In the days leading up to the Capitol riot, rather than trying to defuse his supporters’ anger about baseless election fraud conspiracies, former President Donald Trump was directing his staff to pressure the Justice Department to investigate those conspiracies.One of the unhinged claims Trump wanted the DOJ to pursue was a QAnon-inspired conspiracy claiming that former President Barack Obama and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had collaborated to steal the election by hacking into voting machines using an Italian military satellite.
Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.
New documents released by the House Oversight Committee on Tuesday show that in the space of just three days in late December and early January, Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, sent five separate emails to the DOJ asking it to investigate election fraud conspiracy theories.Chief among Meadows’ claims was that Italy was somehow to blame for the fraud.On December 30, Meadows emailed acting U.S. Attorney General Jeff Rosen, attaching a translation of a document from an individual in Italy claiming to have “direct knowledge” of a plot by which American electoral data was changed in Italian facilities “in coordination with senior U.S. intelligence officials (CIA)” and then loaded onto “military satellites.”
The letter claims that an employee at the Italian aerospace company Leonardo had been arrested and was prepared to testify about how military satellites and the CIA had hacked the election.In reality, two employees of Leonardo were arrested in early December, not for trying to interfere in the U.S. election but for orchestrating a plot to use malware to obtain schematics of civil and military aircraft components between 2015 and 2017.Undeterred by Rosen’s unwillingness to entertain the conspiracy, Meadows emailed again on New Year’s Day, this time sending the acting attorney general a link to a YouTube video entitled “Brad Johnson: Rome, Satellites, Servers: an Update.”
In the video, Johnson, who claims to be a retired CIA station chief, claims that a spike in votes for Biden after the close of the polls came from the Italian hacker satellite. The jumps that Johnson refers to were the result of an administrative error and entire batches of mail-in and absentee ballots being entered at once.
Rosen forwarded the video to then-Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, who responded with just two words: “Pure insanity.”Meadows had also asked Rosen to put Johnson in direct contact with the FBI so he could share information with them. Rosen refused.Johnson is now a contributor to the Epoch Times, a media outlet run by the Chinese religious movement Falun Gong and known for spreading pro-Trump conspiracies. He says he was given the information about the Italian military satellite by an Italian journalist.Johnson appears to be among the first people to promote the conspiracy online, but the narrative was quickly picked up by the online QAnon ecosystem and promoted by leading figures in the movement, like former 8chan administrator Ron Watkins and pro-Trump lawyer Lin Wood. While Johnson didn’t mention Obama’s involvement, the former president quickly became a part of the conspiracy theory after a recording of a conference call with a woman named Maria Zack was shared widely within QAnon channels.
Zack is a Georgia-based lobbyist and political operative who previously worked on White House campaigns for Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich and ran a super PAC supporting Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential bid. In the recording, Zack claims to have obtained more information about the Italian hack from those directly involved, and revealed that at the tail end of his second term Obama took $400 million from “pallets of cash” destined for Iran and funneled it to Renzi, who would help derail the Trump presidency. Zack even claims to have gone to Mar-a-Lago on Christmas Eve to tell Trump about the Italian conspiracy. There is no evidence to back up Zack’s claims, but just six days later Trump’s chief of staff was clearly aware of the conspiracy and demanding the Department of Justice investigate it.