How powerful conservatives pushed the ‘Big Lie’ that the 2020 election was fraudulent

The unfounded belief that the 2020 election was rigged has become an important force in American politics, especially in this year's Republican primaries. John Yang has more on what the non-profit news organization ProPublica and PBS's Frontline found about how the myth of the stolen election grew and spread.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The unfounded belief that the 2020 presidential election was rigged has become an important force in American politics, especially in this year's Republican primaries.

    John Yang has more on what the nonprofit news organization ProPublica and PBS' "Frontline" found out about how the myth of the stolen election grew and spread.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, the joint investigation uncovered a trove of internal e-mails and other documentation. The news organizations say that lawyers, political operatives and other Trump supporters spread a number of theories, even though they knew that some of them had been discredited, and even used them as the basis for lawsuits.

    ProPublica reporter Doug Bock Clark worked on the story.

    Doug, you write that this is a case of little untruths adding up to the big lie and sort of moving from the fringes to the mainstream of the Republican Party. How did this happen?

  • Doug Bock Clark, ProPublica:

    So, the big lie didn't just magically appear.

    There had to be people who thought up these ideas, thought up the ideas that they would spread to Republican legislatures, to the conservative public itself and to the White House. And what we found in our reporting was that there was a small group of people who were very engaged with searching for what they called evidence for the big lie.

    But, during our reporting, we found that, actually, there was a pattern of them being warned and told that this evidence wasn't valid, that it wasn't good, and yet they still kept on going and promoting this stuff anyway.

    And that has had a huge impact. Polls show that over two-thirds of people — two-thirds of Republicans believe in the big lie. And even more, millions of them believe ideas like that voting machines were hacked by foreign governments.

  • John Yang:

    Let's talk about that example, because I think a lot of people are familiar with that. The allegation that voting machines, particularly in Georgia and Michigan, were switching votes, were changing votes, how did that grow and spread, despite the evidence that suggested it just wasn't true?

  • Doug Bock Clark:

    One of the key things that this small group of people worked on was a technical report called the Antrim report.

    And it — this report asserted in very tech-savvy language that evidence had been found in voting machines in Michigan that suggested that the election had been stolen. And it provided a technical gloss for these ideas. It was very widely spread, including by President Trump himself.

    But, during our reporting, we found that the original version of this report didn't actually make such strong assertions. One of the authors of the report told us that there was — it was a — that they could not find conclusive evidence of election fraud. They found some things they felt were suspicious, but then it was given to someone else. And that person edited it.

  • John Yang:

    You're right that so many of the people pushing these theories were told by their own investigators, people they hired, that there was nothing to these theories.

    The companion documentary from "Frontline" contains a question to the former CEO of Overstock.com, Patrick Byrne.

  • Question:

    Out of all the people I have met, you seem to be the person most personally responsible for motivating this election fraud movement, and some would say for spreading disinformation.

    And do you think that's an accurate way, that you are sort of the kingpin of this?

  • Patrick Byrne, Former Overstock CEO:

    Well, or that I'm the one who's waking up Americans to this deep problem in our election apparatus.

  • Question:

    Let me ask you if you agree to this simple binary. If you're right, you're saving the country. If you're wrong, you're destroying it.

  • Patrick Byrne:

    Yes, I can live with that.

  • John Yang:

    Doug, how typical was that response?

  • Doug Bock Clark:

    These people very much defended their actions. They really believed some of the things they were saying.

    But our reporting found that they were warned multiple times, including Patrick Byrne, about some of the evidence that they were championing. One of the things that we published in the article is an e-mail-in which Byrne describes a woman who he would champion as a reliable source on election fraud as being untrustworthy and unreliable.

    And his own investigators told him this. And yet he still ends up promoting her. He told us that he had a change of heart, he became her friend, and that he found that he believed her ideas.

    But time and time again, we found that these people were warned about pieces of evidence or about the quality of their witnesses, and yet they still promoted it.

  • John Yang:

    And yet, as you said, two-thirds of Republicans doubt the legitimacy of the election.

    Right now, we're in the midst of primary season for midterms. And whether or not the election was legitimate has sort of become a litmus test for Republican candidates, so to get — to win support in Republican primaries.

    What does this say about where we are right now? And I was also struck in the story when you asked Michael Flynn's brother, who was acting as his spokesman, about — to respond to some of these allegations — or some of the denials, and he said, no one we care about is going to read this story.

    What does this say about where we are?

  • Doug Bock Clark:

    It's extremely concerning that this would become such a basis for a political platform, the idea that the election had been stolen.

    To have good political outcomes, to have a legitimate and healthy political discourse, we need to have agreement on what actually happened. And we need to base that on facts. And if so many people are pushing the idea that this election wasn't real and wasn't legitimate, that's really unhealthy for American democracy.

  • John Yang:

    Doug Bock Clark of ProPublica, thank you very much.

  • Doug Bock Clark:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And thank you, John.

    And to follow more of this collaborative reporting from "Frontline" and ProPublica, you can watch the documentary film "Plot to Overturn the Election." That's at PBS.org/Frontline.

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