An obscure Republican official traced as the source of an evidence-free claim that millions illegally voted says in an interview he has received threats and abuse
The US president-elect had not given his source but fact-checking websites and newspapers traced it to a two-week-old random tweet by a little known former Republican party official in Texas. Gregg Phillips claimed on 12 November to have found more than three million votes cast by non-citizens but he too failed to provide data.
Accused of the very topical sin of spreading fake news, all the way to the White House, Phillips is unrepentant. He stands by his original assertion, though he still offers no evidence, and denies that he was Trumps inspiration in any case.
The tweet that I put out had died down; nothing else was being said, Phillips told the Guardian on Tuesday. And then when Mr Trump came out with his tweet, it seemed to erupt again because somebody erroneously linked me to Mr Trumps tweet. The campaign came out and cleared that up: what he was talking about was a Washington Post article.
Indeed, when asked to explain Trumps claim of illegal voting, his transition team pointed journalists to a 2014 article in the Washington Post by two academics which the Posts website has since prefaced with a disclaimer along with a 2012 Pew Research study. Neither proved that non-citizens voted in 2016.
Media analysts still believe, however, that Phillipss Twitter-born conspiracy theory, as the Washington Post put it, is the most likely explanation for Trumps unsubstantiated outburst on 27 November.
The episode offers a study in the power of lone activists to make claims that soon become reported with the confidence of facts on myriad websites. It also illustrates the blowback they can endure when, rightly or wrongly, Trump is perceived as having recycled those claims to serve his dangerously selective worldview.
Phillips, a 56-year-old grandfather based in Austin, Texas, said: Im on the edge and you can probably hear it in my voice. In the last couple of days Ive been called a child molester. Somebody posted something up there that Ive been arrested for armed robbery; it turned out that if you drilled into that it was some black guy that was 15 years younger than me. Theyve accused me of being a Nazi, a fascist, a Russian spy, an Israeli spy theyve called me all sorts of words that I wont even repeat on here.
Phillips is no political novice. The former Republican official in Alabama and Mississippi was managing director of a Super Pac that supported Newt Gingrichs 2012 campaign for president. He has worked for the state governments of Mississippi and Texas and now runs a company that provides data analytics and fraud protection to healthcare providers.
He has also long taken an interest in the issue of voter fraud and says he is on the board of True the Vote, a conservative campaigning organisation focused on US electoral standards. So it did not come out of the blue when Phillips tweeted four days after the election: Completed analysis of database of 180 million voter registrations. Number of non-citizen votes exceeds 3 million. Consulting legal team.
Phillips did not provide any data to support his assertion and still declines to do so. The website PolitiFact rated the claim of 3 million illegal aliens casting votes in the election as false. Other fact-checkers concurred.
But a tweet can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. On 14 November Infowars, a conspiracy-laden site run by Austin-based shock jock Alex Jones, ran a story that began: Three million votes in the US presidential election were cast by illegal aliens, according to Greg Phillips of the VoteFraud.org organisation.
An exact text search for the phrase according to Greg Phillips of the VoteFraud.org organization in Google shows it has been incorporated into hundreds, if not thousands, of versions of the story.
Dan Cassino, a political scientist at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said the involvement of Infowars gave the Phillipss assertion the momentum of a runaway train. There are whole parts of the internet where it then becomes accepted by lots of people. It essentially becomes non-falsifiable at that point.
The Infowars story made it to the top headlines on the hugely influential Drudge Report: CLAIM: 3 Million Votes in Presidential Election Cast by Illegals…
Finally Trump, stung by his 2 million popular vote deficit to Hillary Clinton and efforts for a recount in three states, lashed out by apparently recycling the story for his own ends. In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally, he tweeted.