Even members of President Donald Trump’s own national security team are worried about the misleading information he’s pushing about the vote count. And they’re increasingly concerned that the president will not respect the final results.
Top national security officials say they have spent the days since the election tracking disinformation about the vote count, including Team Trump’s efforts to erode trust in the ballot tallying and reporting process. Despite working with the big social media companies to flag some of those falsities, officials say there is little they can do to prevent the president’s team from propagating disinformation in public—from Twitter to nationally televised press conferences. With increasingly flagrant efforts by Trump to cast doubt on the vote tallies, officials are preparing for how to handle a situation in which the race is officially called for Joe Biden—and Trump refuses to concede.
He’s already insisted multiple times that he’s the real winner of the election, and that many of Biden’s ballots are “illegal.” The consequences of such behavior will increase exponentially if Trump disputes the official result, officials say.
One senior official said they are “clear-eyed” about that possibility. “Based on what we saw today on Twitter and elsewhere… there’s a chance that things get even worse and we have to be prepared,” that official said.
If that happens, according to two officials familiar with the matter, one of the options would be to have the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security make a public statement reaffirming the integrity of the results of the vote. Officials said there is no such plan currently in place but officials have discussed the possibility.
“What’s happened here in the election is that people are standing up for integrity of the vote. The public seems to be assured enough that the legitimate ballots are being counted. The result will be what the result is,” said Dan Coats, the former director of national intelligence under Trump. “Candidates can say whatever they want to say but in the end it’s the facts that matter. The winner wins and the loser hopefully understands that with grace and accepts the loss.”
National security and intelligence officials have for months warned that the most serious disinformation threat to the election was domestic, not foreign. But the fact that officials are contingency planning for President Trump ignoring or fighting back against the final results of the 2020 presidential elections highlights the extent to which his own administration is concerned about his attempts to mislead the country.
On Thursday evening from the podium in the White House briefing room, the president told the American people that he had won the election, “if you count the legal votes.” That, of course, is misleading for several different reasons. For starters, the president is asserting, without any evidence, that illegal ballots have been cast. The president also claimed that “big media, big money, big tech” had conspired to “rig” the election against him, in part by putting out overly optimistic polls for Biden. Also untrue. The president’s nonsensical rant followed two days of him falsely claiming on Twitter victory in states that are still counting ballots. Twitter has flagged nine of the president’s tweets as misleading in recent days.
Asked for comment Tim Murtaugh, director of communications for the Trump campaign, said, “Silicon Valley’s mission to censor the President of the United States continues.”
Certain there were no foreign attacks on the election infrastructure, national security officials focused in the last several days on working closely with social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook to clamp down on domestic disinformation. The majority of that disinformation, they said, stemmed from Team Trump’s attempts to delegitimize the vote as tallies trickled in from states such as Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. Despite efforts to block misleading Trump content, the president and his team continue to push forward with a campaign aimed at eroding trust not just in the ballot counting and reporting systems but in the entire electoral process.
“Through huge effort and great resolve, we as a nation rebuffed the known efforts of foreign adversaries who would seek to undermine our system and advance their own interests,” said Sue Gordon, former deputy director of national intelligence. “The fact that our own leaders are sowing distrust in the system, and, worse, suggesting malfeasance, dishonors the work done to make the election happen as it did, and creates a new opening for malign actors to achieve their aims.”
On Thursday, Team Trump made a mad-dash, erratic and disjointed attempt to save the president from defeat, with advisers appearing on various conservative television networks telling viewers that the election was rigged; that massive amounts of Biden votes have shown up randomly in “sacks”; and that state election officials have disallowed Trump representatives from overseeing the vote counting process.
Trump has also dispatched his lawyers, including Rudy Giuliani, to Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, and Nevada to file lawsuits that question the legality of the votes cast. At time of publication, Biden was gaining more votes than Trump was in Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. With the counting over in Michigan, Biden emerged on top.
The lawsuits vary in allegations and do not call for the same fix. In some states Team Trump is calling for vote counting to stop, while in other states Trump representatives are pushing states to continue counting every last vote. Asked about the Trump campaign's assertion that ballots in Pennsylvania were somehow invalid, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro told CNN’s Erin Burnett that there is “no legitimacy to those comments.”
“We’re following the law here in Pennsylvania. We’re counting these legal votes. We are not going to get into any back-and-forth on the rhetoric or the politics. We will respect the will of the people of Pennsylvania,” he said.
In Nevada on Thursday, Ric Grenell, who briefly succeeded Coats as director of national intelligence, appeared with other Trump campaign officials to announce the filing of a lawsuit. “We believe that there are dead voters that have been counted,” he said, without providing a single piece of evidence to back up his assertion. After allegations of widespread voter fraud, officials in County Clark, Nevada, where Las Vegas is situated, said they only found one instance of fraud—a Trump supporter who tried to vote twice.
Beyond the lawsuits, Trump and his advisers have launched a massive campaign to challenge the entire electoral system, alleging that it is rigged and set up to favor Democrats. Trump has tweeted phrases throughout the day like “STOP THE FRAUD!” and “ANY VOTE THAT CAME IN AFTER ELECTION DAY WILL NOT BE COUNTED!”
And his son, Donald Trump Jr., followed along, posting on Twitter that there was voter fraud in Michigan, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Georgia with the hashtag #stopthesteal. As previously reported by The Daily Beast, a Facebook page titled “Stop the Steal” racked up hundreds of thousands of followers on Wednesday. It included members involved in previous Republican campaigns. Administrators include two Breitbart alumni who participated in a border wall scheme that led to federal charges
Twitter labeled all of those posts as misleading.
Since 2016, national security and law enforcement companies have worked much closer with social media companies to combat disinformation than in previous election cycles. In the run-up to the presidential election, FBI officials tipped off Twitter and Facebook to the presence of Iranian and Russian government-backed fake accounts and news platforms attempting to influence public opinion around the presidential election.
Both Twitter and Facebook have policies that allow election misinformation by candidates for office to remain on their platform on public interest grounds. Where the companies differ is in how they label misinformation from candidates.
“Due to the abdication of responsibility of those in power to create systemic change to our information ecosystem, we're playing a similar hand to that which was played in 2016, although labeling misinformation allows us to play that hand slightly better and is a good move by Twitter, and Facebook appears to be following suit,” Lisa Kaplan, the founder of the disinformation tracking firm Alethea Group says. “Given where we are, labeling is the responsible thing to do.”
Twitter updated its policies in advance of the election to add a disclaimer to the bottom of premature victory claims that warns: “Official sources may not have called the race when this was Tweeted."
But for posts that include misinformation about the voting process itself, the company has gone further and actively hidden tweets under a warning that “Some or all of the content” included may be misinformation. Social media users have to click through the warning first in order to see the underlying content.
Facebook has used a much lighter visual touch when labeling election misinformation from candidates on their platform. Instead of actively hiding offending posts from candidates, the platform allows them to remain immediately visible but attaches labels to the bottom of the post with claims from independent fact-checkers that tell visitors: “Election officials follow strict rules when it comes to ballot counting, handling and reporting.”
“Both systems ignore the fundamental problem of President Trump’s messaging on social media—it’s designed to confirm some people’s belief and the warning won’t stop this confirmation bias,” Clint Watts, and consultant and expert on disinformation told The Daily Beast. But between the two systems, Watts sees Twitter’s approach as “more effective.”
“Twitter’s warning prioritizes the warning over the content, whereas Facebook prioritizes the content over the warning,” he said.
Officials say they are concerned about what the next several days will bring in the way of disinformation efforts by Team Trump and its supporters.
While no large-scale protests have taken place since Election Night, national security officials said they are tracking the small gatherings at vote processing centers across the country where Trump supporters, some armed with guns, are demanding vote counting stop.
“As we work through the last vote, I urge intelligence and law enforcement officials to execute their independent, apolitical efforts and our political leaders to urge calm and voice confidence in the systems that are the model for free and open societies,” Gordon said.