利用内部电子邮件、宣誓证词和其他文档，Snopes 能够准确地分解公共利益法律基金会 (PILF) 如何 “生成、创造、组织和武器化” 误导性叙述。
In the weeks after Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, his aides began searching for a narrative that could explain why he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. Stephen Miller, a top aide now known as the driving force behind many of the Trump administration’s most draconian immigration policies, emailed a former Department of Justice (DOJ) attorney named J. Christian Adams. According to an email discussed during testimony compelled in a 2018 defamation lawsuit, this email was terse — the subject line read “vote fraud” and asked only “can you send some info on noncitizen voting.”
On Nov. 26, 2016, Adams responded to Miller by sending a report that his organization — the Public Interest Legal Foundation (or PILF) — had recently published, titled “Alien Invasion in Virginia.” The report alleged — falsely, it would turn out — to have discovered “1046 aliens who registered to vote illegally.” Evidently, this narrative worked for the Trump team. “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Trump tweeted the next day. In a second tweet hours later, he highlighted Virginia, New Hampshire, and California as places with significant fraud
That Adams’ work made it so rapidly to Trump’s inner circle is emblematic of PILF’s D.C. access. Adams, according to the same testimony, had “a long history working together” with former Trump 2016 campaign worker John Washburn. But as part of a June 2019 settlement in a defamation case brought by four U.S. citizens who PILF implied were foreigners, LULAC of Richmond V. PILF, PILF was required to insert a disclaimer on its “Alien Invasion” report stating that individuals whom they alleged to be felonious noncitizens “were in fact citizens and that these citizens did not commit felonies.” (In their supporting documents, PILF had gone so far as to include unredacted documents containing these innocent individuals’ home addresses.)
Now, in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election, Trump has a new narrative: Mail-in voting cannot be trusted. PILF remains deeply connected to Trump’s inner circle and has been laser-focused on publishing items that support this narrative. In August, Trump appointed Adams to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and in September, ProPublica reported that a PILF board member was giving closed-door briefings on “election administration” exclusively to Republican election officials. Here, Snopes provides a candid history of the “Alien Invasion” debacle from conception to promotion by drawing on hundreds of discovery documents in the defamation case that PILF’s work spawned. The documents betray an organization as eager to discard evidence that does not fit its narrative as it is to accept — without any attempt at confirmation — evidence that does.
What is PILF?
PILF, founded by Adams in 2012 as the “ActRight Legal Foundation,” is a purportedly nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization providing, they told the IRS in 2018, “services and representation to states and election officials, non-profit organizations, and individuals, to assist them with the exercise of their civil and constitutional rights, with particular focus on voting rights.” PILF, alongside groups like Judicial Watch, True the Vote, and The Honest Elections Project, belongs to a coterie of nonprofits frequently cited as influential and well-heeled conservative organizations involved in challenging the expansion of mail-in voting in the 2020 election. Each of these organizations is well-connected to the others from financial and personnel standpoints, and all are united by calls for stricter voter ID laws.
Getting bigger numbers appears to have taken precedence over accuracy. In the same email exchange between Adams and his staff celebrating the first report’s placement on Drudge — which ran the headline “1000 plus Illegal Voters in Virginia” — Adams asked if Johnson remembered “our conversation on how important it was to cross the 1000 mark.” In response to a question from a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, Johnson answered he believed that Adams, at least in part, meant this to convey to him that “if you get to higher numbers you’re more likely to get media attention.” Johnson did not respond to our request for comment.
It wasn’t only people outside of the project who raised concerns. In the period between “Alien Invasion I” and “Alien Invasion II,” PILF staff and volunteers also acknowledged internally that their data might be falsely identifying actual citizens as “non-citizen voters”
For example, on Oct. 4, 2016, Steven Albertson, the lawyer recruiting local activists for PILF, was informed by one of the potential volunteers, Jordan Labiosa, that a former friend of his was on a cancellation list Albertson sent out. In response, Albertson asked, “Is it possible your friend is one of the accidentals (i.e., those who are citizens but who had trouble with the forms)?” He added that “It’s looking like that’s 10-15% of what we have,” suggesting specific knowledge of false positives in the report. Albertson did not respond to our request for comment.
Adams himself, when apparently joking with Johnson about the fact that someone named George Washington Jr. was on the cancellation list, acknowledged that false positive reports could be used “against us.” Several people involved with PILF also expressed concerns that the data they were in possession of was identifying legal U.S. voters, too.
Step Three: ‘Organize’ Narrative
Organizing the narrative, emails suggest, involved getting PILF staff, volunteers, and allies behind the specific and faulty interpretation of data they were pushing. For people who actually took a close look at the data, their acceptance of that premise was not always a given.
PILF volunteer Keith Damon, for example, was tasked with converting the statewide cancellation reports used in “Alien Invasion II” into database form. He did some quick research on some names on the list, providing two examples of potential citizens in an email to PILF staff. “I now wonder if this is really a list of actual non-citizens or rather a list of people who — via the DMV — apparently indicated that they are non-citizens regardless of their true status,” he wrote to Adams and Virginia Voter Alliance President Reagan George. In response, George wrote back to Damon, claiming that, “There is no way for you and I, or for that matter, Christian to investigate all of these identified non-citizens,” adding, “If you are uncomfortable working on this let me know.” Damon and George did not respond to our requests for comment.
Adams further rationalized the use of the data even when people involved in his project had doubts about it by arguing that their work, even if flawed, would highlight a lack of proper maintenance on Virginia’s rolls. “If the fact a registrant was a citizen, their own system reported otherwise and kicked them off the rolls,” Adams wrote in response to the concerns raised by Damon. “If there are false positives, it’s state data and procedures that made them false positives. That alone makes it imperative to expose even the glitches.”
The final, and perhaps most telling, rationalization for potentially publishing the names and addresses of people they alleged were noncitizens was that, regardless of accuracy, the confusion or pushback on PILF’s work could potentially help PILF further its goal of pushing for election reforms. In response to the discussion of potential false positives in PILF’s datasets, Communications Director Churchwell argued in an email to Adams that the concerns raised by Damon and others “could be true,” but that “we still have an opportunity to convert pushback into official confusion to justify our call for top-down overhaul.”
“The fog of war favors the aggressor here,” he added.
Step Four: ‘Weaponize’ Narrative
To weaponize its data, PILF pushed its findings to the media with a confidence it apparently lacked itself. In an email to staff while preparing a draft of “Alien Invasion I,” Adams wrote that “the noncitizen lists should be appendixes to the reports and presented as mere facts that these people registered according to public record, and that alien registration is a crime. We should NOT say things like ‘these people are criminals’ or anything approaching that as that could be libelous.” Despite Adams’ voicing of this preference, the final report described the findings as “1046 aliens who registered to vote illegally.” When Adams pitched his report to a booker for “Lou Dobbs Tonight” on Fox Business Network, he stated, according to emails discussed during his deposition, that these 1,046 individuals had “been discovered as verified 100 percent aliens.”
On Oct 3, 2016, Lou Dobbs opened a segment with Adams by telling viewers that “there is a shocking new report out now detailing how Virginia’s election officials are enabling illegal registration and voting by foreign citizens.” PILF and the Virginia Voters Alliance, he reported, had “documented 1,000 non-citizens who were allowed to vote based on official voting records.” In the segment, Adams referred to the individuals identified in PILF’s report as “aliens who got registered to vote” and who had therefore committed felonies. “There should be no surprise that Democrats are registering illegal immigrants, registering foreign nationals to vote,” Dobbs asserted without evidence, while also conflating legal and illegal immigration. “Of course not,” Adams responded.
J. Christian Adams publicizing PILF’s first “Alien Invasion” report on “Lou Dobbs Tonight” on Oct. 3, 2016.
Breitbart published an even more conspiratorial take on PILF’s findings on Oct. 3: “Illegal Foreign Voting in Virginia Covered Up by Soros-Backed Democratic Officials, Says Report.” This article, like the Dobbs segment and others, also implied every name uncovered was a noncitizen, and that the people identified were felons. “When an alien registers to vote, it is a felony,” Adams told Breitbart. “When an alien votes, it is multiple felonies. … We name the names of the registered voters removed from the rolls for citizenship problems. Will DOJ prosecute any of them?”
Fox News was the first stop for “Alien Invasion II.” In a promotion of that report for “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” PILF may have betrayed its willingness to use xenophobia as a hook to reach that audience. On May 26, 2017, Adams sent an early copy of PILF’s second “Alien Invasion” report to Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson, according to deposition testimony of PILF litigator Noel Johnson regarding an email chain he was a party to. After securing the primetime slot, Adams recruited PILF employees to go through their files to look for visuals that could be used in the segment.
“Pick ones with outlandish foreign names, particularly Middle Eastern if they exist,” Adams told Johnson. “The more outlandish the handwriting the better. The more obviously foreign the better,” he added, clarifying that “the degree of outlandishness in the name is just as important as whether they voted.” Adams did not respond to our question regarding why he wanted Middle Eastern names.
“I assume I don’t need to explain this in further detail,” he wrote to Johnson.
On the May 30, 2017, Carlson segment (which did not use the visuals Adams sought), Adams asserted that the way these “aliens” got on the cancellation lists was that they lied on their initial voter-registration forms, but then, in a change of heart, told the truth while at the DMV and re-registered later on. Despite being told by several elections officials that many of the people on these lists got there as a result of failure to return a notice within 14 days of making a mistake while completing DMV paperwork, Adams did not mention this possibility.
“The assumption,” Carlson declared in response and without evidence, “is that these people are voting Democrat by and large.”
It bears repeating that the records PILF received determined neither citizenship nor party affiliation.
PILF settled the defamation claims made as a result of the “Alien Invasion” series of reports. “Mr. Adams and his organization agreed to settle the case after it was revealed that they had received warnings from elections officials, and even from one of their own volunteers, that they were making false representations regarding the Virginia election records underlying their publications,” the nonprofit group Protect Democracy, one of three groups that filed the suit on the citizens’ behalf, wrote in a July 17, 2019, news release.
As part of the settlement, according to Protect Democracy, Adams was required to provide written apologies to the plaintiffs “on behalf of himself and PILF.” PILF was required to delete the exhibits that named alleged noncitizen voters, append a disclaimer to them acknowledging that “individuals in [the removed exhibits] were in fact citizens and that these citizens did not commit felonies,” and agree to “robust redactions of personally identifying information” if they ever published anything in the state of Virginia again.
We asked Adams how the American public could trust PILF given its actions during the creation and promotion of the “Alien Invasion” series. His response echoed many of the same rationalizations PILF discussed internally: deflecting blame toward Virginia and characterizing PILF’s work as a success on the grounds that it highlighted general problems with voter-roll maintenance in Virginia.
“Regarding the case you mention,” Adams wrote to Snopes in response, “I am pleased to say that case settled. There was no finding of any liability by the court and unfortunately Virginia election officials never apologized for knocking citizens off the rolls improperly or for publishing documents saying the plaintiffs were ‘declared noncitizens,'” adding that “we sought to protect citizens from improper removal.”
This is a far cry from how the “Alien Invasion” project was billed in the early days of 2016 and 2017. The goal then, according to volunteer Steven Alberston’s pitch, was “to positively influence” prosecutors in various Virginia counties “to take action against documented cases of non-citizen voting.” On PJ Media, Adams wrote an article promoting “Alien Invasion II” that ended with a call to action for “law enforcement personnel” to click a link to the report’s exhibits. According to deposition testimony in which the document was discussed, Adams told PILF staff that he wanted to put his findings “in the hands of the DOJ lawyer who would prosecute these people,” adding that this person, a DOJ attorney named Mark Lytle then working in the Eastern District of Virginia, “is a friend of mine.”
Adams, in his response to our request for comment, told us that since the work with the “Alien Invasion” series, he and PILF “have relied on data-driven analysis of voter rolls, not merely on what government documents say about aliens. Our conclusions are reached using a methodology that relies on a range of robust data, not merely government reports.” It is not entirely clear, however, that this is always necessarily the case.
In April 2020, for example, PILF published a news release that claimed in part that data from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission — a government agency — showed that “more than one million ballots went to [the] wrong address in 2018.” In this case, PILF defined a “missing ballot” as one that was sent to an address and returned as undeliverable, something election experts describe as a misleading way to refer to ballots from states that in some cases proactively sent out ballots to every voter on their rolls. No other non-government agency data were cited, and the statement was false, as ProPublica first reported.
“Taken at face value,” ProPublica wrote in May 2020, “that would represent a 91% increase over the number of undeliverable mail ballots in 2016.” The truth, as they pointed out, was that “the number of undeliverable mail ballots dropped slightly from 2016 to 2018.” In reality, the number of “missing ballots” did not “nearly double” in 2018. It was actually PILF itself that had doubled the number (quite literally) in what it later characterized as an error. PILF deleted that portion of the news release and replaced it, but nevertheless, it didn’t change PILF’s broader conclusions, Churchwell told ProPublica.
That these types of errors have not prevented PILF from continuing to generate viral stories on Breitbart, or their staff and allies from obtaining high-profile government jobs, is not necessarily a testament to the quality of PILF’s work. It is likely a testament to the power of a deep bench of political and media connections and of exaggerated or sensationalized talking points. A good case study follows the publication of “Alien Invasion I.” At the time, the report was disseminated amongst an elite group of GOP activists and lobbyists and reached all the way to the inbox of Virginia Thomas — the wife of current U. S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Describing the report as “superb,” Virginia Thomas, a longtime political activist, forwarded a summary of its findings to representatives of myriad communications firms or media outlets, including CRC Communications — a favorite of some of the same conservative groups involved in funding PILF’s efforts. “Could signs be made and placed at as many polling places in VA, listing the laws people may break if they do voter fraud???” she asked.
Adams, skeptical of Thomas’ suggestion, responded that such an action would not be possible “without unleashing a leftist whirlwind” of claims about voter intimidation that “will JUICE leftwing turnout.” This fear of left-wing voter turnout is, of course, in stark contrast to the response Adams gave The New York Times Magazine in an October 2020 investigation into how “false claims of voter fraud is being used to disenfranchise Americans.” “This is all in earnest,” he said. “We’re not doing this because we’re trying to help somebody win an election.”
Earnest or not, the organization has access to powerful people, and this access appears to be increasing as the U.S. approaches the 2020 presidential election. Following Adam’s August 2020 appointment to the U.S. Commission on Human Rights, one of the first things that body did was shelve a report “analyzing threats to minority voting rights during the coronavirus pandemic.” The document reportedly included several recommendations nearly ready for publication.
People peripherally involved in the “Alien Invasion” saga have since gained Trump-appointed government positions as well. Two of the people Adams cited as alerting him to the existence of the DMV cancellation records used for the “Alien Invasion” reports — Cameron Quinn and Don Palmer — now hold Trump-appointed government positions. Quinn was appointed by Trump to be an “Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties” at the Department of Homeland Security, and Palmer is currently the commissioner of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, appointed by Trump in 2019.
Mark Lytle, the person at the DOJ that Adams sent both of PILF’s “Alien Invasion” reports to, has also taken on high-profile positions at the DOJ. In February 2019, Lytle was assigned by the DOJ to be associate counsel to Trump, and in October 2020, according to his LinkedIn profile, Lytle was appointed to a new role: associate deputy attorney general. The latter is a senior staff position that reports to the deputy attorney general, and only eight people (according to 2018 documentation) at the DOJ hold that title. The DOJ did not respond to our request for a confirmation of that appointment. We asked Lytle about the accuracy of Adams’ testimony and if Lytle’s new role included any work related to voter fraud or election-integrity issues, but he did not respond to our request for comment.
Like the information about PILF’s methods unearthed in the “Alien Invasion” debacle, the existence of these political, activist, and media connections is vitally important to note when assessing the information that originates from PILF. It is a lot easier for a group to be taken seriously in the face of repeated mistakes when it has allies across the government, unfettered access to conservative media outlets, funding from well-heeled conservative groups, and a presidential administration hungry for a narrative the organization happens to be providing.
The Fog of 2020
The president and his allies have indicated a willingness — even an intent — to challenge the validity of votes cast by mail. “Hopefully the Courts will stop this scam!” Trump tweeted in August 2020 about the prospect of widespread mail-in voting. “Some Trump allies say their best bet is to hope that the results look close on election night, before some of the mail-in ballots are counted, allowing Trump to declare victory and have the results thrown to the courts,” the Associated Press reported on Oct. 12, 2020.
Claims of impropriety, fraud, and subterfuge leveled across both sides of the aisle will likely come in the run-up to, and aftermath of, the 2020 general election. If and when those claims originate from a group whose research and communications director considers “confusion” and “fog of war” acceptable outcomes of their “non-partisan” analysis, skepticism is more than warranted.