Under Trump, DHS directed to probe bogus claims about voter fraud

DHS’ intelligence office did not release any materials substantiating the president’s claims. But it did find that the Kremlin spread lies about mail-in voting.

The issuance of a directive involving voter fraud to the DHS’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis, which has not been previously reported, casts a new light on the extent of Trump World’s efforts to use government resources to investigate spurious claims about U.S. elections.

It also raises new questions about how a domestic political complaint found its way onto the intelligence community’s to-do list.

The House Jan. 6 committee has been probing how Trump’s false claims led to an attack on the U.S. Capitol, and the extent of the president and his allies’ efforts to interfere with aspects of the election.

The DHS saga began in late April of 2020, when Ken Cuccinelli — the former Virginia attorney general with close ties to Trump who was then the department’s second-in-command — asked a senior DHS official to have I&A analysts look into the potential for voter fraud related to mail-in voting, according to a former DHS official.

Cuccinelli declined to comment through a spokesperson. A former Trump administration official who worked with him made a sarcastic defense: “How dare a political appointee give work to the agency he oversees?”

The immediate aftermath of that conversation isn’t clear. But later that summer, I&A’s headquarters sent guidance to its Field Operations Division related to elections, which POLITICO has reviewed.

The guidance told employees in the division to look into a host of topics related to elections and security, including hacking attempts targeting campaigns, efforts to intimidate voters, and illegal entry into polling places.

Then came a list of further topics: “attempts to alter, destroy, sell, or hide mail-in ballots,” among other mail-related issues.

The fact that intelligence professionals were directed to look into whether people were selling, hiding, changing, or destroying ballots delivered by mail stuck out to election and intelligence observers because it had not been a focus of widespread credible complaints in earlier elections.

“What makes this inappropriate is that the underlying activity is a fantasy,” said Ben Wittes, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution, who tracks issues related to U.S. intelligence agencies. “And there are no circumstances in which the Intelligence Community should be tasked to collect on fantasies.”

By that time, Trump himself had been amplifying conspiracy theories about voting by mail. “Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country, because they’re cheaters,” he said at a White House briefing on April 7, 2020, per NPR. “They’re fraudulent in many cases.” And in a July interview, he told Fox News that mail-in voting would “rig the election.”

Those comments came as many states increased the practice because the pandemic heightened the risks of in-person voting. The notion that selling mail-in ballots is a serious problem — a notion the I&A guidance instructed its personnel to scrutinize — is not supported by widespread evidence.

“The ‘sell, destroy, or hide mail ballots’ — that’s a theoretical conspiracy that I’ve heard talked about, but there’s no evidence that that has occurred,” said Amber McReynolds, a former Colorado election official who works with voting access groups.

Trump referred to this notion in the Sept. 29 presidential debate. “Take a look at West Virginia,” he said. “Mailmen are selling the ballots. They’re being sold.”

In the same debate, Trump also claimed that mail-in ballots get dumped in rivers and creeks.

In I&A’s Field Operations Division, directions to eye voter fraud caused concerns. People in the division raised complaints in a series of listening sessions held in September and October.

“People questioned a tasking related to reporting on voter fraud,” read a memo on the sessions, which POLITICO reviewed. “‘Is this criminal activity appropriate for an IC agency?’ Thresholds and priorities are judgment calls from leadership and many people questioned whether taskings were politically motivated.”

The memo signals that those concerns were part of a larger problem: distrust within the workforce toward management, along with friction over whether the intelligence community should be involved in domestic political affairs.

“The workforce has a general mistrust of leadership resulting from orders to conduct activities they perceive to be inappropriate, bureaucratic, or political,” it continued.

It’s unclear if people in the Field Operations Division looked into whether mail-in ballots were being stolen or sold. But I&A did scrutinize election security issues. On Sept. 3, 2020, the office distributed a product about Russia’s efforts to undermine confidence in American election processes — specifically by using its state media to try to cast doubt on the security of mail-in voting.

As this all unfolded, Joseph Maher was a top lawyer at DHS handling intelligence law matters. A DHS official who wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter said that given his post at the time, Maher likely would have seen the tasking before it received the final greenlight. And he may have been aware of employees’ concerns about it, given he temporarily took over the office in August of 2020.

On Aug. 6, 2021, the Jan. 6 select committee chair announced Maher had joined the staff there, on detail from his post at DHS. The move drew significant criticism, given I&A’s well-documented failures to warn about possible violence in the lead-up to the Jan. 6 attack. “How in the world do you hire someone who you are investigating?” national security lawyer Mark Zaid told The Wall Street Journal at the time.

The Jan. 6 committee has said Maher has recused himself from all investigative matters related to DHS. Reached for comment, a committee spokesperson directed POLITICO to that prior statement.

A DHS spokesperson said the Department has renewed its commitment to providing quality intelligence to its partners.

“Under the Biden-Harris Administration and the leadership of Secretary Mayorkas, the Department of Homeland Security is focused on ensuring the safety and security of communities across our country, while ensuring that all of the Department’s work is conducted with integrity and in ways that protect privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties, and adhere to all applicable laws,” the spokesperson said. “DHS has also renewed its commitment to providing accurate, timely, and actionable information and intelligence to our partners across every level of government, in the private sector, and local communities.”

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