American Grifters: Meet the MAGA Army Profiting Off Trump’s Election Lies – VICE

The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol will once again focus Tuesday on former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

It’s hardly surprising, given that Trump has spent pretty much every waking hour of the last 19 months fuming about losing the election and coming up with new ways to claim there was some sort of mass conspiracy to steal the election from him. 

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Trump is surrounded by his own team of grifters willing to boost his lies in return for his benevolence—people like lawyer John Eastman, longtime adviser David Bossie, and spokesperson Liz Harrington, all of whom worked tirelessly to spread his lies.

But, since late 2020, outside of Trump’s core group, a shadow army of grifters and hucksters has joined in to (supposedly) substantiate his unfounded claims. 

This underground group of grifters is not composed of lawmakers or election officials but of ex-military members, teachers, businessmen, former surfers, and in one case, a time-traveling cryptographer. Members of this motley MAGA crew call themselves “election integrity experts,” and all claim to have found evidence to back up Trump’s conspiracy theories.

Backed by millions of dollars from MyPillow founder Mike Lindell and Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne, these charlatans have been traveling to almost every corner of the country, speaking to grassroots activists and pushing the notion that the election was stolen. They may not have facts, but they’re using slick PowerPoint presentations, professional-looking videos, and partisan rhetoric to support their claims.

While some of the names on this list may be recognizable, the majority were previously unknown individuals who have built up huge followings in the alternative MAGA universe where Trump is viewed as the legitimate president—all while lining their pockets or boosting their profiles as a result. 

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The General

Spearheading this group is someone from Trump’s orbit, Michael Flynn, the decorated former U.S. general who was Trump’s national security adviser for just 22 days before resigning in disgrace.

Since the 2020 election, Flynn has arguably done more than anyone to bring Trump’s message to the masses, at the same time boosting the claims made by previously unknown figures in the movement.

Flynn is revered within the MAGA community, where he is often referred to simply as “The General.” He leverages his three decades of military service to give credence to his baseless allegations about a stolen election.

Flynn was among the group of election-denying founding fathers who holed up in hotel rooms across Washington, D.C., in the days after the 2020 election, trying to crowdsource evidence of electoral fraud, and it was Flynn who suggested the group relocate to the 1,000-acre South Carolina estate of former Trump lawyer Lin Wood.

There, the group of conspiracists, led by Flynn, dreamed up the basis of much of the “Kraken” lawsuits filed by former Trump lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani. It was during that stint in South Carolina when Flynn heard that Trump had pardoned him.

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Since then, Flynn has spent most of his time crisscrossing the country speaking at hundreds of events designed to push election conspiracy theories. When he’s not speaking in person, he’s appearing on right-wing shows and podcasts, including Steve Bannon’s hugely popular “War Room” podcast. 

Captain K

Former Army Capt. Seth Keshel was also among the very first group of conspirators who dreamed up lies about the election in D.C. hotels in November 2020, after contacting Flynn via LinkedIn.

Keshel was part of a group called the “Bad News Bears” who set up inside a block of rooms at the Trump International Hotel. The group worked to find anomalies in election results that were then fed to Powell and Giuliani for their failed lawsuits. 

Keshel was also part of the group at Wood’s estate, and soon became a well-known speaker on the election conspiracy circuit. In August 2021 he boosted his standing in this community even further, when he published an analysis that he claimed showed Trump won seven states that in fact went to Biden. 

The debunked findings won him praise from Trump, who cited the report and said it came from a “highly respected Army intelligence captain.”

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Keshel, or “Captain K,” as he has rebranded himself, now communicates directly with his followers on Telegram, where he has amassed over 100,000 subscribers. On his channel, he shares a mix of weightlifting videos, Bible scripture, and promotions for his seemingly never-ending list of speaking engagements across the country.

The Professor

David Clements only came to prominence in the movement in the second half of 2021, after he was fired from his teaching position at New Mexico State University for refusing to follow COVID rules.

With a lot of time on his hands, Clements, who calls himself a “traveling audit salesman,” has successfully carved out a niche in the world of election conspiracies. His focus has been on forcing audits of votes, and his greatest success to date has been in Otero County, New Mexico. Last week the GOP-led commission in that county initially refused to certify the results of a primary vote, but then was forced to comply by the state Supreme Court.

Clements, like many others on this list, spends most of his time traveling to appear at “election integrity” events. When he’s not speaking in person, he’s appearing on podcasts, right-wing TV shows, and on his own hugely popular Telegram channel “The Professor’s Record,” where he spreads the gospel according to Trump.

The Lone Raccoon

Another latecomer to the election conspiracy party, Jeff O’Donnell, is a Florida businessman who put his business on hold in late 2021 to dedicate himself full-time to an online ballot-checking system called Polaris Recount.

O’Donnell, who calls himself the Lone Raccoon (because he’s “always loved raccoons”), set up Polaris in November 2021 allowing anyone who wanted to volunteer to become a “citizen adjudicator” and look at digital images of votes cast in the election and decide if minor smudges, errant fold lines, or slightly askew ballots are evidence of some enormous sinister plot to steal the 2020 election from Trump.

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Polaris’ first report, based on 300 ballots in a county in New Mexico, found six errant votes: three for Trump and three for President Joe Biden. 

Yet, despite the fact the system has shown no real evidence of voter fraud, O’Donnell has become a micro-celebrity in the pro-Trump world of election conspiracists, speaking onstage alongside the likes of Lindell.

The Surfer

Conan Hayes is a bit of an enigma. A former pro surfer and founder of the clothing line RVCA, he has very little public presence on social media and his name doesn’t typically come up during discussions of those who’ve helped push the stolen-election lies.

And yet, Hayes has been at the center of many of the most critical points of Trump’s effort to undermine democracy.

He was part of Byrne’s “Bad News Bears” team in D.C. in the weeks after the election, working to find voting anomalies. Then he was in Antrim County, Michigan, as part of a team flown in by Byrne to examine Dominion voting machines. The resulting report, written in part by Hayes, was held up by Trump in the Oval Office as proof of voter fraud, the former Attorney General Bill Barr told the January 6 committee.

Then, Hayes was reportedly in Phoenix for the bogus Maricopa County recount effort led by Cyber Ninjas. And in August, QAnon influencer-turned-congressional candidate Ron Watkins claimed that Hayes was the person who took hard-drive images from Dominion voting machines in Mesa County, Colorado, where clerk Tina Peters is currently facing felony charges for tampering with election equipment.

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Tore

Terpsichore Maras-Lindeman claims to be many things: time traveler, cryptographer, crypto linguist, podcaster, election integrity expert, a grifter.

Known to her followers as Tore, she first appeared in the election-denying world as an anonymous military intelligence expert in one of Sidney Powell’s “Kraken” lawsuits, claiming to have knowledge of foreign interference in the 2020 election.

Weeks later she was unmasked by the Washington Post, revealing that the sum total of her military experience amounted to a single eight-month training stint in the Navy that ended in August 1997. 

But Maras continued to gain support for her claims, and leveraged her newfound fame to orchestrate a nationwide campaign to oust elected officials and replace them with QAnon believers, leveraging the game-streaming platform Twitch and encrypted messaging app Telegram to do it. 

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Then in February, she announced she was running for secretary of state in Ohio as an independent candidate.

Maras’ Telegram posts and podcasts are also shared widely among grassroots groups who claim to be working on “election integrity” issues and who view her as someone with insider knowledge.

Dr. Frank

Doug Frank is not a doctor. He’s a high school teacher from Ohio, on a sabbatical to pursue his true passion: spreading lies about the election.

Frank claims to have uncovered an algorithm proving the 2020 election was stolen nationwide, and in the election conspiracy world, he’s become a go-to source of “proof” of widespread voter fraud. 

His claims have been widely debunked, but trivial matters like facts mean very little to those who have been brainwashed into believing what Frank has to say.

Frank has been able to support his cross-country travels to spread lies about the election to grassroots groups thanks to the generosity of Lindell, who employs him as an “expert witness.” 

In June of last year, he appeared at a Trump rally in Ohio, sharing a Powerpoint presentation with the crowd. “So do you think in Ohio we had a clean election?” Frank asked the crowd.

“No!” they roared, even though Trump won the state by 8 percentage points.

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Lady Draza

Draza Smith, known in the election conspiracy world as Lady Draza, is viewed as the mathematician of this group. Her presentations and analysis are filled with charts and numbers that look so complex they must be true, right? (The answer is, in fact, wrong.)

Smith claims to be “a computer engineer with two master’s degrees, in electrical engineering and computer engineering,” though never mentions where these degrees are from. She also claims to have worked at Sandia National Labs focusing on cyber and grid security.

Sandia Labs told VICE News that Smith’s real name was Lisa Batsch-Smith and that she had worked at the company from April 2019 until March 2021. A LinkedIn profile under that name features a picture that matches that of Draza Smith, and says Smith obtained her masters qualifications from the University of Central Florida and Mercer University. The profile also claims Smith is still working at Sandia Labs.

Like Frank, Smith is held up as a figure who has proved election fraud on a grand scale. Except, of course, she has never proven anything like that.

She is a hugely popular guest on right-wing podcasts, and has spoken at numerous events across the country, including Lindell’s South Dakota Cyber Symposium last year, where he promised to finally reveal evidence of election interference–but never did. 

The Journalist

Lara Logan was once the chief foreign affairs correspondent at CBS, where she worked for 16 years. Today, however, the South African-born journalist is one of the main boosters of election fraud conspiracies, helping give credibility to a series of so-called documentaries as well as “election integrity” events around the country.

After being fired by Fox Nation earlier this year for comparing Anthony Fauci to Josef Mengele, Logan wasted little time finding a new gig.  

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She has been welcomed with open arms by election-denying Trump supporters, who view her as a courageous whistleblower who is finally telling the truth about the mainstream media’s liberal bias. 

She is currently fronting a series of “election integrity” conferences in states across the country, where she opens for many of the other people on this list.

She also found time to travel to Mar-a-Lago last month for a screening of election conspiracy film 2,000 Mules alongside Flynn, Trump, and other election-denying Republican lawmakers like Marjorie Taylor Greene. 

And Logan is set to star in her very own election conspiracy movie later this summer. She will front Selection Code, a Mike Lindell-sponsored film that follows Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, who is currently facing felony charges for interfering with election equipment.

And it’s going to get worse…

It’s been 19 months since President Joe Biden won the 2020 election by a wide margin, and despite their best efforts, these grifters and charlatans have yet to produce any concrete evidence of widespread election fraud. But rather than disappearing, as the midterm elections approach, the number of people boosting these lies are growing rather than dwindling and soon some of them may be elected as their state’s top election officials.

Cameron Joseph contributed to this report.

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