrity: Action Steps.” Executive committee member Brent Bozell III told his fellow members that the left plans to “steal this election.”
“And if they get away with that, what happens?” Bozell demanded. “Democracy is finished because they usher in totalitarianism.”
Trump’s speech to the CNP was released by the White House and widely covered by the national press, but news organizations gave short shrift to the CNP and the scope of its operations. (The New York Times, for example, identified it as merely “a conservative group.”)
But the CNP was becoming less of a mystery. Over the previous months, a small band of researchers had made significant progress in shining a light on the organization’s agenda. Brent Allpress, an academic in Australia, found a back door into its online archives and began to access records of past meetings, which were used in a British documentary called People You May Know (in which this reporter also appears). Two watchdog organizations stepped up their monitoring of the CNP: The Center for Media and Democracy added new funding streams and strategic initiatives, as well as publishing CNP files sourced from Brent Allpress, and Documented found additional CNP meeting materials. Both groups posted meeting agendas, videos of presentations, and—critically—the updated membership rosters for September 2020 that Allpress had accessed. CNP had intentionally elevated its profile, but now it was in danger of losing its cloak altogether.
The rest of the August CNP meeting was held under the usual conditions of secrecy, but this time its proceedings were leaked to Washington Post reporter Robert O’Harrow Jr., who published an account on October 14. The CNP leaders were sounding notes of alarm. “This is a spiritual battle. This is good versus evil,” CNP president Walton told the group. “We have to do everything possible to win.” Trump’s disastrous handling of the Covid-19 crisis was hurting his chances at the polls, and Democratic voters were newly energized. The old messaging about abortion and unisex bathrooms looked less compelling as the pandemic death toll mounted and millions were thrown out of work.
The CNP went into crisis mode, focusing on the mechanics of the election. Charlie Kirk, head of the right-wing student group Turning Point USA and a relatively new member, took the stage to celebrate the closure of campuses, which could deprive the Democrats of a half-million student votes. “So, please keep the campuses closed,” he said. Executive committee member Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, asked his audience for ideas to foil mail-in voting: “We need to stop those ballots from going out, and I want the lawyers here to tell us what to do.”
The lawyers in the room were eager to help. One of them, the CNP board member Cleta Mitchell, was a partner in the influential Milwaukee-based law firm Foley and Lardner. She also served on the board of directors of the ultraconservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, run by fellow CNP board member Richard Graber. In 2020, the Bradley Foundation granted hundreds of thousands of dollars to ALEC, FreedomWorks, and the CNP itself.
Cleta Mitchell had worked closely with another leading CNP member on election matters in recent years. This was Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and a member of the board of directors of CNP Action. Ginni Thomas was known as the not-so-secret weapon of the CNP and its allies. A longtime supporter of Charlie Kirk and Turning Point USA, she had spoken at the organization’s student conference and served on its advisory council. She was listed as a contributor at the Daily Caller, the online media platform founded and funded by fellow CNP members. At the May 2019 CNP meeting, Thomas and Mitchell offered a joint presentation on electoral strategies, and at the February 2020 meeting, Heritage Foundation alumna Rachel Bovard praised Thomas as a key liaison to the White House. “She is one of the most powerful and fierce women in Washington,” Bovard said. (Bovard joined Thomas on the board of CNP Action shortly afterward.)
A few weeks later, the CNP received some important news. On September 18, Justice Ginsburg had died, at the age of 87, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. CNP affiliates swung into action, repeating the process that had won them two previous conservative justices under the Trump administration. Kelly Shackelford, CNP vice president and chairman of CNP Action, had described his operation at the meeting the previous February, as reported by The Washington Post: “He bragged about extensive behind-the-scenes coordination by his group and other non-profit organizations to influence the White House selection of federal judges. ‘Some of us literally opened a whole operation on judicial nominations and vetting,’ he said. ‘We poured millions of dollars into this to make sure the president has good information, he picks the right judges.’”
Shackelford’s forces promoted the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, another Federalist Society alum, to fill Ginsburg’s seat. Barrett was a longtime CNP favorite. Investigative journalist Robert Maguire learned that, as of July 2018, the domain name “confirmbarrett.com” had already been reserved by the Judicial Crisis Network, founded and chaired by CNP board of governors member Gary Marx and closely aligned with the Federalist Society. The Judicial Crisis Network went on to spend at least $9.4 million in television spots and $4.3 million in digital ads, direct mail, and text messaging to promote Barrett’s nomination, according to a report by Michael Biesecker and Brian Slodysko of the Associated Press.
September 26 was another red-letter day for the CNP. President Trump hosted a Rose Garden ceremony to announce Barrett’s nomination, and the CNP treated the event as a victory lap. Once confirmed, Barrett would serve as the fulcrum for the most conservative Supreme Court in nearly a century, the fulfillment of decades of hard work by CNP strategists. At least 15 members of the CNP were listed among the attendees at the Rose Garden event—equal to the combined number of White House officials and members of Congress present. Among the crowd were old CNP warhorses Tony Perkins, Ralph Reed, and Marjorie Dannenfelser, as well as newly prominent election wranglers Jenny Beth Martin, Cleta Mitchell, and Tom Fitton. Exactly one month later, on October 26—one week before the election—Amy Coney Barrett would be confirmed as the Supreme Court’s new associate justice, after her nomination sailed through the Republican-controlled Senate.
But the Rose Garden event may have also constituted the CNP’s last hurrah for the Trump era. Defying urgent public health advisories, more than 150 guests sat in tight rows, mostly maskless, engaging in spirited conversation. Two weeks later, Dr. Anthony Fauci decried it as a “superspreader event,” as at least seven attendees tested positive for Covid-19—including Donald and Melania Trump.
On Election Day, November 3, the nation held its breath. Ralph Reed’s massive get-out-the-vote effort had driven up turnout, but so had the Democrats. On November 4, as the results hung in abeyance, a site called StoptheSteal.us was registered. It was discovered the following day by Brent Allpress, who traced its registration to an account called “Vice and Victory,” owned by a curious figure named Ali Alexander. Alexander was sometimes known as “Ali Akbar,” the name he was listed under as a member of the CNP on 2017 and 2018 rosters. He began to use the name “Alexander” after pleading guilty to two counts of felony in 2007 and 2008. As “Ali Alexander,” he announced the launch of #StoptheSteal on Twitter with a list of 15 partners and the text, “Proud to be working with these patriots to Save the Election.” One of them was CNP member Ed Martin, head of the Phyllis Schlafly Eagles Forum Fund.
A new Stop the Steal Facebook group had appeared on November 4 and was banned the following day. The Washington Post quoted the page’s recruitment of “boots on the ground to protect the integrity of the vote” and solicitation of donations to cover “‘flights and hotels to send people’ to battleground states including Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.” According to the Post, the “Stop the Steal” group appeared as a co-host on 12 different Facebook protest listings, among them one for a car caravan from California. The group gained 360,000 members before it was removed for violating Facebook’s rules for inflammatory content, as users called for “civil war” and “overthrowing the government.”
According to Allpress, the StoptheSteal.us site provided organizational information for protests on November 6 at counting centers and capitols across six “contested” swing states. CNP member Charlie Kirk was listed as the primary organizational contact for Nevada protests, along with alt-right activist Mike Cernovich. The Center for Media and Democracy reported the state-level involvement of other CNP members and added that FreedomWorks, run by CNP Action board of governors member Adam Brandon, was organizing “Protect the Vote” protests in five states.
On November 6, as Biden pulled ahead, Jenny Beth Martin announced that Tea Party Patriot Action was going to hold “Protect the Vote” rallies in four swing states, “working with FreedomWorks, Turning Points [sic], Heritage”—all run by members of the CNP—“and countless social media influencers to help organize and assemble citizens in various locations around the country to voice our support for transparent and honest ballot counting.”
The election was called for Joe Biden on November 7, based on late-counted ballots in Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. Attorney Cleta Mitchell made her feelings known on Fox News, stating, “We’re already double-checking and finding dead people having voted,” and tweeted that the Georgia recount was “A FAKE!!!”
The CNP refused to surrender and convened a special meeting November 12 to 14. Mitchell appeared at the meeting on an updated panel, now called “Election Results and Legal Battles: What Now?” And CNP Action answered the question with a new set of “Action Steps.”
These directed members to lobby legislators in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Nevada to support litigation challenging the election outcome; to “actively educate your pastor and church” with resources from Charlie Kirk, the Family Research Council, and others; to “reach out” to 10 CNP affiliates engaged in the Georgia runoff election; and (ominously) to “connect with local law enforcement.”
Other measures were being set in motion. A familiar figure resurfaced: Trump’s first national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. Flynn, too, had a history with the CNP. In July 2016, Flynn appeared on a CNP panel on “Terrorism and the Condition of the Military.” Academic researcher Allpress found Flynn listed in a Zoominfo database of “email addresses and direct dials for the Council for National Policy employees” with a CNP phone number (first listed on November 26 and still active as of February 11—throughout the period when he was appearing at the Stop the Steal protests, including in the January 6, 2021, WildProtest rally).
Dispelling any possibility of the entry representing another “Mike Flynn,” the listing was linked to his 2016 CNP panel appearance.
Ginni Thomas is listed in the same CNP employee database, also as having an undisclosed staff role.
Flynn’s affiliations underscore a disturbing link between Trump’s team and the far-right conspiracy movement QAnon. On July 7, 2020, the CNN reported that Flynn had tweeted a video of himself taking an oath with a QAnon slogan, accompanied by a QAnon hashtag.
In the weeks following the election, Flynn appeared on a December 4 Red State Talk Radio program called “In the Matrixxx: General Flynn Digital Soldiers.” This was a term Flynn had introduced in a May 2016 speech, as a force to combat the “insurgency” created by the professional news media: “So the American people decided to take over the idea of information . . . and they did it through social media.” In his introduction, Matrixxx host Jeffrey Pederson urged, “Patriots, join us in a Q army. Are you guys ready for some booms?” In a telephone interview, he congratulated Michael Flynn on his November 25 presidential pardon for lying to the FBI in the Russia investigation. “We are your digital soldiers, sir.”
Flynn replied, “The digital army that we have is unstoppable. . . . When I see people that don’t want to fight on the battlefield, the Twitter space, the Facebook space, we don’t necessarily choose the terrain that we want to fight on, but when we get on that terrain, and we’re on it . . . we fight like digital soldiers, and we will overcome everything.”
When host Jeffrey Pederson complained that his program had been taken down from a number of major digital platforms, Flynn answered, “Digital Soldiers is gonna have a capability soon. . . . We need a new platform of truth, it’s gonna happen.”
Concerning “this disastrous election we’ve just had,” Flynn adhered to the CNP party line concentrating on state-level action. “We are going to win. We have to be patient, we have to persevere through this, we have to be committed to fight for the truth in these various swing states where the hearings have been occurring. . . . For the people that are in those states, those affected states, you need to be calling your representatives, you need to be going to these rallies that they’re having at the state capitals, and you need to be putting demands on your state officials, your state political class, to not accept this gross . . . this abuse of our election system.”
On December 10, the CNP’s Conservative Action Project published a letter stating, “There is no doubt President Donald J. Trump is the lawful winner of the presidential election.” It stated that “state legislatures in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Nevada and Michigan should exercise their plenary power under the Constitution and appoint clean slates of electors to the Electoral College to support President Trump.” It further called on conservative leaders and groups to implement the strategy discussed at the previous CNP meeting and pressure their state and national representatives to replace the electors. The letter was signed by over a dozen members of the CNP, including the president, the executive director, and executive committee member Jenny Beth Martin.
Over the course of November, Stop the Steal organizers had summoned their supporters to join a series of pro-Trump “Jericho Marches” and prayer vigils around the country. These included a “March for Trump” 20-city bus tour organized by Women for America First, one of Tea Party activists Amy Kremer’s organizations, culminating in a December 12 rally in Washington D.C. Michael Flynn was a headliner for the event, and his speech was recorded by the Right Side Broadcasting Network and posted on YouTube. Standing over a Women for America First podium before the Supreme Court, Flynn proclaimed, “We are not going to give up!” His words were met by chants of “Stop the Steal!” from the crowd—which included hundreds of Proud Boys and QAnon supporters in combat fatigues and paramilitary gear. Flynn closed his remarks with a blessing for the military, first responders, and the police. “They’re fighting on the front lines of freedom right now—for us.”
Legal efforts to overturn the election results continued, but counts and recounts of the ballots came up with the same results, and the challenges were dismissed by courts across the country. Trump’s circle of trusted advisers was shrinking, and the president considered desperate measures.
On Friday, December 18, an extraordinary meeting took place in the White House with four participants who had not been recorded on the official calendar, among them Michael Flynn and attorney Sidney Powell, both of whom had ties to the CNP. According to a February 6 account of that meeting in The New York Times, Sidney Powell proposed that Trump appoint her special counsel to investigate voter fraud, and Trump considered naming Flynn head of the FBI and chief of staff for the rest of his administration.
The previous day, December 17, the right-wing site Newsmax had posted an interview with Flynn. “The president has to plan for every eventuality because we cannot allow this election and the integrity of our election to go the way it is,” Flynn said. “This is just totally unsatisfactory. There’s no way in the world we’re going to be able to move forward as a nation with this. . . .He could immediately on his order seize every single one of these machines around the country on his order. He could also order, within the swing states, if he wanted to, he could take military capabilities and he could place them in those states and basically rerun an election in each of those states. It’s not unprecedented.”
Now, in the White House meeting of December 18, witnesses reported that Powell and Flynn urged Trump to consider the National Emergencies Act and “extraordinary measures” to address the electoral outcome. Others in the meeting objected, and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Army Chief of Staff General James McConville quickly issued a statement saying, “There is no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of an American election.”
As the options diminished, CNP members doubled down. On January 2, President Trump held a conference call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in which he famously ordered Raffensperger to “find” 11,780 votes—one more than Biden’s margin of victory. The CNP’s Cleta Mitchell, one of three lawyers on the call, was identified by White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows as one of the “attorneys that represent the president—who is not the attorney of record but has been involved [in the efforts to challenge the electoral results].” Mitchell reinforced Trump’s false claims of fraud and pressed Raffensperger to hand over his investigations of the allegations.
Once again, the effort backfired. The Raffensperger call was leaked to the press, and the Georgia official was lauded as a champion of democracy for resisting Trump’s bullying behavior. Mitchell resigned from her position at Foley and Lardner, based on the firm’s policy that its attorneys would not represent “any parties seeking to contest the results of the election.”
Trump’s paths to victory were diminishing by the day. The next juncture was January 6, when Congress was scheduled to certify the Electoral College vote. Stop the Steal had been mobilizing for weeks, with the support of the president’s Twitter feed.
The CNP connection surfaced on a number of fronts, as reflected in a chronology published by The Washington Post. On December 20, the domain “WildProtest” was registered. The Post’s Philip Bump wrote, “It appears to be the brainchild of Ali Alexander” (the onetime CNP member and former Ali Akbar). On January 2, Amy Kremer of Women for America First tweeted, “We are excited to announce the site of our January 6 event will be the Ellipse in President’s Park, just steps from the White House!” Kremer appeared in the CNP’s 2014 roster on the CNP board of governors, listed as chairman of the Tea Party Express. Her daughter Kylie Kremer took out the National Park Service permit for the “March for Trump,” dated January 5, 2021.
CNP affiliates took action on a local level. Two days before the protest, Charlie Kirk tweeted that his organizations were “sending 80-plus buses full of patriots to DC to fight for this president.” (Kirk was indulging in hyperbole. Turning Point USA spokesman Andrew Kolvet later confirmed to Reuters that Kirk’s organization, Turning Point Action, sent “seven buses carrying 350 students” to the rally, but added that the group “condemns political violence.”) Another tweet from Turning Point Action invited protesters to “ride a bus & receive priority entry” and “stay in a complimentary hotel.” Both tweets were deleted after January 6. In Lynchburg, Virginia, more than 100 protesters boarded buses organized by Liberty Counsel Action, chaired by CNP board of governors member Mat Staver.
CNP member Ginni (Mrs. Clarence) Thomas promoted the protest on her Twitter feed on January 6, tweeting, “Watch MAGA crowd today best with Right Side Broadcasting (https://rsbnetwork.com/), and then C-Span for what the Congress does starting at 1:00 pm today. LOVE MAGA people!!!!”
On another front, CNP member Scott Magill, a retired military physician who had joined the hydroxychloroquine campaign, summoned “fellow Warriors and Friends” to the protest on behalf of his organization, Veterans in Defense of Liberty. Magill had made a video presentation to a 2017 CNP meeting, which was accessed by Brent Allpress, describing VIDOL as a national organization made up of “battalions” and “companies,” formed to “identify and oppose all who would destroy our freedom, our Judeo-Christian values, our culture, or our morals.” It was expanded, he said, to include a “cavalry division of Veteran motorcycle riders” that could function as a “peaceful rapid response team.”
Jenny Beth Martin claimed a major role in the day’s events. On December 30, she tweeted, “I will be speaking at the #StoptheSteal rally on January 6. We must demand Congress to challenge the Electoral College votes and fight for President Trump!” She indicated that her protégé, Dr. Simone Gold (the mouthpiece for Covid misinformation), would be speaking as well. Martin’s Tea Party Patriots were listed as one of the 11 participating organizations on the March to Save America website (along with Turning Point Action and Phyllis Schlafly Eagles). The site announced, “At 1:00 pm we will march on the US Capitol building to protest the certification of the Electoral College.” (The webpage included an automatic SMS opt-in and a Covid-19 disclaimer waiving any claims against the organizers for “illness or injury.”)
On Tuesday, January 5, Trump supporters gathered at Freedom Plaza in Washington for a Stop the Steal “pre-rally.” Ali Alexander led them in cries of “Victory or Death!” Michael Flynn told them, “We stand at a crucible moment in United States history,” and local CBS affiliate reporter Mike Valerio tweeted from the scene, “We’ve heard General Mike Flynn give a salute / shoutout to QAnon soldiers.”
On January 6, thousands of protesters converged on the Ellipse in Washington, D.C. President Trump addressed his followers in strident tones, urging them to “walk down to the Capitol,” “show strength,” and “demand that Congress do the right thing.” Then he departed for the White House to watch the day’s events on television.
The crowd moved toward the Capitol and invaded its halls, attacking Capitol police officers and vandalizing the premises. Simone Gold reprised her speech in the Rotunda, condemning the Covid-19 vaccine as “an experimental biological agent deceptively named a vaccine.” Some members of the mob clutched Bibles and carried signs reading “Jesus Saves.” Americans were stunned by shocking images of men in paramilitary gear snaking up the Capitol steps, of the mob assaulting a prostrate police officer, of extremists brandishing zip-tie handcuffs in the Senate chamber.
On the Senate floor, Brent Bozell IV was recorded entering the chamber, speaking on a cell phone, then repositioning the C-SPAN camera to point at the floor. Bozell is the son of Brent Bozell III, a 30-year veteran of the CNP and a member of the executive committee.
In the aftermath of the attack, Charlie Kirk and other supporters of the protest deleted their tweets, but many had already been archived. Simone Gold expressed “regret” for her actions, but on January 18 she was arrested by the FBI on charges of violent entry and disorderly conduct. Gold’s sponsor, Jenny Beth Martin—who was scheduled to speak on January 5 but did not—told Robert O’Harrow of The Washington Post that her group had provided no financial support for the rally. “We were shocked, outraged, and saddened at the turn of events Wednesday afternoon,” she said.
On January 6, Brent Bozell III gave an interview to Fox Business describing the riot as “an explosion of pent-up outrage from Middle America.” He said, “Look, they are furious because they believe this election was stolen. . . .I agree with them.” He condemned the breaching of the Capitol, blaming it on “one element that went forward in lawlessness.” His son was charged with participating in the breach by the FBI 10 days later.
It will be months, if not years, before the details of the events in January will be fully revealed, including the identities of the organizers and underwriters and the role of the CNP. Many additional threads require urgent examination, and this will demand the combined efforts of federal and congressional investigators, journalists, academics, and litigators. One is the mounting evidence of heavy QAnon involvement in the violence in the Capitol. The FBI has noted the wide display of “symbols associated with QAnon conspiracy theories” among the rioters, and QAnon followers are heavily represented among those arrested so far. The marchers on the Capitol also bore a number of Christian Nationalist symbols, including a wooden cross and a flag reading “Make America Godly Again.” Recently, there have been disturbing reports that QAnon has been aggressively targeting Midwestern evangelicals, including mainline Protestants, Southern Baptists, and Pentecostals. Pentecostals are a little-understood but growing force in American politics, particularly among African-American and Hispanic voters, and the CNP has been cultivating their leaders for years.
The CNP’s affiliates were by no means acting alone in attempting to overturn the results of the election, or in their support for the Capitol protest on January 6. The evidence shows various networks at work: civilian and military, independent and intersecting, feckless and murderous.
What is irrefutable is that members of the CNP and their circle exerted their influence and manipulated their followers to support Trump’s lies about the stolen election and his effort to derail the electoral process. Many of these people emerged as key players in the efforts to disrupt America’s 220-year-old tradition of the peaceful transfer of power and stoked the fury of insurrectionists who desecrated American democracy on that fateful January afternoon.
Anne Nelson is the author of Shadow Network: Money, Media, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right. Bloomsbury will publish a new paperback edition in May, 2021. Nelson is the recipient of the Livingston Award for journalism and a Guggenheim Fellowship for historical research.