Leaked audio: Trump’s "coup memo" author is training MAGA diehards to meddle in midterm elections

Eastman laid out a framework to ensure conservatives who lose in the upcoming elections can challenge results

Published October 28, 2022 2:42PM (EDT)

John Eastman, the University of Colorado Boulders visiting scholar of conservative thought and policy, speaks about his plans to sue the university at a news conference outside of CU Boulder on Thursday, April 29, 2021. (Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
John Eastman, the University of Colorado Boulders visiting scholar of conservative thought and policy, speaks about his plans to sue the university at a news conference outside of CU Boulder on Thursday, April 29, 2021. (Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Former Trump legal adviser John Eastman encouraged Republican poll workers and allies to file complaints that could be compiled to challenge the upcoming midterm and presidential elections, according to a report from Politico.

"Document what you've seen, raise the challenge. And [note] which of the judges on that election board decline to accept your challenge. Get it all written down," Eastman said in a recording from his speech in New Mexico last week, obtained by Politico. "That then becomes the basis for an affidavit in a court challenge after the fact," he said.

Eastman's comments indicate that by combating the legitimacy of individual votes, conservatives plan to invalidate the results of entire county or state elections. 

Eastman has been a key figure in the House Jan 6. Committee due to his role in advising President Trump on methods to overturn the 2020 election in Congress, authoring the so-called "coup memo." In an Oct. 19 summit for the Election Integrity Network — a part of the Conservative Partnership Institute — he repeatedly stated that he would like to assist in challenging votes in the upcoming election, and that he would connect party poll challengers to prosecutors in their area. 

Many nonpartisan election experts have expressed concern over Eastman's recent comments, as they were already worried about the new wave of thousands of first-time poll workers and challengers who have been emboldened to disrupt the voting process due to their belief that the last presidential election was "stolen." 

Eastman told the audience that the best approach to challenge individual votes is by "politely" and "gingerly" creating paper trails to give losing Republican candidates greater materials in court to pressure local commissioners to halt election certification. 

He also urged them to create a written record of anything "not going on correctly," according to an audio recording from attendees obtained by Documented, a non-partisan investigative watchdog. "That's called creating evidence," he said in the speech.

Eastman further encouraged poll workers and challengers to use tactics that abuse highly technical interpretations of the law, including calling into question any votes from people who don't speak loudly enough when providing their name or address, or from those who refuse to allow workers to closely inspect their information. 

"Create those notes because that becomes the evidence in these legal challenges if we need them," Eastman encouraged.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

However, while voters must speak audibly, repeatedly telling someone to speak louder and formally challenging their vote could constitute a form of harassment according to Mario Jimenez, a former chief deputy clerk in New Mexico. Jimenez, who helped draft the state's voting laws, told Politico that many of the instructions Eastman gave were narrow interpretations of voting rules, and in some cases, simply wrong.

Additionally, Eastman recommended to the audience to "look for vacancies" to serve on the strictly non-partisan three-person election boards that rule on ballot challenges. "Then you're the ones making the decisions, not just raising questions about the decisions," he said.

Eastman, through his legal team, declined Politico's request for comment. However, conservative elections attorney Cleta Mitchell responded that the summit is just an example of "citizen volunteering" and participation in the country's "democratic process."

"He merely presented the New Mexico law as volunteers are being recruited and trained as both poll observers and poll challengers," Mitchell said in a statement for Politico. "The media continues to discredit itself when they relentlessly demonize only conservatives when they volunteer for basic democratic election transparency efforts in an obvious attempt to discourage one side from getting involved in the election process," she added.

Politico White House bureau chief Jonathan Lemire called Eastman's rhetoric at the event "unapologetic and shameless." 

"He's a central character to the big lie, to everything Donald Trump and his allies tried to do after the 2020 election," he said on MSNBC. "It was his idea to set the fake elector scheme, states put alternate electors to the Congress that would allow Mike Pence to throw that out and therefore keep Trump in office."

Politico reporter Heidi Przybyla, who first broke the story, added that is empowering people "even with meritless claims, to potentially challenge elections."

"You see how the pieces are potentially being put in place here for a much more successful version of what was considered in 2020 to be a really ham-handed approach, where they had a lot of these untrained poll challengers, banging, literally on the outside of these polling locations where votes were being counted," she told MSNBC. "Now the goal is to put these people in a position to have real power."

Nick Penniman, founder and CEO of Issue One, a bipartisan election watchdog group, told Politico that Eastman's advice to poll workers and challengers could create "a potential nightmare we've never had to deal with before."

"You got a bunch of poll watchers who are preconditioned to believe there is wrongdoing," he said. "They're going to start documenting stuff that is not wrongdoing and they might also intentionally misdocument something just for the sake of being able to hold up or not certify an election, which is terrifying."

The intention of Eastman's supporters is less to cause chaos and disruption on Election Day, but rather to create a situation where results can be challenged, explained Brendan Fischer, deputy executive director of Documented who obtained the original tape. Fisher explained to Politico that "[Eastman] is laying the groundwork for legal challenges and to give MAGA-aligned county officials a pretext to reject the results."

By Samaa Khullar

Samaa Khullar is a former news fellow at Salon with a background in Middle Eastern history and politics. She is a graduate of New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism institute and is pursuing investigative reporting.

MORE FROM Samaa Khullar

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aggregate Elections John Eastman Politics