After Donald Trump lost the White House, ex-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and three other current and former U.S. Army officers challenged the vote’s legitimacy and pushed baseless conspiracy claims. Military ethicists say their actions threaten to weaken the public’s faith in democracy.
The military-intelligence veterans who helped lead Trump’s campaign of disinformation
During the Afghan and Iraq wars, the careers of two military officers often intersected. Army General Michael Flynn and an Army Reserve colonel named Phil Waldron worked together on secret projects in both countries, Waldron said. When Flynn was appointed to run the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency in 2012, Waldron said he worked at the DIA’s clandestine service.
Flynn was an intel expert. Waldron’s specialty was psychological operations, or PSYOPs – targeting foreign adversaries, as an Army field manual describes, “to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately, the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals.”
Now the two military veterans, along with at least two other retired and reserve officers, are engaged in a new mission, this time with a domestic target: They are central to the far-right effort to persuade Americans that the 2020 election was stolen from then-President Donald Trump.
For the past year, Flynn, Waldron and other intelligence veterans have helped propagate some of the outlandish theories undercutting Americans’ faith in democracy. They pitched false accusations to lawmakers and the public about how the election had been compromised, pushed spurious lawsuits to challenge its outcome, and bankrolled efforts to conduct partisan audits of the results. They provided briefings to members of Congress on methods for overturning the election, and worked aside some of the leading actors in Trump’s “Stop the Steal” movement.
“I think we’re doing a huge service,” Waldron told Reuters in an interview.
In these efforts, Flynn, Waldron and their colleagues publicly touted their military-intelligence training, arguing that their expertise on the battlefield provided them special insight into alleged election fraud at home in America.
“When retired members of the military, especially senior officers, broadcast wild conspiracies, America’s trust in its military is somewhat eroded.”
The military men’s false assertions are dangerous, said Roger Herbert, a former Navy SEAL captain and recently retired ethics professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.
“When retired members of the military, especially senior officers, broadcast wild conspiracies, America’s trust in its military is somewhat eroded,” said Herbert. “But when those conspiracies contend that the current government of the United States is illegitimate, those primal fears of a standing army ready to turn its guns inward and topple our government are justifiably awakened. In short, these people are doing great harm to the legitimacy and efficacy of our military.”
Flynn did not respond to requests for comment for this article. A Trump spokeswoman did not respond to an interview request about the role military figures have played in his quest to overturn the election.
One Army Reserve officer working with Flynn, Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Raiklin, is now facing an internal Army Reserve investigation over whether he violated Reserve rules against partisan political activity, a military official told Reuters. In an election forum last month in New Hampshire, Raiklin touted his military experience – Special Forces commander, deployments battling the Taliban and the MS-13 gang – to say he has the intelligence wherewithal to find fraud. “So I have a little bit of experience looking at threats, right?” he said.
Raiklin declined to be interviewed.
Waldron says he and the Flynn circle are not using military techniques on Americans. He maintains the actions they are undertaking for Trump don’t undercut American democracy because he’s convinced they are ferreting out voter fraud.
The veterans’ false claims shifted over time. They have pinned Trump’s loss on actions by the Chinese government and voting technology companies, alleged misconduct by U.S. state and local election officials and said hackers had used the internet to change votes after they were cast. They have blamed old-school ballot stuffing, perhaps involving dead voters or Venezuelan interests.
Though bogus, their claims and similar ones propagated by others have had major impact, inspiring Trump followers who participated in the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and providing rhetorical fuel for continued efforts to discredit Joe Biden’s victory. Despite no evidence to support the claims, nearly 6 in 10 Republicans believe the election was stolen, a Reuters/Ipsos poll in October found.
The military-intelligence officers’ battle is part of a larger Republican movement that has led disgruntled Trump voters to endorse threats of violence as a means to regaining power. As Reuters has documented, Trump supporters are waging a campaign of intimidation against election workers around the country. In a review of more than 800 emails, calls and online posts made by backers of the ex-president, Reuters found that some of the military veterans’ theories have been referenced in hostile messages to local election officials and featured in public campaigns attacking the vote’s integrity.
A false claim pushed by Flynn and his cohorts that voting machines were hacked to steal votes from Trump is a common theme in many angry messages. The machines “are rigged to elect only those who care nothing for the people,” said an email accusing election officials in Yavapai County, Arizona, of complicity. Invoking General Flynn by name, the writer added, “every lie will be revealed, every traitor will be punished.”
Efforts by Flynn to help Trump overturn Biden’s victory have been the subject of extensive reporting by a number of U.S. media outlets. The Reuters examination of Flynn and his colleagues provides new details about the origins of the former intelligence officials’ collaboration and the extent to which they worked together in a bid to undo the 2020 election.
The reporting, based on interviews with participants, military ethicists and others, plus an examination of Reuters’ database of threats against election officials, reveals how Flynn drafted Waldron and others to actively contest the 2020 vote. Flynn and his small circle were distinctive because their military credentials provided a patina of respectability to even the most far-fetched claims.
Among the military veterans to play a role in “Stop the Steal” were:
Flynn, Trump’s first National Security Advisor in 2017, who was involved in pushing the most dramatic of conspiracy claims. He urged the president to deploy the military to overturn the election in December 2020, then went on a public speaking campaign sowing doubts about the vote and urging states to conduct their own reviews.
Waldron, who insists Trump won. He gained attention last week when the House of Representatives committee investigating the January 6 riot revealed it was in possession of a PowerPoint presentation he’d shown to U.S. lawmakers outlining methods for overturning the election. Earlier, he lobbied state officials and spoke on rightwing media about his stolen-election theories. Waldron said Flynn drafted him to go public, saying, “No one else can do it. It needs to be done, so go ahead and do it!”
Raiklin, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve who has known Flynn since 2014, when he said they both worked on military intelligence matters. Raiklin is an attorney and a leading promoter of the “Pence card” theory – in which Vice President Mike Pence purportedly could have blocked the January 6 certification by Congress of Biden’s victory.
Seth Keshel, a former Army captain who worked in intelligence and who claimed to have developed statistical models that prove the 2020 election results were fraudulent. After the election, Keshel told Reuters he contacted Flynn on LinkedIn and they began collaborating. Keshel in August released an analysis which he claimed showed Trump won seven states that went to Biden. Trump embraced the claim, saying the report came from a “highly respected Army intelligence captain.”
Keshel told Reuters he stands by that assessment but never called for violence. “Personally, I believe the election was compromised,” he said, adding, “I can’t control anybody else.”
Though they haven’t worked together on every particular, the four have intersected in their efforts, with Flynn the common denominator. Raiklin has said he worked with Flynn. Keshel said he reached out to the general to share his concerns, and the two worked together in the weeks after the election. Waldron said Flynn pushed him to go public with his research.
Keshel’s work helped fuel calls by Trump followers in many states for audits of the election results. His analysis, which provided no documented evidence of fraud, was discredited by political scientists, statistical experts and Republican and Democratic election officials. In a post on Telegram, Keshel himself described his study as “lenient.”
His work nonetheless spurred a torrent of emails to election officials in areas where his analysis suggested fraud. In Pasco County, Florida, a Republican county Trump won, officials were deluged with emails demanding an audit after Keshel’s report. Keshel’s analysis “is literally devoid of statistical validity,” said Brian Corley, the Republican county supervisor of elections. “People just took it as fact.”
The Department of Defense did not respond to a request for comment on the Flynn circle’s activities.
Pauline Shanks Kaurin, a professor of military ethics at the U.S. Naval War College, said a key issue is whether Flynn’s associates are publicly citing their military training to lend legitimacy to a partisan political cause.
“If you’re talking to an audience that cares what General Flynn thinks, and you tell the audience, ‘I did this in this military,’ then they’re more likely to be impressed,” said Shanks Kaurin. She said she was speaking in her personal capacity, not on behalf of her government employer.
Waldron disputes such criticism. “I took an oath to protect the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and I believe that our republic is under attack from foreign and domestic enemies,” he said. “They want to undermine the republic through the election process.”
Earlier this month, a Reuters reporter met with Waldron at One Shot Distillery and Brewing, which he runs on Texas Hill Country’s “Whiskey Trail.” Silver-labeled bottles of rum, vodka and whiskey were on display as Waldron descended the stairs wearing a gray One Shot Distillery t-shirt, with a Glock-19 in a holster fastened to his belt.
Waldron, with an affable bearing and a beard dappled with gray, retired as an Army Reserve colonel in 2016. He said he’s fighting powerful forces in a quest for the truth.
“You talk about PSYOPS,” he said. “The election (voting machine) companies and the media have done the biggest PSYOP on the American people.”
In a series of interviews this year, Waldron vowed he was on the cusp of breakthrough proof the election was stolen. “We are decrypting the satellite packets right now,” he said in January. In October, he cited a “37 terabyte” tranche of data he believed could unmask fraud.
A new mission
Four days after the election, as ballot counts continued in a handful of swing states, the U.S. media projected Biden had won, establishing an insurmountable lead.
Trump refused to concede. That day, November 7, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, then Trump’s lawyer, held a press conference in Philadelphia in which he claimed the result had been swayed by suspect mail-in ballots and votes cast in the names of dead people.
The next day, Waldron said he was on the phone with Representative Louie Gohmert, a Republican from Texas. Waldron, who ran a cyber security company after leaving the military, said he had been researching vote hacking since August; Biden’s victory accelerated his efforts. Waldron said he told Gohmert he had tracked internet traffic routed through a server in Frankfurt, Germany. Votes could be rerouted, too, he told Gohmert. Election officials say this assertion is false, and no evidence for it exists.
Gohmert immediately called Trump, Waldron said. A spokesman for Gohmert declined to comment.
Two days later, Waldron said, he was on a plane to Washington. “It started getting sporty about then,” he said, with his theories gaining traction.
First he met with Sidney Powell, the lawyer for his old commander, Flynn. Waldron said he met Powell in a hotel conference room that functioned as her headquarters, briefing her in the early morning hours. A lawyer who worked with Powell, Howard Kleinhendler, confirms Waldron was part of the group. Powell declined to comment.
Then Waldron huddled with Giuliani. “We were supposed to have a 10 minute briefing but it went 45 minutes,” Waldron said. When Giuliani said he wanted to discuss voter fraud, Waldron said he pressed upon the former mayor that the fraud was on a larger, and global, scale. “We kept going over it and going over it. He finally came aboard,” he said.
Giuliani did not respond to interview requests. He confirmed in a legal deposition that Waldron shared fraud allegations with him.
“Colonel in the military, great war record,” Giuliani testified. “I’ve had substantial dealings with him and he’s very, very thorough and very experienced in this kind of work.”
By the second week of November, Waldron said he began working closely with Flynn.
After a stellar military career, Flynn was appointed chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency by President Barack Obama, but was fired in 2014, in part because the two clashed over the general’s hardline views on countering Islamic extremism. Flynn became a key 2016 Trump campaign advisor and was installed by the new president as national security advisor. He resigned weeks later after it was disclosed that he had held secret talks with Russia’s ambassador about U.S. sanctions before Trump took office. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about those talks. Trump would eventually pardon him.
In the days after Biden won the 2020 election, Flynn had set up camp at the sprawling South Carolina estate of lawyer L. Lin Wood, another supporter of Trump’s effort to overturn the election.
Wood told Reuters that Flynn and Powell arrived shortly after the election. So did Keshel, then working as a technology salesman. Flynn and Keshel stayed through Thanksgiving, where Flynn carved the turkey.
The group, operating from a sitting room on Wood’s estate, created something of a clearinghouse for election fraud claims. “They all appeared to be working together,” Wood said.
In an interview, Keshel said he spent his time “scanning the numbers and helping write affidavits” for lawsuits Powell was preparing. “There wasn’t a lot of sleep going on there,” Keshel said.
Powell’s lawsuits helped fuel some of the hostility encountered by local officials. Georgia’s Republican governor and secretary of state debunked Powell’s allegations of election fraud, citing audits and recounts affirming the state’s tallies. In response, one angry emailer accused them of resisting further investigation “because of the Sidney Powell lawsuits and vengeance and no other reason. … We know China interfered with this election by remote and shipped mail in ballots.”
A clandestine operative goes public
Three weeks after the election, Giuliani and his associates pushed a new strategy: attempting to persuade conservative state legislatures to simply disregard the election results and declare Trump the winner of their states’ Electoral College votes. The Constitution, Trump’s team argued, granted this power.
With Pennsylvania a focus, Flynn dispatched Waldron to a state Senate hearing held by Republican lawmakers there.
For decades, Waldron had operated behind the scenes. So, he told Reuters, in November 2020 he initially resisted going public with his findings. But he said Flynn and Giuliani pressed him to testify about stolen votes. “Rudy’s team had asked me three times.”
On November 25, wearing a blue jacket, blue shirt, striped tie and blue COVID mask, Waldron appeared in person at the Pennsylvania Senate hearing to air his fraud claims. He cited his military credentials. “I’m a retired Army colonel, 30 years,” he said. Then he claimed all the voting machine technology in the United States could be hacked.
“I took an oath to protect the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and I believe that our republic is under attack.”
“Our experts and other academics,” Waldron continued, “believe that up to 1.2 million Pennsylvania votes could have been altered or fraudulent.” Only a “detailed forensic analysis of the actual machines and software will truly show how many Pennsylvania citizens have had their civil rights violated.”
At the end of the hearing, President Trump joined in on the speaker phone. “I’ve been watching the hearing on OAN,” the far-right television news channel, Trump said. “I’m in the Oval Office right now, and it’s very interesting to see what’s going on.”
Waldron said he visited the White House later that day with Giuliani and others. “That was great!” he said Trump told them.
The White House focus turned to pushing Republican-led legislatures in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia to replace Biden electors with those for Trump. “That whole strategy started from that Pennsylvania hearing,” Waldron said.
That same day, Trump pardoned Flynn in the Russia inquiry case.
In the end, no state legislatures swapped out their electors. Now Flynn helped pitch a new plan to Trump.
Election by military might
On December 17, Flynn told the rightwing cable network Newsmax that the president could use the armed forces to conduct a do-over election in several swing states he lost. Trump, he said, “could take military capabilities and place them in those states and basically re-run an election in those states.”
A day later, Flynn, Powell and former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne met with Trump at the White House. They urged the president to deploy the U.S. government to make digital copies of the hard drives in some voting equipment to investigate the machines and conduct recounts in at least six counties, Byrne told Reuters. Trump was receptive to the idea, said Kleinhendler, the lawyer working with Powell, but the government never took those steps. It is unclear why.
At the same time, Army reserve officer Raiklin, a Flynn ally and former Green Beret, was pushing election fraud theories on social media and on rightwing websites. Raiklin describes himself as a constitutional lawyer, but he doesn’t appear to practice that area of law. A Reuters review found he has not argued such a case or written scholarly articles on the topic.
On a December 7 podcast and in tweets, Raiklin laid out a plan to reverse the vote, alleging conspiracies involving Pence, intelligence agencies, big tech, China and the postal service. He urged Trump to “activate the emergency broadcast system” and used the hashtag #FightLikeAFlynn. “We the people are going to force this plan on them,” he said.
Raiklin’s efforts drew attention on Twitter. On December 22, Raiklin tweeted a copy of a two-page open memo to Trump, detailing “Operation Pence Card.” The pitch: Pence, acting as “the Representative of the Federal Seat of Government,” would reject votes from states where Trump alleged fraud, flipping the election. The memo was retweeted 23,700 times.
“We the people are going to force this plan on them.”
Raiklin’s conduct is now under government scrutiny. The Army Reserve’s chief spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Simon Flake, said Raiklin’s superiors are “aware of the situation and investigating,” but that privacy rules restrict him from providing details.
Flake added: “The U.S. Army Reserve follows the Department of Defense’s long standing policy in regards to forbidding service member involvement in partisan political campaigns to avoid the perception of DOD sponsorship, approval, or endorsement of any partisan political candidate, campaign, or cause.” Raiklin did not answer questions from Reuters about the inquiry.
On New Year’s Day, Keshel gave an interview carried on YouTube in which he said the election’s results were “definitely irregular” because they disrupted what he said were historical trends in U.S. elections. “I served one tour in Afghanistan … with a primary focus on understanding enemy activity,” he said. Now, he said, his focus is on unearthing the election’s “data irregularities.”
In early January, Waldron said he flew to Washington bearing a 36-page PowerPoint presentation he said he helped prepare. Its goal was to convince Congress and the White House the election was stolen and Pence should stop the certification of Biden’s win. This month, the House committee investigating the Capitol riot said Trump’s former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, produced a copy of that PowerPoint in response to a subpoena.
Waldron’s presentation was called “Election Fraud, Foreign Interference & Options for 6 JAN.” He said he briefed legislators on Capitol Hill on January 5, explaining a document whose recommendations included, “Declare National Security Emergency” and “Declare electronic voting in all states invalid.”
Waldron’s pitch mirrored arguments being made by Trump, who at the time was publicly urging Pence to refuse to certify Democratic electoral votes from a handful of swing states and either declare Trump the winner or not declare a winner at all. Waldron proposed going further, such as deploying U.S. marshals and the military to seize ballots nationwide. “A Trusted Lead Counter will be appointed with authority from the POTUS” to recount all the votes, the PowerPoint said.
“US Marshals will immediately secure all ballots and provide a protective perimeter around the locations in all 50 states,” the PowerPoint said. “The federalized National Guard in each state will be supplied detailed processes and be responsible for counting each legitimate paper ballot.”
On January 5, Flynn told a pro-Trump crowd at Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., “We will not stand for a lie!” The House committee investigating the January 6 riot has subpoenaed Flynn to testify about his efforts to overturn the election.
A week after the attack, Waldron told Reuters he blamed Pence for the chaos. Pence’s offense, he said, was to refuse to go along with the plans to block Biden’s certification. That was the riot’s primary cause, he said. “You could logically argue that he had more to do with inciting the riot than anyone else on that stage,” he said.
The Secret Service had to evacuate the vice president from the Capitol complex during the riot. Videos show some of the rioters who stormed the Capitol chanting, “hang Mike Pence.”
A spokesman for Pence declined to comment.
Congress’ votes in the early morning hours of January 7 to ratify Biden’s victory brought an end to nearly all of the Trump camp’s efforts in the courts to keep him in power.
“After that, it was pencils down,” said Powell colleague Kleinhendler. “There was just nothing else to do.”
The Flynn circle wasn’t ready to let go.
Everett Stern, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Pennsylvania who runs a private intelligence firm, said he was approached in April by two Republican political operatives who urged him to gather information on elected officials to help prompt a state audit of the 2020 vote. They also helped connect him with Raiklin, said Stern, who said the operatives told him they were acting at Flynn’s direction. Stern said he declined to take part because he viewed the approach as an “extortion” attempt and alerted the FBI, which said it had no comment.
In Arizona, Republicans in the state Senate pushed for a “forensic audit” of the vote in the state’s largest county.
Arizona’s Senate president, Karen Fann, turned to Florida cybersecurity contractor Doug Logan to do the job. Logan’s firm, Cyber Ninjas, had no experience running audits or elections, though Logan said he had done previous work reviewing 2020 election disputes. Logan told Reuters he wasn’t sure how his company was picked for the task; he said he didn’t submit a proposal until Fann contacted him.
Logan did have connections, though. He confirmed to Reuters he was among those who huddled with Flynn at Wood’s estate after the election. And he received an endorsement from Waldron, who called him “very reputable” in a text message to Sen. Fann before she selected him to run the audit, records released in a public records lawsuit show.
“If you’re talking to an audience that cares what General Flynn thinks, and you tell the audience, ‘I did this in this military,’ then they’re more likely to be impressed.”
“We did things the right way,” Logan said. Through a spokesman, Fann declined to comment.
The Arizona Senate audit cost $5.7 million. It was largely financed by Flynn’s team.
Nearly $1 million came from a nonprofit called America’s Future, which until then had been largely dormant, Internal Revenue Service filings show. Flynn now chairs its board. His brother Joe Flynn was a director. And his sister, Mary O’Neill, was executive director.
Joe Flynn declined to comment. O’Neill did not respond to a request for comment.
Michael and Joe Flynn also briefly served as directors of Powell’s nonprofit Defending The Republic, which kicked in $550,000 for the Arizona audit.
Another $3.5 million came from The America Project, whose website features a video from Flynn declaring, “Our great nation was under a new type of attack.” Joe Flynn is one of the nonprofit’s three board members, and Flynn its senior strategic advisor.
The America Project’s chief executive, former Overstock CEO Byrne, told Reuters Flynn “asked me to come down and set this up.” Flynn “is a driving force” to continue fighting the results of the 2020 election, said the group’s operations officer, Carl Johnson. The America Project told Florida regulators it expected to raise $50 million this year, records show. Byrne said the group raised closer to $10 million, mostly from him.
The resulting Arizona audit featured reviewers with little training who scrutinized ballots using procedures that were widely criticized by election experts; Logan defended the auditing work. The review confirmed Biden won.
This November 19, retired captain Keshel and current reserve lieutenant colonel Raiklin were featured speakers at an “election integrity” rally in Manchester, New Hampshire. Citing polls saying a growing number of rightwing Americans believe the election was rigged, Raiklin and Keshel told a crowd of about 75 that their movement is succeeding.
Noting his legal and military intelligence background, Raiklin laid out what he called a “deep state” conspiracy theory of a stolen election. “I connected these dots,” Raiklin told the crowd.
Keshel, now a paid consultant for The America Project, said Trump supporters faced a “two-front war” – auditing the 2020 election and preparing for 2024.
“It sounds a little crazy,” Keshel said. “But I do believe wholeheartedly … that the future will reflect the truth of the 2020 election, that Joe Biden was illegitimately elected.”
Both men received standing ovations.
Additional reporting by Chris Kahn and Brian Snyder
The Election Foxhole
By Aram Roston, Brad Heath, John Shiffman and Peter Eisler
Photography: Brian Snyder
Photo editing: Corinne Perkins
Art direction: John Emerson
Edited by Ronnie Greene