A Reuters Special Report

Ex-academic forges a new career rallying Trump faithful behind voter-fraud claims

David Clements, one of the nation’s leading election deniers, was a professor teaching business law at New Mexico State University before Donald Trump lost the 2020 vote. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz

A Reuters Special Report

Ex-academic forges a new career rallying Trump faithful behind voter-fraud claims

Ex-academic forges a new career rallying Trump faithful behind voter-fraud claims

David Clements fumed over his ‘woke’ university’s condemnation of the U.S. Capitol insurrection. Now he’s an evangelist for false theories about rigged voting machines, and funded in part by donations from fellow believers.

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While Americans prepared to vote in November’s midterm elections, David Clements was finishing up a month-long speaking tour that sealed his reputation as a leading election denier.

In rural Ohio, the former professor told his audience that rigged voting machines had robbed former President Donald Trump of victory in 2020. In Cherokee County, Georgia, a crowd cheered after Clements demanded that local commissioners reject the results of future elections. In Washington, D.C., he spoke at a right-wing rally near the U.S. Capitol while counter-protesters shouted obscenities and called him a fascist.

Clements was back home in New Mexico for the midterm elections. The results dealt a blow to those, like him, who deny Trump lost in 2020. Many major candidates who promoted the former president’s false voter-fraud claims lost races in critical battleground states.

For Clements, however, the midterm losses by Trump-backed Republicans were only further confirmation that they had been robbed by corrupt officials and rigged voting machines. “The war is just getting started,” Clements told his 100,000 Telegram followers on Nov. 16.

The midterm results were a setback for Trump and the election-conspiracy movement. Voters rejected the wild claims of far-right candidates. Republicans won only a narrow majority in the House of Representatives, and Democrats kept control of the Senate. The results have prompted many Republicans to publicly question Trump’s leadership of the party.

And yet, in just two years, the myths peddled by Clements and other election deniers have reshaped America’s political landscape. Seventeen states – home to almost a third of the population – now have an election denier as governor, attorney general or secretary of state, according to States United Action, a nonpartisan watchdog group. In an October poll by Reuters/Ipsos, two-thirds of Republicans said the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

Clements speaks at a rally in Washington for people charged with crimes related to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. REUTERS/Andrew RC Marshall

As he embarks on his third presidential campaign, Trump can count on the diehard support of election deniers such as Clements and their followers, even as some powerful allies in Congress and conservative media turn against the former president.

Clements is a star in the world of election denial. Drawing on his credentials as a former prosecutor and professor, he lends a veneer of intellectual gravitas to bogus voter-fraud claims that have been overwhelmingly rejected by election officials and the courts.

And yet he’s also fought bitter public battles with fellow election deniers on the political right, revealing rifts that could undermine the movement. “You are going to be shocked at the number of so-called patriots that are agents of hell,” Clements wrote on Telegram in March 2021.

Clements declined to comment for this story unless he could publish a recording of any interview with Reuters, a condition the news organization refused. “You are nothing but a brood of vipers,” he said in an email.

His rise in the movement began in January 2021, when a dispute with his employer, New Mexico State University, over the U.S. Capitol riot went public. It was one of several clashes with management that eventually ended his university career but launched an alternative one as an election denier, helped by donations from the Trump faithful. Soon, he was visiting with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, the former president’s private club in Florida.

“You are going to be shocked at the number of so-called patriots that are agents of hell.”

David Clements on some of his fellow election deniers

In New Mexico’s Otero County, Clements and his wife, Erin, persuaded commissioners to reject the results of the June 2022 primary, triggering alarm among state officials who feared other counties might follow suit. The commissioners quickly reversed their decision, but the episode helped secure Clements a place among America’s leading election deniers.

With his graying beard and ruffled hair, Clements casts himself as a conservative Christian warrior defending America from a vast left-wing conspiracy. He mixes his worship of Trump with an oft-professed love of God. He believes election fraud is treason, and traitors should face hanging or firing squads. His declared enemies include “snake” news reporters, “corrupt” judges and “godless commies.”

“Let the TRUTH be a CURSE on these people,” he wrote on Telegram last year.

Clements believes election fraud amounts to treason. In this Telegram post, he wrote that traitors should be executed.

‘A spell of Marxism’

Clements was born in Seattle to a middle-class family who, he recalled, fell on hard times when his father lost his job in the aerospace industry. The family moved in with relatives in a poor area of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, home to “hobos, a porno store, and a night club,” he told his Telegram followers last year. Clements later worked his way through college and law school in New Mexico.

Once a self-declared “Never Trumper,” he frowned at the scandals that swirled around Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. Over the next four years, Clements explained in Telegram posts and a video, he watched Trump stand up to Big Tech and a biased media, and came to view the president as a “God-loving patriot.” He believed Trump was cheated out of victory in 2020.

“I’ve seen this before,” Clements recalled at a pro-Trump gathering in August last year.

He was referring to his own failed political campaign in 2014, when he ran in a Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in New Mexico. His opponent, a wealthy local businessman, won easily.

Clements alleged the businessman’s campaign manager had hacked into his email and flooded his contacts with messages, potentially driving away his supporters. The campaign manager, Diego Espinoza, sued for defamation. The two men reached a settlement. Espinoza couldn’t be reached for comment. Clements still claims he was hacked.

His political ambitions dashed, Clements spent the next four years as a deputy district attorney in New Mexico before landing what he once called “a cush job” as a New Mexico State professor teaching business law in the university’s finance department. The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol helped catapult Clements from a popular professor into a prominent election-denier who would, by year’s end, meet his hero, Trump.

When NMSU president John Floros emailed staff to condemn the Jan. 6 attack, Clements recorded a video response entitled, “Law Professor Responds to WOKE University.” Clements said Floros’ email had sickened him because it demonized Trump supporters like himself. He said evidence of election fraud had been “widely suppressed” by cowardly judges and politicians, and that Big Tech was silencing people with different opinions.

Clements issued a video response on Rumble to his university’s condemnation of the riot at the U.S. Capitol.
When the university later fired him, Clements posted his termination hearing online on Rumble. 

Floros and NMSU declined to comment on Clements’ statements.

Clements posted his video on Rumble, the right-wing video-sharing platform. It was picked up by Tucker Carlson, the conservative TV host, who interviewed Clements on his Fox News show on Jan. 19, 2021. “It appears that the university is under a spell of Marxism,” Clements told Carlson. Carlson praised Clements for “saying obvious truths that most people can’t say.”

The appearance launched Clements’ alternative career as an election denier. He started his Telegram channel in March 2021, then raised his profile in election-denying circles by interviewing some of the movement’s key figures – including lawyer Sidney Powell, a major Trump ally – for his channel on Rumble, the video-sharing site.

In April, Clements appeared on War Room, Steve Bannon’s influential online talk show, where he pushed for a state-by-state audit of the 2020 election. He was soon a regular guest. He also championed fellow Trump supporters who had been jailed for their role in the Jan. 6 attack – “political prisoners,” he called them.

Spokespeople for Carlson and Bannon didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Clements with Mike Lindell, the MyPillow chief executive and financier of the election-denial movement.

In August 2021, Clements appeared at a major election-denier event: Mike Lindell’s “cyber symposium” in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Clements admired the MyPillow Inc CEO. Lindell was a “truth teller” who had funded “every significant effort to reveal the identities of the perpetrators that stole our election,” Clements wrote on Telegram.

Lindell told Reuters he met Clements at the symposium and said they shared a desire to rid America of voting machines. “Everything he’s doing to get rid of them, I praise,” he said.

The symposium didn’t quite go to plan. Lindell invited experts to analyze data he said he had bought from Dennis Montgomery, a computer programmer who claimed to have proof that U.S. voting systems were hacked in the 2020 election. Several of the experts who examined the data have said it was bogus, Reuters previously reported.

Undeterred, Clements took the symposium stage to deliver what he called a “parable,” drawing on a case he said he had prosecuted as a deputy district attorney. He compared a murder by a New Mexico drug-trafficking gang in 2011 to “the murder of your vote” in the 2020 election.

Then he spun an elaborate conspiracy theory in which President Joe Biden belonged to a sinister “election cartel” that included American election officials, West African computer servers and the Chinese government.

And standing up to them all, he told the crowd, was Trump – “the rightful president.”

Clements was rewarded for his loyalty. Two days later, he posted a photo of himself with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. They are both smiling. “The greatest honor of my life,” Clements wrote. “Spent an unforgettable evening with the real President of the United States.”

A Trump spokesperson didn’t respond to requests for comment about Clements.

Once a self-described “Never Trumper,” Clements came to idolize the former president. They met in August 2021.

‘I will not take the jab’

Clements’ swift rise in election-denier circles caused a stir at New Mexico State, where he continued to teach. “Many of my colleagues already think I’m a crackpot,” he wrote that summer.

Like others in the election conspiracy movement, Clements believed that COVID-19 vaccines were dangerous and masks were a medically useless violation of personal freedoms. When the university resumed in-person classes in August 2021, those beliefs put him in open conflict with school management, which required staff to wear masks and get vaccinations or regular tests.

“I will not take the jab,” he wrote on Telegram that month, claiming without evidence that vaccines had caused “tens of thousands” of deaths. He also refused what he called invasive testing.

Clements posted a video online of his first class of the semester. In it, he compared Covid vaccine rules to Nazi Germany and inaccurately blamed vaccines for causing miscarriages. “I’ll be damned if any of my baby girls in this class loses a child,” Clements said, according to a university investigative report reviewed by Reuters.

As the standoff with the university continued, Clements posted phone numbers and emails of other university employees on his Telegram channel and asked his followers to send them messages on his behalf.

One recipient was Jamie Bronstein, a history professor. She had filed a complaint about Clements’ public support for the Jan. 6 insurrection with the disciplinary board of the New Mexico Supreme Court, which handles complaints against attorneys. Bronstein told Reuters she accused Clements of violating professional standards by trying to foment a civil disturbance. The board took no action against Clements, according to its website, and a board spokesperson declined to comment.

Clements retaliated against Bronstein by posting her email address online, urging his Telegram followers to contact her. “I think she is desperate for pen pals,” Clements wrote on Sept. 15.

Clements asked his online followers to contact Jamie Bronstein, a university colleague who filed a complaint against Clements with a professional board. Bronstein said she received 300 messages, some of them abusive, including the two examples here.

Bronstein told Reuters she received 300 emails and calls, including threats and vicious sexual insults. “You will see hell open up,” read an email sent the same day and seen by Reuters. “I will rip your sick head off.”

Then a man showed up at Bronstein’s class and asked if he could speak to the students. Bronstein kicked him out. The school provided her with a police escort for the rest of the semester, she said. “I did feel like I was under threat,” Bronstein told Reuters.

The university informed Clements in September of its intent to fire him, with a letter citing his “stalwart refusal” to follow its rules. Clements, who posted the letter on Telegram, was unswayed. He also posted the video of his termination hearing on his website, calling it a “Marxist Tribunal” and editing it so that Nazi swastikas appeared on the screen whenever one of the university officials spoke.

Clements has said repeatedly that he was fired. The university said his employment ended on Oct. 7, 2021, but declined to comment on why he left.

Clements was jobless but not penniless, thanks to an early supporter: Joe Oltmann, a prominent right-wing podcaster and election denier. Calling Clements “a lightning rod of truth and courage,” Oltmann launched an appeal on an online crowdfunding site in August 2021. His appeal has since raised more than $300,000 for Clements, the equivalent of three-and-a-half years of his university salary.

In an interview, Oltmann said he launched the fundraiser and believed Clements was unjustly fired by the university. “They were looking for anything to throw at him,” he said.

‘Grifting fool’

Clements didn’t just fall out with university colleagues. He also feuded with other election deniers.

In April 2021, he interviewed Jovan Hutton Pulitzer, a Dallas entrepreneur and conspiracy theorist, for his show on Rumble. “All I can say is wow,” Clements said afterwards. “I’m on team Pulitzer all the way.”

By the year’s end, the two men were bickering on Telegram. Clements said he had challenged Pulitzer about his involvement in an Arizona audit of the 2020 election that was initiated by Republican state senators. The review found no fraud. Pulitzer analyzed ballots as part of that audit.

“You are a fucking fraud,” said Pulitzer in an audio recording posted on his Telegram channel, and reposted by Clements on his. Clements called Pulitzer a “grifting fool.”

Asked by Reuters to comment on Clements, Pulitzer replied: “Lol what a waste of time.”

Clements’ most significant rift is with Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor and a giant among election-deniers. How it started is unclear. Flynn co-founded the America Project, a well-capitalized right-wing group that has financed lawsuits and campaigns challenging the 2020 election results and the integrity of U.S. voting systems.

“I love General Flynn,” Clements wrote in June 2021, while Flynn’s Telegram channel namechecked “the great Professor Clements.” In early 2022, however, Clements accused the America Project of attacking him. He said Flynn was a “coward” who was conspiring with “globalists” to foil Trump’s return and claim the U.S. presidency for himself.

Flynn’s spokesperson didn’t respond to a request to comment.

Clements once admired Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor and a prominent election denier.
Then Clements started attacking Flynn, accusing him of conspiring with anti-Trump “globalists.”

Cowboys for Trump

Back in his home state of New Mexico, Clements had befriended a lesser-known election denier who would boost Clements’ national standing as an enemy of voting machines.

Couy Griffin was founder of a group called Cowboys for Trump and a member of the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. He was also one of three commissioners in Otero, a county of some 68,000 people in a rugged corner of the state. Commissioners are elected leaders who pass laws, and manage county budgets and public works. One of their roles is to certify election results, which until the Trump era was typically a rubber-stamp formality.

In late 2021, Clements and his wife Erin launched a months-long campaign to challenge the results of the 2020 election in Otero County. All the while, they had the inside track on the county’s affairs: Griffin shared at least four internal county commission emails with the couple to seek their advice on how to respond to criticism of the couple’s election challenges, according to emails obtained by Reuters in a public records request. The emails haven’t been previously reported.

Although Trump had carried Otero County by a large margin, the Clementses demanded a formal investigation of the 2020 election. David Clements argued at the county commission’s public meetings that rigged voting machines had tainted results everywhere, including Otero and the entire state of New Mexico, which Biden won.

“They just spread all of these lies … He’s a fast talker.”

Otero County clerk Robyn Holmes on David Clements

Prodded by the Clementses, Otero’s commissioners hired a Massachusetts firm called EchoMail, which describes itself as a social media and email marketer, to hunt for 2020 fraud. EchoMail, working with a Clements group called the New Mexico Audit Force, sent scores of people to knock on doors in the county, ostensibly searching for anomalies in the voter rolls, according to the New Mexico secretary of state. The state office, which oversees elections, warned voters about the effort and advised them of their right to keep their vote private.

The county clerk, Robyn Holmes, said she received at least 25 complaints from Otero residents, some of them angry because Clements’ callers had asked how they voted. “Some people were mad because this was none of their business,” Holmes said.

County clerks are elected administrators in New Mexico and supervise local elections, among other duties. Holmes said she tried in vain to persuade local leaders that David Clements’ fraud claims were nonsense.

“They just spread all of these lies,” she said. “He’s a fast talker.”

During this time, Otero commissioner Griffin was seeking Clements’ advice. On Feb. 11, 2022, for example, Griffin received an email from the secretary of state warning Otero’s commissioners not to give unauthorized third parties access to state-owned vote-counting machines. David and Erin Clements had sought access to the tabulators to search for evidence of fraud.

Thirteen minutes later, Griffin forwarded the email to Erin Clements. “Y’all just let me know how I need to proceed,” he wrote. “I am not going to bend a knee to the state … I just need sound counsel on how to proceed from here.”

Erin Clements replied that her husband would call Griffin soon to “discuss options.” In an interview with Reuters, Griffin said he had sought Clements’ advice as a “great legal mind.”

The Clementses’ efforts to investigate the 2020 election ultimately went nowhere. EchoMail backed out after the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform said the firm was under investigation for potential disinformation and voter intimidation; the company didn’t respond to a request to comment. The couple never won access to voting machines or changed any results.

But their bid to undermine confidence in Otero’s voting system bore fruit after the primary election on June 7, 2022. The primaries determined Democratic and Republican nominees for the fall midterm contests for Congress, governorships and many other positions. Republicans only face other Republicans in the contests, not Democrats.

The Clementses seized on the primaries as an opportunity to block the certification of results in a new election. Erin Clements told commissioners at a June 9 meeting that the county’s electronic voting system “switches votes – it absolutely does.”

Like her husband, Erin Clements declined to comment for this story unless she could record and publish the interview, a condition Reuters refused.

Citing fears that the machines were corrupted, all three Otero commissioners went along, voting against certifying the primary results. Commissioners Gerald Matherly and Vickie Marquardt didn’t respond to requests for comment. In public statements, Matherly said he voted against certification because he wanted to find out if there actually had been fraud; Marquardt said she was a “hard core” Trump supporter and didn’t trust the county’s voting machines.

“This is big news,” David Clements told his supporters on Telegram, adding that three other New Mexico counties were considering rejecting the primary results. “Many dominoes have the potential to fall.”

This was a central strategy of the election-denier movement: to discredit voting machines in counties or municipalities in the hope that other local officials nationwide would reject election results and ditch their machines.

The victory in Otero was rare but short-lived. The New Mexico secretary of state sued the commissioners and threatened to request a criminal investigation into whether the Otero board’s actions were “willful violations” of the state election code. The state Supreme Court ordered the results to be certified. Two of Otero’s three commissioners quickly complied – although Griffin still refused.

In September, a New Mexico judge removed Griffin from office on grounds that he had participated in an insurrection – the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Griffin had already been found guilty in March of illegally entering the Capitol’s restricted grounds. Griffin told Reuters he was appealing both decisions. “I wasn’t part of an insurrection,” he said. “I exercised my constitutional right to peacefully protest.”

Otero’s clerk, Robyn Holmes, remained a target months after the board rejected the primary results. On Nov. 5, on their Telegram channels, David and Erin Clements posted a photo of Holmes, accusing her of “LYING and INTIMIDATING VOTERS.” Beneath the photo, a follower has commented: “LOCK HER UP, THE BITCH, EXECUTION FOR TREASON!!!!!”

‘We are slaves’

David Clements’ campaign in Otero failed to swing the elections there but raised his profile as an evangelist for election denial. Like an itinerant preacher from centuries past, he set off on a speaking tour of small-town America. By May this year, he had visited 33 states, he told a packed meeting in North Carolina.

Reuters attended a Clements lecture held in a basketball court in rural Ohio in mid-September. Clements was introduced as “the Michael Jordan of the election integrity movement.” Pacing restlessly beneath a large American flag, he spoke to an audience of about 100 people, most of them middle-aged or elderly.

He peppered his speech with Biblical metaphors. He told the voters in his audience they were like the fleeing Israelites of the book of Exodus – “We are slaves, folks” – and voting machines were “enslavement devices.” Local officials who certify election results were the equivalent of the Pharaoh, the Egyptian tyrant whose pursuing army was engulfed by the Red Sea.

“And you’re going to educate them,” said Clements. “You’re going to ask them to withhold certification. You’re going to ask them to consider suing the secretary of state.”

While some people in the audience took notes, Clements explained what he said were different types of voter fraud. One kind was “where you get an election worker on the inside to help facilitate the fraud – like Ruby Freeman in Georgia,” he said.

Freeman was a Georgia election worker who Trump’s lawyers falsely accused of pulling fake ballots from suitcases in Atlanta to rig the 2020 election for Biden. As Reuters detailed last year, state and federal officials quickly investigated the claims and found they were part of a bogus conspiracy theory hatched by Trump’s campaign to overturn the election in Georgia.

A lawyer for Freeman, Von DuBose, called it “sad but not surprising” that Clements and others continue to defame Freeman over debunked claims of voter fraud, which he said endangered her and other election workers.

Arizona showdown

Two weeks after the midterms, Clements was on the road again. His destination was Arizona, where prominent election-deniers had lost races for state-wide positions, and where Clements vowed to protest against what he called the “blatantly fraudulent election” in Arizona’s largest county, Maricopa.

Only a few dozen people joined his protest near the state capitol in Phoenix. On Nov. 28, Clements and his supporters attended a meeting of Maricopa’s Board of Supervisors. The supervisors certified the midterm results in a quick, unanimous vote, saying the election had been free of fraud. But first Clements and other citizens were each given two minutes to address the meeting.

“David Clements – slave,” he introduced himself. “That’s what I am to this system, to your corruption.” Then he furiously denounced the supervisors and other Maricopa officials. “A curse upon you,” he declared. “A curse upon all of you!”

“A curse upon you!” Clements addresses the Board of Supervisors meeting in Maricopa County, Arizona, alleging fraud in the November midterm elections. SOURCE: Maricopa County

But in a video posted on Telegram that evening, Clements was subdued. He launched into a dejected critique of the election-denier movement and its shortcomings. He blamed Republican candidates who conceded their races and didn’t cry foul; “patriot influencers” who only cared about money or celebrity; and ordinary people who were too lazy to join the protest.

Clements said he didn’t know what to do next. “We just need a miracle,” he said. “I pray for miracles.”

Machine Politics

By Andrew R.C. Marshall, Joseph Tanfani, and Alexandra Ulmer

Additional reporting: Aram Roston

Photo editing: Corinne Perkins

Art direction: John Emerson and Linda So

Edited by Jason Szep and Brian Thevenot