BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
REP JAMIE RASKIN They are going to blow the roof off the house in terms of explaining to America what actually happened in the attack on our democracy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There's certainly been lots of 'enthusiasm' about the congressional hearings on the January 6th assault on the Capitol. Coming next week, two prime time. Certainly committee members have been doing their homework.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN They've now interviewed more than a thousand witnesses. They've looked at 100,000 documents. They've got a lot of information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In the hearings, lawmakers will probe how our system held up against the insurrection. I mean, we dodged a bullet, right?
CHRIS KREBS No, we didn't dodge a bullet. That was a practice run. Now we know how to refine the message going forward. Right. Insurrections without consequences are just practice runs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
[END OF BILLBOARD]
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York. This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. The former president is fond of the phrase people are saying. I can attest that people are saying that this is the case that will finally penetrate Trump's legal Teflon. Not the potential case related to what transpired on that infamous January 6th, but on a telephone call to Georgia.
DONALD TRUMP I just want to find 11,780 votes. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The man on the receiving end. Georgia's Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, testified Thursday before a Fulton County special grand jury charged with investigating whether Trump pressured officials to declare him the victor of the 2020 election. People are saying this case is rock solid, but the big hurdle is proving criminal intent. And more than one indictment has foundered on the rocky shoals of what was going on inside that head. Meanwhile, the House Select Committee investigating the bloody assault on the U.S. Capitol said the public will be able to watch its proceedings at 8 p.m. on June 9th. That's Thursday. People are saying, Rep Jamie Raskin included, it'll be quite a show.
REP JAMIE RASKIN They are going to blow the roof off the house in terms of explaining to America what actually happened in the attack on our democracy. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm joined now by my beloved former NYC colleagues Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz, hosts of Will Be Wild, a new eight part series about the forces that led to the January 6th insurrection and what comes next. Now we're going to talk about the hearings. Welcome, Ilya.
ILYA MARRITZ Good to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And Andrea.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Great to talk to you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, a lot of people across the country in the world watched January 6th unfold in real time. So we may already feel like we know what happened. Why do you think it's important for listeners to watch those hearings?
ANDREA BERNSTEIN People know what happened from what they saw on their TV screens that day, and that was a lot. But what they don't know is everything that we have learned in the 17 months since January 6. The planning of it, the intentions of the former president and the people around him. This is an opportunity for people to understand the full story of what happened. They've now interviewed more than a thousand witnesses, including some that were in the White House on January 6. They've looked at 100,000 documents. They've got a lot of information.
ILYA MARRITZ There are evening hearings planned for the first night and the final night of hearings. And the others are happening in the daytime. Evening,q primetime suggests they really want people to watch and they have something that networks might actually want to cut away from their regular programing to show the viewers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Andrea, you've said that what people saw happen on that day was the cold open, not the story.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Yeah. What happened on television was so terrifying, so upsetting that the story feels like it begins and ends there. And what we learned is that it doesn't. That things were going on inside the Trump administration, several levels down, suppressing the ability of his own law enforcement agencies to respond to this kind of attack. That kind of stuff was not apparent from having watched what was on TV that day. And I think something that Elaine and I have learned through reporting this is that what happened inside the Capitol, what happened beyond the immediate reach of the television cameras, was, in some cases even more upsetting and a desecration of the temple of democracy then than we even realized at the time.
ILYA MARRITZ Of course, there have always been supporters of extremism, people who believe in white nationalism or anti-government militia. But it really amped up under President Trump. One of our sources told us usually when there's a Republican president, you expect domestic terrorism and extremism to go down. And with Trump, they saw the exact opposite. You expect it to go down because people under a Democratic administration might be fearful for their guns or whatever rights that they think could be taken away under a Republican administration. People of that mindset would feel happier. Right. But with Trump, it was the opposite way, because Trump's M.O. as president was to inflame people. So what we saw was that many people who might be susceptible to this kind of thinking were really encouraged in this kind of thinking by the president and his allies. And then comes COVID and the stress of COVID and being locked down really ticked over a number of people into going kind of full radical.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do we know that that's true or that's a theory?
ILYA MARRITZ We know from individual histories of people that we looked at. We also know from Elizabeth Newman, who worked in the Trump administration on counterterrorism, and she told us the beginning of COVID. She asked her staff to do an assessment of the likely effects of the pandemic. What she came back with was, this is going to be a radicalizing event. It's going to drive people online. It's going to further isolate them. And some portion of those people are going to think: I have to take action.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do you think is missing from the picture that these hearings can provide?
ANDREA BERNSTEIN There are 7 hours of missing records from the White House during the relevant period on January 6. So I think that remains one of the biggest mysteries. What exactly went on and who they communicated with and when? Now, having said that, I want to be really clear that if, say, we learn no one from the White House spoke to the rioters in any way ever or associated with Trump, spoke to the rioters in any way ever. It doesn't diminish the responsibility of the president and the people around him for what happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right. But don't we know that he was in touch? Maybe not on that day, but with some of the organizers of this event.
ILYA MARRITZ We know that the president was in touch with rally organizers, and we know that rally organizers had ties to some of the rioters. We know, for instance, from a recent court filing that Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, tried to get the president on the phone on the afternoon of the 6th through an intermediary, but that he failed to do so. So there's a lot of traces of connections, but it's not fully fleshed out. But I want to point to a little bit of a danger here, because we're going the way that we went with Robert Mueller in his Russia investigation, right? Where in time it came to seem that if Mueller failed to show collusion, active cooperation between the Russians and the Trump campaign, that he would have failed. And in fact, Robert Mueller turned up just an enormous wealth of really interesting and impressive information. However, the way that the information was released was not optimal. It was really long, really dense report.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And it was also misrepresented by the attorney general before it even hit the stands.
ILYA MARRITZ Correct. There was a prebuttal. So I think I imagine the committee is going to be mindful of that example. And what they're going to try to do with these live televised hearings is get vivid in-person accounts from eyewitnesses. I think a lot more like if you think of Trump's first impeachment, we heard from people like Marie Yovanovitch or Fiona Hill. Those were vivid, riveting moments of testimony. And I imagine that's what they're going to aim for here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You're looking forward, in particular to the former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, aide. Right. Cassidy Hutchinson.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Her job was to keep tabs on Mark Meadows and what he wanted to get done. So Mark Meadows, as we all know, cooperated partially, then stopped cooperating with the committee, was referred to the Justice Department. They've taken no action. But people around him, including this one aide that we know of, have testified as to the movements there has been reporting that Trump might have been approving of the cries to hang Mike Pence during the day, although we don't know what was the tone, what was the seriousness. So I do think that the sort of activities in the White House on January 6, prior to January 6, and even after January 6, are a bit of a black hole because a lot of the resistance to cooperation with the committee has come from high level people. But when you go down a level, get the people who were in the room, but not necessarily the political people to tell you the story. And I'm looking forward to a lot, lot more of that in these hearings.
BROOKE GLADSTONE To what end? Is it... You know?
ANDREA BERNSTEIN This is the big question, right? So we always get this question. One form it takes is, is Trump going to be indicted? Is he going to be charged with a crime as a result of these hearings? And the select committee has no ability to make a criminal prosecution. There may be evidence that they turn off that the Justice Department decides to use. One of the things that's so interesting to me is there was an attempt a little over a year ago to set up a nonpartisan commission, so not even politicians on the staff. And there was an agreement that was worked out, passed the House with 35 Republican votes and was killed in the Senate. As a result of that, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, set up this select committee, and the result is that the select committee is run by Democrats. Most Republicans chose not to participate and those who did have been all but excommunicated by their party. So what you have is a real unity of purpose in the committee members.
ILYA MARRITZ What I think is notable is that the committee has been able to do its work. The committee has interviewed Ivanka Trump. There have been people who refuse to sit down for an interview and there's litigation around that. But mostly the committee is doing its work, doing interviews. They have records from the National Archives, presidential records. So I think probably the only official story that will be told will be the final committee report. You know, there have been other inspector general reports and hearings and stuff like that, but this may be the only thing that comes close to a 9/11 style report, which, as you'll remember, was released as a book and it became a bestseller.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN I think it's a sort of an irony of history that the Republicans had a chance to have full participation on a nonpartisan committee and ended up with this select committee, which is seven Democrats, plus Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney, who are all devoted to getting to the bottom of what happened. So, I mean, we watched some of the oversight hearings prior to this committee. 5 hour, 7 hour migraine inducing affairs, where sort of everybody was yelling. You know, instead of asking questions of the witnesses, both parties were just sort of screaming at each other. We got kind of a whiff of this during the first impeachment trial where there were just sort of attempts to confuse people. Usually you'll see a transcript of a deposition and you'll see the majority party ask questions and then the minority party try to mess it up and confuse people and discredit the witness. And we haven't seen that. It's just all been fact finding. And from a journalistic perspective, it's been a breath of fresh air, because it's not like we have to weed through all of the grandstanding to find out the information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE June 1st, the second anniversary of Trump's infamous photo op in front of a church in Lafayette Square in D.C., where he held up a Bible after military forces violently dispersed the Black Lives Matter protesters. You say this was a turning point in the lead up to January 6?
ILYA MARRITZ Yeah, it really was. I talked to a general who was in the Pentagon that day with former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, with Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley. And he watched the whole Pentagon go into overdrive to try to satisfy President Trump's desire for a show of force. They brought in National Guard from all over the country. They mobilized the 82nd Airborne and brought them up to a base outside D.C. in an effort to kind of mollify the president, because they didn't know what else he might do. The Secretary Esper has said that Trump wanted to shoot protesters in the legs. Afterwards, Secretary Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley apologized for being part of it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE They were both in the photo op.
ILYA MARRITZ Yeah, they were part of this dramatic photo op walking across the square. Smoke was just still clearing. And I think that was a real moment of recognition that Trump is going to push the thing as far as it will possibly go. One thing that I hope is that that story is more fully told in these hearings and in the final select committee report, because what we really saw after a year of reporting this is that government agencies don't have a means of dealing with a lawless president.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN I think that that phenomenon that we saw was replicated in every agency that we've looked at. For example, the Department of Homeland Security. They had domestic terrorism protocols in place, but not protocols for when domestic terrorism was fomented from the Oval Office. And we saw official after official who felt they were the person who could block the worst outcome until they realized they couldn't.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We're about to hear an episode from Will Be Wild, your podcast called The War on Pineapple. Can you set us up?
ANDREA BERNSTEIN It's an episode about efforts to counter disinformation in real time, after the election and after former President Donald Trump did not concede. How the factors that led to January 6, didn't end on January 6. They didn't end when Trump got on the airplane and flew down Maro Lago on January 20th. They're going on now. Disinformation, demonizing, not having agreed on truths. And that's the environment in which this podcast lands. And it's the environment in which the select committee hearings are going to land. One of the things that we will be watching to see is how these hearings are received and what that means for the future of democracy.
ILYA MARRITZ I had a look at the enabling legislation for the select committee. And right there in the second paragraph, it cites a warning from the Department of Homeland Security issued after January 6, saying some ideologically motivated violent extremists with objections to the exercise of governmental authority could continue to mobilize or incite or commit violence. So it's pointing directly to an ongoing threat. Something that I really am curious to see is how these hearings link what happened on the 6th with what's happening in our country right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you, Ilya.
ILYA MARRITZ Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ilya Marritz and Andrea Bernstein. Thank you, Andrea.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Our co-hosts of the podcast Will Be Wild, which focuses on misinformation in the lead up to the January 6 insurrection. Coming up, The War on Pineapple, this is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Now we're going to hear an episode of Will Be Wild that starts with one of the January 6th rioters in a confession recorded by the FBI. He describes what drove him to the Capitol in the first place, namely conspiracy theories about the stolen election and notably suitcases full of fake votes. Andrea Bernstein picks it up from here.
FBI CONFESSION Suitcases...underneath the...
ANDREA BERNSTEIN The word suitcases goes by so fast you could easily miss it. But it caught my ear.
FBI CONFESSION So we knew that – we knew that or our system was not. There's no point in voting anymore. It's over.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN I've heard so much about these suitcases of ballots under the table. In our reporting for this podcast, they've come up over and over again. The story goes something like this: there was a polling site in Atlanta, Georgia, at the State Farm Arena. A pipe was leaking, gushing water into a room in the arena. Those parts are true. The fictional part of the story is that workers used the leak as a pretext to clear the area in order to swap out suitcases of authentic Trump ballots for fake Biden ones. There were multiple state and federal investigations of what happened. Elected officials and high level prosecutors debunked the claim over and over again. But Trump kept coming back to the lie.
DONALD TRUMP If we can just go over some of the numbers, I think it's pretty clear that we won. [END CLIP]
ANDREA BERNSTEIN He brought up the suitcases on January 2nd in a call with a Georgia secretary of state, Republican Brad Raffensperger. You might remember this call. It's the one where Trump asked Raffensperger to find 11,780 votes.
DONALD TRUMP They weren't in the official voter box. They were in what looked to be suitcases or trunks - suitcases, but they weren't in in voter boxes. The minimum number. [END CLIP]
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Conventional news outlets didn't really talk about these suitcases. Or if they did, they basically said the story was both. You heard something else entirely from right wing media or Fox personalities like Sean Hannity.
SEAN HANNITY Several large, mysterious suitcases. Yeah, they believe filled with ballots were rolled out from under a table. [END CLIP]
ANDREA BERNSTEIN We're going to get to the suitcases. But first, I want to talk about the part of our government that was trying to stop that kind of story from spreading in the first place. There's an agency inside the Department of Homeland Security called CISA, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. It does other things, too, but part of its mission is election security. CISA was started during the Trump administration, and its first director was a man named Chris Krebs.
CHRIS KREBS So whether you want to call me a swamp creature or whatever, not that you did. But, you know, I've been here as a career and in and around the national security apparatus, particularly the homeland security space since 9/11.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Krebs was a lifelong Republican who worked in homeland security under Bush. In 2017, he came back to government working in this agency charged with election security for an administration that didn't seem that concerned about the security of elections.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Let me just let's just sort of back up for a second. So you go back in 2017 and when you go back, we already know that then President Trump is rejecting the intelligence community analysis that Russia hacked the election. He's already pushing back. What were you thinking about how to mediate that?
CHRIS KREBS I feel like the inflection in your voice was off a little bit. It should have been like, "what were you thinking?" Because - that's - I got a lot of those questions.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN While Trump was downplaying fears of Russian interference in the election. Krebs was on alert.
CHRIS KREBS We spent three and a half years thinking about election security and thinking about how would a determined adversary disrupt an election. So we looked at things like, Oh, well, they could hack voting machines and change votes. But the more likely was the perception hack: the disinformation campaign.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN A perception hack, a campaign of lies would basically get injected into American public discourse, and then they'd mutate and spread like a virus infecting what Americans say and think so severely that a lot of voters would no longer be able to tell the difference between what was true and what wasn't. So Krebs and his team developed a sort of vaccine against disinformation, something that could introduce the American people to the kind of disinformation that might be coming to inoculate them against it in hopes that when it showed up, they might be able to resist it.
CHRIS KREBS The concept here was we had to introduce the techniques and tactics of how adversaries would conduct a disinformation operation.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN The plan was to train state and local election officials on how to spot disinformation campaigns, how they work, what the telltale signs are, and then depend on those officials to educate the public. The problem was they couldn't use real life examples of political disinformation to explain how disinformation campaigns work because they were too political.
CHRIS KREBS Even just saying that this is how Russia does it, it would immediately go into, Oh, Russia hoax.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN What t hey needed was an issue that any American could recognize as being controversial without being political. And one day at lunch, Krebs, his team was thinking about the kinds of issues that fall into that category.
CHRIS KREBS They were debating, you know, what is it that that's really almost a entirely binary decision. They were talking about like salt and vinegar chips, which I love, cilantro, I also love. But the thing that there was just so dramatically 50/50, like love, hate was Hawaiian pizza. And whether you like pineapple on your pizza.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Where do you come down on the pineapple on pizza debate?
CHRIS KREBS Oh, it's disgusting.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Terrible.
CHRIS KREBS Yes, it is horrible.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN That was it. They created a toolkit for election officials all over the country called the War on Pineapple Understanding Foreign Interference in five steps.
CHRIS KREBS Then it's a five step process that begins with identifying the issue.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN So in this case, identifying the issue would mean that some foreign adversary would say, wow, people get really heated about whether they like pineapple on their pizza or not. Let's pick that. Step one complete. Step two is moving accounts into place. Meaning set up Facebook pages and Twitter and Instagram accounts that gather a bunch of followers and relentlessly hammer away at whatever the issue is. Pineapple on pizza is an abomination. Pineapple is a delicious topping.
CHRIS KREBS The third step is amplifying the issue.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Those fake Twitter and Facebook accounts start picking fights online, trolling people who disagree, politicians who benefit from the disinformation. Repeat it. Fringe media outlets think OAN and Infowars the kinds of places that traffic in verified falsehoods. They start beating the drum over and over. You can imagine the headlines. Leftist snowflakes are ruining pizza and our country. Watch this member of Antifa want a slice of pineapple pizza from the mouth of a hungry child.
CHRIS KREBS Fourth is getting mainstream pick up where you actually get it on you know, whatever your targeted media outlet of choice is.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Conventional outlets will report on the controversy itself, legitimizing it and bringing it to an even larger audience. No matter how you slice it. Americans are split over pineapple on pizza.
CHRIS KREBS But the fifth step because the continued pressure of pushing the lie is to take it into the real world, to have actual boots on the ground, people in the streets.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Social media accounts start announcing rallies and protests. Those events get picked up by other like minded groups. Suddenly you have a bunch of stoked up, angry people gathering to say that if you don't like pineapple on pizza, you're un-American and need to be stopped. The team at CISA developed this whole toolkit specifically because they had seen Russia interfere in an American election in 2016 and they knew the disinformation was only going to get worse. In 2020, of course, there was a campaign to undermine confidence in the election.
DONALD TRUMP you know, mail ballots –they cheat. Okay, people cheat. Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country because they're cheaters. [END CLIP]
ANDREA BERNSTEIN These remarks were from April and throughout 2020, Trump kept repeating that mail in voting was subject to fraud.
DONALD TRUMP The mail ballots are corrupt, in my opinion, and they collect them and they get people to go in and sign them and then they are forgeries in many cases, it's a horrible thing. And so what happens... [END CLIP]
ANDREA BERNSTEIN His campaign filed papers and over a dozen lawsuits to restrict mail in voting. Judges rejected almost all of them. Still, from Krebs perspective, the war on pineapple was working. They couldn't stop the lies. But when it came to the people who actually oversee elections, the inoculations seemed to be taking hold. Election officials, both Republican and Democrat, loved the toolkit and used it to educate voters. This is Kreb's is top aide at the time: Matt Masterson.
MATT MASTERSON We saw the state of Rhode Island and the secretary of state there take the war on pineapple product, localized it to Rhode Island with its own issue around whether you use a spoon or a straw to drink frozen lemonade. I don't understand the issue, but it resonates with Rhode Islanders and talk to Rhode Islanders about mis- and disinformation in elections. We saw the secretary of state of West Virginia, a Republican, go on a road show within West Virginia and then to other states talking about the myths and disinformation campaign that was executed in 2016 and how to get informed about elections in advance of 2020, so it can't happen to you again.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN By the time Election Day rolled around. The team at CISA felt good about their work.
MATT MASTERSON Sitting in the war room in Arlington, Virginia, in November 2020 and afterwards. This was as smooth a presidential election as I've experienced in my career.
CHRIS KREBS We were doing phone calls and conference calls with with media every 3 hours, I think it was. And so I think we did our last one a little bit before midnight and so hung around a little bit after that and then hopped on my bike and rode home.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN In the wee hours of the morning. The president spoke from the White House briefing room.
DONALD TRUMP This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election. [END CLIP]
CHRIS KREBS Which was you know, that was kind of surreal.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN It took a few days for the media to call the election for Biden. In that window, in the weeks that followed, a post-election disinformation campaign got underway.
DONALD TRUMP They stopped counting for 4 hours, and a lot of things happened. [END CLIP]
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Election officials across the country, Republican and Democrat, insisted the election was the most secure in American history. Krebs decided he had to do something. A little amplification of his own. So he issued a statement on their behalf saying the system had worked.
CHRIS KREBS This was not just some random people. It wasn't just me. It was the actual state and local election officials. It were the people that monitor. It was it was the vendors that understand how their systems work. This was the election community saying, Hey, things went pretty damn well.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Did you know you were going to be fired before you were fired by the – it was by Twitter, right?
CHRIS KREBS Yes.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Did you know that was coming?
CHRIS KREBS No, I did not.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Krebs decided to challenge the president's lies. He went on 60 Minutes. The next day, one of Trump's allies responded.
HOST The guy that was on 60 Minutes last night.
TRUMP ALLY That guy is a class A moron. He should be drawn and quartered, taken out at dawn and shot. [END CLIP]
ANDREA BERNSTEIN This is from the War on Pineapple Playbook, because right there you can hear the shift from step four into step five when escalating rhetoric becomes a call to action.
CHRIS KREBS And I had to have a security guard in front of my house. Someone with a gun for two plus months. In these things, you never want to be in these positions. You never, ever want to worry about your kids playing in your front yard. You don't ever want to be there.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN After Krebs was fired, Trump continued to insist the election was stolen. Trump and his allies filed more than 60 lawsuits challenging the results, including in Georgia, which is where those suitcases come in.
VOLUNTEER LAWYER At about 8:00 in the morning. We're going to roll this back and show it to you. There you go. So now they're gonna start pulling these ballots out from under this table. [END CLIP]
ANDREA BERNSTEIN On December 3rd, local lawmakers held a hearing on alleged vote fraud. A volunteer lawyer for the Trump campaign played a short security camera video.
VOLUNTEER LAWYER Yeah, upper right hand. You see the gentleman in the red. So he just pulled one out. [END CLIP]
ANDREA BERNSTEIN On it. You can see people walking around the state farm arena pulling some wheeled bins. These are supposedly the suitcases full of fake ballots.
VOLUNTEER LAWYER So what are these ballots doing there? Separate from all the other ballots. And why are they only counting them whenever the place is cleared out with no witnesses? [END CLIP]
ANDREA BERNSTEIN This might not have turned into a huge deal, except that Trump had spread the word about the hearing to his 89 million Twitter followers. Step three of the War on Pineapple. Amplifying and distorting the conversation.
TUCKER CARLSON The footage appears to show poll workers pulling ballots out of suitcases after they told poll monitors to go home.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN That night.
TUCKER CARLSON What the Hell.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN On Fox News.
LAURA INGRAHAM Testimony today? Which networks weren't running except a few was incredibly eye opening. I was disturbed by this.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN All three prime time hosts ran with the story.
SEAN HANNITY Mysterious suitcases potentially filled, we believe, with ballots well rolled out from under a table after partizan election observers were asked to leave the room.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Sean Hannity is not saying there's any actual evidence. He's using words like potentially and we believe. But that's enough to fan the flames of disinformation. Now the false story is viral. Trump's attorney general, Bill Barr, looked into the supposed suitcase under the table incident, and Barr successor, Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and a U.S. attorney in Georgia. Trump's acting deputy attorney general told the president to his face in the Oval Office. No, sir. There is no suitcase. You can watch that video over and over. There is no suitcase. The real facts didn't matter. Trump created his own alternate reality that he kept selling with the help of right wing media and online accounts. And by the time Trump called on his supporters to meet him in Washington, the lie had set in. It wasn't just about specific claims and certain districts anymore. It was the entire election system. The system that Krebs and Masterson had worked so hard to protect was now being called into question.
MATT MASTERSON I felt crushed. Honestly.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Matt Masterson.
MATT MASTERSON All of our work, all of the hours I spent, my team spent, others within the federal government spent, traveling, meeting with state, local election officials away from my family. Every week wasn't nearly enough. And what I really underestimated that I have to live with and it's hard, is the scope and scale of it.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN No matter how much work you're doing on the local level, Masterson said the tens or hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers of local elections officials could not compete with the president and much of the Republican Party and Fox News and all the rest, insisting the election was stolen. You know what happens next. Step five of the war on pineapple: boots on the ground.
DONALD TRUMP It's time that somebody did something about it. And Mike Pence, I hope you're going to stand up for the good of our Constitution and for the good of our country. [END CLIP]
ANDREA BERNSTEIN The afternoon of January six. At his speech on the Ellipse, Trump was still talking about the suitcases.
DONALD TRUMP Election officials pulled boxes and suitcases of ballots out from under a table. You all saw it on television. Totally fraudulent. [END CLIP]
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Chris Krebs was watching the events unfold.
As you began to see people amassing at the Capitol on TV. Were you feeling at that moment that there was a direct line from the challenges that had been made about election security? Were you thinking, okay, there's a direct line between those challenges and what is happening outside the Capitol?
CHRIS KREBS Abso-freaking-lutely 100%. This was the inevitable outcome by the continued pressure of the big lie. There was no other possible outcome, frankly, and it's entirely consistent with how influence operations run with how disinformation operations run. So January 6, you know, unfortunately, no big surprise.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, cashing in on the big lie. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Now for the conclusion of the War on Pineapple. An episode from the podcast Will Be Wild. Here's co-host Andrea Bernstein.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN After January 6, there was a brief window and it seemed like maybe the fever had broken. Trump was banned from Twitter and left the White House. Companies said they'd pull funding from lawmakers who voted not to certify the election. Mitch McConnell called January 6 horrendous. The cops who defended the Capitol got a shout out at the Super Bowl. But Trump and his allies kept spreading the big lie. In early 2022, the RNC declared the riot legitimate political discourse. Polls found almost three quarters of Republicans do not believe Biden is the legitimate president. There's a question implicit in all of this why do it? Why suggest an insurrection is a normal tourist visit? Why tell people? A leaking pipe was part of a plot to steal ballots. Why peddle these easily debunked, borderline absurd stories? I asked Matt Masterson and he said, basically, follow the money.
MATT MASTERSON I think as we look to 2022 and 2024, what we need to be addressing is the fact that the incentive structure is so broken that more actors are incentivized to pursue this path of coordinated mis and disinformation campaigns in pursuit of their own financial or political gains.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Masterson says behind disinformation, there is almost always the pursuit of money and power. And now the disinformation isn't just about voting.
MATT MASTERSON Since the 2020 election, we've seen a pervasive, organized, coordinated mis and disinformation campaign about COVID 19 and the COVID 19 vaccines.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Which has led to boots on the ground. At places like school board meetings.
MATT MASTERSON That's what boots on the -- you have people showing up to resist vaccine mandates or mask mandates, items like that, because they've been fed this steady diet of narratives about both COVID and the vaccines.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN As the COVID disinformation has spread, so has the grift.
MATT MASTERSON We have seen a number of prominent anti-vaxxers make quite a bit of money off of their own content. Whether that's, you know, subscriptions to their various channels that they have or podcasts with advertisers signed up or books or movies. Certainly fame and fortune are motivators for many of these folks.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN There is money to be made in peddling ivermectin and colloidal silver toothpaste. There is really big money in peddling election lies. Ilya and I spent four years of the Trump administration reporting on how Donald Trump kept using the presidency for his political and private gain. That did not end when a new president took office.
MATT MASTERSON You've got an incentive structure in which lots of money has been raised and made, right? We see the fundraising by some candidates running for office right now is massive, using the narrative of a rigged election to raise that money.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Without the presidency or a Twitter platform. Donald Trump reported $122 million in the bank at the end of 2021, more than twice what the Republican Party had in its war chest.
MATT MASTERSON We see various grifters making money off of this. I mean, if you look at the amount of money that Sidney Powells group has reported that they raised, it's, what, $14-15 million in the last several months.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Sidney Powell is a pro-Trump attorney, one of the loudest pushers of election lies. Powell filed a series of lawsuits contesting the election, all of which were dismissed. Over just eight months, Powell raised more than $14 million for an organization she controlled. The Washington Post found and BuzzFeed News found that some of that money was spent on lawyers fees for at least one January six defendant, a member of the Oath Keepers. And though Powell was fined for pushing lies and one lawsuit, the court ordered payment was just under $200,000, a fraction of what her organization has raked in. Powell has appealed.
MATT MASTERSON And so in an environment where money and political fortunes are being raised off of this and there's no accountability for lying about it, you're going to see it expand and you're going to see it spread. I'll give you the optimistic spin, though, because I am optimistic in this regard.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Alright, go ahead. [LAUGHS].
MATT MASTERSON The optimistic spin is this. I've worked in elections since 2006. We've never had a national conversation about elections this publicly. Americans are engaging in a conversation about their democracy right now and about how elections are run and about election offices and officials. It's not a healthy conversation currently. But we have an opportunity if we're willing to both fund elections, invest in them, invest in the infrastructure, invest in the offices, invest in the people. We have the ability to really educate on how we run elections. I think we have a real opportunity here to come out the other side of this wounded but more engaged and informed as a public.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Okay. I just need to push you on a lotof things that you just said.
MATT MASTERSON Great.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Okay. Let's start with this idea of conversation. I mean, it's getting talked about, but it's getting talked about in this way of, you know, like what we saw on January six, literal body against body people talking about civil war because they don't think Biden was the president. So to me, this is really not a conversation. This is a pretty bleak place to be in.
MATT MASTERSON So absolutely it is a bleak place to be in. And one of the things, quite frankly, that that I don't think we've come to terms with as a country, about January 6 was the fact that we lost or severely damaged, I guess, one of our core characteristics as a nation, which is the peaceful transition of power. We need to come to terms with what that means.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN I like the way you present the optimism and then the counter argument.
MATT MASTERSON Yeah. Honestly, this is hard for me because I am an optimist.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN There's a list of things Masterson and others think need to happen. Social media needs to be more transparent. Local news outlets need support. Public officials who promote disinformation need to be ostracized. But Masterson takes hope from real life examples. In Arizona, where, despite a truly ill intentioned audit or Fraud-it, as it was dubbed, the 2020 election results were ratified. Or in Michigan.
MATT MASTERSON The Republican Senate report in Michigan that says, no, the election was accurate. And here is the proof that the election was accurate.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN Or in Colorado. In Mesa County, a local election officials seemed to be giving nonpublic information about the voting system to unauthorized people at a conference held by Trump ally Mike Lindell, the Mypillow guy. And a bipartisan group of her colleagues stood up to say, basically, this is not okay. The official was criminally indicted on charges relating to the information breach. She maintains her innocence. Masterson and Krebs are both in the private sector now. They're still focused on elections. Masterson worked with a group from Stanford recently on a report called Zero Trust. How do you secure elections if the losers won't accept they lost? In it you talk to a lot of election officials who've been violently threatened, violently threatened as a result of misinformation and disinformation, and we know that a lot of these election officials are just calling it quits and people are running who believe the disinformation.
MATT MASTERSON What gives me hope? There is I have over 15 years seen some of the most partizan people I've ever interacted with start out in elections, and they think they're going to come in and they're going to expose the fraud. And when they get in there, they realize two things. One, this process is complicated. This process is detailed. And this process requires an even hand to run the election in a manner that favors neither Democrat or Republican. And two, that's good politics and that's good for your job.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN There's some evidence to support Masterson's ideas from a really unlikely place. City council member and former Mrs. Idaho Natalie Jangula. Ilya interviewed her for the first episode of this podcast.
NATALIE JANGULA It's my time to step in and make changes and be a part of something bigger than me.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN She went to Washington, D.C. on January six to protest what she saw as a stolen election. Within a year, she filed to run for office herself.
NATALIE JANGULA It's very easy. You go on the website and they have paperwork that you have to fill out. She registered to run in August 2021. She won a close race against another conservative in a nonpartisan election in November. Ilya talked to Natalie after she won. He wanted to know why she accepted the results of her own election, given that she thought the 2020 election was stolen.
ILYA MARRITZ I know you had a lot of questions about the 2020 election. Are you confident in your own election?
NATALIE JANGULA Yeah, I met with the Canyon County Commissioner prior to – that's our county commissioner – and he explained to me the the process of how the elections work and the programs used. And he kind of went through that course with me. And I absolutely think Idaho does a really good job at making sure that their elections are fair.
ILYA MARRITZ Generally, with elections in the states like do you think our elections are run fairly? Do you think Americans should have confidence in our elections.
NATALIE JANGULA In the aggregate? I think yes. But of course, there's always going to be exceptions. Nothing's ever going to be perfect in elections. I mean, this has been going on for a long time. And I think that in the aggregate, the American people should should feel safe and that our elections are are fair, but significantly less with this last election. And again, I mean, I think that there's still a lot that needs to come out. So it'll be interesting to see the midterms happen coming up this year in 2022 and what kind of dynamic shifts will make because of that.
NATALIE JANGULA When you listen to Natalie, there's a clear take away. That other election, the one that went the way I didn't like – that was stolen. Mine was all good. This is not a formula for a small 'd' democratic future. But there is something in there. The part where she says, I spoke to my local election official and he made me feel confident. That builds on what Masterson is talking about.
ILYA MARRITZ What was it specifically that the local official in your county told you that made you confident in your election?
NATALIE JANGULA He explained the process, and he he talked about the machines that we use. And to me, I felt that I could trust that in Idaho doesn't have any history of, you know, there being evidence of this type of fraud going on. And so I think all of it just together kind of just made it feel comfortable.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN It's a single example. To replicate it with every voter who believes the disinformation they're being fed would be impossible. But it is a small kernel of hope. In the fall of 2021, Chris Krebs made a round of media appearances warning what will happen if those slim hopes don't pan out. He said The lesson of January 6 is not that the systems helped, that we somehow dodged a bullet.
CHRIS KREBS No, we didn't dodged a bullet. That was a practice run. That was an AB test which works, which doesn't. Now we know how to refine the message going forward. Right. Insurrections without consequences are just practice runs.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN He said. You can't fight disinformation with truth.
CHRIS KREBS That is my biggest concern about the run up to the 2022 and 2024 beyond that. Is that we've lost the narrative.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN It was never the point to have people believe or disbelieve a specific set of facts.
CHRIS KREBS It was to have the rational thinkers lose the ability to understand what what the truth was, what the facts were, to doubt the system and cause chaos. And therefore, you don't know what's true anymore. And so that's that's where we are. And, you know, when you have, you know, virtually an entire political party embracing that trend, it's an anti-democratic death spiral.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN When we spoke, Krebs elaborated for me. He was a Republican all his life, but he's willing to call the party out and say that much of the Republican Party is now fully invested in disinformation around elections.
CHRIS KREBS And what infuriates me is people trying to cast this as a political polarization issue. That is nonsense. This is a illiberalism. This is a departure from democratic ideals. And this is a party that is being overrun by those that are apparently pretty damn cool with authoritarianism and autocracy. How did we get here? It can't possibly because one guy, the former president, led us here. There's something else going on here. And we need to get to the bottom of this really damn quick.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We'll be wild. It's a podcast hosted by Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz, available wherever you get your podcasts. On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Candice Wang and Susanne Gaber. Our technical director is jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Nerviana and Adriene Lily. Katya Rodgers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios, I'm Brooke Gladstone.