The Sunday after the presidential election, Gregg Phillips, founder of a health care analytics firm in Austin, tweeted “we have verified more than three million votes cast by non-citizens. We are joining @truethevote to initiate legal action.”
The next day, Phillips’s assertion, based solely on his tweet, was splashed across the InfoWars site — run by Austin conspiracy theorist Alex Jones — that has become an agitprop site for President-elect Donald Trump, with the headline, “Report: Three Million Votes in Presidential Election Cast by Illegal Aliens. Trump may have won popular vote.” It was quickly picked up by the Drudge Report, a premier aggregator of the web with its own pro-Trump bent, which changed “Report” to “Claim.”
Phillips, a former executive with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and prolific tweeter on voting fraud, was astonished his tweet was given such prominence. No one had called him.
The Sunday after Thanksgiving, when millions of Americans were watching football, the president-elect, apparently vexed by Hillary Clinton’s more than 2 million vote lead in the popular vote and Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s effort to get recounts in three states that Trump narrowly won, turned to Twitter, seemingly inspired by Phillips’ math.
“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.
Trump was lambasted far and wide, and Phillips, whose tweet was quickly pinpointed as his inspiration, was besieged by reporters, fact-checkers and angry tweeters telling him to put up or shut up.
‘Isn’t everything on Twitter fake?’
Phillips’ tweet was a statement of what he thinks he will be able to prove once he is able to analyze True the Vote’s 50-state, 180-million registered voter data base when it is updated to reflect the election — not a statement, as it sounded, of what he was able to prove right now. Any legal action will wait for a Trump Justice Department.
Phillips said he thought Twitter allowed that kind of latitude.
“When did a tweet become news?” Phillips told the American-Statesman. “I’m just like a guy. I’m an ordinary guy. There are billions of tweets every single day and because somebody picked it up, made something of something I wrote, all of a sudden the president-elect is talking about me?”
“Seriously, is a tweet really news?” Phillips said. “Isn’t everything on Twitter fake?”
To his critics, Trump’s claim was the latest egregious example of his being a willing and eager sucker for fake news, or worse.
“This is a lie, part of Mr. Trump’s pattern, stretching back many years, of disregard for indisputable facts,” The New York Times wrote in its lead editorial Tuesday. “There is no evidence of illegal voting on even a small scale anywhere in the country, let alone a systematic conspiracy involving `millions.’”
PolitiFact rated the claim Pants on Fire. Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler gave it Four Pinocchios.
“Now that Trump is on the verge of becoming president, he needs to be more careful about making wild allegations with little basis in fact, especially if the claim emerged from a handful of tweets and conspiracy-minded websites,” Kessler wrote. ” “He will quickly find that such statements will undermine his authority on other matters.”
Phillips doesn’t think his tweet inspired Trump.
He notes that the Presidential Transition Team directed reporters to a 2014 report on the Monkey Cage political science blog hosted by the Washington Post by Old Dominion University political scientists Jesse Richman and David Earnest, whose study concluded that “some non-citizens participate in U.S. elections, and that this participation has been large enough to change meaningful election outcomes including Electoral College votes, and Congressional elections. Noncitizen votes likely gave Senate Democrats the pivotal 60th vote needed to overcome filibusters in order to pass health care reform and other Obama administration priorities in the 111th Congress.”
Richman and Earnest, whose study was bombarded with criticism, concluded illegal voting might have enabled the passage of Obamacare.
Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of the Houston-based True the Vote, a right of center voter integrity group, said it will be some time into the new year before the group will have updated its 50-state database and that Phillips and others will analyze it looking for flaws – dead people on the rolls, duplicate registrations and noncitizen voters, who they will ferret out by triangulating against other databases.
It is, she said, an unprecedented effort.
Of Phillips, Engelbrecht said, “At the end of the day (Phillips) is on my board, he is my friend, he is a rock-solid individual and I stand by him and I stand by what he said and that’s it.”
And, she said, “We put out a statement saying we support President-elect Trump’s comment about the potential that millions of votes were illegally cast.”
“I am going to stand by the numbers. The numbers are accurate,” Phillips said. “I am going to do exactly what I said I’m going to do. I’m going to release all the information whether it turns out I’m right or wrong, whatever comes out of our final analysis and all the hard work of going through this stuff. I’m going to come out and say either I was wrong or I was right. I’m going to come out and do that.”
But, what really unnerved Phillips was the Twitter venom directed his way after he was identified as the president-elect’s apparent inspiration.
”In the last couple of days I’ve been called a Nazi, a Russian, a traitor, an asshole, a racist, all on Twitter,” Phillips said. “I’m none of the above, none. I’m truly just an ordinary guy.”
CORRECTION: Catherine Engelbrecht’s first name has been corrected. Also, the story has been clarified to indicate that the 2014 voting study cited by the Trump Transition Team appeared on the Monkey Cage political science blog hosted by the Washington Post.