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Arizona prosecutors ask about 2020 pressure campaign by Trump allies

PHOENIX — The Arizona attorney general’s investigation into the coordinated attempt to overturn the 2020 election results by creating and sending documents to the federal government falsely declaring Donald Trump the winner is also zeroing in on the pressure placed on local officials by the president’s key allies to help avert his loss, according to four people familiar with the criminal probe.

Investigators for Attorney General Kris Mayes (D) have interviewed all current and former Republican members of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, who certified the 2020 presidential election results from the Phoenix area and came under intense pressure from Trump’s top national and local allies and angry supporters, according to the four people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive investigation. They have also interviewed former House Speaker Rusty Bowers (R), who testified last year to a House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol that Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani asked him to investigate unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud and set in motion a strategy to replace chosen electors with another group more favorable to Trump.

Those familiar with the witness interviews say the new line of questioning marks the first time local prosecutors have shown interest in examining the pressure campaign and could signal that Mayes might expand the scope of the investigation, which thus far has narrowly focused on the 11 Arizona Republicans who falsely portrayed themselves as the state’s legitimate electors after Trump’s loss. The supervisors had little or no interaction with most of the electors.

A spokesperson for Mayes declined to comment.

These investigators asked the supervisors about the effects of threats and harassment on them and their families, according to those familiar with the interviews. One county leader told investigators about the psychological effects on his children, and another spoke about a person who showed up after the election to his home and banged on his door, they said. Investigators also asked pointed questions about Kelli Ward, who led the state Republican Party during the 2020 election, served as a Trump elector and actively lobbied state and local officials to undermine the election results with the public.

Ward did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Alexander Kolodin, an attorney for some of the Republicans who were Trump’s electors, declined to comment.

Arizona’s investigation is one of several federal and state probes into attempts to undo Trump’s loss. Trump’s defenders have said the elector effort implemented in seven battleground states was legal because the slates met as placeholders, to be activated only if legal challenges to the election results were successful.

Special counsel Jack Smith’s team brought charges against Trump that included his alleged attempt to use electors to falsely claim that the outcome of the election was in doubt to obstruct the certification of Biden’s victory in Congress on Jan. 6, 2021. Smith’s team gathered evidence from Maricopa County similar to that now collected by the attorney general’s office. That includes interviews of the supervisors and other county officials, phone records and other electronic communications.

Trump, his former personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and others are facing separate indictments involving the alternate elector strategy in Georgia, where an architect of the plan, attorney Kenneth Chesebro, pleaded guilty last week to illegally conspiring to overturn Trump’s loss there. In Michigan, Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) in July charged 16 Republicans who participated in the elector plan with felonies, including party activists and officials. All pleaded not guilty, and last week one Republican saw charges dropped after reaching a cooperation deal with the attorney general.

The investigation in Arizona underscores the dramatically different approach that prosecutors from opposing parties have taken when weighing post-2020 activities. Former attorney general Mark Brnovich, a Republican, declined to pursue a probe of the alternate elector effort or the pressure campaign on local officials, even after then-Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat who is now governor, in 2021 requested an investigation into whether Ward and others tried to knowingly interfere with an election. Brnovich noted that the Department of Justice’s investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election were already underway and said that those with information should contact federal authorities.

After winning the 2022 midterm election, Mayes assigned a team of prosecutors to investigate the use of alternate electors. The investigation began in earnest in May as prosecutors began to assemble a fuller picture of the scheme, and now, the behind-the-scenes efforts by Trump allies to try to halt vote-counting and then delay certification of the election results.

In Arizona, local leaders have privately seethed that it has taken three years for a local prosecutor to examine the post-2020 events.

“We’re bordering on a cold case here,” said one of the people familiar with the developments, who welcomed the attorney general’s investigation.

Each of the GOP county officials who were on the board during the 2020 election sat for interviews with state prosecutors earlier this month, according to those familiar with them. Most sessions took place in a conference room at the county’s headquarters in downtown Phoenix and were attended by at least one investigator and at least one prosecutor, they said.

A significant area of investigators’ interest, according to those familiar with the interviews: Ward’s activities. Ward was in touch with Trump’s team after the election and tried to help him avert his narrow loss in the politically competitive state, according to public records that detailed her communications with county supervisors.

Ward tried to persuade the chair of the board to halt the counting of votes and urged him to delay certification of the election results and talk with members of Trump’s legal team. Investigators asked how the supervisors perceived Ward’s role during the crucial time frame after the election and before Congress met on Jan. 6, 2021, to certify the election outcome, those familiar with the interviews said.

“They were trying to find out how much anyone was trying to influence” or “intimidate” the supervisors, one person said. Investigators wanted details about pressure placed on the county leaders by any of the people who supported” Trump, “and certainly Kelli Ward,” the person said.

With one supervisor, investigators went through the timeline of text messages Ward sent, a person familiar with the interview said. Investigators also asked county supervisors about their knowledge of the elector strategy and any relationships they may have had with the Republican electors and with Phoenix attorney Jack Wilenchik, who corresponded with the Trump campaign about the alternate-elector plan. Wilenchik did not respond to a request for comment.

The supervisors told prosecutors they had no information about the effort, learning of it only after it was made public on social media and in news reports, according to those familiar with the interviews.

As votes were still being counted and as Trump’s defeat drew nearer, Ward tried to persuade Supervisor Clint Hickman, chairman of the board and a Republican who had supported Trump’s reelection bid, to “stop the counting” of votes, according to public records. After the president’s loss, she urged other Republicans on the board to postpone canvassing the results.

Ward also tried to persuade the supervisors to pursue the false theory that voting software had added votes for Joe Biden and to speak to Sidney Powell, the lawyer who had been on Trump’s legal team and was espousing election conspiracies. (Powell was also charged in Georgia and pleaded guilty last week.) An attorney representing Powell did not respond to a request for comment.

On Nov. 13, 2020, after a ballot update from the county secured Biden’s 10,457-vote win, Ward texted Hickman, “POTUS will probably be calling you,” which the supervisor understood to mean that she was in close contact with the president.

Trump tried to speak to Hickman twice, but the supervisor did not respond to voice mails left by the White House switchboard.

Ward’s texts to supervisors sharpened the day they canvassed the results. “I know the Republican board doesn’t want to be remembered as the entity who led the charge to certify a fraudulent election,” she texted one supervisor. To another, she wrote that voting to accept the results would be “Very sad. And unAmerican.” She texted another supervisor that it seemed like he was “playing for the wrong team.” And to Hickman, Ward wrote, “I know you don’t want to be remembered as the guy who led the charge to certify a fraudulent election.”

Investigators also asked the supervisors about voice mails they had received from Giuliani, the Trump lawyer who tried to persuade Arizona lawmakers to reverse Trump’s loss. Those familiar with the interviews of the supervisors said investigators spent little time on Giuliani’s outreach. After the election, Giuliani tried to speak to Hickman and supervisors Bill Gates and Jack Sellers, but none of them called him back. Then-supervisor Steve Chucri has previously said he met with Giuliani at the state Capitol in mid-to-late November 2020.

In questioning Bowers, investigators asked the former speaker about his contact with Giuliani, according to a person familiar with the interview.

Bowers told the House committee that Giuliani falsely claimed that the election outcome reflected widespread voter fraud and malfeasance. During a meeting at the state legislature on Dec. 1, 2020, Bowers asked Giuliani to produce evidence backing up his assertions, but, the evidence never came, Bowers said.

The former speaker testified that Giuliani said during the meeting, “We’ve got lots of theories — we just don’t have the evidence.”

Giuliani has denied wrongdoing with his outreach to local officials and has called the indictment in Georgia “an affront to American Democracy.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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