Days before lawyers allied with Donald Trump gave a news conference promoting election conspiracy theories, his campaign had determined that many of those claims were false, court filings reveal.
Two weeks after the 2020 election, a team of lawyers closely allied with President Donald Trump held a widely watched news conference at the Republican Party's headquarters in Washington. At the event, they laid out a bizarre conspiracy theory claiming that a voting machine company had worked with an election software firm, financier George Soros and Venezuela to steal the presidential contest from Trump.
But there was a problem for the Trump team, according to court documents released Monday evening.
By the time the news conference occurred November 19, Trump's campaign had already prepared an internal memo on many of the outlandish claims about the company, Dominion Voting Systems, and the separate software company, Smartmatic. The memo had determined that those allegations were untrue.
The court papers, which were initially filed late last week as a motion in a defamation lawsuit brought against the campaign and others by a former Dominion employee, Eric Coomer, contain evidence that officials in the Trump campaign were aware early on that many of the claims against the companies were baseless.
The documents also suggest that the campaign sat on its findings about Dominion even as Sidney Powell and other lawyers attacked the company in the conservative media and ultimately filed four federal lawsuits accusing it of a vast conspiracy to rig the election against Trump.
According to emails contained in the documents, Zach Parkinson, then the campaign's deputy director of communications, reached out to subordinates on November 13 asking them to "substantiate or debunk" several matters concerning Dominion. The next day, the emails show, Parkinson received a copy of a memo cobbled together by his staff from what largely appear to be news articles and public fact-checking services.
Even though the memo was hastily assembled, it rebutted a series of allegations that Powell and others were making in public. It found:
• That Dominion did not use voting technology from the software company, Smartmatic, in the 2020 election.
• That Dominion had no direct ties to Venezuela or to Soros.
• And that there was no evidence that Dominion's leadership had connections to left-wing "antifa" activists, as Powell and others had claimed.
As Coomer's attorneys wrote in their motion in the defamation suit, "The memo produced by the Trump campaign shows that, at least internally, the Trump campaign found there was no evidence to support the conspiracy theories regarding Dominion" and Coomer.
Even at the time, many political observers and voters, Democratic and Republican alike, dismissed the efforts by Powell and other pro-Trump lawyers like Rudy Giuliani as a wild, last-ditch attempt to appease a defeated president in denial of his loss. But the false theories they spread quickly gained currency in the conservative media and endure nearly a year later.
It is unclear if Trump knew about or saw the memo. Still, the documents suggest that his campaign's communications staff remained silent about what it knew of the claims against Dominion at a moment when the allegations were circulating freely.
"The Trump campaign continued to allow its agents," the motion says, "to advance debunked conspiracy theories and defame" Coomer, "apparently without providing them with their own research debunking those theories."
Coomer, Dominion's onetime director of product strategy and security, sued Powell, Giuliani, the Trump campaign and others last year in state district court in Denver. He has said that after the election, he was wrongly accused by a right-wing podcast host of hacking his company's systems to ensure Trump's defeat and of then telling left-wing activists that he had done so.
Soon after the host, Joe Oltmann, made these accusations, they were seized upon and amplified by Powell and Giuliani, who were part of a self-described "elite strike force" of lawyers leading the charge in challenging Joe Biden's victory.
On November 19, for example, Powell and Giuliani appeared together at the news conference at the Republican National Committee's headquarters and placed Coomer at the center of a plot to hijack the election by hacking Dominion's voting machines. By Powell's account that day, the conspiracy included Smartmatic, Venezuelan officials, people connected to Soros and a "massive influence of communist money."
Powell and Giuliani did not respond to messages seeking comment on the documents. Representatives for Trump also did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Trump continues to falsely argue that the election was stolen from him, and in recent months Powell and Giuliani have stuck by their claims that the election was rife with fraud. An attorney for Giuliani said in a court filing last month that at least some of his claims of election fraud were "substantially true."
And as recently as three weeks ago, Powell told a reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that the 2020 election was "essentially a bloodless coup where they took over the presidency of the United States without a single shot being fired."
It remains unclear how widely the memo was circulated among Trump campaign staff members. According to the court documents, Giuliani said in a deposition that he had not seen the memo before he gave his presentation in Washington, and he questioned the motives of those who had prepared it.
"They wanted Trump to lose because they could raise more money," Giuliani was quoted as saying in the deposition.
But at the time that the internal report was prepared, Giuliani and Powell were both "active supervisors," as he put it in his deposition, in the Trump campaign's broader plan to challenge the election results — an effort that eventually included more than 60 failed lawsuits filed across the country. While Powell soon went her own way in claiming that Dominion had conspired to steal the election, Giuliani continued working closely with Trump and his campaign, ultimately changing strategies and seeking to persuade state legislatures to overturn the popular vote.
The motion notes that "the lines were blurred" as to whom Powell was working for at the time: herself, her nonprofit organization or the Trump campaign. Almost immediately after she promoted the conspiracy theory about Dominion at the news conference in November, Trump sought to distance himself from her. But by December, as Trump's legal options narrowed, the former president considered bringing her back into the fold and discussed whether to appoint her as a special counsel overseeing an investigation of voter fraud.
The release of the documents was only the latest legal trouble for Giuliani and Powell, both of whom have been sued directly by Dominion for defamation. Dominion has also brought a defamation suit against Mike Lindell, CEO of MyPillow, for amplifying false election claims. Last month, a federal judge in Washington ruled that the cases could continue moving toward trial.
About the same time, a federal judge in Detroit ordered penalties to be levied against Powell and eight other pro-Trump lawyers — Giuliani was not among them — who filed a lawsuit that sought to overturn the election results in Michigan using the false claims about Dominion.
"This case was never about fraud," Judge Linda V. Parker wrote in her decision. "It was about undermining the people's faith in our democracy and debasing the judicial process to do so."
In June, a New York court suspended Giuliani's law license, ruling that he had made "demonstrably false and misleading statements" while fighting the results of last year's election for Trump.
Even recently, the new court documents say, former Trump campaign officials have continued to cling to the baseless notion that the election was marred by fraud.
When attorneys for Coomer asked Sean Dollman, a representative of the Trump campaign, in a deposition if the campaign still believed that the election was fraudulent, he answered, "Yes, sir."
The lawyers then asked, "What is that opinion based on?"
According to the court documents, Dollman gave a less than certain answer.
"We have no underlying definite facts that it wasn't," he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Alan Feuer
Photographs by: Erin Schaff
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES