Fox News, Newsmax and One America News have all backed off various bogus 2020 voter fraud claims they promoted. We learned as Fox was being sued that several of its big names privately derided such claims in real time. Top Trump aides have testified that they knew Trump had, in fact, lost and that he occasionally acknowledged it, too. Trump lawyers Sidney Powell, Jenna Ellis and now Rudy Giuliani have each conceded in legal filings that some of the central claims in their “stolen election” crusade were false.
Despite all that, the broader conservative movement has been slow to reckon with the idea that Trump took it for a ride.
But some are starting to inch toward making that argument, including most notably Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) campaign and supporters — even as the candidate himself kept it at arm’s length Monday.
In recent days, a key DeSantis spokeswoman has set about promoting the idea that “stop the steal” was all a scam, a grift or even a “Ponzi” scheme.
A DeSantis-aligned influencer last week pointed to Jan. 6 committee testimony from top Trump campaign aides Bill Stepien and Jason Miller casting doubt on Trump’s ability to overturn the election. He accused them of “public lying about or profiting from it anyway.”
And DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw approved of the message.
“A huge scam … Ponzi Scheme?” she said.
In the days that followed, Pushaw went on to amplify social media users who suggested that the Trump campaign had scammed people by raising money to ostensibly overturn the election. She also repeatedly promoted the idea that Trump had landed unsuspecting people in jail through his efforts.
One post she promoted cited “a multi-year grift based on a lie that bilked millions of Trump supporters out of more than $250 million of their hard-earned money and got hundreds jailed.”
Another said the Trump campaign “knew the fake electors scheme wouldn’t work, yet they encouraged it anyways.” It blamed the campaign for the recent indictments of alternate electors in Michigan. “Instead, they pushed them into criminal charges for personal gain,” the user said.
Other posts promoted by Pushaw cited the Jan. 6 committee testimony. One user said they had ignored the committee’s work but had come to realize, “We were LIED to.” Another cited the testimony as being indicative of “the facade Team Trump has built.”
Last week, DeSantis-aligned radio host Steve Deace unleashed a viral rant after Giuliani conceded the argument in a legal case that his claims about Georgia election workers were false. “How many people in this audience sent money to ‘Stop the Steal’ three years ago?” Deace asked. “How many shows did I waste your time talking about this three years ago?”
Deace added: “I went to the mattresses on covid and the election fraud issue, only to have Rudy Giuliani say, ‘Yeah, I was lying,’ and Jason Miller say, ‘Oh, we knew it was all BS.’ ”
Like Deace’s, Pushaw’s commentary here has been careful. Rather than suggest that the voter fraud claims themselves were lies, she’s positing that the Trump campaign’s claiming it could overturn the results was the lie. She has also pointed to a Trump PAC’s extensive spending on his legal bills — $40 million this year alone — to suggest it’s all part of a big scam.
“In other words, MAGA grandmas were scammed — based on false promises from Trump campaign officials who admitted under oath, on video, that they knew the election couldn’t be overturned — out of their social security checks, in order to pay a billionaire’s legal bills?” Pushaw said Saturday.
But really, these matters are part and parcel. The fact that Trump’s campaign couldn’t overturn the election is inextricably tied to the fact that its voter-fraud claims were bogus. If those claims had merit, you couldn’t really fault the Trump campaign for raising money to at least try to overturn something as consequential as a presidential election result.
It’s also worth emphasizing that this message is belated — the falsity of the claims was clear in real time, and we’ve had evidence like Stepien’s and Miller’s testimony for a year — and also that it isn’t a message that’s been amplified by the candidate himself.
DeSantis himself has been exceptionally careful when it comes to casting judgment on Trump’s false stolen-election claims. He hasn’t said anything amounting to the idea that this crusade was built on false pretenses. About the closest he’s come to faulting Trump for his actions was saying recently that Trump “should have come out more forcefully” to quell the Jan. 6 riot when it touched off.
DeSantis on Monday also declined to go where his spokeswoman had gone. When asked directly about Pushaw’s “scammed” social-media post Monday, DeSantis said, “I’m not familiar with that.” He added that people were more interested in hearing about the economy than “process stories.”
The fact that his campaign is suggesting this was a big scam is also notable when you consider the timeline of DeSantis’s commentary. The Jan. 6 committee held a hearing in mid-June 2022 that got at precisely these issues, but DeSantis shrugged off the proceedings.
The committee pointed to Trump’s having been repeatedly informed that his voter fraud claims were bogus. And it even, for the first time, floated the idea that Trump’s fundraising to overturn the election was fraudulent. The committee deemed it “the Big Rip Off.”
Two days later, DeSantis showed little interest in these matters.
“Why are they constantly beating this dead horse?” he said of the Jan. 6 committee. “Yes, we understand that; that was a year and a half ago.”
It’s evident why DeSantis’s campaign and supporters are now trying to resurrect this particular “dead horse”; their candidate is struggling, and they need to try something to reverse its fortunes.
It’s also evident why this message is being broadcast by an aide rather than the candidate himself; campaigns often do this to give their principal plausible deniability that this is also their own message. DeSantis doesn’t want to alienate the majority of Republicans who believe Trump actually won in 2020.
But with another potential Trump indictment — and, indeed, possibly two — looming over his efforts to overturn the election, it’s an argument that’s right there for the making and could finally get an airing — albeit a long-overdue one.