Three days before Joe Biden was officially projected to win the presidency, a group of at least 150 Donald Trump supporters ― some of them armed militia members ― assembled in the parking lot outside the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, convinced the fix was in.
Nevermind that Fox News had called Arizona for Biden. Leaders of the AZ Patriots militia raged about Sharpiegate, a debunked conspiracy theory spread by Trump’s adult sons. Far-right activist Mike Cernovich barreled in from his home in Southern California to lead the crowd in a “Stop the Steal” chant and to lend his massive Twitter platform to the effort to delegitimize U.S. democracy.
But among the crowd peppered with extremists — some of whom may have violated local laws and intimidated election officials who continued to count ballots — was a member of Congress known for peddling disinformation and bigotry. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz) played a key role in amplifying the rally only days after he easily won reelection in Arizona’s neighboring 4th Congressional District.
“We’re fighting to the bitter end,” Gosar told the crowd, speaking through a megaphone. “This is our Alamo.”
Earlier in the evening, AZ Patriots members had barged into the elections center, looking for nonexistent evidence of fraud. Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office deputies politely escorted them out. Years of falsehoods from Trump and his right-wing propagandists had conditioned protesters to believe disinformation about a rigged election. And to hate the media.
Predictably, they soon turned their wrath on local television reporters there to cover the results, shouting profanities and “fake news” at them.
When Kim Powell, a reporter for the local CBS affiliate, arrived at the protest just before 8 p.m., protesters targeted her immediately. One Trump supporter yelling “fake news” approached Powell from behind in an effort to get on camera. Powell’s security guard blocked him. The protester then threatened to find where Powell and her cameraman live. He returned to the crowd and began pointing out the reporter to other people, according to Powell. Soon, five men began circling her and her cameraman, glaring at them. The journalists left, fearing for their safety.
“It almost felt like we were being circled by hyenas,” Powell told HuffPost. Her cameraman recorded footage of the initial harassment and filed a police report.
The protesters were so rowdy that election workers needed a police escort back to their cars at the end of the night. If the crowd caused those workers to feel threatened or intimidated, it would violate an Arizona law that prohibits interfering with election officers on duty, according to Tom Ryan, an attorney in nearby Chandler, Arizona, who specializes in election law.
“That’s a class 5 felony,” Ryan said. “That’s punishable with prison. That’s a serious felony.” The militia members who entered the election center may have committed that crime and, according to the attorney, “should have been arrested immediately.”
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for more information by the time of publication.
Ryan says the protest was clearly orchestrated. “This wasn’t just a grassroots swelling of citizens,” he said. “These people had pre-manufactured signs. They all showed up based on a social media notice to come to Maricopa County and protest.”
Gosar had more than a little to do with that. The congressman has two Twitter accounts ― one for his work as a federal official and a second, personal account. He used his personal Twitter to baselessly assert that “some shady things” were happening in Arizona. He also used Twitter to coordinate Wednesday’s protest with Cernovich, a longtime dirty trickster who works with numerous far-right extremists. The original plan was to rally outside the Arizona State Capitol building, but the organizers soon shifted the location to the elections center.
For years, law enforcement and social media executives have allowed Cernovich, who did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment, to spread disinformation that has real-world, sometimes dangerous, effects. In 2016, he and neo-Nazi collaborator Jack Posobiec, who is now a One America News correspondent, orchestrated Pizzagate, which almost got diners in a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant killed. Since then, Gosar has interacted with Cernovich on Twitter many times, frequently praising the Kremlin-amplified propagandist.
“This wasn’t just a grassroots swelling of citizens. These people had pre-manufactured signs. They all showed up based on a social media notice to come to Maricopa County and protest.”
On Wednesday night, Gosar stood in the middle of the mostly maskless crowd, chanting, “Where are the votes? Where are the votes?” The votes, of course, were being duly and carefully counted inside the elections center.
The Republican congressman did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment via phone, email and direct messages to his personal Twitter account. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) did not respond to requests to comment on Gosar’s connections to extremists and his participation in a protest to delegitimize the election results.
Lies About An ‘Illegitimate’ Election
On Thursday afternoon around 3 p.m. local time, Powell was getting ready to put on a bulletproof vest and head back to the elections center to cover a second “Stop the Steal” rally organized by Gosar and Cernovich. Before she could leave, however, her station director pulled her aside. Death threats had been phoned in to the station targeting one of her colleagues, who’d also covered the rally on Wednesday night.
The timing was curious. At 1:32 p.m., Gosar had taken to his personal Twitter account to savage local reporters after they complained about the harassment and threats at the protest the night before. The Republican congressman mocked the reporters and called one of them an “enemy of the people,” an authoritarian term Trump has popularized to demonize the press and encourage harassment of journalists.
Gosar also used Twitter to single out Powell’s colleague who’d been at the rally the night before, accusing her of “making shit up.”
Cernovich, who has a long history of slandering and harassing journalists and trying to get them fired, joined in on Twitter, questioning whether Powell had been threatened and asking the reporter Gosar had singled out to give him the police report. Afterward, a caller to the station threatened to lynch the same reporter.
On Twitter, Gosar went on to baselessly claim that whoever had threatened Powell the night before must have been an “antifa plant.” Cernovich tried to distance himself from the armed men who had turned up at the rally, baselessly accusing them of being undercover federal agents.
But there was no divorcing either Gosar or Cernovich from the extremism of their protest against democracy. And they were working in concert with other far-right organizers who collaborate regularly with neo-fascists and white nationalists.
On Twitter, Ali Alexander, aka Ali Akbar, a far-right operative and felon who has acted as an adviser to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, made it clear that he had partnered with Gosar and Cernovich to organize the protest. Alexander claimed to have set up a “Stop the Steal” Facebook page that quickly gained over 300,000 members before Facebook shut it down after participants began talking about starting a Civil War and executing Democrats, though Twitter allowed Alexander to operate with more impunity.
The “Stop the Steal” phrase originated with former Trump adviser and convicted felon Roger Stone and other far-right extremists in 2016 as an effort to invalidate Democratic votes, particularly those of minority voters. Alexander claimed to have organized similar “Stop the Steal” subversion in 2018 in Florida, bragging that he’d been behind Trumpist Republicans Rick Scott and Pam Bondi’s baseless allegations of mishandled ballots and “rampant” voter fraud in the 2018 midterm election.
As Scott’s lead in his gubernatorial race that year dwindled, he tried to impound voting machines. Other Florida Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Matt Gaetz, who also pals around with far-right extremists, cast doubt on mail-in ballots. Some of the ballots had arrived late after apparently being delayed in processing at a sorting facility where a pro-Trump terrorist’s mail bombs targeting Democratic politicians were found.
All of it, really, was a trial run for 2020.
Alexander, meanwhile, appears to have started organizing his current “Stop the Steal” campaign in September, an indication that he and his Steve Bannon-connected network of influence operatives have been preparing for months to delegitimize the 2020 election and the democratic process if it didn’t redound to Trump’s benefit.
On Thursday, Gosar tweeted from his personal account about the election being “stolen by fraud.” In making his case, he retweeted Michael Coudrey, a criminal fraudster and Alexander accomplice with ties to white nationalists and neo-Nazis, who was also promoting “Stop the steal” protests. Coudrey and Richard Grenell, Trump’s authoritarian former acting director of national intelligence, were in a private Twitter group with at least one operative who has taken Kremlin money.
Gosar and Cernovich returned on Thursday night to the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, which was by then shielded with fences to protect the election officials inside. An even bigger crowd had assembled with even more extremists. Men with long rifles. A few anti-government boogaloo boys. A man holding a tiki torch and wearing a Metal Mulisha T-shirt ― a clothing brand with Nazi symbolism.
Shortly after 8 p.m., a far-right superstar who helped terrorize the parents of murdered children arrived. Wingnut pro-Trump conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was greeted as a celebrity, and he made a violent speech about crushing “leftist scum,” the banks, the media, the system and George Soros. On Twitter, Alexander took credit for getting Jones on a jet to Phoenix.
By this point, Trump had gone on national television to give a lie-filled speech about the election, falsely claiming that he was being robbed by unseen forces and attacking the democratic process from his bully pulpit. Sycophantic Republican officials like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) backed him up on Fox News. But none were willing to put in work on the ground with extremists. None but Gosar.
On Friday, Cernovich returned to California. Gosar kept going. “Any claim Biden has won is illegitimate,” the congressman tweeted. “We cannot accept the theft of the presidency.” He promoted another rally. Again, it turned ugly as Trump supporters misled by Republicans in positions of influence menaced reporters for doing their jobs.
But such is the legacy Trump and a Republican Party that has devolved into authoritarianism have left America. No matter how much healing Biden tries to do, the country will be grappling with a radicalized and hate-fueled political right for years to come.
On Saturday, Biden was declared the winner of the election. Gosar refused to accept the results. He just kept promoting “Stop the Steal” rallies around the country. He is protesting democracy right now.
A History Of Extremism
Given Gosar’s history, his actions last week weren’t surprising. The Republican congressman has carved out his own extremist path. In 2017, he falsely claimed that Soros was a Nazi collaborator and blamed the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on the political left. In 2019, he praised far-right Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, who has gutted democracy in his country and now rules by fiat. In July of this year, Gosar was photographed with members of the hyper-violent neo-fascist Proud Boys gang and the Oath Keepers, a far-right anti-government militia.
But another episode raised even more eyebrows. In 2018, Gosar was caught on video at an extremist dinner in London with Steve Bannon. The Arizona congressman was in town to rally on behalf of Tommy Robinson, a violent English far-right anti-Muslim criminal fraudster. At the rally, Gosar vilified Muslims as “disgusting and depraved.” At the posh dinner with Bannon later that night ― which Gosar appears to have tried to conceal on paperwork he submitted to Congress ― he met with several European ultranationalist leaders, including racists and Islamophobes who have ties to white nationalists and violent extremists.
Also present was Raheem Kassam, a notorious British propagandist and former Breitbart London editor now living in the United States and deeply engaged in political subversion with Bannon. Kassam was one of the principal bad actors who disseminated smears about Hunter Biden last month, and he is now trying to cast doubt on Biden’s victory. At the 2018 extremist dinner in London, Kassam urged Gosar to say grace. The retired dentist obeyed.
“Father, we are gathered around this table as friends and comrades,” Gosar said.
Later in the meal, Filip Dewinter, a Flemish parliamentarian and one of the leaders of the far-right Vlaams Belang party, which has ties to Flemish Nazi collaborators, asked for help from the United States. Dewinter, who spoke in 2016 at a conference for white nationalist group American Renaissance and used “white genocide” rhetoric popular amont white supremacists, acknowledged that his movement couldn’t expect open sympathy from Trump but hoped “at least to have some congressman and some senators.”
He looked at Gosar, who smiled and nodded.
Bannon then asked the assembled far-right comrades for a list of things they wanted the United States to do to support “populist nationalism” in Europe. “You know we do actually control the government,” he told the foreign extremists.
Last week, they lost control of it ― the executive branch, at least. But the extremists won’t go without causing a scene in Phoenix and other cities. And Gosar and Cernovich could face legal jeopardy for their actions in Maricopa County last week, according to Ryan, the Arizona attorney.
“If Gosar was working with Cernovich to whip up the mob to the point where election officials felt intimidated, absolutely,” Ryan said. “That’s a conspiracy to commit a crime. It could also be considered aiding and abetting. It’s a very risky thing for Paul Gosar to be participating in this as one of the leaders.”