By Zachary Cohen, CNN
As allies of then-President Donald Trump made a final push to overturn the election in late-December 2020, one of the key operatives behind the effort briefed then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows about his attempts to gain access to voting systems in key battleground states, starting with Arizona and Georgia, according to text messages obtained by CNN.
Phil Waldron, an early proponent of various election-related conspiracy theories, texted Meadows on December 23 that an Arizona judge had dismissed a lawsuit filed by friendly GOP lawmakers there. The suit demanded state election officials hand over voting machines and other election equipment, as part of the hunt for evidence to support Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud.
In relaying the news to Meadows, Waldron said the decision would allow opponents to engage in “delay tactics” preventing Waldron and his associates from immediately accessing machines. Waldron also characterized Arizona as “our lead domino we were counting on to start the cascade,” referring to similar efforts in other states like Georgia.
“Pathetic,” Meadows responded.
The messages, which have not been previously reported, shed new light on how Waldron’s reach extended into the highest levels of the White House and the extent to which Meadows was kept abreast of plans for accessing voting machines, a topic sources tell CNN, and court documents suggest, is of particular interest to state and federal prosecutors probing efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
The messages also provide an early window into how an effort to gain access to voting machines through the courts and state legislatures morphed into a more clandestine endeavor that is now the subject of multiple criminal investigations. Despite attempts to distance himself from the more dubious attempts to keep Trump in office, the messages underscore how Meadows was an active participant, engaging with someone who former White House officials have described as a fringe outsider peddling outlandish ideas.
Waldron, a retired Army colonel with ties to Trump’s one-time national security adviser Michael Flynn, has emerged as a key figure in the broader scheme to overturn the election and was the architect of several extreme proposals for doing so. That includes sending Meadows a PowerPoint presentation outlining a plan for overturning the election, which was later used to brief Republican lawmakers, titled, in part: “Options for 6 Jan.”
Waldron also helped draft language for an executive order directing the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security to seize voting machines on behalf of the White House.
Trump never signed the order, siding with White House lawyers who insisted the idea was legally perilous. But there is evidence that his closest allies, including Meadows, continued to entertain similar pitches from Waldron in the lead-up to January 6 as they sought to validate conspiracy theories about foreign election interference.
Criminal prosecutors in Georgia are demanding Waldron and Meadows testify as part of ongoing grand jury investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election results there. Waldron is also engaged in a months-long legal fight with the January 6 Committee, which has subpoenaed his cellphone data. Meadows recently complied with a Justice Department subpoena to hand over information pertaining to the 2020 election including these text messages.
Recent subpoenas from the Justice Department related to the same probe indicate investigators are seeking information about claims of election fraud and efforts to persuade government officials to “change or affect” the election results, “or delay certification of the results,” according to one subpoena obtained by CNN, exactly the kinds of activities Waldron is known to have engaged in.
Waldron and his attorneys did not respond to several requests for comment. Meadows’ attorney also did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
‘Chasing election machines for years’
Before he retired from the Army as a colonel in 2017, Waldron specialized in psychological operations and worked alongside Michael Flynn at the Defense Intelligence Agency, according to his military records.
In numerous interviews, people familiar with Waldron’s background tell CNN that for years he has been obsessed with the idea that US voting machines are vulnerable to foreign hacking. “Waldron had been chasing election machines for years,” said one former US official with knowledge of his efforts.
It wasn’t until Trump started falsely claiming that the election had been stolen from him that Waldron had a chance to put his theories to use. Trump’s inner circle was warned by several Republican lawmakers that without evidence of fraud, their plan to subvert the Electoral College would almost certainly fail, text messages obtained by the House Select Committee investigating the US Capitol attack show.
In the days after the election, Waldron quickly emerged as one of the Trump legal team’s favorite “expert witnesses” on election fraud. He was a near constant presence during Giuliani’s road show in the weeks after the election when he and his team of Trump lawyers traveled around the country to convince state officials that the outcome had been tainted by widespread voter fraud.
During one December 2020 hearing in Georgia, Waldron appeared alongside Giuliani and conservative attorney John Eastman, where he pushed unfounded claims about Dominion voting machines and similarly alleged that fraudulent ballots had tainted the election results.
Those familiar with his role in the effort also described Waldron as being in charge of “operational planning” and working directly with Rudy Giuliani on gaining access to voting systems in states where Trump lost.
“Waldron was responsible for planning and overseeing execution” of efforts to access voting systems,” said one of those sources.
That was especially true in Antrim County, Michigan, where Waldron and his team of pro-Trump operatives gained access to voting systems there in late 2020 — producing a since-debunked report based on their findings that Trump repeatedly held-up as proof of election fraud even after it was dismissed by his own top advisers.
The Antrim County breach is now the subject of a criminal investigation by authorities in Michigan. Among those under investigation are Matthew DePerno, the Republican nominee to become Michigan’s attorney general, and a number of people Waldron worked with after the 2020 election, including Doug Logan, the CEO of Cyber Ninjas.
As Trump’s lawyers worked to enlist sympathetic state and local officials to help keep Trump in office, Waldron often served as a key liaison, according to emails and text messages obtained by the group American Oversight and shared with CNN. That was particularly true in Arizona, where Waldron was in direct communication with a number of GOP state officials and lawmakers about producing evidence of fraud.
In the weeks before his December 23 text to Meadows, Waldron exchanged nearly a dozen emails with state GOP officials in Arizona, discussing various plans for gaining access to voting systems or ballots from certain counties and pitching himself to analyze the election data for evidence of fraud, according to the documents reviewed by CNN.
On December 11, Waldron sent an email to three Arizona state GOP lawmakers who were pushing to overturn the election, suggesting a member of his team could “take a hard drive” to county elections offices, upload relevant voter data and “get the files to us.”
“This would be the fastest and most transparent way to give you the direct evidence you need to either pursue or close the issue,” he wrote, referring to ongoing efforts to upend the election results in Arizona.
“We are happy to consult with you to answer questions or coordinate a ‘way ahead,'” Waldron added.
Two days later, Waldron’s attorney and business associate, Charles Bundren, sent one of those same Arizona lawmakers draft language for subpoenas seeking electronically stored voting information. The document is nearly identical to subpoenas Arizona state Republicans ultimately filed demanding election officials hand over voting machines, emails obtained by the group American Oversight and provided to CNN show.
After an Arizona judge ultimately rejected those subpoenas on December 23, Waldron reached out to Meadows about the decision, according to the newly revealed text messages.
Waldron texted Meadows again on December 28, 2020, suggesting a member of his team had analyzed election data from “several counties” and pointing to two specific examples of what he called the “Southern steal” — an apparent reference to voting irregularities that, he alleged, had changed the election outcome in those localities.
“OK,” Meadows responded, acknowledging Waldron’s message.
It remains unclear if there are additional texts between Waldron and Meadows beyond the messages exchanged on December 23 and December 28, in part because both men have sought to block the January 6 committee from obtaining their cellphone data.
Over the past year, Trump allies have continued to push baseless claims about widespread fraud and sought access to voting systems in various states. Waldron has remained a central figure in that effort.
Emails obtained by CNN connect Waldron directly to the 2021 partisan audit in Maricopa County, Arizona. After his work in Antrim County, Michigan, Waldron pushed GOP state officials in Arizona to hire his team to conduct the audit. But Arizona officials expressed concerns after Waldron’s Antrim County report was thoroughly debunked.
Instead, with Waldron’s endorsement, they hired Cyber Ninjas to conduct the Maricopa audit, which ultimately proved that Biden won the county. Waldron remained heavily involved, emails obtained by CNN show. It’s unclear whether Waldron was paid for his work as Arizona Republicans have fought to keep that information from coming out publicly. Emails have emerged that show contractors connected to Waldron were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by America Voting Rights Foundation, a Trump-affiliated PAC created last summer.
Over the past year, Waldron was also listed as a key participant for a series of “election integrity” planning sessions involving other notable Trump allies like Flynn and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.
Lindell and another known associate of Waldron, Conan Hayes, are subjects of a separate FBI investigation focused on an election system breach in Colorado.
In April, Waldron sued the House January 6 committee to block their efforts to obtain his cellphone data. Waldron’s own lawyer, Charles Bundren, has taken steps to shield his own communications from the committee.
Court documents show that Bundren stepped aside as Waldron’s primary attorney in the case against the committee last month and joined the lawsuit as a co-plaintiff, arguing the panel is seeking cellphone data that could expose the breadth of his own contacts with others involved in efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Bundren did not respond to several requests for comment.
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CNN’s Jamie Gangel contributed to this report.