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St. Louis start-up that funds news sites is financing and profiting from the alt-right

A much-heralded Washington Avenue startup led by some of the top names in St. Louis tech and venture capital is far more extensively tied to the alt-right than previously reported..   

Last spring the Gateway Journalism Review reported that LockerDome, now known as Decide Technologies, had maintained a long business relationship with the Gateway Pundit, a notorious, St. Louis-based purveyor of lies and conspiracy theories.  At the time, the GJR also noted that Decide was working with other hard-right sites, and identified five of them.   

But an in-depth review shows that the connections run much deeper. Through its business partnerships, Decide is helping to finance dozens of alt-right sites, while at the same time making money off of them.  Among these sites are several that, like the Gateway Pundit, are among the most notorious in the alt-right ecosphere. One online advertising expert has found Decide advertising on more than 100 alt-right sites.

(Photo by Matthew Black via Flickr)

The sites cover the spectrum of right-wing passions and fantasies,  ranging from election fraud to Covid-denial, from alleged Pelosi-family depravity to Donald Trump-reverence, from climate change-denial to passion for guns. Steve Bannon, Alex Jones, and St. Louis’s own Jim Hoft (aka the Gateway Pundit) — all have been given a platform by sites working with Decide.   

“LockerDome’s partnerships with disinformation outlets mean that the company helps fund and at the same time profit from organizations that are undermining American democracy,” said Nandini Jammi. a co-founder of the Check My Ads Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog over the digital advertising industry.

The examination this summer also showed:

  • LockerDome, by its own account, has benefited from a close, multi-faceted relationship with Washington University in St. Louis. About one-fifth of its employees have degrees from Wash U and  Cliff Holekamp, until recently the head of the entrepreneurship program at Washington University’s Olin School of Business, is an investor and board member.
  • Missouri taxpayers provided modest subsidies to LockerDome’s operations in 2019 and 2020, as the company benefited from the state’s Missouri Works program.
  • Some of the nation’s wealthiest individuals and families – including some whose politics could not be more opposed to that of the alt-right — have a sliver of an ownership stake in the company. There is little likelihood that these individuals and families are aware of the stake, however, because of its small size.  

Officers and board members of LockerDome did not respond to repeated requests for comment.  

Specific Websites

 The GJR examined a wide range of alt-right websites  in search of digital ads that could be traced to Decide.  Here is a  sampling of sites where such ads were seen, often in abundance:  

  • Rumble.com, which hosts Bannon’s War Room, the daily podcast by Donald Trump’s strategist and adviser Steve Bannon.  Bannon was recently found guilty of contempt of Congress for refusing to respond to a subpoena by the House Committee investigating the January 6 Attack on the Capitol.    
  • American Thinker.com, which on June 6 ran a story called “How the COVID Vaccines Kill,” and which Website IQ ranks as the 10th most popular fake news and conspiracy site in the United States and the United Kingdom.
  • The Federalist.com, which the Center for Countering Digital Hate reported in 2021 was one of the “toxic ten” publishers” responsible for nearly 70 percent of Facebook-user interactions with content that denied climate change. (There is no connection between this site and the Federalist Society.) LockerDome ads were also seen on another of the “toxic ten” sites and LockerDome claims to have a partnership with two more — four in all.   
  • Bigleaguepolitics.com, which in October 2020 warned: “It doesn’t appear that the swamp can be drained at the ballot box… patriots [must] rise up and defend justice quickly.” 
  • LifeZette.com, which in 2016 suggested that voting machines might be rigged because of links to a company owned by George Soros, the all-purpose bogeyman of the right.On July 25 it reported “Soros Bought Los Angeles DA Thinks Gun Control Stops Crime.” 
  • Rightwing.org, which recently ran a defense of the theory that white Americans are being replaced by immigrants of darker skin.
  • Gunpowder Magazine.com, which in 2020 reported: While “the mainstream media would have you believe that America has a problem with rifles” and “an epidemic of gun violence,” the reality is “Twice as Many People (are) Killed with Hands, Fists, Hammers, Clubs than Rifles.”  
  • Patriot Party Press.com, which recently reported “Religious Leaders Assure Us that Jesus Christ Lives Through Donald Trump,” below ads from Decide about blood pressure treatments.
  • Patriotalerts.com, which on August 5 reported (next to a raft of ads from Decide) that church and state were not meant to be separated in America.  Rather, “The separation of church and state was to keep the state out of the church, not the church out of the state.”  
  • Political Cowboy.com, the website of Chad Prather, whose tweets advocate “Texas secede from the socialism that’s coming.”   
  • And World Net Daily, or WND.com, which gained notoriety for promoting the theory that Barack Obama was not born in America, and which the Southern Poverty Law Center has accused of “peddling white nationalism.” Above ads from Decide, WND reported this past June 27, “Elites finally reveal their #1 enemy: Christians.” 

This list, however, just scratches the surface.

A report  posted by Decide itself lists dozens of disinformation sites with which it works. The report — at https://decide.co/sellers.json — is a list of the publishers and intermediaries with whom Decide has approved an account. In other words, these publishers and intermediaries have been cleared by Decide to receive its advertising bids – and when those bids succeed, advertising – on their domains.    

The report’s list is not complete, however.  Decide ads can be found on numerous disinformation sites – including some that are listed above — that are not found on the “sellers.json” list. Jonathan Allen, publisher and editor of Entrepreneur Quarterly, which covers the St. Louis tech scene and which has also reported on LockerDome’s alt-right connections, said he had personally found Decide advertising on 110 alt-right sites before he simply stopped counting. 

The Gateway Pundit and Mainstream Media

Until recently, another site where LockerDome ads were readily visible was thegatewaypundit.com, owned by St. Louisan Jim Hoft. 

Hoft, who was the subject of a GJR profile in 2021, currently faces a defamation suit in the Circuit Court in St. Louis from Wandrea “Shaye” Moss and her mother Ruby Freeman, two Georgia poll workers who served as witnesses in the Hearings by the House Select Committee Investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol. In a story under his byline on Dec. 8, 2021, Hoft accused the two women of being “crooked” operatives who counted “illegal ballots from a suitcase stashed under a table!” Fifteen days later, he wrote that his site had been “the first to identify the women in the late-night ballot-counting video.”   A state investigation refuted the allegations, but the women nevertheless faced months of harassment, including death threats, and Freeman went into hiding. 

Meanwhile, Hoft faces another defamation suit in the U.S. District Court in Denver, where Eric Coomer, the former security chief for Dominion Voting Systems, sued him for alleging he was, among other things, “an unhinged Trump hater and Antifa supporter” who would ensure that Trump would lose the election. Coomer also said he had endured death threats and had had to go into hiding. In a deposition for this case, taken Sept. 17, 2021, Hoft acknowledged that he had no evidence for his accusations and did not seek comment from Coomer or his employer before making them. 

LockerDome appears to have done business with the Gateway Pundit since at least 2017,  and to have continued at least through earlier this year. Decide ads, which were all over thegatewapundit.com last winter, vanished from the site late in the first quarter of this year, and Webtechsurvey, which monitors technology use by websites, recently began listing Gateway Pundit as no longer using LockerDome.  

Whether this change is related to the fact that questions about LockerDome’s relationship with Gateway Pundit were being raised by two news organizations — first Reuters and then the Gateway Journalism Review – is unknown, because LockerDome wouldn’t comment. 

In any case, Decide may still be working with the Gateway Pundit through an intermediary, Jammi said. The arrangement would enable LockerDome to obscure its role by simply serving its ads through the intermediary, she said. 

Decide also serves ads to other kinds of sites, including many that are apolitical and deal with subjects such as investing and health.  And on its sellers.json list it claims to have relationships with several  – the GJR found at least five – that are overtly hostile to right-wing politics. The latter include, for example, dailysoundandfury.com, where Decide ads were visible August 25,  and The Proud Liberal.com, where no Decides were seen. The company  has relationships as well with several respected news organizations, including ncronline.com, the website of the liberal National Catholic Reporter; Euclid Media Group, owner of the Riverfront Times; Lee Enterprises, the owner of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; and CNN.com. It is names like these that Decide streams across the bottom of its website as examples of its publisher relationships. The mere fact, however. that Decide has been approved by these organizations as an ad vendor doesn’t mean that Decide actually serves ads, and none were spotted on Lee’s or CNN”s digital sites.    

Regardless, politically oriented websites appear to be one of if not the largest single area of concentration for the company’s business.  And among these politics-oriented customers, right-wing disinformation sites are overwhelmingly dominant.   

Decide’s Business

Decide is based at 1314 Washington Avenue. The company now has nearly 90 employees, according to its LinkedIn page, of whom 44 live in the St. Louis area. Many employees work remotely, and the company earlier this year opened a satellite office in Austin. That was shortly after it changed its name from LockerDome in a rebranding that it said better reflects its technology’s ability to use machine learning and data to help advertisers and publishers determine when to place advertisements. 

Decide operates an advertising platform for “brands” –the advertisers– and digital publications — known as publishers. Google and Facebook dominate this business, but its participants number in the thousands. Webtechsurvey places Decide 116th in market position. That share was enough to enable Decide to report 2021 revenues of more than $32 million.  

The basic role Decide plays is that of middleman, or market maker. It provides advertisements – “serves” them, in the industry jargon — to publishers from its network of advertisers. Money flows from the advertisers to the publishers with Decide getting a cut – a commission, essentially. That is true whether Decide serves the ad directly itself or indirectly through an intermediary in what is often a highly complex supply chain. How much money flows depends in part on how many “impressions” the ad receives – i.e. the number of times the publisher’s page is loaded and therefore displays the ad – or how many times visitors actually click on the ad – or both.  

All of this is much more complex than it sounds. Most of the work is done by computers, not human beings, so ad selection and pricing are done automatically and in the blink of an eye.  

Decide also places ads on sites through another channel. Instead of acting as a middleman, it places ads on some sites directly by embedding a small piece of its software – called a “widget” or “iframe” – in the site’s code.  Decide pays the owner of the site for this widget, likely according to a formula that reflects the number of total visitors, said Zach Edwards, a digital advertising expert who is also on the board of Check My Ads. Sites that Decide serves through this “back-door” channel do not have to be publicly disclosed on the sellers.json file, he said. 

No matter which channel is used, the upshot is that advertising networks like Decide are the parties that bring the publishers their revenue.  They “monetize” the business.  The pledge Decide makes on its LinkedIn page is: “Better returns for advertisers and better monetization for publishers.” 

Christo Wilson is an associate professor of computer science at Northeastern University in Boston who has studied  the advertising network industry.  “Without advertising networks,” he said in an interview, “many or most of the disinformation sites they serve would wither and die.”

But with them, they can gush riches. “The misinformation industry generates about $2.6 billion  in estimated advertising revenue that is automatically served to websites by programmatic advertising platforms,” according to an August 2021 report by the media measurement company Comscore and NewsGuard, a journalistic watchdog.  Most of that — $1.6 billion — was spent in the United States. And while $1.6 billion is not a lot in the context of all advertising spending, its significance is magnified, industry observers say, by the fact that alt-right websites, unlike most legitimate news operations, have only minimal staff and equipment.  

Consider Hoft.  He wholly owns the Gateway Pundit and operates it out of his house here. He writes a substantial portion of it himself, with help from a handful of people who contribute their own brief articles. Yet Similar Web, a provider of web analytics, estimates his revenues at $10-$15 million a year.  Hoft, who says he used to be a human resources consultant before his website started generating more money than his day-job, now lives at a prominent St. Louis address.    

A Dream List of Investors

Decide, then called LockerDome, was founded in 2008 by Gabe Lozano, a St. Louis native whose initial ambition was to build a social media site focused on children’s sports teams and leagues.  By Lozano’s own account, however, the company got off to a slow start, and after repeated failures, the 30-year-old founder reportedly had to move back into his parents’ home. 

In early 2012 his luck changed. The company announced an early-stage “angel” investment by a group that included Jim McKelvey, a St. Louisan who is the co-founder of Square, the mobile payment processing company, and of Cultivation Capital, a St. Louis-based venture capital company. McKelvey, who has been called “the face of St. Louis Tech” by the St. Louis Business Journal, is also the founder of LaunchCode, a widely praised initiative which provides free tech training and places its graduates in jobs.  Joining McKelvey in the investment was Brian Matthews, also a co-founder of Cultivation Capital. McKelvey and Brian Matthews promptly joined LockerDome’s board.

In an email exchange, McKelvey told the GJR he still has his investment in the company, but that it is small, and that he had dropped off the board “several years ago,” His departure, he said, had nothing to do with the company’s embrace of alt-right sites; that, he indicated, came later.  “This was all pre-Trump,” he wrote. 

McKelvey added that he had been told once earlier, even before the GJR contacted him, that LockerDome had been working with alt-right sites. But “I don’t comment on politics as I’m on the Fed,” he wrote. He is a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.  

Matthews, however, continues to serve on the Decide board. In addition, his wife, Carol Matthews, joined Decide as an employee in 2011, according to her LinkedIn page, and since 2016, has served as the company’s senior vice president operations.

Significant investments finally began coming in 2013, when Cultivation Capital led a $6 million round of “Series A” funding — early-stage venture capital.  Joining Brian Matthews in leading that investment was Cliff Holekamp, another co-founder of Cultivation Capital who is also that firm’s managing director and general partner. Holekamp recently retired from his position as leader of the entrepreneurship program at Washington University in St. Louis, and now works out of Cultivation Capital’s office in Greenville, S.C., according to his LinkedIn page.   

The Series A round was also notable for the visibility of some of its other participants.  With its focus then on the sports world, Decide was able to attract funds from St. Louis Cardinals President Bill DeWitt III and other members of the  Cardinals ownership group invested, along with some out-of-town sports figures. 

In December 2014 came the company’s largest single investment — a $10 million Series B round led by Cultivation Capital but that also apparently included Holekamp personally. This round also included an investment by the Washington, D.C.-based Revolution venture capital firm which was small in size – less than $275,000, according to a Revolution spokesperson – but enormous in prestige.  

The chairman and CEO of Revolution is Stephen Case, the co-founder and former CEO and chair of America Online. Revolution has three funds, one of which was created in 2017 and is called the Rise of the Rest Seed Fund.  The LockerDome investment is now a portfolio holding of this fund.  Among the investors in Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, according to this Revolution press release, are some of the top names in all of American business:  Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post; members of the family of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker; members of the Koch family; members of the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame; Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks; and more. 

The Revolution spokesperson noted that at the time it made its investment, LockerDome was focused on sports. Asked to comment on LockerDome’s current operations, the spokesperson did not respond.  

Regardless, by the end of 2014 LockerDome’s investors represented both the “A” team of St. Louis venture capitalists and a high-profile national fund that later attracted some of the richest people in the United States.    

Whether the Cardinals’ ownership is still invested could not be learned; DeWitt’s office did not return a reporter’s phone calls. Revolution remains invested and indications are that the investments by Cultivation Capital, Mathews, and Holekamp are as well. Efforts to reach all of them failed; they did not respond to emails or, in the case of Matthews, to a detailed phone message.

Fame, Pivots, and “Changing the World”

As LockerDome’s fortunes rose, Lozano became a go-to man for local media seeking insight into St. Louis tech.  As early as 2013, he was able to pack the hall as a guest speaker to students at Washington University’s Olin School of Business.  According to a story in the Olin Blog, he described himself and his company during that appearance in terms that seemed both down-to-earth and romantic.   

“’You must have an insane passion for what you’re doing and a ‘don’t die’ attitude,” the story quoted him as saying … ‘You get no sleep, no social life, and most days you feel like you were hit by a Mack Truck.’  But, he added, ‘I would do it all over again. It’s been the most rewarding experience of my life.’”

The excitement around LockerDome built even more when Forbes, a national publication, published two major pieces in late 2013 and the first half of 2014 that described the “pivots,” or strategic changes, it had made since its inception. In the first pivot, Forbes noted, the company had broadened its focus beyond children’s sports to professional ones. In the second, dubbed “LockerDome 3.0,” the company had expanded beyond sports. LockerDome’s users, the second story reported, were now encouraged to “engage around both sports and non-sports topics, including entertainment, music, business, politics, fitness, men’s style, gaming, and technology.”  The story then added:

“ LockerDome is also gaining attention from top political publishers. The Daily Caller and National Review Online, for example, both use LockerDome’s poll widget to ask questions about hot-button topics such as Edward Snowden and the turmoil surrounding the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“‘If there’s one audience that trumps sports fans in terms of passion, it’s probably the political audience,’ Lozano says.’ The passion and engagement around political content stands up against any vertical we’ve experimented with in the digital media space.’”

Forbes didn’t say so, but The Daily Caller is an online news and opinion site co-founded in 2010 by Tucker Carlson, who since then has become an uber popular host on Fox News.  By the time Lozano was citing the passion of its readers, the publication had already been accused of multiple breaches of journalistic ethics and standards.

These facts seemed to escape comment, however.  The buzz around Decide instead echoed the idealism that had characterized the tech industry nationally in its early years.  “I’m not motivated by sports,” Lozano said in a video interview published on the company’s YouTube channel in August, 2015. “I’m motivated by changing the world.”   

In a separate interview, Lozano noted that when LockerDome was building its 3.0 incarnation, he and some employees worked 81 straight days without leaving the building. They slept in what the company called “LockerDorms.”   

“People want to positively impact the world and people around them and that to me is what drives us to sleep in the office for 81 days straight,” Lozano said in the interview, which is posted on YouTube here.     

State Aid

By the end of 2015, LockerDome was being described by St. Louis Magazine as “one of the fastest growing sports sites in the world” and the company was announcing plans for a multi-million dollar expansion and the hiring of up to 300 more people over the next five years. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon scheduled a personal visit to LockerDome’s offices to join Lozano in announcing the planned expansion and to tout St. Louis and Missouri as the home for such a success.  

“… it’s exciting to see companies like LockerDome continuing to grow here in the Show-Me State,” Nixon said in a Dec. 23, 2015 press release from the Missouri Department of Economic Development.  “This significant expansion by a homegrown startup is proof positive that the investments we’ve made through the Missouri Technology Corporation are creating jobs and accelerating growth all across our state.”

Nixon’s reference was to a $200,000 investment the Missouri Technology Corporation (MTC) had made in LockerDome in 2012, an investment that facilitated the company’s receipt of $1 million from private investors. The MTC sold its stake in 2013 for twice what it had invested, the press release said, but it noted that added that more financial might be in the offing.  

“Missouri has offered (LockerDome) a strategic economic incentive package that the company can receive if it meets certain job creation criteria,” the release said. “The City of St. Louis as well as the St. Louis Development Corporation also assisted the company with its expansion.”

LockerDome was in line to get $3.7 million in state tax breaks from the Missouri Works Program if it carried through on its plans, the DED said.  In fact, however, the 200 to 300 new jobs never materialized.  The company therefore received just $40,115 in assistance, a DED spokesperson said in an email, and is no longer enrolled in the program. 

Nonetheless, the taxpayers of Missouri subsidized the company by $40,115 while the company helped monetize disinformation.

 A spokeswoman for the St. Louis Development Corporation said that neither the SLDC nor the city had ever provided Decide with financial assistance.  She could not account for why the press release suggested otherwise. It’s possible the state, which issued the release announcing the city’s and SLDC’s assistance, was just trying to be gracious to the host city, one observer speculated.

Where the Money Is

In any case, it is in some respects not surprising that Decide has found a niche in the alt-right.   It’s where the money is.   

In 2017 a study by the Campaign for Accountability looked at a sample of 1,255 partisan news sites that partner with Google on advertising. It found that right-wing content publishers — many of them outright disinformation sites — accounted for a disproportionately high 68 percent of Google’s revenue from the sample, while left-wing sites accounted for only an estimated 4 percent.  And the very top revenue-generators for Google were the hyper-partisan ones, the report said. One of those top generators was WND, with which Decide partners still today.

The reason the right-wing disinformation sites spew money for their ad networks, the Campaign for Accountability said, is simple: they draw the most traffic – and therefore the most impressions and clicks. The Gateway Pundit, for example, drew 26.6 million visits on desktop and mobile in May, 2022, according to Similarweb, a New York-based provider of digital intelligence.  In the same time period, stltoday.com, the site of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, drew 4.8 million. Chicagotribune.com drew 11.9 million.

Google routinely severs disinformation sites – including, last year, the Gateway Pundit — from its ad network.  But its efforts are seen as half-hearted by its critics, who say it is reluctant to kill the golden goose.  “Google is the biggest funder of disinformation in the world,” Jammi said. 

And the whole digital advertising industry is marked by a lack of transparency that makes it difficult even for advertisers to know where their ads are getting published, let alone for anyone to identify all the links in the supply chain between an advertiser and a publisher, observers say. 

“Advertising on misinformation is an industry-wide problem,” NewsGuard reported in July. Even in the midst of the House Select Committee’s investigation into the events of Jan. 6, it noted, “business is still booming for the misinformation websites that spread false claims about election fraud in the 2020 election, according to a new analysis of ad placements on (these) websites …”

Christo said flatly: “I find the whole online advertising business to be deeply unethical and harmful.”  

But even within this industry, Decide is a “bottom-feeder,” Christo said. 

One reason is the ads themselves.  Some are politically focused and are attempts at ferreting out personal data for potential future targeting. Many Decide ads, for example, are framed as political survey questions: One running August 15 on BigLeaguePolitics.com, for example, showed photos of Presidents Biden and Trump and Vice President Kamala Harris and asked, “Do you want Trump to be president again?” To submit a vote – yes, no, or I’m not sure – the reader had to provide his or her full name, email address and zip code.  The fine print showed that the ad served by Decide was from WinRed, an online GOP fundraising platform.     

Only one Decide ad on the BigLeaguePolitics site that day was political.  All the others were non-political and mainly for miracle cures – weight loss, tinnitus, erectile dysfunction, and sciatica. A bottle of pills for the latter costs $69.  Other ads were for get-rich-quick schemes.  

One Decide ad led  – halfway literally – to a promotion for snake oil. The ad is for “Exodus Effect,” an “Anointed Oil” that does everything from improving digestion to relieving inflammation to enhancing “brain functioning” and “blood circulation” – not to mention providing an “Antidote to Old Age.” The product is promoted with a video that promises to “Blow Your Mind” if you are one who “Believes in God.” 

Writing in The New York Times, Farhad Manjoo in August noted the identical pattern with Alex Jones’ website, which is also loaded with ads of this nature. Manjoo identified a “symbiotic relationship between bogus, unregulated health products and bogus political claims,” and asserted that Jones’ conspiracy theories are best seen “as a marketing tool for his real products,” the supplements. The best way to attack disinformation, he suggested, may be to better police the market for alternative health products.

More prestigious brands might face blowback if ads for their products showed up on alt-right sites, observers noted.  But the advertisers behind miracle cures and get-rich-quick schemes might actually want their ads placed on such sites, because the target markets for both – the buyers of such products and the consumer of alt-right news – are so similar. 

A Code of Conduct

Some companies in the digital advertising industry, Google included, have announced guidelines to keep them from monetizing sites that promote hate, racism, and even disinformation.  But Google has been accused of ignoring its own guidelines, and it would appear that Decide may be following the same pattern. 

On its website, Decide lists its “Customer Content Standards,” which apply to both its advertisers and publishers.  Here is some of the specific language:

“Customer Content must not:

  • Contain any material that is defamatory, obscene, indecent, abusive, offensive, harassing, violent, hateful, inflammatory, or otherwise objectionable.
  • Promote, support, or incite (or be possibly capable of inciting) violence or unlawful acts, or incite individuals, groups, and/or entities which engage in violence or unlawful acts.
  • Be likely to deceive any person.
  • Promote or disseminate anything that qualifies as “fake news” or any information that is at high risk of being false.
  • Cause annoyance, inconvenience, or needless anxiety or be likely to upset, embarrass, alarm, or annoy any other person.”

But above this list, Decide includes a huge caveat: “We are not responsible or liable to any third party for the content or accuracy of any Customer Content posted by you or any other user of the Service.”

In any case, it wouldn’t be difficult for Decide to adhere to its Customer Content standards, Matt Skibinski, general manager at NewsGuard, said in an interview.  Ad networks can simply exclude offending publishers from their networks, as Google has done with a handful of the most notorious. 

But the incentives in the digital advertising industry are with expanding networks, not restricting them, he and Christo both noted.  “There’s a lot of intentional looking the other way in this industry,” Christo said. The networks want to be able to tell advertisers that they have an extensive inventory of publishers with whom they can serve their ads, and they want to be able to tell publishers they have an extensive inventory of ads they can serve. 

Decide has shown a willingness to push the envelope in the past, Christo said.  In a peer-reviewed study published in 2018, he and his co-authors called out LockerDome as one of just a few companies that had been using a bug in the popular Chrome browser to deliberately evade efforts by websites to block unwanted ads. 

“This demonstrates that there are ad networks who were willing to exploit the … (bug) … to serve ads, and that unsurprisingly, these shady ad networks cater to shady advertisers,” the authors wrote.

The bug has since been fixed, but Edwards, of Check My Ads, said it appears that Decide is still operating “by its own rules with unclear quality standards, disinformation standards and technical standards.” Rather than following the standards Google has set for advertising platforms that collaborate with it, Decide is “attempting to build a runaround of Google and rewrite their own rules without telling anyone what those rules might be,” he said.  

The Future

After the premature death of his wife, Lozano felt the need for a change in scenery, and moved to Austin, Tex., where Decide now has a small office. That doesn’t mean, however, that Decide can’t continue to grow in St. Louis if its business model continues to work.  St. Louis remains the company’s home base. 

In the opinion of critics like Jammi, however, companies like Decide shouldn’t even exist.

“Millions of advertiser dollars are being sucked into these black holes that could be directly funding real local journalism,” she said. “That money could be so easily reallocated toward things that benefit our communities, if advertisers would only take more responsibility with their ad budgets.”   

Paul Wagman is a former Post-Dispatch reporter and FleishmanHillard executive who is now an independent reporter, editor and communications consultant. 




Book Compares Presidential Press Treatment

Jon Marshall, “CLASH: Presidents and the Press in Times of Crisis.” Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. Potomac Books. 2022. 413 pages. $36.95.

Widely acknowledged as one of the leading scholars writing about the intersection of presidential history and American journalism, Jon Marshall of Northwestern University, has made yet another critically important contribution to the literature in the field. As a follow-up to his well-received “Watergate’s Legacy and the Press,” his newest work, aptly titled, “CLASH: Presidents and the Press in Times of Crisis,” extends well beyond the interests of those within the halls of academe.

 ABC-TV’s Chief Washington Correspondent, Jonathan Karl, termed it “a compelling tutorial” about the troublesome, often troubled relationship between presidents and the press. PBS’ NewsHour host, Judy Woodruff, zeroed in on the author’s meticulous research in examining what is often viewed as a contentious relationship; extending from John Adams and Abe Lincoln to Barack Obama and Trump, as well as six other presidents.

 Other well-seasoned reporters from the political press corps including Susan Page and Leonard Downie have also commented on the great timeliness of this book; noting how the nature of what appears as a natural conflict is often especially difficult to assess during periods of unprecedented challenge and change — not unlike our recent experience.

In an introduction entitled, “The President and the Peculiar Press Conference,” Marshall spells out the ugly details of President Donald Trump’s March 19, 2020 meeting with the press, addressing the Coronavirus Task Force while the deadly virus was spreading through the U. S. In the introduction. When asked by NBC News’ Kristen Welker about the level of the nation’s readiness to address serious health concerns, Trump claimed that the nation was highly prepared: “The only thing we weren’t prepared for was the media,” adding “The media has not treated it fairly.” 

Trump then shifted attention to a press representative from the conservative One America News (OAN) Network discussing the role of China in the spread of the virus while lambasting coverage of that topic in particular by what he termed liberal news outlets: the “New York Times” and “Washington Post.”  

This section provides an excellent prelude to the first few chapters about battles with the press while it covered major national conflicts, namely those addressed by John Adams and Abraham Lincoln while serving in the highest office. The book lays bare eight themes leading up to coverage of Donald Trump and efforts to attack the press, with repeated charges of “fake news” being repeatedly leveled at leading elements the nation’s press corps.

“CLASH” consists of twelve chapters. It begins with telling quotes about the relationship between presidents and the press emanating from Washington news insiders, including the late Gwen Ifill, concerning the frequent and continuing charges the press has had to endure from some presidents; implying either rude conduct as media watchdogs or virtual lapdog behavior, depending on predilections in dealing with certain presidents and the unique challenges the faced while in office. 

 The various personal dilemmas and attendant media strategies of ten influential presidents are thoroughly covered including Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama. And as contemporary observers might expect, Trump is the only one to get attention in two different chapters focused specifically on press antics entitled: “The Art of the Lie” and the “Year of Crisis.” 

Many things make this book interesting and noteworthy. The chronological organization of “CLASH” provides a solid grounding and insight about how the American government and the press grew to function so contentiously. The special attention it gives to U.S. presidents functioning during times of national crisis are especially thoughtful and appealing. And with over eighty pages of notes, the book’s documentation is as careful and thorough as any you will find. Marshall provides very keen observations about how individual presidents got caught up in some very extreme and often embarrassing circumstances, such as those of both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard M. Nixon. The circumstances are detailed along with challenges they faced; focused on treatment by the press. 

Having taught journalism history courses for almost fifty years now, I have found issues related to press coverage of the nation’s highest office-holders to be somewhat reflective of the times when the courses are taught. And within our current context, almost every journalism historian has asked the same question: “How can the story of the Trump Presidency — with its outrageous, sometimes insulting behavior in dealing with the press — be fairly conveyed?”

 Jon Marshall’s “CLASH” can be credited for providing a seasoned and careful comparative answer. Each chapter of the book offers excellent political context with attention to many historic benchmarks and background on how certain presidents publicly faced-up to some unique challenges. This well-written and very carefully researched book provides a start to answer the comparative question in relation to how recent presidential-press conflicts compare to the past. All in all, Jon Marshall has produced a very useful and — especially considering the times in which we live — very perceptive and illuminating book.

Michael Murray is a University of Missouri Board of Curators Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus and a former member of the Gateway Journalism Review Board of Advisors.




Brilliant lawyers invented false claims supporting Trump’s election lie

Young lawyers chosen to clerk for U.S. Supreme Court justices are the most brilliant law school graduates of their generation. Some go on to serve as justices themselves – Roberts, Rehnquist, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Barrett, Kagan, White, Breyer, Stevens.

One remarkable fact about President Trump’s attempt to block the peaceful transfer of presidential power for the first time in the 230 year history of the Constitution is that a remarkably high number of brilliant Supreme Court clerks signed on – John Eastman (Clarence Thomas), Sen. Josh Hawley (John Roberts), Sen. Ted Cruz (William Rehnquist) and D. John Sauer (Antonin Scalia). 

All four backed the unconservative notion that one state – Texas – should be able to get the Supreme Court to toss out the presidential electors of four other states to reverse the election. Eastman even advised Vice President Mike Pence he had the power to refuse to accept certified electors on Jan. 6 and riled up the crowd that marched on the Capitol in support of that objective.

(Illustration by Steve Edwards)

As former Sen. John C. Danforth and other noted Republicans put it in a friend of the court brief in December, 2020, the idea that one state could get federal courts to knock out the electoral votes of other states is “contrary to 230 years of history” and “would make a mockery of federalism and separation of powers.” Federalism and separation of powers are central to tenets of a conservative interpretation of the Constitution.

A notch down from these brilliant former Supreme Court clerks are other well known attorneys who directly represented Trump in court and are facing disciplinary consequences – Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, Sidney Powell, who had represented disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Lin Wood, a noted Georgia attorney, Cleta Mitchell, participant in the infamous call in which Trump attempted to force Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to flip the state; Jenna Ellis, a Colorado attorney and conservative media commentator; Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump aide who has sought  “alternate electors”; and Joseph diGenova, who was Reagan’s U.S. Attorney in D. C. and said after the 2020 election that a Trump Homeland Security official should be “drawn and quartered. Taken out at dawn shot” for having declared the election free of fraud.

The lawyers are accused of lying to the court and/or in public statements about the election and for arranging for fake electors.

Legal publications such as the National Law Journal, Lawfare and the ABA Journal have covered the legal disciplinary actions well, with Lawfare devoting a special section to Capitol Insurrection.

In a column last month, Lawfare’s highly respected editor, Benjamin Wittes, zeroed in on a judge’s ruling in March that Eastman’s claim of attorney-client privilege failed because the privilege does not cover an attorney’s actions helping a client commit a crime – in other words Eastman’s attempt to help Trump subvert the election. 

Wittes wrote, “It is no exaggeration to say that the history of the United States has never seen an account of a president’s conduct quite so devastating as the first nine pages of Judge David Carter’s opinion of March 28 in Eastman v. Thompson. …

‘Certainly Watergate produced no document about Richard Nixon comparable to it in its combination of brevity, spare factual simplicity, and total evisceration of its subject’s honor and conduct. Nor did Teapot Dome or the Whiskey Ring scandals produce such material concerning Warren Harding or Ulysses S. Grant. Nothing that Lawrence Walsh had to say about Ronald Reagan or that Kenneth Starr wrote about Bill Clinton, both after years of investigation and exposition at great length, remotely approaches it in power.”

The opinion, Wittes says, “leaves the fair-minded reader in no doubt that the events that took place between Joe Biden’s defeat of Trump at the polls and congressional certification of Biden’s victory on Jan. 6 were an all-out effort by the lame duck president to seize and retain power in unapologetic defiance of the law using extra-constitutional means—up to and including violence directed against a coordinate branch of government….the judge certainly appears to be correct that Trump was using Eastman’s legal services in conduct that, as a prima facie matter, violates both 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2) and 18 U.S.C. § 371, the former of which forbids the corrupt obstruction of an official proceeding and the latter of which criminalizes conspiring to defraud the United States.”

Remarkably, even though the federal judge has basically accused Eastman of having aided Trump in a crime – not just any crime but a crime to block the peaceful transfer of power for the first time in American history – Eastman is continuing to press the case by calling upon states such as Wisconsin to decertify their electoral votes for Biden.”

Meanwhile, a new group of liberal lawyers, the 65Project has begun filing complaints against lawyers involved in filing the 65 baseless lawsuits Trump forces pressed without success between the election and inauguration.

There has been little coverage of the group, aside from a detailed article by Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post. The only other coverage found in a Lexis-Nexis search was by ​​The National Pulse, a website that says “it is delighted to be able to state that we have never had to issue a substantive correction, apology, nor retraction unlike large corporate media entities who rush to publish false stories.” Its story is headlined: U.S. Election Integrity Lawyers Are Being Targeted By a Group Whose Leader Accepted a Chinese Communist Propaganda Junket.” It smears the group as a Chinese front:  Former Senator Tom Daschle – a board member of a new dark money, left-wing group targeting conservative election integrity lawyers – took a trip to China sponsored by a key communist influence group flagged by the U.S. government for its efforts to infiltrate American politics. The new group, 65 Project, seeks to deter right-wing lawyers from fighting on behalf of election integrity by attempting to disbar and intimidate lawyers who fought for the issue during the 2020 election.”

Action taken against Giuliani, Powell, Wood

The New York courts suspended Giuliani’s law license a year ago, which means his license will likely remain suspended as the years-long disciplinary process plays out. The court decided that Giuliani made numerous knowingly false statements, including: “false statements that there were 600,000 to 700,000 fabricated mail-in ballots [in Pennsylvania]; “false statements that dead people ‘voted’ in Philadelphia in order to discredit the results of the vote in that city;” “numerous false and misleading statements regarding the Georgia presidential election results,” such as false statements related to voting by underage voters, felons, and dead people and false statements concerning Dominion Voting Systems and illegal vote counting; and numerous false statements about illegal voting by undocumented residents of Arizona.”

Sidney Powell and Lin Wood were sanctioned by a Michigan court last summer also for claims about Dominion. The court ordered them and seven other lawyers to pay the fees and court costs and complete continuing legal education courses in the areas of election law and pleadings standards. The court also referred the lawyers to the authorities responsible for disciplining lawyers in Michigan and the other states.

“[T]his case was never about fraud—it was about undermining the People’s faith in our democracy and debasing the judicial process to do so,” U.S. District Judge Linda Parker said, calling it “a historic and profound abuse of the judicial process.” 

Powell asserted that Dominion had provided a “back door” that allowed officials to “take a certain percentage of votes from President Trump and flip them to President Biden.” She claimed the software was designed “to rig elections” and  was a “massive criminal voter fraud.” She also suggested that state officials got kickbacks and bribes to install these systems. 

She said Dominion was “founded by foreign oligarchs and dictators to ensure computerized ballot stuffing and vote manipulation to whatever level was needed to make certain Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez never lost another election.”

When sued for defamation, Powell’s lawyer suggested Powell’s public statements were not intended to be statements of fact and should not have been taken seriously. No reasonable person would conclude that the statements were truly statements of fact, Powell claimed.

In another case involving false claims about Dominion, a federal judge last November ordered two Colorado lawyers to pay nearly $187,000 to defray legal fees growing out of their pro-Trump election suit. The two lawyers, Gary D. Fielder and Ernest John Walker, filed the case in December 2020 as a class action on behalf of 160 million American voters, alleging there was a complicated plot to steal the election from Trump. The court concluded:

“As officers of the Court, these attorneys have a higher duty and calling that requires meaningful investigation before prematurely repeating in court pleadings unverified and uninvestigated defamatory rumors that strike at the heart of our democratic system and were used by others to foment a violent insurrection that threatened our system of government.”

The two had sought $160 billion in damages, alleging  a scheme involving Dominion; the tech company Facebook, its founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan; and elected officials in four states.  

Loopholes in ethics rules

One aspect of the legal ethics issue that has not been covered extensively is the ambiguity about whether a lawyer’s false public statements about an issue of public importance are subject to discipline.

This is especially uncertain when the lawyer is speaking as a public official and is not representing a client – Sens. Hawley and Cruz, for example.

Public officials speaking about important government matters can claim First Amendment protections, even for some false claims, experts say.

Even lawyers who were acting for clients may escape discipline for statements made out of court to the press. 

Andrew M. Perlman, dean of Suffolk Law School, wrote, that, “while representing President Trump’s legal interests (i.e., while acting in their roles as lawyers), Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani, and John Eastman made numerous comments outside of court, such as at press conferences, on social media, and on television, that some have alleged were knowingly false but did not necessarily violate any legal responsibilities outside of the rules of professional conduct.

“..The comments by Eastman, Giuliani, and Powell did not violate the rules of civil procedure because they were not made in the form of court filings.”

Lawyers who lie in legal proceedings can be sanctioned for violating rules of civil procedure.

But lawyers who lie to the press on the courthouse steps, can’t be sanctioned under those rules. The only discipline they could face is violating the lawyer’s Code of Professional Responsibility, which is more vague.

Perlman says the only provision that applies is “Comment [6] to the Preamble to the Model Rules, which says that: a lawyer should further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.”

But he concludes:  “In ordinary circumstances, the profession should hesitate to discipline lawyers for discussing matters of great public interest, including (and perhaps especially) with the press. But given the institutional stakes here and assuming the constitutionality of the basis for discipline, the profession should not be reluctant to impose discipline when lawyers knowingly spread misinformation in the course of litigation that undermines the legitimacy of our democracy.”

One final ethical gray area surrounding Jan. 6 was Justice Thomas’ failure to recuse himself from a Jan. 6 case even though his wife, Ginny, wrote 29 texts to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows urging efforts to overturn the Biden win. 

The National Law Journal quoted legal ethics experts who concluded Justice Thomas arguably crossed the line in not recusing himself from a case where he was the lone dissenter to a Supreme Court action turning over Trump records to the House investigating committee.

The ethics experts said Thomas’ failure to recuse himself was an “unprecedented situation,” but also pointed out that justices make their own decisions on recusals under the current rules that guard separation of powers.

William H. Freivogel is publisher of GJR and covered the U.S. Supreme Court for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.




News Analysis: Top Missouri politicians fuel political ambitions, campaign chests with election myths

Attorney General Eric Schmitt and U.S. Senator Josh Hawley are filling campaign coffers and building poll numbers by embracing President Donald Trump’s myth about winning the 2020 election. Both led efforts to disqualify electors from swing states and reverse the election.

Last month, Schmitt traveled to Mar-a-Lago and stood next to Trump while raising $1.6 million for his U.S. Senate campaign. Schmitt’s ad last summer kicking off his campaign featured Trump throughout and began with Trump’s election claim “You’re not going to have a future in ‘22 or ‘24 if you don’t find out how they cheated. The election was rigged and we can’t let that happen.” Schmitt follows by saying, “Election integrity is very important.”

Schmitt’s involvement in Trump’s election challenge began even before the election when Solicitor General D. John Sauer participated in “WAR GAMES” with staff from the Republican Attorney General’s Association (RAGA) to prepare for expected legal challenges.  

(Illustration by Steve Edwards)

Then in December, 2020, Schmitt and Sauer helped revive Trump’s election claim by rounding up support for what many lawyers think was a meritless appeal to the Supreme Court by the attorney general of Texas, attempting to block electors from key states.

In January, 2021, Schmitt received notification that the RAGA group was meeting in a special session Jan. 5. On that day, RAGA sent out a robocall announcing that on Jan. 6:  “At 1 p.m. we will march to the Capitol building and call on Congress to stop the steal. We are hoping patriots like you will join us to continue to fight to protect the integrity of our elections.” Schmitt says he didn’t know about the call.

On Jan. 6 Schmitt issued a tweet saying the “violence and lawlessness simply cannot be tolerated.”  It was posted more than four hours after the violence and lawlessness began.  

After RAGA’s chairman, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, and key RAGA staff members quit in protest against the promotion of the organizer of the Jan. 5 robocall, Schmitt did not join them. Instead, he temporarily stepped into the chairman role.

‘War Games’ before the election

As the Post-Dispatch reported last year,  two St. Louis attorneys, Mark Pedroli and Elad Gross, obtained documents through a Sunshine Law request showing that between July 2020 and January 5, 2021, RAGA and an affiliate, the Rule of Law Defense Fund (RLDF), held at least 30 meetings for attorneys general senior staff.  Among those meetings was what the organizers called a “WAR GAMES” session to plan for a potential Trump defeat. The documents show Sauer personally confirmed details of his registration and his plan to attend by Zoom.  

In a Sept. 24 email addressed to “Generals,” Adam Piper, executive director of RLDF, wrote: “WAR GAMES – 32 AG Staff Members are huddled in Atlanta for a series of conversations planning for what could come if we lose the White House.”

Then, in December, 2020, RLDF held five meetings, Gross wrote in a report on the 90 pages of documents, and on Jan. 5, another. 

Gross noted that many of these meetings were held during working hours, suggesting the possibility of ethical violations by public servants doing politics instead of the public’s business. Also of concern, he wrote, is the fact that RAGA apparently raised funds for its election efforts by providing special access to corporations that contributed $50,000 or more — organizations the attorneys general conceivably could have investigated.  In July 2020, for example, Schmitt co-hosted a panel with Craig Katerberg, then general counsel of Anheuser-Busch. The subject was “The Business of Making Friends.”

The Texas Hail Mary  

In early December of 2020, court after court dismissed or ruled against the president’s election claims. His assertion that he’d won the election was in danger of losing impact.

Behind the scenes, however, lawyers aligned with the president were preparing a Hail Mary strategy.  With time running out before the scheduled Dec. 14 certification of state electors, the lawyers needed to get their election challenge in front of the Supreme Court, with its six-member conservative majority, immediately. The only way to do that was to have one state, through its Attorney General, sue another. 

Schmitt and Solicitor General Sauer played a key role in hurrying this case to the Supreme Court.

Among the lawyers involved in this plan were Kris Kobach, the former Kansas Secretary of State, and  Michel Farris, a prominent anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage figure who is the CEO and General Counsel for the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).  

Both Hawley and his wife, Erin, have a history with the group.  As The Riverfront Times reported in 2018, they both had taken some minor paid gigs with an offshoot of the organization in earlier years. The organization’s website also shows that Erin M. Hawley is currently a “senior counsel to the appellate team.” (Her Twitter account, however, shows no sign of this employment until after Jan. 6, and there has been no indication that either she or her husband had any role in the following events, which Farris has reportedly said he did separate from his ADF employment.)

A group including Farris took a suit he wrote and shopped it to members of the Republican Attorneys General Association (see here and here). They went first to two obvious picks – RAGA’s chair and a member of the RAGA executive committee. But both declined, leaving the group, apparently, with their third choice, Ken Paxton, the Texas Attorney General. 

Paxton was a flawed vehicle for the suit because he was under criminal investigation for inappropriately using his office to help a donor. But he was agreeable. His Solicitor General, however, was not. Kyle D. Hawkins refused to put his name on the document and resigned a few months later, forcing Paxton to get a special outside counsel to help out. That counsel was Washington lawyer Lawrence J. Joseph, who, it so happens, has filed numerous amicus briefs for conservative clients including the Clayton-based Phyllis Schlafly legacy organization, Eagle Forum Legal Defense & Education Fund.  

The Paxton case was filed Dec. 7. It claimed that four states won by Biden – Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — had made “unconstitutional changes” in their election procedures “by taking—or allowing—non-legislative actions to change the election rules” in their states. These changes had “opened the door to election irregularities in various forms. … (with the result that) seeds of deep distrust have been sown across the country.”  

As examples of irregularities, the suit cited numerous allegations that it said had already been described in numerous lawsuits then pending in the four states or in public view. These included witness testimony of “the physical blocking and kicking out of Republican poll challengers; thousands of the same ballots run multiple times through tabulators; mysterious late-night dumps of thousands of ballots at tabulation centers; illegally backdating thousands of ballots; signature verification procedures ignored; more than 173,000 ballots in the Wayne County, MI center that cannot be tied to a registered voter.” They also included videos of various abuses and “facts” for which there was no “reasonable explanation,” such as the “mysterious” pre-election theft of  “a laptop and several USB drives, used to program Pennsylvania’s Dominion voting machines … from a warehouse in Philadelphia.” 

The suit also claimed that the chances that Biden could have won the election in the four states after trailing as badly as he did at 3 a.m. Nov. 4 were less than one in one quadrillion. It didn’t mention that this “analysis” was true only if the mail-in votes – which were counted after the in-person votes – came from voters with the same characteristics as their in-person counterparts. They weren’t. The mail-in votes came disproportionately from Democrats, who were more Covid-averse than Trump supporters.   

Most or all of these allegations would have been familiar to readers of the Gateway Pundit.  Stories about how the mistreatment of Detroit poll watchers, for example, began appearing immediately after the election ended.  “Republican Poll Watchers Prevented From Entering Detroit Ballot Counting Center — Local Officials Say It’s Due to ‘COVID’ Concerns (VIDEO),” Joe Hoft reported Nov. 4. And two weeks later, “Republicans were systemically (sic) denied access to observe the vote count.” 

Other Republicans skeptical

But many Republicans reacted skeptically to the Paxton suit. “I frankly struggle to understand the legal theory of it,” John Cornyn, a Republican Senator from Paxton’s own state of Texas, was quoted as saying.  “Why would a state, even such a great state as Texas, have a say so on how other states administer their elections?” 

Former Missouri Sen. John C. Danforth and other prominent Republicans made the same point in an opposing amicus brief they signed two days later. The brief, which apparently escaped local media notice, argued that the notion that one state could challenge how others run their elections runs “contrary to 230 years of history” and “would make a mockery of federalism and separation of powers.”  

Beyond that, the case was simply “shoddy …. embarrassing,” said Jon Western, a political science professor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. who has been investigating the actions of those involved, in part through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. It aggregated “anecdotes here and there with no evidence” and suggested the remedy “was literally to disenfranchise the voters of four states. And let’s be clear about it, it’s really four major urban metropolitan areas — Atlanta, Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia — that they were most objecting to, and the racial dimensions of this are clear.” 

Many of the allegations the suit contained had already been adjudicated in state and federal courts and been dismissed, Western and others noted. Even U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr had said Dec. 1 that there was no evidence of large-scale fraud, while Trump’s Department of Homeland Security had called the election “the most secure in American history.”

Soon, however, the cavalry appeared. And leading the charge were two St. Louisans — Schmitt, who succeeded Hawley as Missouri Attorney General, and Sauer, Missouri’s Solicitor General.   

An emergency request for support

Born in Bridgeton, Schmitt graduated from De Smet Jesuit High School and Saint Louis University Law School.  He served as a Glendale alderman and as a two-term state senator from St. Louis County while also practicing law at the Clayton office of Lathrop & Gage (now Lathrop GPM). Elected Missouri Treasurer in 2016, he shifted over to the Attorney General’s office when Hawley got elected to the Senate in 2018 and Gov. Mike Parson appointed him to fill his spot.  He was elected to a full term on Nov. 3, 2020. Throughout, he had retained Hawley’s Solicitor General, Sauer, who at some point after Schmitt took over moved his office from Jefferson City to the Wainwright Building in downtown St. Louis.   

On the evening of Dec. 8, , Sauer emailed Republican Attorneys General in other states and appealed to them to sign on to an amicus brief supporting Texas’s motion.  He gave them until 1 p.m. the next day to do so. “With apologies for the short deadline,” he wrote, “given the time-sensitivity of this case, we are requesting joins by 1:00 p.m. Central TOMORROW, 12/9. We are planning to file tomorrow afternoon.” (Sauer’s role was revealed in emails released to Western by states other than Missouri; none of the more than 2,700 pages of documents he received from Missouri, Western told the GJR, contained Sauer’s emails to other states relating to his coordination of the amicus brief.)  

Seventeen states, including Missouri, eventually joined Texas.  The amicus brief was filed Dec. 9.  Its cover page bore just two names – Schmitt’s and Sauer’s. Schmitt himself wrote it, according to a spokesperson, and Schmitt’s photograph adorned an article about it on Fox News.

 “Good work, @Eric_Schmitt!” Hawley tweeted.   “Texas is not alone!” Ed Martin declared on his Pro-America Report podcast.  

The Schmitt-Sauer amicus brief, dialed back on the Paxton complaint by not mentioning the one-in-one-quadrillion canard. But echoing Paxton, it alleged that voting safeguards in the four states had been “unconstitutionally abolished” by “non-legislative actors” – such as the Supreme Court in Pennsylvania, which had extended the number of days after the election in which mail-in ballots could be counted.   

“For decades,” the brief said, “responsible observers have cautioned about the risks of fraud and abuse in voting by mail …” “Hundreds” of examples from past elections showed why — including a 2019 mayoral race in the little St. Louis suburb of Berkeley and a 2016 State House race in the city of St. Louis.  

By making the unconstitutional changes they did — including changes involving mail-in voting – the four states had only worsened the conditions for fraud and abuse in the recent election, the brief said.  The result?  A situation that “raises grave concerns,” a set of circumstances that “undermined public confidence.”    

Recipe for election chaos

In separate replies the next day, the four defendant states said Paxton’s arguments — and by extension, those made by Schmitt and Sauer – were not only conceptually off-base — they were factually wrong.

As many others had also said, if Texas could challenge the way other states conducted their elections, then every state had the right to challenge every other state and elections would end up in chaos.   

But beyond that, the four states argued that they had not allowed non-legislative actors to change their elections rules. “The most basic problem with Texas’s argument, of course, is that Michigan has not violated its election law.” “… “there was no state law violation when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court temporarily modified the deadline for the receipt of mail-in and absentee ballots, because state constitutional law required it.” Etcetera. 

On Dec. 11, two days after the amicus brief was filed, the Supreme Court dismissed the case in a few sentences.  “Texas has not demonstrated a judicially cognizable interest in the manner in which another State conducts its elections,” the court wrote.

 It didn’t matter, Western said.  The damage was done.

“It gave credibility, and it gave legs to Trump’s effort,” he said. “It enabled Trump to say, ‘It’s not just me, it’s all these attorneys general.’” 

That was exactly the argument Sean Hannity, one of Trump’s most important allies, made on his show the day the brief was filed.

“Tonight, one thing is very clear,” the influential Fox News pundit said.  “If we don’t fix what is a broken, corrupt election system, the country is in deep trouble.“ 

“Let’s be clear,” Hannity added. “No state’s attorney general, you’ve got to understand politics here, would ever put their name or reputation on the line over a case that lacks merit on the law or [is] without a strong constitutional basis. Definitely not 17 attorneys general. That is what happened. Eighteen total when you include Texas, no matter what political alliances they have or don’t have.”

Had the Republican Attorneys General not signed onto the Texas suit, Western contended, “You would not have had the kind of mobilization we had on January 6.  … It (the big lie) would have died a very slow death, but it wouldn’t have led to January 6.” 

Of course it’s impossible to know.  But it’s indisputable that the effort the two St. Louisans coordinated gave a boost to the idea that the election had been rigged.  

Many of Western’s concerns were reported last spring by Tony Messenger in the Post-Dispatch. But in speaking with the GJR, Western added that he was seeking information about any potential coordination or at least communication on the amicus brief between Sauer and his former boss Hawley, and between Sauer and other members of Congress. The amicus brief, it should be noted, provided support to the position Hawley took just a few weeks later when he announced he would challenge the election results in Pennsylvania and thereby guarantee a debate in both chambers of Congress over the acceptance of the electors.   

Western said he also wanted to see what messages Sauer had received from others about the amicus brief and his conversations with other attorneys general. 

Asked whether he thought Schmitt and Sauer should be called by the Select Committee, he said he didn’t know whether the Committee would see the subject as within its purview, but that regardless, the answers needed to be found.

The Select Committee has shown an interest in the amicus brief. As part of a larger records request last August 25 to the National Archives, the Committee made a specific request (see p. 6 of this letter) for Presidential and Vice Presidential “documents and communications relating to an amicus brief concerning litigation involving the State of Texas.” 

Western’s interest in the election stems from his interest in threats to democracy across the globe.  The U.S. is experiencing an unprecedented erosion of its democratic institutions, he said, in part because “Nobody is stepping back and taking a breath” as they “play with fire.” 

“Eric Schmitt’s and John Sauer’s decision to support this amicus brief is a perfect example of that,” he told the GJR. “They lost a sensibility about what is important. There was no threat to the integrity of the vote in Pennsylvania and Georgia and Wisconsin and Michigan. It was just not a problem … and the perception they perpetuated and continue to perpetuate that something was wrong is an erosion of the principles of democracy.” 

Meanwhile, Lawyers Defending American Democracy (LDAD), a Boston-based group that calls itself nonpartisan and says it has the support of 5,000 attorneys around the country, has asked that the organizations that license lawyers in each of the states that joined the amicus brief “promptly investigate the breach of ethical rules by these public officials.”  

The chairman of LDAD is Scott Harshbarger, a Democrat and former Massachusetts Attorney General who was once head of the bipartisan National Attorneys General Association (NAGA) and a former president of Common Cause. He told a podcast interviewer that Paxton and the Republican attorneys general who filed the amicus brief written by Schmitt belonged in the same category as Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, both of whom have been disciplined for their roles in challenging the election results. And a complaint by the LDAD itself to the State Bar of Texas has resulted in an ethics investigation of Paxton in his home state.  

“The core of our ethical rules as lawyers is that you are supposed to have a factual basis for any allegation you make,” Harshbarger said.  “You are supposed to be able to prove cases in court, whether you win or not. 

“That’s why this extreme behavior by these attorneys general … to file this lawsuit cannot be justified as a legitimate state action. … Our argument is that if we are not going to hold lawyers to the ethical standards of this profession when the attack is on the core element of our democracy and the rule of law … whenever are we going to hold lawyers accountable?” 

In Missouri, complaints of ethics violations by lawyers are filed with the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel (OCDC), an agency of the Missouri Supreme Court, whose chief is Alan D. Pratzel. Complaints are kept private, however, unless and until an investigation results in a decision to bring the issue to the Supreme Court.  There is thus no way to know whether an ethics complaint related to the amicus brief has been filed against Schmitt or Sauer unless the complainant comes forward — and that has not happened.   

This March, however, a new group was formed that threatens to bring an ethics complaint. The 65 Project is a new nonprofit organization named for the number of suits Trump allies filed to contest the election results. Its mission is to find all the lawyers who violated their professional responsibilities and seek discipline for them. The group has strong links to members of the Democratic Party, Axios reported.

The GJR asked The 65 Project whether it was considering filing a complaint against Schmitt and Sauer. Michael Teter, the group’s managing director, replied:  “Attorney General Schmitt’s and Solicitor General Sauer’s active role in writing and promoting litigation that lacked any factual or legal basis — and, in fact, relied on intentional falsehoods — is cause for concern and further investigation. We will look intently into their roles and work on this matter and if we determine it’s appropriate, we will file a bar complaint.” 

In response to the GJR’s request for an interview, Sauer referred a reporter to Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s office.  Nuelle emailed a statement that read in part: “Solicitor General John Sauer is one of the finest legal minds in our Office, the state of Missouri, and frankly the country. Defending and ensuring the integrity of our elections is of the utmost importance. Mr. Sauer will continue to do critical work on behalf of all the six million Missourians that the Attorney General’s Office serves, and will continue to be a stalwart for freedom, liberty, and election integrity.”

Nuelle didn’t respond to a separate email with a list of specific questions concerning Schmitt.  Hawley’s spokeswoman, Abigail Marone, also did not respond to a list of specific questions sent twice to her email.      

The Jan. 5 robocall for ‘Patriots’

On Jan. 3, a website promoting the protest in Washington called MarchtoSaveAmerica.com listed the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) as one of the event’s sponsors. Later that day, the name on the since-deleted website was changed from RAGA to the Rule of Law Defense Fund (RLDF). RAGA calls the RLDF its policy arm. Critics say it’s really its dark-money fund-raising arm.

 On Jan. 5, the RLDF sent out a notice for a conference call about the next day’s rally to Schmitt and others involved in RAGA. Whether he or anyone from his office participated, however, is not known.  

In any case, RLDF also put out a robocall on Jan. 5.  “At 1 p.m., we will march to the Capitol building and call on Congress to stop the steal,” the caller said. “We are hoping patriots like you will join us to continue to fight to protect the integrity of our elections. For more information, visit MarchtoSaveAmerica.com. This call is paid for and authorized by the Rule of Law Defense Fund, 202-796-5838.”

On the morning of Jan. 6, Paxton, a RAGA member whose suit Schmitt and Sauer and other Republican-led states had joined, was among the speakers at the rally in front of the White House where Trump also spoke.  Shortly after 12:30 p.m. that day, Hawley pumped his fist to protesters outside the Capitol in a gesture of solidarity that was caught by a photographer.

Forty minutes later, at 1:10 p.m., rioters began grappling with police on the Capitol steps.  The insurrection had begun. 

Later that night, Hawley voted to object to the certification of the Biden electors from Pennsylvania and Arizona.  But only six other senators voted with him on Pennsylvania and five on Arizona.  Biden’s victory was confirmed.

On the afternoon of the fateful Jan. 6, the Missouri Attorney General tweeted: “Every American has a right to peacefully protest but violence and lawlessness simply cannot be tolerated. Please join me in praying for the Capitol Police and other law enforcement today in Washington DC.” The timestamp on the tweet was 4:28 p.m. Central Standard (Twitter automatically adjusts timestamps for the time zone of the account) – 4 hours and 18 minutes after protesters began grappling with police on the Capitol steps, 3 hours and 58 minutes after the protesters broke through the final police barricades outside the Capitol, and more than an hour after President Trump had tweeted a video asking the rioters to go home. 

Schmitt and other RAGA members denied knowing in advance about the robocall, which they blamed on a staffer. NBC quoted a spokesman for RAGA as going further: “The Republican Attorneys General Association and Rule of Law Defense Fund had no involvement in the planning, sponsoring, or the organization of Wednesday’s event.” 

On Jan. 8, RAGA’s executive director stepped down without explanation.  It was later reported that he had been present at a meeting Jan. 5 in which Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Peter Navarro, Corey Lewandowski, Michael Flynn Sr., and others had planned the rally.   

RAGA came under withering attack from Democrats and some nonprofit watchdog groups. “RAGA, RLDF — and the Republican AGs who blindly take their support — have no legal or moral ground on which to stand here,” the co-chairs of the Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA) said.  “The organization paid for robocalls to recruit attendees, it was listed as a sponsor of the event, its former Chair spoke at the rally that incited a mob, and former GOP AG Josh Hawley led the effort in Congress to undermine the election.”

In April, 2021 RAGA found a new executive director — Peter Bisbee, the head of the RLDF, which had made the robocall.  Chris Carr, RAGA’s chairman and the Attorney General of Georgia,  quit in protest, saying he had “a significant difference of opinion” with the group’s strategic direction. Two key staffers also quit.

Schmitt, seeming to some observers to signal his approval of the strategic direction Carr deplored, became the new chairman.  This acceptance was far more important than whether he really did or did not know in advance about the robocall, these critics said. 

In May, however, Schmitt stepped down, while remaining on the executive committee. On March 8, Roy Blunt had announced he would not seek re-election to the Senate. Schmitt announced his candidacy to replace him.  

Schmitt then appeared to, if anything, ramp up his already aggressive strategy of bringing suits which, regardless of motive, clearly redounded to his political gain among Trump supporters and potentially of Trump himself.  

Earlier, Schmitt had sued China over its handling of the coronavirus and taken the unusual step of intervening to dismiss St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s prosecution of the McCloskeys, the Central West End couple who waved guns at peaceful protesters. Now, with Sauer again taking the lead, he supported Republican lawmakers who refused to implement the expansion of Medicaid, even after Missouri voters had approved a constitutional amendment mandating it. With the help of others in his office, he launched an attack on the Biden Administration for its moratorium on oil and gas leasing and drilling permits on federal land. He flew to the southern border of the United States to join Paxton in announcing a lawsuit to force construction of the border wall. But most notably, he launched a whole series of attacks on COVID-driven mask mandates, including ones ordered by school districts trying to protect children and staff. Again and again, he sued the kind of local government bodies whose autonomy Republicans like himself had zealously guarded. In January, 2022 the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his attempt to block the Biden administration’s requirement that organizations providing Medicare or Medicaid funded care for the elderly require workers to be vaccinated for COVID-19 in most cases.  

In a March, 2022 speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee, Schmitt proudly ran through his litany of suits, adding that liberal Democrats had a plan “to remake America in the image of Marx and to trade in the Declaration of Independence for the Communist Manifesto…..If the Left wants to remake America, they are going to have to take it from our cold dead hands….Let’s fight, let’s win, let’s go Brandon.”

Schmitt’s political approach to his job represented a change from the way occupants prior to Hawley had approached the position, said James Layton, a longtime former Missouri solicitor general who is now in private practice in Clayton. 

“Chris Koster and Jay Nixon really didn’t see the principal job of the attorney general as using litigation to vindicate their policy preferences,” he told the GJR.  “I can’t say they never allowed a policy preference to affect litigation strategy. But it was never a focus of what they were doing. They were not out there looking to make that a big part of what they were about. They were more concerned about showing they could protect against criminals, stand up for consumers, and ensure quality in the day-to-day work of the office, rather than diving into the abortion wars or gun rights or other hot political issues.”

Besides not limiting himself to representing state agencies, Schmitt has actually defied one of them –in connection with mask mandates.  The director of the Department of Health and Senior Services wanted Schmitt to appeal a judge’s ruling that local health departments lack the authority to issue orders such as business closures or mask mandates. But Schmitt declined, provoking Charles Hatfield, a veteran of the attorney general’s office under Democrat Jay Nixon, to tell the Missouri Independent:  

“The idea that the attorney general can just go in personally, and because of his own personal feelings, stop appeals and dictate policy — if you allow that to happen, you basically have an attorney general running the entire state. And that’s never how it’s worked before, and it’s not how it should work.”

What Schmitt could have done, Hatfield told the GJR, is what attorneys general have done in the past when faced with conflicts of interest: Hire an outside lawyer to represent the interests of the Department seeking legal representation 

Schmitt’s defenders say he was always very conservative, and some academic observers have said that attorneys general from both parties have politicized the position in recent years.  

And the Trump base is the battlefield for all the Republican Senatorial wannabes, who include Rep. Billy Long, of Springfield, and Rep. Vicky Hartzler in addition to Schmitt, Eric Greitens and Mark McCloskey.  Schmitt cannot win this contest without overcoming the stench that adheres in some nasal passages to his past conduct, Ray Hartmann and other observers have noted.  That conduct includes collaboration with Democrats and support for a proposal to make Lambert Field a major cargo hub for trade with China.  

 Schmitt is receiving generous support from Americans for Prosperity Action (AFP Action), the super PAC run by fossil fuel billionaire Charles Koch. Koch and his late brother David used to be among Greitens’ biggest backers, but since the former governor was felled by scandals, Charles has embraced Schmitt to the tune of more than $600,000, The Intercept has reported. (Koch also “has sponsored an academic campaign against vaccine and mask mandates and shutdowns,” The Intercept noted.) Schmitt has also received major donations from Rex Sinquefield, as well as from Peter Thiel and August A. Busch III. 

Schmitt’s political approach might not have been surprising given his now explicit Senatorial aspirations. But it was perhaps especially unsurprising given his relationship, which has been only lightly reported, with political consulting firm Axiom Strategies. 

Axiom is run by Jeff Roe, who has achieved renown for his truth-bending and brutal tactics. Those tactics included an ad Roe admitted funding in 2015 that ridiculed the appearance of Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Schweich, who later committed suicide.  In another case, after a political opponent of his client attended a fundraiser at the home of House Leader Nancy Pelosi, Roe produced an ad accusing the opponent of having “San Francisco-style values” and featuring images of a flamboyantly dressed black man dancing with two women

Josh Hawley, D. John Sauer & the Louisiana Connection  

A newcomer to politics, Hawley was elected Attorney General of Missouri in 2016. For several previous occupants, the job had been a stepping stone: John C. Danforth became a senator, Jay Nixon a governor, and John Ashcroft a governor and a senator and a U.S. attorney general.  But Hawley famously campaigned with an ad that disparaged the climbing game and promised he’d focus on the state job.

Once in office, however, Hawley showed signs that he was both further to the right than some of his early backers had realized, and more interested in higher office than he had let on.

Moving quickly to install his own senior staff, his new hires included the man he picked for solicitor general, Dean (“D.”) John Sauer.

Hawley and Sauer had much in common. Both were members of the influential Federalist Society, which describes itself as “a group of conservatives and libertarians dedicated to reforming the current legal order.” They are about the same age – Hawley is 42, Sauer, based on school records, appears to be in his mid-40s.  Like Hawley, Sauer had been a stellar student, first at St. Louis Priory School, where at age 17 he’d earned the notice of the Post-Dispatch for winning a summer research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and then at Duke University, where he earned a Rhodes Scholarship.  Harvard Law School eventually followed.  And like Hawley, who clerked for Chief Justice John Roberts, Sauer then clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the Court’s conservative luminary. 

Returning to St. Louis, Sauer worked for U.S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway as an assistant U.S. Attorney during President George W. Bush’s second term, then entered private practice here. His work as an appellate attorney was good enough to bring him an award from the Missouri Bar Association in 2013. A couple of years later, he won a suit that challenged the constitutionality of Missouri’s participation in Common Core educational standards, for which he won recognition in Breitbart News.  And in 2016, he contributed $10,816 to Hawley’s campaign for attorney general.  His father, Fred N. Sauer, and a brother, Frederic G. Sauer, also contributed.  

In earlier years the job of Missouri solicitor general – whose office defends state interests in the appellate courts — might not have been attractive to a man of Sauer’s obvious abilities. But the position has grown in importance, said Layton, the former solicitor general. As a trend to politicization grew in state attorneys general offices, “one thing that started happening was attorneys general recruiting very smart, ambitious folks to be solicitor general,” he said.  “In part (that was) because they could handle those kinds of cases, not just on appeal, but in the trial court, and in part (it was) because some of them saw that if Jeff Sutton could go from this role to the federal court, maybe I could too.” (Former Ohio Solicitor General Jeffrey S. Sutton is now the Chief U.S. Circuit Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, based in Cincinnati.)

Hatfield, a Jefferson City lawyer who has been Sauer’s antagonist in several court cases, and who served as counsel and chief of staff for a decade himself under Attorney General Jay Nixon, thinks Sauer is “more ideological than political.” Hatfield finds Sauer “very smart,” “very professional,” but above all, “intense.” Sauer showed “a little extra oomph,” for example, in pursuing the state’s effort to de-license abortion services at Planned Parenthood ’s St. Louis clinic. But that oomph seemed to come from personal conviction, Hatfield said. 

Another attorney, who asked not to be named, also called out what he considered Sauer’s “highly competitive, intense nature” in his professional conduct. The attorney said Sauer has taken “a very hard line” in trying to keep Missouri from having to pay out in cases where judgments have been rendered against it, or when the state has been ordered to pay attorneys’ fees. On the one hand, he said, that means Sauer is “a really good advocate for preserving the assets of the state of Missouri.” On the other hand, he said, the state has to pay 9 percent interest on debts when payment has been delayed, so the strategy can be counterproductive.

In any event Hawley promptly installed Sauer in an office down the hall from his own in the Supreme Court building in Jefferson City and made him one of his chief aides – indeed, first among equals, in Hatfield’s view. The 2017-18 “Blue Book” listed Sauer as Hawley’s first assistant as well as the state’s solicitor general, and tied with two others for the highest salary on staff. 

Hawley also wasted little time in adopting a political approach to his office. A few months after taking office, for example, he created an Anti-Trafficking Unit  to crack down on human trafficking, and then participated himself in a raid that Tony Messenger and other critics called nothing but “a campaign photo-op,” producing cable news coverage but no felony convictions, and orchestrated by Hawley’s political consultants. Eventually, it became known that Hawley’s political consulting firm, OnMessage Inc., had been advising him and his staff, possibly in violation of state law, to improve his prospects in the run for the Senate he announced in 2017.  Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican, launched an investigation, which ended up clearing Hawley. But some said the investigation was compromised by the fact that Sauer was allowed to sit in on interviews with key witnesses.

Regardless, it became known that Hawley’s trusted political advisor from OnMessage was Timmy Teepell, a Louisiana native and veteran of that state’s politics who had once been chief of staff to Gov. Bobby Jindal. Kyle Plotkin, who served nearly three years as Hawley’s chief of staff, is also an alumnus of the Jindal shop; he succeeded Teepell as Jindal’s chief of staff. When Plotkin left Hawley’s office last October, it was to join OnMessage. (Another alumnus of Louisiana politics, it might be noted, is Ali Alexander, who went on to play a big role in organizing Stop the Steal rallies leading up to and including Jan. 6.)   

Under these circumstances, it is reasonable to wonder whether Hawley’s decision to walk past the protesters before entering the Capitol Jan. 6 and give his famous fist pump was planned rather than  spontaneous. No other Senator was photographed interacting with the crowd that day, and Hawley is now raising money off the encounter by selling coffee mugs decorated with an image of the gesture.   Neither Teepel nor Hawley responded to inquiries from the GJR. 

Hawley, Steve Bannon, Robert Mercer & Peter Thiel

In the fall of 2017, as Hawley considered running for the Senate, he is reported to have faced a dilemma. He had received key early backing from former Sen. Danforth, but that August, Danforth had blasted Trump in a Washington Post op-ed. Now Hawley had to worry about being outflanked on his right by Martin, who was considering his own run. Specifically, there was concern that Bannon, the influential Republican strategist and Trump advisor, might support Martin, who had recently presented Bannon with an award at a meeting of the Phyllis Schlafly Eagles at the St. Louis Airport Marriott hotel. 

So Hawley reached out to Bannon and convinced him that he was in fact the only candidate who could beat the Democratic incumbent, Claire McCaskill.  

Bannon’s blessing most likely carried weight at the time with Robert Mercer, the Long Island-based hedge-fund billionaire who had invested heavily in Bannon’s Breitbart News. (The two men fell out in 2018.)

Whether because of Bannon or because of his direct outreach earlier to Mercer himself, or both, Mercer became important to Hawley’s fundraising.  Individuals or Political Action Committees associated with two organizations to which he was a key donor — the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth — emerged as Hawley’s two largest contributors. Together they gave about $600,000 between 2017 and 2022.

Hawley wasn’t the only Jan. 6th figure showered in recent years by six-and-even-seven figure contributions from the Mercers. Trump received $15.5 million in 2016, after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz had benefited from $13.5 million, before the Mercers switched candidates. The Black Conservatives Fund, associated with Ali Alexander, received $155,000 in Mercer money in the years before he became a leader of Stop the Steal rallies and the Jan. 6 March to Save America. (Alexander recently said he had received a subpoena to testify in the Justice Department’s Jan. 6 investigation and would cooperate.) The Mercers were also the biggest donors to Kelli Ward, chair of the Arizona Republican Party, who in the weeks before Jan. 6 urged Trump to “cross the Rubicon.”  And they gave $21,600 to Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, who famously thundered “today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass” at the Jan. 6 rally, while wearing a bullet-proof vest. 

Another Hawley contributor is the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA).  

RAGA has given Hawley more than $3.25 million – more than to all but one other individual since 2014 — according to records compiled by Followthemoney.org.  Hawley also received more than $300,000 from Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and sometime ally of Mercer’s in political giving. Thiel is a Trump supporter and outspoken critic of Google whom the Economist Magazine called the “scourge of Silicon Valley.” As a board member until recently of Facebook, he successfully argued for allowing unfettered claims in political advertising, The New York Times reported. The Times also called him “the Right’s New Kingmaker” in an article describing his recently increased political giving. Hawley, like Thiel, has been a vocal critic of Big Tech.  

Hawley defies McConnell

On Dec. 30, 2020, Hawley countered Senate Majority Leader McConnell’s expressed wishes by becoming the first Senator to announce he would object on Jan. 6 to the certification of electors from Pennsylvania. In so doing, Hawley guaranteed that a challenge to the election’s outcome would be debated on the floor of both the House and Senate.

Hawley was making the same argument that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court already had dismissed under the so-called “doctrine of laches,” which relates to undue delays in making legal claims. Even if Pennsylvania’s no-excuse mail-in voting rule in the 2020 election had violated the state constitution – as one state court recently said — voters had relied on the law to cast their ballots in November. It was too late to bring the challenge after the election, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided in December. It was even later when Hawley repeated the claim Jan. 6.

Alan Howard, an emeritus professor from Saint Louis University Law School, put it this way in a Kansas City Star column this year: “After an election is held, the no-excuse mail-in votes must be deemed legally valid because it is legally too late to disqualify those votes.

“Hawley proved he’s not just antidemocratic in (his) coup attempt. He’s also a sloppy lawyer,” Howard wrote. “Hawley falsely suggested that the United States, the longest continuous democracy on the planet, allowed its citizens to cast and count millions of illegal votes for the most powerful political office in the world. By improperly seeking to discredit and disallow Pennsylvania’s electoral votes for Biden, Hawley collaborated with Donald Trump’s corrosive effort to convince the American people — and the world — that America’s presidential election was improper and illegal.”

On Jan. 4, when Fox News interviewer Brett Baier asked Hawley whether Trump would remain President after Jan. 20, the Missouri Senator answered, “Well, Brett, that depends on what happens on Wednesday.” “Wednesday” was Jan. 6.

Brickbats and bouquets

Hawley’s actions won him the proverbial brickbats and bouquets. The latter came stuffed with dollar bills.  

On the evening of Jan. 6, after the violence had ended, some senators and representatives who had vowed to challenge the election results in Pennsylvania and Arizona reversed themselves. 

Hawley did not. Saying he was simply representing the doubts of Missourians, he went ahead and voted for the challenge in both states. He also condemned the violence and said those who had attacked police and broken the law must be prosecuted.    

Danforth accused Hawley of having “ginned up” the notion that the results of the election could be overturned, and called his early support for him “the worst mistake I ever made in my life.” The Post-Dispatch and Kansas City Star as well as some faith leaders asked for his resignation.  Seven Senate Democrats asked the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate him and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz “to fully understand their role” in the investigation. Simon & Schuster backed out of a contract for his book attacking Big Tech, prompting him to accuse the publisher of “canceling him.”

But Hawley filed a counter-claim against the seven Democrats, and if any Senate investigation is underway, there has been no public sign of it.  Regnery Publishing soon stepped forward to publish his book, which Steve Bannon, among others, praised lavishly during an interview with Hawley on his War Room program.  

Three weeks after the fateful day, Hawley told KMOX radio, “I never said that the goal was to overturn the election. That was never the point and that was never possible. … It is a lie that I was trying to overturn an election or that Ted Cruz was trying to overturn the election. It is a lie that I incited violence.”    

About the same time, Alan B. Hoffman, a retired St. Louis lawyer, along with 16 other Missourians, filed an ethics complaint against Hawley with Pratzel, the aforementioned chief deputy counsel in the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel of Missouri.  The complaint, which won notice in the Kansas City media but not in St. Louis, took note of Hawley’s allegations, tweeted December 30, 2020, that “some states, particularly Pennsylvania, failed to follow their own state election laws” and that there was an “unprecedented effort of mega corporations, including Facebook and Twitter, to interfere in this election.” 

“These statements,” the complaint said, “were false and known by Senator Hawley to be false at the time made or were made with reckless disregard for truth or falsity.” 

As a result, they violated the oaths he took as a Senator to uphold the U.S. and Missouri Constitutions and to practice law in Missouri. The complaint asked Pratzel to impose whatever discipline he finds appropriate, “including but not limited to reprimand, suspension and disbarment, if warranted.” In fact, however, if Pratzel were to find merit in the complaint, he would only make a recommendation, which the Missouri Supreme Court, the final arbiter, would consider. 

Hoffman told the GJR he finds it encouraging that he has heard nothing back from Pratzel because he thinks he would have been informed if the case had been closed. He also said he was encouraged by the fact that Pratzel has taken action in two politically fraught cases in the past, one involving St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner and the other Mark and Patricia McCloskey. This past February, the Missouri Supreme Court placed the McCloskeys on probation as attorneys, after Pratzel found that their actions showed “indifference to public safety” and “moral turpitude.” And earlier this month, Pratzel announced an agreement with Gardner in which he recommended she be reprimanded for mistakes in her office’s handling of the Greitens prosecution.

Immediately after Jan. 6 some of Hawley’s wealthy former donors renounced him.  But it all turned out to be great for fundraising. In calendar 2021, Hawley “nearly quadrupled the amount he raised in 2019 and 2020 combined,” the Kansas City Star reported.  

And although Hawley’s popularity appeared to take a hit in the weeks immediately after the insurrection, he was a hero to his more enthusiastic supporters and his broader popularity rebounded over time. 

This past summer, a poll by Saint Louis University and YouGov showed Hawley’s approval rating among Missouri voters stood at 52 percent, a 3.6 percent increase over the last year. Hawley’s approval rating was 12 percentage points higher than that of the more moderate Blunt.

Hawley has said he won’t  run for President in 2024. But there are plenty of people who aren’t convinced.  

After all, he also said that he just wanted to be Missouri’s Attorney General. 

Paul Wagman is a former Post-Dispatch reporter and FleishmanHillard executive who is now an independent writer and communications consultant.




Illinois gun media flourish with stories downplaying failed Jan. 6 insurrection, claiming election fraud

From new chat sites, to Facebook knock-offs, to print and radio, right-wing organizers are finding new ways to spread their message after being banned from social media following the failed Jan. 6 insurrection against the US government. 

Common messages in the media are that Donald Trump supporters weren’t responsible for the insurrection and that the presidential election was stolen from the former president, even though that is false. One magazine prints tips for armed citizens burying guns.

The Illinois Shooter and Gun News are two of the larger pro-2nd Amendment newspapers in Illinois. 

The Illinois Shooter is the Quarterly Journal of the Illinois State Rifle Association. It contains political content and the organization has lobbyists in Springfield. 

It has over 30,000 current subscribers and its Winter edition’s front page ran three featured stories: Its main was “Michigan Senate’s Election Fraud Hearing” Side bar: “Media Spikes Stories Helpful to Trump: Skews Election” and below the fold: “Justice Alito Warns of Threats to Our Rights.” 

The editor of the publication, Richard Vaughan, also runs Publishing Management Associations Inc. which specializes in Christian and conservative magazines and speciality publications. He said in an interview this past year he has seen an uptick in subscribers to the Illinois Shooter and his other publications and he attributes the increase to censorship on social media. He says there will be a print Renaissance because of it.

“I think magazines are going to have a kind of a Renaissance because people realize that it’s hard to cancel a publication because they are all owned by different companies and they’re, you know, the post office has to send it out,” Vaughan said.”So it has a bit of freedom that you don’t have when you’re under a platform like Facebook, Google, you know all the others that involve censorship.”

 The Shooter/ISRA also runs a weekly email newsletter and legislation alerts.

Gun News is another 2nd Amendment and right wing print publication in Illinois. It is published monthly by “Guns Save Life,” a lobby group founded 20 years ago in the state and separate but associated with the NRA and ISRA. It is sent to each member and distributed to businesses in Springfield, Decatur, Rantoul, Bloomington, Chicago and the Pontiac/Dwight region. It is also inside the Capitol in Springfield. It has been in publication since 1999 and the editions are typically 24 pages.

Some of the stories in their recent editions included: “The good American” a column denying the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was a full insurrection and comparing those who called it an insurrection to “Nazis” and fascists from 1933 Germany. Another story ran next to it titled “Rep. Mo Brooks says ‘Evidence Growing’ Antifa ‘orchestrated assault on Capitol.”  Another story was headlined, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. Got shovel? Strategies to avoid the loss of your guns.” It had  detailed instructions on how to bury guns in safe containers made of do-it-yourself materials or piping. At the bottom of the page is a graphic with two rifles and the caption says “when democracy turns to tyranny… the armed citizen still gets to vote.” 

John Boch, executive director of Guns Save Life and editor emeritus of Gun News, said they distribute about 17,000 copies each month and the distribution network is 100% volunteer. 

When asked how he finds a balance between publishing political issues and topics relating to gun interest, Boch said he tries to shy away from politics outside of gun rights and the right to self-defense.

Boch said he doesn’t necessarily believe people are returning to print in general, but he thinks Gun News has a unique, niche market that is appealing to the gun owner demographic.

“Without that I think we would be like your local newspaper that’s shedding readers faster than a German Shepherd sheds hair. But we have had, I suppose in a sense, that upswing in political content simply because there’s more going on politically,” Boch said. “Back when Donald Trump was president, gun control was going nowhere. Back before last fall’s election we had a narrow majority in the Illinois House and Senate that blocked gun control legislation and as such there was really nothing notable or very little newsworthy. When it came to politics there was less politics on the table.”

Boch said the media is doing a “pretty good job of shooting itself in the foot.”

“The media are Democratic by line, Democratic operatives with bylines in today’s world. And as a result Americans are tuning out from media,” Boch said. “In large part the collapse in readership and viewership of print and video publication, news related to the expression get woke go broke, there’s more than a little truth to that if you watch and see what happens to the world of media out there.”

Aside from traditional forms of media such as print, those on the right are also turning to alternative forms of social media in the wake of Jan. 6 where many, including Trump, were purged from mainstream networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

Some of these sites include MeWe, Telegram, Gab and Parler. These are popular among the right because of the lack of censorship and the encrypted chat features they offer.

MeWe is an alternative form of social media that looks similar to Facebook and operates like a blend between Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. After the social media purges took place in January on Facebook and Twitter, many rightwing groups moved to MeWe where founder Mark Weinstein says he won’t censor posts and values privacy. 

 Posters on MeWe spread false information/conspiracy theories. Some of these include posts saying masks don’t work, others say the election was stolen and others involve hateful rhetoric towards the Black Lives Matter movement.  

One of these groups where members of the right wing and Trump supporters congregate, includes IGOT-Illinois Gun Owners Together, who moved to the platform after their Facebook pages were shut down multiple times.

Some of the posts from their group include: A photo of Kyle Rittenhouse, who is charged with killing two protesters in Wisconsin last summer, with his gun  and a depiction of Jesus over his shoulder whispering in his ear “You see that man over there? He’s a pedo. That guy over there, he beats his girl. This other kid is not a medic he’s a burglar.” The post was captioned by an administrator named “Panda Man” and said “Kyle is a god Damm hero.”

Another post by Mary Jene Howe with a photo of a statue with a woman on her knees who appears to be having sex, with the caption “They made a statue to honor Kamala Harris.”

And another captioned “Why does anybody need 30 rounds?” With a photo of 30 masked individuals who seem to be peaceful protesters.

See more: The state of Illinois’ gun advocacy networks.

Some on MeWe use the platform to buy and sell guns in much the same way as one would sell a couch on Facebook Marketplace. Southern Illinois Firearms Enthusiasts  a group with 491 members who can buy, sell or trade firearms, accessories or ammunition by making a post or using the site’s chat feature. This group also occasionally post’s information about  gun legislation.

One of the more recent posts to the site reads “WTS-VP9 Tactical, tru dot night sites, 2 – 15 round mags, grip inserts to adjust for the perfect fit. Lighlty used, safe queen since I always reach for my VP9 set up for 3 gun instead of the tactical. $600. This one isn’t optic ready. Located in Pekin/Peoria.”

MeWe is one of the fastest growing social networking sites for the right and it gained 2.5 million users in the week that followed Jan. 6, according to USA Today.      

Telegram is a text/chat site similar to WhatsApp,  rightwing groups praise its privacy because it lacks monitoring and it provides encrypted chat features that make it difficult to track and monitor. 

Free Illinois has 512 members but more join every couple days. Many users share alternative news and spread conspiracy theories. Every third or fourth message is a petition, or someone collecting signatures about legislation.

See more: Why right-wing extremists’ favorite new platform is so dangerous

Right-wing social media sites show there is a return to radio, including HAM radio and Radio Redoubt groups creating a safe haven.

The FCC warned in a statement following the insurrection that ameteur radios may be used as an alternative to social media for organizing.

A member of Illinois Gun Owners Together – a group active on MeWe – told this reporter that they use these radios to communicate during demonstrations in the event that their cell phones don’t work. The group has an IGOT Radio Operators group where they learn to use HAM radios for these situations and survival situations.

Right-wing social media also contains frequent references to AmRRON, which stands for The American Redoubt Radio Operators Network. The Redoubt movement is an anti-government movement rooted in Christianity that claims Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and the eastern parts of Washington and Oregon as the “Redoubt” region. The movement was popularized and the term coined by James Wesley Rawles, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.The content is encrypted.

Kallie Cox is a senior at  Southern Illinois University Carbondale studying political science and journalism and can be reached at Kcox@dailyegyptian.com or on Twitter @KallieECox.