I reached out to two of the authors of the piece — Marshall Cohen and Zachary Cohen (no relation) — to explain exactly what they found and why it matters so much.
Our conversation — conducted via email and lightly edited for flow — is below.
Cillizza: Let’s start simple: What, exactly, did Rudy Giuliani (and his team) do? And what was their goal?
Cohen/Cohen: By December 2020, Trump had already lost the election but the electoral votes from each state still had to be certified. Giuliani and his team effectively tried to subvert that process in an effort to overturn Biden’s legitimate victory — a push that involved replacing real electors from seven states Trump lost with GOP electors.
Giuliani and his team enlisted GOP allies from these states to sign certificates falsely claiming they were the duly-elected electors — even though they were not.
After various election fraud lawsuits in these states failed, Giuliani and his team shifted their focus to January 6. The idea, as outlined in a memo written by conservative lawyer John Eastman, was for then-Vice President Mike Pence to throw out President Joe Biden’s electors and replace them with the GOP electors on January 6 when Congress counted the electoral votes.
This, in theory, would give Trump more electoral votes than Biden and allow him to maintain his grip on power.
Cillizza: How detailed was this plan? How far down the rabbit hole did they go?
Cohen/Cohen: This plan was very detailed, and our sources made clear Giuliani and Trump campaign officials were intimately involved. They tried to recruit GOP electors to fill the slots needed to put forward an “alternate slate,” secured meeting rooms in statehouses where the GOP electors could meet on December 14 and circulated drafts of these fake certificates that falsely declared Trump had won.
Trump campaign officials and GOP electors from at least one state, Pennsylvania, even haggled over the language of these fake certificates in the immediate lead up to December 14.
Cillizza: What do we know about Trump’s involvement? Was he aware of what Rudy was doing?
Cohen/Cohen: Honestly, we don’t know if Trump was involved in the behind-the-scenes efforts. It would have been strange for the President of the United States to be involved with these nuts-and-bolts details of the operation — but we know that Trump campaign officials, on the national and state level, were involved.
But we do know that on a zoomed-out level, Trump publicly supported and encouraged the scheme. There are a few examples of Trump advocating for state legislatures in many of these battleground states to overturn their election results, by recognizing the legitimacy of the pro-Trump electors. Trump kept pressing the state legislatures to spring into action and appoint GOP electors, in states where Biden won. He mentioned this at a rally in Georgia for the Senate runoff races, and he mentioned it again at the infamous speech on the Ellipse before his supporters invaded the US Capitol on January 6.
Cillizza: Tell me about how these fake elector slates wound up at the National Archives — and why it’s significant.
Cohen/Cohen: Lots of people assume that the “election” ends after the networks project a winner. But obviously, that’s not the case. The transfer of power from one US president to the next is spelled out in the US Constitution and various federal laws. It all works through the “Electoral College.”
The people go to the polls in November. Then the state counts the votes and certifies the results. The state awards its electoral votes to the candidate who won. Then those electors meet in the statehouse at a designated date in December, where they sign certificates to finalize the process. It’s a formality. They sign the certificates and send copies to the National Archives in DC, and to several other government entities, like the chief judge of the federal district court where the electors met. The National Archives processes the official certificates and then the real certificates are opened and counted during a joint session of Congress on January 6.
The fake certificates are important because some legal experts, and some state attorneys general, are now saying that it might have been illegal for the GOP electors to send fake documents to the National Archives. (To be clear, the people who were involved in the plot, who have spoken publicly, deny any wrongdoing.)
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The threat to the 2020 election results from this scheme was __________. ” Now, explain.
Cohen/Cohen: “The threat to the 2020 election results from this scheme was that it was literally an attempt to nullify the will of the people of millions of voters in seven states — Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico.”
Biden won those states, but the Trump campaign tried to exploit the Electoral College process to undo Biden’s victory. More than 13 million Americans voted for Biden in those states. Trump got millions of votes too, but not enough to beat Biden. So Biden was entitled to the 84 electoral votes from these seven states. Remember, 84 electoral votes is a big deal. You only need 270 to win. So, 84 is about one-third of all the electoral votes needed to clinch the presidency. Team Trump attempted to usurp that Electoral College process and, quite literally, steal the election in those states. Nullifying elections, in this fashion, is nothing short of an attempted coup.