As Donald Trump digested news of his two-year suspension from Facebook for inciting the Capitol attack, emails were released in which the Republican president of the Arizona state senate said Trump called her after his election defeat last year, to thank her “for pushing to prove any fraud”.
The emails add to understanding of the evolution of Trump’s “big lie”, that his defeat by Joe Biden was the result of mass electoral fraud, and how it fuelled the deadly assault on Congress on 6 January.
The Arizona emails were obtained by American Oversight, a legal watchdog, via a Freedom of Information request. They showed how Trump and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, pushed officials to act and how a controversial election audit in Arizona’s most populous county came to be set up.
Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia are prominent among states which produced Biden victories Trump and his supporters insist won by fraud. They were not.
Outside the White House in Washington on 6 January, Trump told supporters to “fight like hell” and march on the Capitol, where the election result was being confirmed. A mob stormed the building, some looking for lawmakers including Vice-President Mike Pence to capture and possibly kill.
It led to Trump’s second impeachment, in which he was acquitted thanks to Senate Republicans. But perhaps more damagingly to Trump the riot prompted his suspension from major social media platforms – a decision Facebook upheld on Friday.
Explaining how Trump might be allowed back, Facebook’s vice-president of global affairs, the former British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, said the social media giant would “evaluate external factors, including instances of violence, restrictions on peaceful assembly and other markers of civil unrest.
“If we determine that there is still a serious risk to public safety, we will extend the restriction for a set period of time and continue to re-evaluate until that risk has receded.”
In response, Trump hinted that he might run for the presidency again in 2024 – a year after his Facebook suspension will expire or be renewed.
Trump remains overwhelmingly popular with the Republican base. He is also widely reported to have raised with advisers his belief that electoral fraud will be proved and he will be reinstated in the White House by August. He will not.
The release of the Arizona emails showed how Trump pursued his claim of fraud after the election was called.
Election day was 3 November. Biden was declared the winner four days later. The Democrat won by more than 7m votes and by 306-232 in the electoral college. That was the score by which Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, a result Trump called a landslide.
Regardless, Trump went on the offensive with a frantic legal effort to prove fraud, led by Giuliani and almost entirely laughed out of court.
In one Arizona email released on Friday, dated 2 December, Karen Fann, the Republican state senate president, told two constituents she had spoken to Giuliani “at least six times over the past two weeks”.
Threatened later in the month with being recalled from office by “the new patriot movement of the United States”, Fann wrote that the state senate was “doing everything legally possible to get the forensic audit done”.
Republicans in Maricopa county, the most populous county in Arizona, mounted a controversial audit of ballots. Most analysts view the audit as part of a concerted attempt by Republicans in state governments to restrict access to the ballot or produce laws by which results can be overturned.
“It is either a witting or unwitting effort to handcuff democratic self-governance,” David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, told the Guardian this week.
Daniel Ziblatt, a Harvard political scientist and co-author of the book How Democracies Die, said the failure of Trump’s attempts to prove fraud was prompting more extreme measures.
“The lesson Republicans have learnt,” he said, “is they don’t really suffer any electoral consequences from their base pursuing this kind of thing. In fact, they’re rewarded for it. That’s very ominous.”
In the emails released by American Oversight, Fann told the constituent threatening action against her she had been “in numerous conversations with Rudy Guiliani [sic] over the past weeks trying to get this done”.
She added: “I have the full support of him and a personal call from President Trump thanking us for pushing to prove any fraud.”
Fann also told a constituent concerned about the use of taxpayers’ money: “Biden won. 45% of all Arizona voters think there is a problem with the election system. The audit is to disprove those theories or find ways to improve the system.”
The emails also show the involvement of Christina Bobb. A reporter for One America News Network, a rightwing TV channel praised by Trump, Bobb has raised funds in support of the Maricopa audit.
Another fringe rightwing network, Newsmax, has said it will show Trump’s return to public speaking on Saturday evening, an address to the Republican party in North Carolina.
Trump, who will be 75 on 14 June, is due to hold events in other battleground states. Jason Miller, a senior adviser, has said Trump will use such events to attack Dr Anthony Fauci, the senior public health official whose emails from the first days of the coronavirus pandemic were also released this week.
In a statement, Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, said of Republican efforts in Arizona: “The more we learn, the more it becomes clear that this is not an audit, it’s a sham partisan crusade carried out by some of the most cynical actors our democracy has ever known.
“With each new email, the paper trail confirms that the true goal of this process is to perpetuate Donald Trump’s big lie of a stolen election and to undermine faith in our democracy.”